Here's the basic set-up for the slick martial arts film Never Back Down: Troubled teen moves with his single mother to a new city, sets root in a humble apartment building, and immediately gets picked on by the bullies at his high school. The chief bully is highly skilled in chop-socky; he also happens to be dating the blonde who has taken a liking to our hero. The kid then turns to a mysterious martial arts master for training, under the condition that never, ever use his powers outside the dojo… that is, unless he's really provoked or if there's some sort of score-settling tournament coming up. Sound familiar? It's The Karate Kid for the 21st century, streamlined and hardcore, which means there's lots of nü-metal sludge on the soundtrack, Djimon Hounsou has replaced the flabby likes of Pat Morita, and the fighting style is considerably less genteel than the one-legged crane.
Unfortunately, the streamlining process has cut much of the underdog charisma away, too. Instead of Ralph Macchio as a sweet-natured weakling from Jersey, Never Back Down offers up the chiseled likes of Sean Faris, a soft-spoken bruiser who moves to Orlando with his widowed mother and younger brother. O-town doesn't treat this fish-out-of-water too kindly, especially after he sticks himself in the middle of a Fight Club-like subculture that practices mixed martial arts (MMA). Accustomed to using only his fists, Faris finds himself overmatched by the school bully (Cam Gigandet), who also rivals him for would-be love interest Amber Heard's heart. Desperate for some leverage, Faris learns the ins and outs of MMA from the enigmatic Hounsou, who employs the ancient art of training by musical montage.
In keeping with the Fight Club theme, there's a potentially interesting movie here about teenagers needing an outlet for their boredom and pent-up aggression, and Never Back Down does a fine enough job painting Orlando as a sprawling suburban hell-pit. But director Jeff Wadlow and screenwriter Chris Hauty are so committed to following through on the Karate Kid formula that they don't care for novelty; it's enough for them just to hit their cues and play up the slo-mo MMA brutality. In the future, movies this derivative will be made by robots.