NEVER BACK DOWN Directed by Jeff Wadlow. 110 minutes. Opens Friday (March 14). Rating: NN
As a huge fan of UFC-style fighting, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s early oeuvre and star-crossed teen romances, I thought Never Back Down would be a no-brainer. I just didn’t realize how right I’d be.
Set in the world of underground mixed martial arts combat, NBD is Fight Club Meets 8 Mile, even while it cribs its script from The Karate Kid.
Tom Cruise look-alike Sean Faris is Jake, the new kid from a broken home who engages in hand-to-hand combat with the local leader of the Hitler Youth (Cam Gigandet) for the heart of the sweet, sensitive hottie (Amber Heard, who looks like every other blond wannabe starlet).
The clichés come fast and furious, from the drunken daddy issues to the goofy sidekick to the inevitable training montage.
An underused Djimon Hounsou plays the Mr. Miyagi-like wise mentor, Roqua, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert with a troubled past who imparts pearls of wisdom such as “Violence never solves anything.” Except when it does, of course, as during the climactic parking-lot showdown.
The Karate Kid – and 8 Mile, to a lesser degree – worked because they were underdog stories. Compare Faris’s rockin’ guns and six-pack abs to Ralph Macchio’s scrawny Gumby body and tell me who you’d root for.