out of Five
Running time: 113
Enjoyably trashy teen flick that plays like a dumbed-down version of Fight Club, enlivened by an engaging lead performance by star-in-the-making Sean Faris.
What's it all about?
Rising star Sean Faris stars as Jake Tyler, a hotheaded teen who's always getting into fights, thanks to a chip on his shoulder regarding the circumstances of his drunken father's death. When he moves to Orlando with his overworked mother (Leslie Hope) and his tennis prodigy younger brother (Wyatt Smith), it's meant to be a new start, but it isn't long before he's lured into an underground fight club at his new high school, resulting in his humiliation by local champion Ryan (Cam Gigandet).
However, when Jake befriends fight nerd Max (Evan Peters), he's introduced to local fight master Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who promises to train Jake if he can stay out of trouble outside the gym. Unfortunately, when Ryan's girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard) transfers her affections to Jake, the stage is set for the mother of all ass-kickings.
Watching Sean Faris, you would swear blind that someone had cloned a young Tom Cruise and thrown in a bit of Christian Bale for good measure – the resemblance is uncanny, right down to the trademarked powerhouse grin. Fortunately, he has the charisma and acting ability to back up his looks and delivers an engaging central performance that carries the film.
There's also predictably strong support from Djimon Hounsou, though Cam Gigandet is a little too weedy to really convince as the school bully and he constantly looks like he's about to burst into tears. In addition, the fight scenes are well handled and director Jeff Wadlow knows his way around a training montage.
The only real problem is the slightly mixed message at the heart of the film, which seems to simultaneously imply that Fighting Is Bad, while at the same time demonstrating the cathartic value of a good beatdown.
In short, if it's leave-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment you're after, then Never Back Down delivers handsomely. Worth seeing.