High school senior Jake (Sean Faris) plays football. He hits hard and takes it seriously, as indicated by the opening scene of never Back Down, in which he rams himself repeatedly into an opponent… in the rain. With vision blurred and sound amplified, Jake grimly absorbs the taunts of the other player, until the last straw that ignites an actual fight on the field: “Too bad about your old man!”
So, within two minutes of slamming, bloody, muddy mess on screen, you know that Jake has daddy issues. Turns out he died in a drunk-driving accident, a tragedy for which the boy feels responsible, expressed as rage and violence. Lucky for Jake, or not, his mother Margot (Leslie Hope, who must be missing Jack Bauer about now) is moving the family to Orlando, in order that her younger son, Charlie (Wyatt Smith) might pursue his reportedly prodigious tennis talents. In a new town, where his hot buttons are unknown, mom hopes, Jake might begin again. “I’m not doing this when we get to Florida,” she insists, apparently grieving and resentful as well, and so, unable to provide movie-mommish nurturing.
Neither Margot nor Jake anticipates the wonder of technology, however. By the time Jake arrives at his new school and tries to settle into “Disneyland” more or less anonymously, his rep as an ever-ready fighter is already in motion, thank to YouTube. Not only that, but apparently all the kids at this particular institution are not only blond and tanned and hard-abbed, but also devoted to mixed-martial arts. Jake learns about this local idiosyncrasy by accident, when he tries to defend what he perceives as a victim against a bully’s beating. Sent away by both parties, Jake marvels at the immature silliness of hitting other people for pleasure.
Er, not for long. Within minutes, it seems, Jake is contacted by Max (Evan Peters), the seeming victim he didn’t save. Impressed by Jake’s brief display of prowess, the curly-headed sidekick-in-waiting has done his internet homework, then deems Jake a “natural born brawler,” and invites him to train at his gym with Brazilian vale tudo fighter Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou). Jake, having promised his mom he wouldn’t fight, demurs. And then he finds a reason to fight whose name is not Max, but Baja (Amber Heard, essentially reprising her role as high school seductress on the CW’s short-lived Hidden Palms).
They meet cute in a lit class (where Jake impresses with his other skill, reading, as he’s heard of Achilles), then she invites him to a party. Thinking he’s lucked out owing to his uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise, Jake arrives all cocky, then feels slightly awed by all the perfect bodies in bikinis and surfer trunks, all apparently dedicated to drinking themselves blind (he didn’t see much of hits in Iowa, apparently). Turns out the party’s a trap, set by Baja’s boyfriend, the hypercompetitive underground MMA champ Ryan (Cam Gigandet), who baits him with daddy-related taunts in order to kick his ass. All the kids cheer as Jake goes down and the bully emerges victorious.
While it’s not hard to see how this sets up an imminent “Hail to Dorothy” turnaround, unfortunately, it takes another hour — and numerous training montages — to arrive. First Jake has to convince Jean he’s a worthy student and committed to MMA, and also that he will not fight “outside the gym” (absolutely not allowed). Second, he has to lie to Margot, who has said absolutely no fighting anywhere. And third, he has to forgive Baja, who suddenly feels great remorse that Ryan has beaten Jake so badly on her set-up (“You wanted that fight,” she protests briefly, “You just didn’t want to lose it”). All this as the maniacal Ryan and his minions goad Jake toward competing in an underground “Beatdown,” to be announced via text-messages at the last minute, like the big dance-off in Step Up 2 The Streets. It’s an invitation Jake is, again, absolutely not allowed to accept. And so on.
Amid all this conventional-plotty mishmash — the breaking of promises and telling of lies — it’s not going to be a newsflash that the role of Jean, the tireless, morally upright and vaguely spiritual mentor, is especially grating. Even aside from the inevitable Mr. Miyagi-and-similar-precursors business (Jake tries to shut down the “grasshopper speech,” a joke the excruciatingly self-serious Jean appears not to get), the teacher veers awfully close to Magical Negro territory. Surely this damaged white boy is in need of saving, and Hounsou has played this part before (In America, most egregiously). But here’s the twist, slight: Jean has his own family tragedy, rivaling Jake’s own. And so in the end he is counseled by Jake, as both learn the value of “fighting so you don’t have to fight again.” It’s especially effective to fight outside the official arena, in the dark, on pavement, in front of an audience delirious with pulsing, fast-cut, soundtrack-enhanced bloodlust. To his credit, Jean doesn’t see it.