I walked into “Never Back Down” with high expectations. Not because the previews were riveting or because I’d heard good word-of-mouth, but becase I knew David Mamet had been working on a mixed martial arts movie and, stupidly, assumed “Never Back Down” was it.
Bygones. “Never Back Down” isn’t good at all, but I can’t say I’m mad at it. The fight scenes were very well-choreographed and the actors did the best they could with the dull dialogue. By the end I was a tired of seeing lead character Jake Tyler (Tom Cruise look-a-like Sean Faris) attempt an arm-bar for the thousandth time, but I can appreciate that his MMA learning curve was kept somewhat believeable.
Something about “Never Back Down” makes me think it’s a film aimed at girls disguised/confused as a film for guys. I haven’t thought much about it, but it’s there, and it makes the film’s themes fuzzy around the edges. It should be a crisp genre film, but it’s not.
I’m not surprised that it’s a film about anti-violence that ultimately champions what violence can accomplish. That’s part and parcel with many awesome martial arts movies and a huge part of what made Bruce Lee fascinating. But to buy that tension I need some complexity. There wasn’t anything to buy here and I should have let it go, but it’s given too much weight in the story to dismiss so easily.
MMA teacher Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou) tells Jake that no matter what, in any fight, you can change your position. This speaks to Jake, one of those perpetual movers who gets into trouble at every school he attends. He has anger issues due to deep family scars, which causes him to fight. In response, his mom moves the family to Florida, where country-boy Jake is confronted with pool partys, backyard fights, and rich white kids with gigantic houses.
There’s a lot of family drama going on with all the characters, and everybody seems kind of trapped into the social dynamics. “You can always change your position,” says Jean. Word.
The only problem is that this advice is later taken literally by both Jake and the film. There’s a flashback to Jean’s advice, Jake flips around his opponent and wham! takes control of the fight. There’s no metaphorical mirror, no application to something bigger than the fight, which is basic screenwriting you can find in any movie that uses its title as a line of dialogue.
Not only that, but Jake rebuts Jean’s advice that fighting doesn’t solve anything. I kind of like when teen/children’s movies take traditional messages and complicate them. Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) does this poignantly with his message of “Naw, some kids are just born better than others. Deal with it.” But this film says that sometimes you have to fight, and then just ends.
Jake fights his rival, the bullying, controlling Ryan. Afterwards, they give each other a nod of respect and a little smile the next day at school.
Jake only fights because he’s been backed into a corner. By the end, he doesn’t change positions, he just fights nonetheless but this time wins. The film doesn’t understand its own mentor figure, and on the offchance it was trying to decontruct his message, it failed.
What we’re left with is: Fighting solves everything, and our refusal to do so is the only thing preventing us from getting along.
Never Back Down trailer
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