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|Never Back Down|
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E||
dir Jeff Wadlow|
scr Chris Hauty
with Sean Faris, Amber Heard, Djimon Hounsou, Cam Gigandet, Evan Peters, Leslie Hope, Wyatt Smith, Affion Crockett, Neil Brown Jr, Lauren Leech, Tilky Jones, David Zelon
release US 14.Mar.08, UK 4.Apr.08
08/US Summit 1h53
The way of the fist: Faris and Hounsou
If you think about what this film is saying, the superficiality is overwhelming. For a movie that calls for nonviolence, its ultimate message is that pounding someone into the ground is good for the soul.
Jake (Faris) is a hothead teen who moves to Orlando with his overworked single mum (Hope) and tennis prodigy brother (Smith). Jake blames himself for the death of his drunken father, so he has an enormous chip on his shoulder, which propels him into various street brawls until he's humiliated by the school's fighting champ (Cigandet). Clashes ensue, and finally Jakes nerdy friend Max (Peters) introduces him to fight master Mr Miyagi - I mean Mr Roqua (Hounsou), who helps him channel his fury. At least until the big Beatdown.
There's a nagging sense that this film wants to have its cake and eat it too, stressing a lesson about learning to control the rage while ultimately saying that intensely violent revenge can sort out any problem. It's a simplistic approach to a serious issue, and the script further sidelines its characters in thinly written roles with carefully constructed back-stories to explain away their personal baggage.
Fortunately the actors are watchable, most notably the super-fit Hounsou, who manages to dredge up dignity and complexity within the Zen master sterotype (Pat Morita never looked this good in boxer-briefs). Gigandet is essentially just a cocky thug, although his strikingly lean look and a subtle touch of self-doubt add interest. Heard does what little she can with the most pointless, thankless role. And Faris makes a magnetic central figure, although you never quite get over the feeling that you're watching a digital mash-up of Brandon Routh and Tom Cruise circa All the Right Moves.
Director Wadlow tries to crank up the energy with lots of now-requisite hand-held camera moves, fast/slow motion and a grinding song score. But he never makes it much more than Fight Club Lite. And he clearly enjoys the punch-out scenes far more than he should. "Sometimes you have to fight" - this is the lesson Jake learns and imparts. And the simplistic finale implies that a good beating puts the world back to rights. Which is pretty reprehensible, really.
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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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