By Donald Munro
A mostly predictable martial-arts flick, Never Back Down threads some standard themes — alienated young man moves to new school and has to fight for his honor — with the contemporary mindset of the digital age. The Internet isn’t just alluded to in this story; it drives it. In a world in which the ”performances” of everyday life are easily saved for posterity, what you do on one side of campus (or the country) can make the rounds faster than old-fashioned word of mouth.
That’s the case with the brooding Jake (a solid Sean Faris), whose reputation for fighting precedes him when he moves to a new school in Orlando, the land of tourist attractions and — apparently — a thriving underground fighting industry. At his old school, a bystander with a video camera caught him in a savage fight on the football field. In earlier times, a new kid entering a new school might have a chance at starting afresh. Not Jake. Thanks to YouTube, he’s already pegged as a willing warrior.
That’s how Jake finds himself pitted against the blustery Ryan (Cam Gigandet), the ultra-bad guy on campus. (It just so happens that Ryan has a cute but vaguely dissatisfied girlfriend, played by Amber Heard, and you can see where that’s going from a couple of theme parks away.) In need of further martial-arts training, Jake turns to a hardened mentor, Jean Roqua (an expectedly tough Djimon Hounsou), who runs a local gym specializing in mixed-martial arts.
Director Jeff Wadlow finds a sort of nobility in the subject matter than you might not expect for a film that consists in large part of bloodthirsty mobs clamoring for violence. Rather than impose a simple-minded moralistic message, Wadlow manages to revel in the martial-arts action while exploring society’s conflicted messages about honor, pacifism and glorifying violence.
The most interesting part of the film, however, isn’t the actual fight scenes — which are handled with the bone-crunching athleticism you’d expect, complete with special effects of X-rayed limbs cracking before our eyes — but the way that the spectators drive the action. In his first confrontation with the menacing Ryan, bystanders don’t offer to help the overwhelmed Jake, whose jiggly mouthful of blood has splattered in slow-mo glory across the screen. They take pictures instead.