Never Back Down

If you combined “The Karate Kid” with “Fight Club,” then threw in a dash of “The O.C.” and “You Got Served,” then beat it with a stick until it was really stupid, you’d have something twice as smart as “Never Back Down.” The very height of teen-oriented idiocy, this wrong-headed ode to violence is aimed at two particular niches: vapid girls who want to watch sweaty, shirtless young men fight each other; and meathead guys who believe macho douchebaggery is the answer to all life’s problems (and who also, incidentally, want to watch sweaty, shirtless young men fight each other).

Our Daniel-san is the brooding, hotheaded Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), a young-Tom-Cruise-looking high schooler who has just moved with his beleaguered mother (Leslie Hope) and idolizing little brother (Wyatt Smith) from Iowa to Florida. A couple half-hearted references are made to the local kids’ wealth versus the Tyler family’s poverty, I guess to remind us that Jake is supposed to be an “outsider” despite being bright, athletic, and startlingly handsome.

His new school has an underground fight club, and the number one rule of this fight club is to tell everyone about it. Led by top fighter Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), whose prowess makes him even more important on campus than the football or basketball players, the fighters call it “brawling.” It’s more than just throwing punches: It’s full-on, no-holds-barred, Ultimate Fighting Championship stuff, known officially as “mixed martial arts.”

Ryan sees a YouTube video of Jake getting into a fight after a football game at his old school, and for some reason this means Ryan must force Jake to fight him. To that end, Ryan has his girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard), flirt with Jake and invite him to a house party. Thus lured in to the dragon’s lair, Jake initially resists brawling with Ryan, even though Ryan is friendly about it. “I saw the clip, and you can bang, dude!” he says, with as much vague homoeroticism as everything else in the movie (i.e., a lot of it). Unmoved, Jake won’t fight until finally Ryan taunts him into it, whereupon he totally kicks Jake’s butt.

After that humiliation, Jake’s new sidekick, Max (Evan Peters) — kind of dorky and much less handsome, as mandated by Movie Sidekick bylaws — tells Jake about a mixed-martial-arts training facility run by Mr. Miyagi, who is strangely using the pseudonym Jean Roqua and being played by Djimon Hounsou. Jake goes there to learn how to brawl better so he can get revenge on Ryan. Despite being a novice at the mixed combat style, he demands to be put in the advanced class, and for some reason Roqua agrees to his demands.

I find myself using the phrase “for some reason” a lot as I try to explain what happens in this movie. For some reason Jake’s mother gets angry when she learns Jake is training with Roqua, even though this is healthy, disciplined fighting, not the fisticuffs he used to get into regularly in Iowa. For some reason Baja — now actually growing fond of Jake — is really mad that Jake won’t accept her apology for setting him up at the party, like somehow HE’S the jerk here. For some reason the finale has a nightclub willing to host a major brawl tournament, even though such an event would be a huge insurance liability (and probably illegal besides).

Oh, yeah. The finale. The big brawl tournament is called The Beatdown, and it’s super-secret and no one knows when or where it’s taking place until they get a text message 24 hours in advance … and then it turns out to be at this very popular club where hundreds of people are dancing anyway. So I guess stealth wasn’t really a key component after all.

By this time, Jake has realized that he doesn’t need to fight Ryan to feel good about himself, and that it wouldn’t solve anything anyway. Thank goodness that feeling passes! Instead, he lets Ryan goad him into fighting again, even indicating he’s aware he’s being manipulated but dismissing it when Baja calls him on it. “Walking away and giving up are not the same thing,” she says. “Good,” he replies. “Because I’m not doing either one.” But if he’s not doing either one, then why is it “good” that they’re not the same thing? Their differentness is irrelevant in that case. He should have said, “That’s fine, but I’m not doing either one anyway.” Proper syntax is important, Jake.

The screenplay (by Chris Hauty, whose only other IMDb credit was 12 years ago) is written in such a way as to maximize its impact on horny, volatile 18-year-old boys. The characters call each other “bro” and “dude” almost exclusively and taunt each other with sexual euphemisms like “faggot,” “bitch,” and the multiple-entendre “let’s get it on.” Director Jeff Wadlow (“Cry_Wolf”) fills the party scenes with boobful girls, at one point showing a couple of them making out in a hot tub pretty much just so guys in the audience will hoot.

I guess we’re into spoiler territory here, but I want to tell you what the film’s message is. The film’s message is that sometimes — heck, MOST of the time — fighting is the answer. You might think it would be unwise for Jake to fight Ryan again. You might think it will only lead to more escalation, that if Jake beats Ryan it will make Ryan want to come back and beat Jake, and back and forth like that forever. But that is WRONG, amigos. The fact is, if you respond to your notoriously unstable arch-rival’s tauntings by beating the crap out of him in front of the whole town, AND you steal his girlfriend — well, after that he’ll never try to fight you again. The next day at school he’ll nod and smile at you, because now he RESPECTS you.

See? Aren’t you glad you fought him? You settled it once and for all! Good thing you ignored Mr. Miyagi and your mother and your girlfriend and everything else you ever learned. Never back down, bro!

D (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, a little mild sexuality, lots of underage drinking and partying.)