NEVER BACK DOWNPG-13
Almost 25 years after its theatrical debut, The Karate Kid remains a nostalgic favorite for the generation of moviegoers that grew up in the ’80s. What kid didn't spend the summer of 1984 practicing Daniel Larusso's famous flying crane kick just in case they ever found themselves staring down their own Cobra Kai disciple? Seen today, though, what's striking about John Avildsen's Rocky-esque drama is how little karate there is in the movie, at least in terms of mano-a-mano rumbles. Sure, the last 20 minutes of the film is dominated by the big tournament, but before that, Mr. Miyagi purposely keeps his student out of the dojo, imparting his lessons through real-world activities like waxing cars and painting fences. Although this approach initially flummoxes Daniel—as well as the audience—it's consistent with Miyagi's belief that karate is a discipline, not a weapon. His point of view is summed up in one conversation he has with Daniel about the importance of balance: "Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better."
Compare that philosophy with the advice mixed-martial-arts trainer Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou) metes out in Never Back Down, a 21st-century version of The Karate Kid that swaps out karate for Ultimate Fighting-style brawls. Although Roqua pays lip service to the whole "violence is not the answer" school of thought, he also eagerly informs his star pupil, football stud Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), that he should never back down from a confrontation, particularly when the aggressor is the punk kid (Cam Gigandet) who already whupped your ass once in front of the whole school and can't wait to do it again. Like Daniel, Jake enters martial-arts training with revenge on his mind. But where Miyagi's teachings helped Daniel improve his life, Roqua's lesson plan only involves Jake becoming a better brawler, not a better person.
Putting aside the movie's questionable message for a moment, Never Back Down is compulsively watchable in the same way those old Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles like Bloodsport and Lionheart were. We snooty critic types aren't supposed to admit this, but there's always something viscerally exciting about watching kung fu fighters whaling on each other, particularly when the fights are as well-staged as they are here, with plenty of skull-cracking punches and rib-shattering roundhouse kicks. Director Jeff Wadlow clearly understands the desires of his target audience, because he fills each frame with lots of cheesecake to complement all the beefcake. The lead female hottie is Amber Heard, a sultry blonde temptress whose character sports the porn-star-ready name Baja Miller. Like the rest of the film's attempts at drama, her romance with Jake is funnier than anything in current comedies like Semi-Pro and College Road Trip.
Of course, the joke's on you in the first place if you come to a film like Never Back Down in search of characters with rich inner lives, even if lightning struck once before with The Karate Kid. The sad reality is that that film was something of a happy accident, a lucky marriage of the right director, screenplay and star. Had any of those elements been different, it's likely that The Karate Kid would have been as instantly forgettable as Never Back Down.