Never Back Down
Jake Tyler isn't a bad kid. But the rural Iowa high school football phenom has a problem: He can't stop fighting. Rage born of his father's drunk-driving death erupts from him like volcanic magma. Nothing—not his mother's pleading, repeated trips to the ER, school expulsions or "visits" to the police station—stems his anger.
Jake's mother hopes a venue change might accomplish what nothing else has. So the family relocates to Orlando, Fla., to give Jake's little brother, Charlie, access to a world-class tennis coach as he pursues dreams of Wimbledon.
The proverbial fresh start, however, is anything but for Jake.
When he tries to defend a quirky kid named Max who's taking a beating under the bleachers, Jake stumbles into a violent subculture that makes his previous fighting experiences look like small potatoes. Resident alpha dog Ryan McCarthy is no mere bully. He's the champion of Florida's underground mixed martial arts scene. Predictably, Jake manages to fall for Ryan's girlfriend, Baja Miller. Add in a YouTube-like video of Jake's last fight back home, and you've got a powder keg waiting for a spark.
The fuse is lit the night Jake gets baited into a fight with Ryan at a party ... and throttled into unconsciousness. Jake's old-school brawler style proves to be no match for Ryan's well-honed mixed martial arts.
Enter Mr. Miyagi, er, Jean Roqua.
Roqua is Max's teacher, and he agrees to train the undisciplined and stubborn hothead from Iowa, teaching some significant life lessons along the way. Rocky-like training scenes precede a final showdown: The Beatdown, where fighters from all over Florida secretly assemble to find out who will be king. Or, as Max describes it, "The Super Bowl of fight clubs."
Think of this, then, as The Karate Kid meets Fight Club ... and The O.C.
One of the surprising subtexts in Never Back Down is the importance of fathers. Jake is devastated by the loss of his dad. And in many ways, Jean Roqua becomes a father figure who imparts wisdom.
Roqua warns against using the skills he teaches for revenge. "When people come here for the wrong reasons, they never last," he says. He expresses tough love by kicking Jake out of training when he gets into a fight. And he tries to help Jake understand that everyone has anger issues, explaining that some people just figure out better ways to deal with the emotion. Mom reinforces that idea when she attempts to break through Jake's self-absorption, asking, "Do you think you're the only one who's angry?"
Jake slowly learns that a smackdown isn't always the best response. And he helps Roqua address significant unresolved issues with his own father. It also becomes clear that Ryan's bullying ways stem in part from a dad who treats him similarly.
Jake's mom works day and night as a waitress to provide for her two boys. She tries to discipline Jake and help him understand that he's an important role model for his young brother. (More on that in "Other Negative Elements.") Baja eventually confronts Ryan and leaves him. "The only time you're happy is when you're hurting people," she tells him. For his part, Jake apologizes for saying some harsh things to Baja.
Passing references are made to several different Asian martial arts, some of which have linked physical training with certain spiritual disciplines that are at odds with biblical truth.
Rich students throw parties at mansions with large pools surrounded by scores of girls in revealing, barely there bikinis. The camera often focuses on bodies that are technically covered but very much on display. More specifically, Baja wears revealing outfits in virtually all of her scenes. Whether it's a cleavage-baring tube top, short skirt, bikini or dress that clearly showcases the fact the she's not wearing a bra, the filmmakers never miss an opportunity to emphasize her body.
Women aren't the only ones the camera ogles, though. On display just as frequently are shirtless guys sporting rippling abs and perfectly chiseled (sometimes tattooed) chests. Ryan, especially, is fond of showing everyone what he's got. Other men are seen wearing only towels or underwear.
Baja coldly receives Ryan's kisses, while her several smooches with Jake are much more passionate. A scene pictures them starting to make out in Jake's bedroom as they wrestle, grope a little and crack double-entendre jokes about "submission." (He—and we—see her underwear.) That would-be sexual encounter is interrupted when little brother Charlie barges into the room. (At first he seems confused, but then he's congratulatory.)
At a party, two pairs of girls make out as others (mostly guys) watch and cheer. One of the pairs is obviously topless (though soap suds mostly obscure their breasts). They stop kissing when Max starts filming them with the intent of posting the racy video online.
