Karate Kid Bloodfest Steps up to a Formulaic Playground

    {grate 1.5} When a movie calls on one of its characters to start
    spouting taglines from the trailer as part of his motivational speech (“Never
    give up! Never back down!”), you know your brain cells can look forward to a
    very special kind of death.

    Relative newcomer Sean Faris (“Sleepover”) plays Jake Tyler,
    a troubled teen expelled from school for fighting during a football game after
    a rival made the mistake of pressing his big red “Daddy Issue” button. He moves
    to a new school in Florida, where
    the girls’ uniforms appear to be a low-cut blouse with lots of skin. Jake’s
    past tussling skills catch the attention of local bully Ryan McDonald (Cam
    Gigandet). After Ryan’s girlfriend, Baja Miller — who, despite living in a
    mansion, doesn’t own any piece of clothing bigger than a hanky — sets Jake up,
    reigning champ Ryan painfully and violently introduces him to the world of
    underground mixed martial arts fighting.

    Of course, the fact that everyone at school is eagerly
    acquainted with the secretive club completely defeats its underground status.
    After having his internal organs rearranged, Jake, like any good hormonally
    driven teenager, must reclaim his manhood and is informed of a veteran fighter
    with a martial arts gym conveniently located down the street. Enter Djimon
    Hounsou to fill the token role of “wise minority trainer with mysterious
    foreign accent,” or, in this case, Jean Roqua for short.

    The gifted Hounsou, Oscar-nominated for his work in both
    “Blood Diamond” and “In America,” is reduced to sporting a tuft of mean,
    salt-and-pepper chin hair and delivering enlightened lines like, “Those who
    come here for the wrong reasons never last.” Funny how the “right reasons” for
    choking off a rival’s air supply or employing a submission hold are
    suspiciously never explained.

    Cue the training montage and aggressive hip-hop music as
    Jake prepares for the big showdown with the covertness Clark
    Kent would have
    envied: intelligent high school student by day, crippling karate kid by night.
    It’s no wonder Hounsou described the flick as “refreshing — it’s a
    light-hearted film.”

    Take notes, kids. Sure, while one-liners and slapstick are
    humorous, nothing brings on the hilarity quite like hospitalization and
    bleeding orifices.

    When asked what message he wanted audiences to take away
    from this movie, Faris replied, “It’s not about encouraging violence, not
    ending things with violence … to have discipline, self-control, to only fight
    as the last resort to defend yourself and those you love.” A true statement, if
    you completely ignore the first 55 minutes of the film.

    Unfortunately, Hounsou’s commanding presence and Faris’
    affability and disarming pre-Scientology Tom Cruise grin just can’t ground a
    flick so removed from reality. Parents encouraging beat downs or contenders
    bouncing right back after coma-inducing assaults with nary a wince all seem to
    challenge our willingness to suspend disbelief. Even the love between Jake and
    Baja grows so banal and agonizing that we pray they just quickly shag and be
    done with the whole mess.

    To call “Never Back Down” a cliche would be much too easy —
    accurate, but easy. It’s more of an irritating, forced trip down memory lane,
    taking you back to the archetypal, much more believable storylines of “The
    Karate Kid” or even “Bloodsport,” if you subtracted Van Damme’s French accent,
    substituted the Hong Kong backdrop for Orlando
    and threw in some unabashed product placement for YouTube to make it more
    relatable to today’s generation. Hell, they even included the wise-cracking,
    floppy-haired best friend/sidekick for nostalgia’s sake.

    If nothing else, it’s an exercise in the fine art of
    plagiarism. Writer Chris Hauty seems to borrow key plot elements from more
    entertaining martial arts predecessors, throw them against the wall and
    incorporate what sticks into a story, proving once again that the Spaghetti
    Method, though it works wonders for pasta, is disastrous for film.

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