Trend-happy Hollywood bloodsuckers always search for new ways to punch up tired formulas, sinking fangs into youth culture and sucking the marrow out of fads, be it skateboarding, hip-hop dance battles or the increasingly mainstream — and increasingly yawn-inducing — sport of Mixed Martial Arts. But while MMA is busy going all legit, along trots a movie that makes it look cheap and silly, a squishy cheese-fest with all the authenticity of Kurt Thomas doing flying split-kicks in Gymkata. Truth is, beneath all the grappling, elbow strikes and the throbbing nu-metal soundtrack, Never Back Down could just as easily be about the Lambada.
The stock hero is Jake (Sean Faris), a high school football stud from Iowa who's uprooted to Florida (Florida, of course!) by his widowed mom, and he's predictably sulky about it. At the new school, instead of fitting in and becoming the instant jock icon he's likely to be, Jake's an instant target for the after-school fight-club clique and their obnoxiously smug, blond leader Ryan (Cam Gigandet). If there's any reason to see this turkey, it's for this amazingly snarky, one-note performance: Gigandet commits to his superior sneer with a thickheaded obliviousness that'd make Dolph Lundgren blush. Though Ryan appears so wispy soft that Ian Zeiring could kick his ass, he wipes the floor with farm boy, because he's mastered the fighting disciple of MMA, which Jake gets to learning quickly.
Our hero's mentor, however, is no Mr. Miyagi, he's a somber, joyless hard-ass played with excessive intensity by always-watchable Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, in a bit of serious casting overkill. Faster than you can say "training montage" Jakey-San perfects fight styles that'd take years to learn, and is ready to avenge not only his own pride, but that of his comedy-relief sidekick, who's taken the perfunctory whooping called for in this scenario.
Chief among the flick's host of problems is that while strategy and unpredictability make MMA exciting on TV, it doesn't lend itself to compelling big screen choreography, so the director simply zooms in and cranks up the bone-crunching audio. You can't put lipstick on a pig, and you sure can't fake your way through bad dialogue with fight scenes, without looking like 9021UFC.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.