Plot: Jake (Sean Faris) is still coping with the loss of his father, so his nerves are on edge and his temper runs hotter than normal. He has landed in some trouble of late, but he has a chance at a fresh start when he moves to Orlando, with a new school and a blank slate to work with. As soon as he gets to school, he notices the beautiful Baja (Amber Heard) and the two spark an instant connection, but she isn’t single and Jake’s presence hasn’t escaped her boyfriend. Ryan (Cam Gigandet) doesn’t like Jake around his girl and given Jake’s impulse control issues, this leads to a fight and Jake finds himself on the losing end of the battle. But he shows immense heart and a fellow student named Max (Evan Peters) encourages him to sign up with an eccentric, but master level trainer in Roqua (Djimon Hounsou). The training is intense and rigorous, but Jake finds some peace in the lessons of Roqua, who focuses on the techniques and mental control, rather than violence of martial arts. But when Ryan refuses to leave him alone and a local fighting tournament looms, can Jake avoid another confrontation?
Entertainment Value: A teen melodrama mixed with martial arts, Never Back Down is trashy fun, so bad but in the ways that lead to fun. The narrative is one we have seen countless times, an impulsive, but good at heart kid is pushed by bullies, only to find some support in an unlikely mentor. So this is well worn ground, but the movie is able to compensate with unintentional humor thanks to an abysmal script, some over the top performances, and a few adequate fight scenes. The cast is mostly bad here, but it works because they run with the melodrama and overly serious tone, which turns the material into a comedy of errors. Amber Heard is vapid and unlikable, Sean Faris is a generic lead, and Cam Gigandet is robotic and dead inside, which I think is why he makes such an effective douche here. But in the midst of all these awful performances is Djimon Hounsou, who turns in an effective, memorable effort as the mentor, so at least one person showed up to put in work here. So as a serious martial arts movie, Never Back Down is a resounding flop, but if you appreciate melodrama, cheese, and ridiculous performances, it is worth a shot.
An ever so brief shot of a couple of topless girls can be seen, but only if you’re seeing the unrated version of the movie. So not much sleaze here, but the romance thread is so awkward and ineffective, that’s no real surprise. A small amount of blood in a couple scenes, but it is brief and not much. A strong strike leads to some blood sprayed from a fighter’s mouth, but that’s the extent of the bloodshed here. In terms of action, the movie has fairly frequent fight scenes and some are quite competent. The brawls are high impact and involve some believable strikes, while some are more wide open street fights that aren’t as grounded. But in either case, the fight scenes are solid and fun to watch, so the movie succeeds there. The dialogue is not good, but the silly performances improve it, so some fun moments come through. Gigandet is the best source of outlandish lines, as he is such a dead eyed douche in this role. So some unintentional humor and rampant bro talk in this one, but not a lot of big, memorable moments. As for craziness, aside from the melodrama and unintentional humor, this one never gets that wild and does pretty much what you’d expect.
Overall Insanity: 1/10