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'Never Back Down': 'Karate Kid' for the 2000s

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2008

I find myself saying this a lot when assigning star ratings to films: Know what you're getting into.

Courtesy Of Summit Entertainment
Courtesy Of Summit Entertainment

"Never Back Down" is a perfect illustration of this point. If you go into the theater expecting an original, smart film with any sort of real meaning to it - well, then I have to question you and the sources you used to come up with those expectations. The previews for "Never Back Down" were not deceiving in the least.

It's "The Karate Kid" updated for the 2000s. (Is that what we call this decade?) So instead of cheesy '80s rock ballads, you get Kanye West. Instead of Mr. Miyage, you get Djimon Hounsou. Instead of boring ol' karate, you get mixed martial arts. They could have easily called it "The Mixed Martial Arts Kid" and covered all the bases.

I actually walked in with the proper expectations, but admittedly, I was not all that psyched about it. It's been several years since I have seen any of the "Karate Kid" movies. Somewhere along the line, I guess, I had outgrown them. So I was more than a little surprised about 20 minutes into "Never Back Down" when I realized I was "all-in."

The thing about these underdog films is that if they are done right, it's virtually impossible not to root for the hero.

"Never Back Down," flawed to the core and over the top from the start, is well done.

Jake Tyler (Sean Faris, who looks a little like Ralph Macchio) is an angry teenager - ridiculously angry, actually. As in, he's so mad that when a car honks at him at a stop sign he gets out and winds up kicking the crap out of three dudes right there on the side of the street. If something sets Tyler off - and this is not hard to do - he reacts physically the way the rest of us only wish we could do in real life. Maybe that's why it is so much fun to watch him.

When his mom moves him and his brother to Orlando, Jake is naturally the outsider at school (although, on screen he blends right in with the rest of the 20-somethings playing high school kids). This particular high school happens to be apparently very heavily influenced by "Fight Club," because they're living it. During their lunch hour, during their house parties, in parking lots and wherever else they might feel like it, these high schoolers beat the hell out of each other. And they all love it. It's actually very disturbing if you stop to think about it.

No time for that, though. Instead, focus your attention into a healthy hate for school bully Ryan (Cam Gigandet, a former "The O.C." regular who basically reprises that same role here). If Jake is angry, Ryan is just sick and twisted. Gigandet, by the way, is a little too adept at playing smarmy and creepy. Maybe he's a nice guy in real life, but it's hard to fathom after watching him beat the crap out of Ryan Atwood on "The O.C." and now Jake Tyler. In any case, I can't think of another 25-year-old actor better suited to play this high school character. He's perfect.

The inevitable showdown between Jake and Ryan is what drives "Never Back Down," and because the two actors are believable both emotionally and physically, the whole package is presentable. There is nothing original and there are no Oscars waiting next year, but the film is a sleek and stylish modern-day version of "The Karate Kid."

Just know that going in, and you'll be just fine.

Read Carson's movie blog at www.juneaublogger.com/movies.



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