There have been a number of very successful films lately that show one or more high school kids participating in some form of ultimate competition, usually involving dance or sports. The form is as predictable as a limerick: Good-hearted but sullen and misunderstood New Kid comes to school with a tragic backstory to overcome. New Kid has natural talent. Snotty Type thinks he/she is all that. New Kid tries to show off and suffers humiliating defeat. New Kid learns important lessons about life (often from Wise Teacher). He/she and begins to develop a romantic relationship with Love Interest and a friendship with Goofy Sidekick, who is there to provide wisecracks and very often additional motivation by being at risk. Just in time for the big show/game, New Kid finds he/she has the nerve, the skills, and the eye of the tiger. And who is in the audience? Not just Love Interest, but PPP — Previously Prohibiting Parent.
In this movie, the part of New Kid is played by Sean Faris, channeling Tom Cruise (or trying to) as Jake. The part of Snotty Type is Ryan (Cam Gigandet of “The O.C.”), Love Interest is Baja (Amber Heard), Goofy Sidekick is Max (Evan Peters), Wise Teacher is Jean (Djimon Hounsou). And the part of dance or sports is taken by mixed martial arts.
Therein lies the problem.
As movies like “Step Up 2 the Streets” and “How She Move” have already shown this year, this genre can triumph over predictable plots and thin characterizations with some slammin’ music and moves. (I know, that term is outdated. But that’s the kind of terminology that passes for hip in these movies.) But this is just about slammin’ — it is based on the idea that there is something courageous and significant in having people beat up on each other. In “Fight Club,” the fights were meaningful because they represented a metaphor for internal and external frustrations of modern life, for a need to feel something and connect to something in a world and a self that can feel splintered and antiseptic. In this movie, it is just a chance for some fetishised footage of taut, muscular young men grappling with and pounding on each other. All I could think was, “Oh, go ahead. Back down. We’ll all be happier.”
Parents should know that this movie is up against the edge of an R rating. Teenagers engage in a great deal of foolish and risky behavior including brutal and graphic fights and partying with underage drinking. There is a reference to alcohol abuse and a sad (offscreen) death. There are sexual references, girl/girl kissing, and a non-explicit sexual situation. Characters use strong and crude language.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the title means and why Jake and Ryan had different ideas about what constituted winning. What did fighting mean to Ryan? To Jake? To Max and to Jean?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Power of One and The Karate Kid.