Those of you who have seen the trailer for the mixed-martial-arts (or MMA for those who don’t want to be burdened with an extra syllable) teen machismo-a-thon which is Never Back Down probably already know this film is in rarified air. With bard-like dialogue such as, “There’s only one way for this to end. With you lookin’ like a bitch,” how could you not? It’s that perfect mix of accidental ineptitude and all-around stupidity that makes the movie somehow engaging on a “What were they thinking?” level, and it’s that same mix that never allows it to approach anything that might be mistaken for worthwhile entertainment.
There’s a plot, but it’s nothing of consequence, let alone originality. Hero Jake Tyler (Sean Faris, Yours, Mine, and Ours) moves from Iowa to Orlando, which might be the drabbest, most uninteresting place to ever shoot a movie, and has to face being the new kid. In short order, he falls head over heels for some generic blonde girl (Amber Heard, Alpha Dog), gets beaten up at a party by the girl’s boyfriend (Cam Gigandet, Who’s Your Caddy?), and consequently starts to train with former fighter Jean (Djimon Hounsou) in mixed martial arts in order to get his revenge in the final reel.
For a second, the movie looks like it might have something on its mind, such as looking at the kind of malaise that would drive these bored rich kids into constant fisticuffs, but this is quickly ignored in favor of trying to ride the back of the Ultimate Fighting phenomenon with what is meant to be brutal, no-holds-barred action. This is the idea, at least, but instead we get a few shaky-cam fight scenes covered in phony, laughably bad excuses for style—like the cheesy X-ray cam that lets the audience know when a bone has been broken (I guess sound effects just weren’t good enough). By the end of the movie, the only real question presented is why Hounsou’s character doesn’t invest in central air conditioning, seeing as how he is coated in perspiration during the entire film, easily giving the year’s sweatiest performance.
On top of this, there are so many polo shirts, SUVs, frat-boy antics and macho posturing that a better name for the movie might have been There Will Be Bros (“I drink your Natty Ice! I drink it up!”). Given all of the shirtless 20-somethings trying to pass as high schoolers while parading around with a handful of nonspecific girls in skimpy clothes, it’s clear the movie carries itself on the three “Bs”: beefcake, boobs and buggery. This last aspect, however, is only implied, since the majority of the action consists of a lot of sweaty dudes writhing around on one another saying things like, “It gets stuck sometimes” and “Break. Now roll over.”
Finally, the movie makes constant mention of The Iliad—and there are certain parallels between Never Back Down and the epic poem. Substitute Jake for Achilles and dopey sidekick Max (Evan Peters, Sleepover) for Patroclus and you have a somewhat close approximation of Homer’s epic—which also cranks the homoeroticism up a notch, though likely unintentionally, given the film’s target audience. None of these aspects make Never Back Down a better movie than it really is, just a slightly more odd one. Plus, the idea of the makers knowing The Iliad outside of Spark Notes or Homer other than of The Simpsons is probably giving them too much credit. It’s astonishing they even know how to run a movie camera. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving intense sequences of fighting/violence, some sexuality, partying and language—all involving teens.