The only thing that gets more screen time than adolescents in bikinis are adolescents pounding the living tar out of one another. The number of pummelings delivered to faces, heads, chests and elsewhere is, for all practical purposes, uncountable. The notes I took while watching look something like this: "Kick. Kick. Kick. Four shots to the head. Roundhouse kick. More body blows. Bad beating. Round house." Add in flips, body slams, headlocks and leg locks, and this goes way beyond wax on, wax off.
Even though the combat is heavily choreographed, it's still pretty intense—which is obvious in several slow-mo shots of heads spinning after impact and tendrils of blood flying through the air. Ryan delivers savage poundings to Jake and Max, leaving their faces bruised and bloody. Jake is beaten unconscious, while Max ends up on the receiving end of more than a dozen brutal blows and, we learn, suffers fractured ribs, a broken nose and torn skin. In the climactic fight, we see X-ray images of Jake's ribs apparently being broken as he absorbs severe body blows. He's slammed into a car hood, then dropped onto the pavement.
Jake dishes it out pretty savagely too, especially in a road-rage incident where he attacks four annoying guys in the vehicle behind him at a stop sign, ramming one of them into a car door so hard it rips the mirror off. We later hear that one was hospitalized, and Jake's knuckles are badly bloodied.
Elsewhere, there are jarring football hits, followed by a brawl that Jake starts when an opposing player mocks his deceased father. In a misguided attempt to talk about anger management, Jake's mom throws a glass at the apartment wall and says, "I can break stuff too," then invites Charlie to imitate her. (He does.) And they all feel better afterward.
The Fight Club-like mentality that pervades the Florida party scene also extends to women, as a girl beats up a guy in a so-called "Battle of the Exes." At The Beatdown, the only rules are no crotch shots, no eye gouging and no biting. So it's only natural that we should see an unconscious fighter carried off the floor, right?
Crude or Profane Language
Characters use the s-word at least a dozen times. Variants of "a--" are easily as prevalent. And "friggen" stands in for the f-word. "H---" is spoken nearly 10 times and "b--ch" four or five times. Other vulgarities ("h---," "d--n," "p---ed," "f-ggot") get uttered once or twice each. God's name is taken in vain. And a crude reference to the devil's sexual anatomy just adds to the mess.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A decadent high school party shows many students drinking out of red cups; viewers get the picture. Ryan's father asks him if he wants a margarita as he hangs out with a bunch of other underage friends at home. Baja says that her parents chose her name because they "smoked too much weed."
[Spoiler Warning] We eventually learn that Jake was with his father the night he was killed. Jake is wracked with guilt for letting his father drive drunk instead of taking the wheel himself.
Other Negative Elements
Jake pays no heed to his mom when she tells him to stop fighting. And he spends money on gym fees that was intended for other things, which also frustrates his mother. Later, she actually comes around to support him, but she never enforces any real consequences for his disobedience. Jake takes a couple of cheap verbal shots at Roqua in moments of anger.
Reflecting and reinforcing a problematic trend in youth culture, students are constantly filming fights with video cameras and cell phones, then posting the footage on the Internet. Max, especially, films virtually everything.
Never Back Down rarely deviates from the tried-and-tired underdog-vs.-bully template that Rocky cemented in our cultural consciousness. This film's creators have simply updated that formula in a contemporary context. Instead of boxing or traditional martial arts, Never Back Down focuses on the increasingly popular sport of mixed martial arts combat—an amalgamation of boxing, various martial arts styles and ol' fashioned street scrapping.
The movie gets some things right: The importance of fathers and mothers, for one, as well as the need to take responsibility and deal constructively with tough emotions.
These positive themes, however, are severely undermined by several significant problems. Just as we've seen recently in popular teen-focused TV shows such as The O.C. and Gossip Girl, the teen culture presented here is one of unbridled hedonism. And there are rarely consequences for the boundary-free lives they're living. Whether it's drinking, partying, ogling girls in bikinis (often through a camcorder viewfinder), or watching guys brutalize one another—the prevailing culture that's depicted is a disturbing blend of sensuality and violence masquerading as entertainment.
It's a mindset that's summed up well when Ryan tells Jake, "You gotta give people what they want." Clearly, the filmmakers felt the same way.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Sean Faris as Jake Tyler; Amber Heard as Baja Miller; Cam Gigandet as Ryan McCarthy; Evan Peters as Max Cooperman; Djimon Hounsou as Jean Roqua; Wyatt Henry Smith as Charlie Tyler; Leslie Hope as Margot Tyler