"Never Back Down" is an ultra-sleek mixed-martial-arts teen drama, an updated "Karate Kid," a "Fight Club" for the viral-video generation. Even though it's as predictable as a pro-wrestling match, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in the nervous energy of youth and testosterone.
The film is a straight genre piece adhering to the formula that made Ralph Macchio a star — fatherless kid with anger issues takes a beating, trains with his guru and finds acceptance, peace and revenge.
Sean Faris ("Reunion," "Smallville") is Jake Tyler, an Iowa high school linebacker who channels his violence into football. But say something about his late father and the boy sees red. Video of his on-field meltdown and beatdown of much of an opposing team becomes the rage on the Web.
That viral video follows him to a new school as his single mom (Leslie Hope) relocates the family to help his brother pursue a tennis scholarship.
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Jake's new school is all about the brawl. That means the new kid with the furious fists has a target painted on his back, one that the school's top brawler, the mixed-martial-arts master Ryan, is quick to take aim at. He bullies and baits Jake with the help of the fetching Baja, then takes Jake apart in a fight.
Jake, as his nerdy sidekick points out, has "heart." But the lad's got no "ground game." Boxing is old school, as dead as Louis and Marciano. MMA is where it's at. Max hauls the Angry Young Jake to the training studio of Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), a Brazilian from Senegal who teaches conditioning, restraint, doggedness and winning the mental game. Will Jake listen? Or course not.
The fights are a jumpy, satisfying blur of punches, flips, holds and "tap outs" (the way a losing fighter backs down). That energy spills over into the world outside the ring as we survey a Starbucks-addled kids-with-camcorders culture of McMansions, Beemers and swimming pools.
Sure, the message is lost in the martial-arts mix. Parents may shudder at the thought that there really is an MMA underground. But rarely has a junky genre picture come along that felt as overly familiar, yet as "here and now."