Stay with me here, but if you’ve seen the inadvertently comical trailer for “Never Back Down,” you have probably been wondering the same things I have. Why is Djimon Hounsou in this? How many takes did Hounsou have to shoot screaming “Ne-ver back Down!” before he stopped bursting into laughter? And: Haven’t we seen this before?
You may think of “Karate Kid” or maybe even “Bloodsport” when you see the trailer, but all I can think of is “Showdown,” the really bad B Martial arts film following a kid named Ken in his new school who begins to romance the bland Christine Taylor while fending off her martial artist boyfriend in the process. He also gains a mentor in the form of the school janitor a la Billy Blanks who mentors him in fighting before his big showdown with his nemesis in illegal underground battles. But then that was a rip off of “Karate Kid” too, so it’s a vicious cycle.
“Never Back Down” follows a young delinquent named Daniel—I mean Jake, who moves to Orlando with his single mom and young brother. After word gets out about a fight during a football game, he’s dropped by the school alpha male/martial arts expert Johnny–uh–Ryan. Thus begins our mentor-student bonding once Jake takes a mixed martial arts class with plenty ‘o pop rock, montages, and loving glances to be had when he meets Jean Roqua.
Don’t be too down on Hounsou; he’s very convincing as the martial arts sensei Jean Roqua who takes a special liking to Jake after showing his heart during a failed tryout for his class. Hounsou has a very Miyagi/Louis Gosset Jr. vibe during “Never Back Down” succeeding in portraying the only character of considerable depth and interest who, of course, becomes the father figure to Jake. Even when he’s just observing a battle, though, he really seems to be trying to come out on top, and much of the inner rage he injects into his roles comes through and breaks down all the goofiness and attempted social commentary on our fascination with violence which is sadly muddled since the director is never sure if he wants to show the grim reality of it, or sensationalize it for the audience.
“Never Back Down” is about as bland, predictable, and self-important as you’d expect giving us the typical protagonist of the troubled persuasion who learns about responsibility, honor, and discipline thanks to good old Roqua, which leads in to the big showdown with Cobra Kai—uh—Ryan and “The Beatdown” in the climax which, in all fairness, is rather exciting, even if it’s the exact same sequence of events as “Step Up 2 The Streets” including the big show in the parking lots; which ends as no surprise considering Summit distributed both titles.
In spite of some merits, it’s just a lazy pastiche of other fighting films while always confused about where to take its protagonists and mentor Roqua. Is Jake really fighting to get his life straight or to kick Ryan’s keister? Is Max there to keep Jake company or exploit him? Why does Roqua risk a lawsuit and let Jake join the class? How did Jake know where the Beatdown was? Why did Roqua give Jake exception?
Even for the trashy sub-genre it belongs to, “Never Back Down” is sadly just lazy action pablum as will the five Straight to DVD sequels be. I’ll just stick to “Karate Kid.”