Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 11
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

THE SADDEST WORDS ARE ‘IT COULD HAVE BEEN…’: Jake, (Sean Faris) is deeply troubled by what he could have done, but didn’t do, to prevent the tragic automobile accident in which he was a passenger sitting next to his father who was unfortunately driving while drunk.

Never Back Down: New Karate Kid Learns to “Never Back Down”

Kam Williams

After her husband dies in an automobile accident in which he was drunk and driving the car, Margot Tyler (Leslie Hope) decides to move from Iowa to Orlando, Florida for a fresh start with her two teenage sons. Also, there’s the added incentive of enrolling her younger one, Charlie (Wyatt Smith), in a tennis camp catering to promising prodigies.

Unfortunately, Margot failed to take into account the toll the move might take on her elder boy, Jake (Sean Faris), a sensitive youth who has had anger management issues ever since the tragedy. Jake is easily upset about the subject because he was sitting in the passenger seat that fateful night. So, he’s hard on himself, always agonizing over why he hadn’t intervened and prevented his father from driving the car. Consequently, all it takes is some mean kid to say, “You’re dead dad was a drunk,” for Jake to fly into a rage.

You would expect that in a new location he’d be able to leave all the teasing and painful memories behind. However, in today’s age of the internet, a person’s past is just a Google search away. So, it isn’t long before Jake’s story reaches Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet), the ringleader of a gang of ne’er-do-wells at his new school who like to fight for fighting’s sake.

At Ryan’s urging, his girlfriend, Baja (Amber Heard), feigns a romantic interest in Jake. She invites him to a party knowing full well that Ryan and his gang are planning to beat Jake up. Soon after he arrives, Ryan callously reminds Jake that “Your dead dad was a drunk,” and Jake predictably loses his temper, unaware that his opponent has won streetfighting tournaments.

A rescue squad arrives and peels Jake off the floor. The head of the rescue team directs Jake to the Combat Club, a mixed martial arts dojo run by Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), a sensei from Senegal. Jean allows Jake to enroll with the understanding that there will be “No fighting outside of the gym, no matter what” because “people who come here for the wrong reasons never last.”

However, Mr. Roqua doesn’t know that Jake’s ulterior motive is to even the score with Ryan in an upcoming streetfighting tournament. He also plans to steal the heart of Baja who is having second thoughts about allowing herself to be manipulated by her bully of a boyfriend Ryan.

Never Back Down offers few surprises for anyone already familiar with such movies as The Karate Kid, Fight Club, Kung Fu, Rocky and other films of the mano-a-mano genre. However, it does add several 21st century elements, such as the use of YouTube, which serves to refresh the familiar formulaic plot.

The film is helped by a powerful performance from two-time Oscar-nominee Djimon Hounsou (America and Blood Diamond) who elevates what might have been a mediocre movie by imbuing every scene in which he appears with his trademark gravitas. The rest of the cast are at their best during the highly-stylized fight sequences.

Excellent (3.5 stars). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, intense violence, profanity, teen partying, and premarital sexuality. Running time: 112 minutes. Studio: Summit Entertainment.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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