So aware of its teen-action legacy that it name-checks Mr. Miyagi, "Never Back Down" is a "Karate Kid" for the extreme fighting crowd.
The film is set in an Orlando high school where the main extracurricular activity is "the Beatdown," an underground mixed martial arts ring decorated with flirtatious girls in bikinis. Troubled Iowa transplant Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) suffers a lot of smirking from the no-good rich kids. They mock his homespun flannel shirts, calling him "Kurt Cobain" -- evil rich kids can be so cruel -- and pick away at his father issues until his anger management issues result in brawling issues.
Jake learns that the sort of two-fisted acting out he is prone to (because he blames himself for his dad's drunken-driving death) is no match for the muay thai/krav maga/jiu jitsu stylings of Ryan (Cam Gigandet of "The O.C."), the smirkiest rotten rich kid of all.
Determined to win a rematch, Jake studies with Jean Roquoa (Djimon Hounsou), whose cannonball biceps and cobblestone abs belie his soulful nature. Jean agrees to train Jake on the condition that he promise never to fight outside the gym, a pledge the hothead finds difficult to keep. If that qualifies as a spoiler, my apologies.
You have had soup deeper than this film, and a referee should have been on hand to call foul on the acting. But director Jeff Wadlow films the endless fight sequences with crisp authority. He shoots the rumbles with an eye for detail, an understanding of the physics of tumbling bodies and an appreciation for the visual possibilities of rippling male musculature. He could have a grand future in gladiator movies.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186