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Movie Review

In 'Never Back Down,' teens fight for attention

Sean Faris plays Jake, the new kid at an Orlando high school. Sean Faris plays Jake, the new kid at an Orlando high school. (GENE PAGE)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 14, 2008

Call "Never Back Down" "The Karate Kid" for MySpace cadets. Call it "Teen Fight Club." Call it "So You Think You Can Brawl." While you're noticing how this roughhouse drama is just like a bunch of other movies and reality shows, it's worth singling out for courageously showing us what boys really want - sure they're into cars and action and stuff. Some of them even like girls. But what they crave more than anything is to be popular. So thank you "Never Back Down" for confirming what CW has been suggesting for over a year: High school boys are the new high school girls.

Jake (Sean Faris) is the new guy at some Orlando public school (he's a lapsed quarterback from Iowa). Since his dad died in a car accident, he's been moody, petulant, and arrest-prone. Video of his famous "Friday Night Lights"-style gridiron brawl has been virally spread all over his new school, where the kids now check him out in the halls.

It used to be a nice face and good dental work made you a star. Here it's the public awareness that you can knock out a dude's teeth. When Baja (Amber Heard), the school blonde, flirts with Jake over his knowledge of "The Iliad," gives him her number, and invites him to a party, he breaks into a Sunny-D smile.

The party is at somebody's tacky Grecian mansion. It's so Orlando, and it's all good (girls make out in hot tubs; that sort of thing). But then Ryan (Cam Gigandet) introduces himself. He runs the school combat club, and rather than hit Jake with some lame come-on line, he gets right to the point: "I saw the clip, and you can bang." Off comes Ryan's shirt. Jake looks over at Baja, and she looks away. Suddenly, Baja is Mexican for "Dude, I pimped her out to get you here. Now let's fight." But Jake demurs, until Ryan talks trash about his dad. It's not much of a fight. Ryan appears to know Muay Thai and Krav Maga; he's got a ground game. His opponent just wants to box.

The next hour and a half is spent getting Jake in shape for the Beatdown, the movie's climactic fight that doubles as a guerilla social event. His Mr. Miyagi is none other than Djimon Hounsou, playing a Senegalese mixed-martial-arts expert named Jean Roqua. Roqua has had tragedy in his life, too. But for reasons that make no sense, he more or less elects Jake as star pupil. The kid insults the instructor. He breaks all his rules, forcing Roqua to go all Djimon Hounsou on him (the hoarse screaming, the glassy eyes). Then they heal. He's actually less Pat Morita and more Barbra Streisand in "The Prince of Tides."

Jake has the occasional run-in with Ryan. But Ryan is an exhibitionist. Why fight in a bathroom where no one else can see? Save it for the finale. "Never Back Down" has all these television drama properties - the nonstop pop-rock soundtrack, the family angst, the commercial-break story pauses. Plus, wasn't Gigandet that cocky surfer, Kevin, on the "O.C."? Here he's baby Brad Pitt in "Fight Club" - fatless, kind of dangerous but needy: attention is photosynthetic for him. Faris looks like Tom Cruise and the guy who played the most recent Superman.

The movie is interesting for what it implies about Jake and Ryan and their friends. When you take a show like "The Ultimate Fighter" and give it a plot and some acting, the violence is no longer just a sport. It's sex. And when one character is lured into somebody's mansion and beaten almost to death, it's rape. So maybe something really has changed in American high schools. Or maybe this is just the filmmaker's way of making us think something has. Either way, the movie is just a cheesy, preposterous, semi-eroticized way of yelling, "Fight! Fight!," when two people go at it in the school cafeteria.

Never Back Down

Directed by: Jeff Wadlow

Written by: Chris Hauty

Starring: Sean Faris, Cam Gigandet, Amber Heard, and Djimon Hounsou

At: Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs

Running time: 110 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material involving intense sequences of fighting/violence, some sexuality, partying, language, and discussion of "The Iliad" - all involving teens)

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