Why does Never Back Down feel so familiar? There is this itch that tells me that I have seen this before, recently. Right, that's it, this is Step Up 3: The Beatdown, sequel to the hit dance film, Step Up 2: The Streets. Rather than dancing, there is fighting, which is more likely to bring in the young male demographic. The formula that was applied to the making of this movie makes it seem more like an exercise in drawing demographic appeal than it does for any artistic merit.
Quite frankly, there is little to no artistic merit to this film, nor any reason for it to exist outside of the money-making potential. Never Back Down is devoid of any true emotion, depth, or even quality fights. It is not that it is poorly made; it is that there is nothing to it. It is pieced together in a straight ahead manner that allows it to avoid being awful, but when it is over, you will forget about it in rather short order.
In addition to the Step Up comparison, which is apt as many of the scenes in the dance film are duplicated here, including the setup of the big finale, there is something to be said about parallels to The Karate Kid, what with the main character, Jake Tyler, moving to a new school, getting beaten up by the school bully, and being taught by an unconventional trainer. In the process, everyone involved learns just a little bit more about themselves en route to the final showdown.
Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is an angry young man who wants nothing more than to be left alone. Of course, this is never going to happen, especially in the modern YouTube culture. You see, Jake's reputation as a violent bruiser precedes him when a video of a football brawl appears online for his new classmates to discover. On top of this newfound and unwanted fame, Jake also catches the eye of the popular girl, Baja Miller (Amber Heard), who promptly invites him to a party. The party is where everything begins to pick up, as we meet Ryan (Cam Gigandet), the school's fight king.
Oh yes, the fight footage makes people want Jake to get involved in the school's underground fight club, where everyone gets a chance at taking a swing against anyone they have a grievance against.
Back to the story at hand. The party leads to a confrontation between Jake and Ryan. Jake tries to walk away, but is drawn back in by the magic words "dead father." Yes, Jake has guilt issues over the death of his father, making him yet another angry teen. The fight predictably ends with Jake beaten and bloodied as Ryan gloats over yet another victory.
Now, if you don't see where this is going, I don't know what to tell you. It is terribly predictable and hits all the expected notes, never for a moment treading the deeper waters around the edges. It sticks to the safe and predictable path trod by similar movies that have come before.
Let's add in the goofy friend, desperate for attention and begging for a beat down, the girlfriend now championing the side of right, the mother so desperate to understand, and the lonely fight trainer with a secret. With these added players, the bigger picture should become a bit more clear.
This film is just a slog from start to finish. The formulaic plot is laid out early on and the filmmakers are sure to hit every note with predictable regularity. Not once is the audience given a reason to care. There are references to The Iliad, overtones of maturity and battling personal demons, but nothing ever goes deeper than the surface. Our hero is so bland that he is essentially a non-entity, a background player in his own film.
The biggest question is: are the fights any good? The short answer is no. With the structural and formula comparisons to Step Up 2, the dancing there is much better than the fights here. The dances make that film fun and worth seeing, injecting the energy needed to win over an audience. The fights here are as bland as the combatants.
Director Jeff Wadlow seems to have approached the film rather tentatively. He may not be a great director, but he did show some flair with his last film, Cry Wolf, with an interesting take on the slasher film. Here, he does not bring any of that flair; the resulting film has a nice glossy sheen, but beneath the sheen is emptiness. This shallow film is not done any favors by the script from Chris Hauty, whose only other credit is Homeward Bound II.
Bottom line. There is not much left to say, this film fails to deliver anything resembling real entertainment. The fights are lackluster, the acting is bland, and there is no reason to become invested in the plot.