Can it be any more obvious that Never Back Down is just The Karate Kid for die-hard Ultimate Fighting Championship fans? Like Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is the new kid in town. And an easy target for those looking to pick a fight. See Jake has a nasty habit of letting his temper get the best of him whenever he’s taunted about his dad’s drunk-driving death. So it’s not long before footage of the beating Jake gave a rival football player back in Iowa makes the rounds at his new high school in Orlando. Applying his belief that “to be the best you have to take out the best ” backyard brawler Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet) baits Jake into exchanging blows. Guess who’s left bloodied and bruised? Out for revenge Jake takes mixed martial arts lessons from Jean Roquoa (Djimon Hounsou). But will Jake abide by Roquoa’s rule that he cannot fight outside of his gym? Please this isn’t Never Fight Back. As Jake prepares for a rematch with Ryan he finds himself falling for his opponent’s girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard). Hounsou recently earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Blood Diamond. So shouldn’t he doing something more worthy of his time and talents than channeling his inner Mr. Miyagi? Maybe the money was too good to ignore. Regardless Hounsou brings much class and conviction to an undemanding role that even Jean-Claude Van Damme could pull off in his sleep. He doesn’t resort to “wax on wax off” exercises as part of his training program but he does get to spout many Miyagi-isms in his quest to make his hotheaded apprentice a better person. What strikes you the most about Faris (TV’s Life As We Know It) is not his moves but how eerily he looks and carries himself like a young Tom Cruise. He’s got the smirk and cockiness down pat but he’s unable to fake us into thinking he possesses a fraction of Cruise’s Top Gun-era charisma and exuberance. The lean but ripped Gigandet (The O.C.) appears to be the end result of a cloning experiment that combined DNA from Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. But he isn’t very intimidating as Ryan and Never Back Down suffers for it. Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) gives Baja enough smarts to ensure she stands out from the other bikinied blondes found poolside at Ryan’s McMansion. Never Back Down owes its very existence to The Karate Kid but director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf) takes his visual cues from Friday Night Lights. The film even opens with the football game that establishes Jake’s reputation as a “natural-born brawler.” So it’s evident from the get-go that Wadlow plans to employ FNL’s agitated you-are-there style of storytelling to chronicle our hero’s fall and rise. It certainly lends a semblance of realism to what is an involving but by-the-numbers underdog-to-superman male fantasy. And it makes the countless fight scenes seem all the more bone-crushingly brutal. At 113 minutes Never Back Down wears out its welcome before Jack and Ryan go mano a mano one last time. Wadlow and screenwriter Chris Hauty do use the time wisely to thoroughly explore what’s going inside Jack’s battered head. They also develop Jake’s romance with Baja so that it is more than just an excuse to heighten the tension between Jake and Ryan. Sadly Jake’s relationship with Roquoa never really extends beyond the task at hand and Jake’s problems at home are never adequately resolved. But despite this and the obviousness of it all Never Back Down at least tries to deliver more than Jake’s beatdowns.
Fresh out of the slammer Calvin “Babyface” Sims (Marlon Wayans)--or to us “Little Man”--robs a jewelry store along with his partner in crime Percy P (Tracy Morgan). After the heist is somewhat botched Calvin drops the jewel in the purse of an unsuspecting young woman Vanessa (Kerry Washington) in an attempt to elude cops. Calvin then follows Vanessa and her husband Darryl (Shawn Wayans) out to their suburban home where it’s calm and where the thief learns Darryl is desperate to father a child. So three-foot-tall Calvin shows up on Darryl’s doorstep in a dog basket goo-goo-ga-ga-ing much to the couple’s delight. They take him in and turn a blind eye on the fact that he has facial stubble and a mouthful of pearly whites as Cal tries repeatedly to retrieve the diamond. Amid countless muck-ups and pratfalls the trio grows closer with even Cal showing his heartfelt side. But he is still a criminal with a motive a motive which Vanessa’s elderly father (John Witherspoon) thinks he’s got figured out. Shawn and Marlon Wayans are easily two of the top five actors in the Wayans clan which is a feat if you know their genealogy but at this point it’d be nice to split the brothers up. Their roles here weren’t easily executable--especially Marlon’s--but it’s as if they implore us to not see them as artists. Marlon whose head is superimposed atop a little person’s body--a not-so-special effect--boasts some funny lines as a hardened thief but makes for a grating “toddler ” even though most will inexplicably find his proportions to be hilarious. Meanwhile Shawn actually steals more of the physical gags like getting hit in the groin oh maybe a dozen times by various objects. And it’s a sad day in Hollywood when people like Ray’s Kerry Washington bolt the good stuff for a Wayans vehicle but hey at least she looks great! The true comedy here sparse as it may be comes from numerous cameos by In Living Color alumni and three SNL-ers (Rob Schneider Molly Shannon and Tracy Morgan). Marlon Shawn and Keenen Ivory Wayans are an absolute testament to the Hollywood Machine in action. They “get” Hollywood more than perhaps even George Lucas does making them studio execs’ best friends. They are also more in touch with their fanbase than anyone and churn out precisely what their loyalists crave. In short they are utterly fascinating. Their movies? Not so much. Director Keenen often seems to mistake irreverent for crude and co-writers Marlon and Shawn--well clearly they didn’t envision a brainbuster but they produced (at least) one: We’re merely supposed to laugh at the fact that Vanessa and Darryl don’t notice Calvin’s perpetually changing ages spewing unintelligible babytalk in one scene and playing football in the next. Otherwise it’s more or less a series of Keenen alternating locales to exploit pratfalls that would arise if the man-child problem existed.