[Screen It]

(2008) (Sean Faris, Djimon Hounsou) (PG-13)

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Drama: A high school student must contend with his past while dealing with a popular bully who wants to fight him.
Jake Tyler (SEAN FARIS) is the star player on his high school football team where he's a legend for his hard-hitting tackles. Yet, since his younger brother, Charlie (WYATT HENRY SMITH), is a budding tennis prodigy, they and their widowed mother, Margot (LESLIE HOPE) move from Iowa to Orlando where the younger Tyler boy will receive additional training.

No longer possessing the desire to play football, Jake somewhat mopes around his new school, although an educated answer in class does draw the attention of the attractive Baja Miller (AMBER HEARD). She ends up inviting him to a big party, but his presence there is nothing more than a set-up. Having seen his moves on the Internet -- as well as his attempts to protect Max Cooperman (EVAN PETERS) from what he thinks is a beating but really is a mutually agreed upon fight -- Ryan McCarthy (CAM GIGANDET) knows he must beat up Jake in public to prove he's still the big man on campus.

He's successful and Jake is mad at Baja for setting him up, but Max convinces the new student that he should attend a mixed martial arts class with him. Its trainer, Jean Roqua (DJIMON HOUNSOU), is a no-nonsense instructor who lives in the gym and tells his students that they must work hard, and that any fighting outside of class will result in immediate expulsion.

As Jean and Jake clash while also working through their various past familial issues -- both having family members separately die because of their actions and inactions -- they end up bonding, all of which helps Jake prepare for a rematch with Ryan.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Back in the old days, aspiring filmmakers had to be fast and efficient learners. After all, if one didn't have the means to attend film school, the only recourse was studying movies on the fly in theaters or on TV, or reading the few books available on the subject matter.

Things got better with the advent of home video for repeat viewings (especially with laser discs that predated DVD's commentary tracks by a decade or so), video cameras and later editing software, the Internet and so much more. The ensuing logic would seem to dictate that any wannabe auteurs would accordingly be better filmmakers than their predecessors (or at least as good).

Alas, that often isn't the case, possibly stemming from two causes. First is that rather than study the masters and best films of both new and old, they focus on only what's popular, which usually doesn't translate to quality. And when they do go back, they so slavishly try to emulate what previously worked that they end up making weak and/or poor reproductions (at least the likes of "retreaders" such as Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino slap a fresh veneer onto their various bits of homage).

Sadly, 2001 USC film school graduate turned director Jeff Wadlow (the awful "Cry Wolf" and a handful of other films nobody else saw either) and screenwriter Chris Hauty (returning to the big screen for the first time in 12 years after his lone writing credit, "Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco") don't fall into the same category as those imaginative filmmakers.

Instead, with "Never Back Down," they've created such an amalgamation of "bullied male souls who overcome the odds to take on their adversaries" flicks that you'll swear they watched "The Karate Kid," "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Top Gun" and more far too many times, all while "Fight Club" apparently played in the background. I can only imagine drinking games will spring up, resulting in participants quickly becoming plastered when forced to drink every time a genre cliché, convention or montage pops up.

In fact, it's so over the top bad that one can't help but wonder if it originally was a comedy spoof that got turned serious by some studio honcho, or whether the filmmakers are just playing with us, posing what's supposed to be a hard-hitting drama (figuratively and literally) as nothing more than joking homage.

Wishful thinking perhaps, as it's probably most simply attributable to nothing more than second-rate storytelling and filmmaking. In Hauty's "original" screenplay, we have Sean Faris (distractingly looking like a young Tom Cruise, even down to the megawatt smile) as outsider Jake Tyler.

He's just moved from Iowa to Orlando with his mom (Leslie "I Have No" Hope of making this part original -- especially with the dialogue she must speak) and younger bro (Wyatt Henry Smith), only to discover that being the new kid on the block (where have we seen that before, or yeah, in about a gazillion teen flicks) isn't really that fun (which is true in real life, but redundant in these sorts of pics).

While there's a pretty girl (the attractive but otherwise flat Amber Heard), the thorn in his side comes from the popular and cocky tormentor (Cam Gigandet) who's the master of mixed martial arts fighting and thus gives our protag a beating. Before you can say "Paging Mr. Miyagi, paging Mr. Miyagi," we're introduced to Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou, skirting along the "magical negro" character he already played in "In America"). With the training montages flowing forth hard and heavy, the teen is disciplined in both body and mindset, and despite suffering a potentially debilitating injury that could threaten his chances, he takes on the villain at the end.

Considering all that precedes it, the fact that he utilizes a powerful blow honed in training as his secret weapon will come as no surprise to anyone who saw Ralph Macchio do it so many decades ago. And things get so overwrought at times that you keep expecting Gere, I mean Cruise, uh, Faris to yell out "I have nowhere else to go!" as if channeling "An Officer and a Gentleman."

To its credit, it does go so over the top at times, and play on so many conventions and clichés that it nearly becomes a silly, guilty pleasure. That said, one can only hope that some future filmmaker doesn't download the digitally organic version of this pic directly into his or her cranium, memorize the storytelling aspects, and then regurgitate the same back to viewers who will supposedly think it's original. For short term memory audiences who won't recognize the films it rips off, "Never Back Down" rigidly follows its title in terms of making sure every cliché is covered. It rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed February 21, 2008 / Posted March 14, 2008

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