"Walk right side road, safe. Walk left side road, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, squish, just like grape." Those were the wise words of Mr. Miyagi from "The Karate Kid," and they apply to "Never Back Down," which tries its best to replicate that story of a picked-on youth who falls under the wing of an older foreign man and learns some neat martial-arts tricks.
The problem with this new movie is that either it didn't listen to Mr. Miyagi, or it's just too involved in contemporary society to care. It goes through the motions of plot and character, almost like it feels forced to, while relishing its true passion for young guys pulverizing each other while their scantily clad hotties watch. You know what happens? Squish, just like "Road House" for teens.
The story follows high-school senior Jake (Sean Faris), whose mom is relocating him and his little brother to an Orlando suburb, a move that serves as a fairly obvious excuse to make Jake the new kid in town. On cue, Jake runs into nothing but trouble from day one at his new school. His butt is soon kicked by Ryan, a blond teen martial-arts expert (Cam Gigandet) with perfect teeth and a complete lack of empathy. Jake then quickly finds the dojo of Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), a specialist in the kind of trendy Brazilian mixed-martial arts that all the kids are crazy about.
As much as it feigns to invoke the classic tale of a young boy learning to be a man, "Never Back Down" is mostly about exploiting the current love of young boys of all ages -- the phenomenon of mixed-martial arts, whose NFL is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. "Never Back Down" is an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the sport, with some guff about "values" thrown in for good measure. You could call its nonviolent moments insurance for fending off any concerned citizens who see it, but the more the movie unfolds, the more its stabs at storytelling seem haphazardly reflexive.
When Jake is overcome by a case of road rage, for example, we're supposed to worry that he's about to fight even though Master Roqua forbids it. But we're also supposed to be thrilled at his newfound prowess while he dispatches three ruffians. Come to think of it, why did Master Roqua forbid administering these beatings? The scene is a prime example of story as seasoning. If the movie is a buffet of fisticuffs, everything else is condiments, in case anyone needs them.
A rundown of the minor conflicts: Jake thinks a local sexpot named Baja (Amber Heard) set him up for his first fall, and their reconciliation allows them to get it on. The members of Jake's family, yawn, argue with each other while trying to adjust to their new life. Jake learns Master Roqua left his homeland because his brother was murdered. Even Ryan gets his, from a jerky dad who bullies him. See how everyone has problems? Don't worry, they don't get in the way of the big rumble at the finale.
If all you came for is well-honed bodies smashing into each other, "Never Back Down" doesn't disappoint. The fighting is competently captured by director Jeff Wadlow, a Charlottesville native and nephew of Katie Couric. Wadlow, working from a script by Chris Hauty, constantly and quickly jumps between various cinematic media, from the movie-camera perspective to more common devices "lensed" by the kids their cell phones, PDAs and camcorders. Information travels fast among the young, we learn, especially when there's blood and broken bones involved.
You could cynically read these technology cues as mere pandering, but that would be missing the forest for the trees. Remember, the movie has to compete with dog attacks, porn and honest-to-God street fights, all available a click away on YouTube and its ilk. "Never Back Down" never backs down from the challenge posed by its audience. If Mr. Miyagi wanted to reach Daniel-san today, he'd probably have to get him to wax his iPhone and tend his bonsai blog. Poor Ali would need a boob job and a much lower IQ. (PG-13) 106 min. S