I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Kickboxer: Vengeance

tn_kickboxervengeanceIn this age of reboots one thing I didn’t see coming was a respectful attempt to resurrect the magic of KICKBOXER. Produced by Cannon when Jean-Claude Van Damme was still a new star, the original is a seminal film in the foundation of the western-star martial arts movie. Part of the beauty of the era it helped ignite was its disposability; there was such a hunger for this stuff on VHS that they kept churning out KICKBOXERs and BLOODSPORTs and BLOODFISTs with whatever Next Jean-Claude Van Damme they could get. And the combination of these basic story formulas and the appeal of seeing thick-accented martial artists try to act cool between flying kicks made for many enjoyable evenings for people all around the world.

Things have changed. Far fewer straight up action movies are made than in the ’80s and ’90s, and viewing them is not as common of a ritual for young people growing up. The fringe market of DTV has mostly shifted to VOD, a riskier business model since people actually have to watch the movies for them to make money. So, weirdly, this new KICKBOXER (released to VOD on Friday) was made with care, in hopes of people liking it. You can tell they’re genuinely trying to recapture what was fun about those movies, but in a modern context – by which I only mean it has nice digital cinematography of sunny Thailand and many of the opponents are played by famous UFC fighters.

Like the original, this is the story of young Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi, stunt double for Wolverine in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE and Captain Boomerang in SUICIDE SQUAD) training to fight the notorious death match champion Tong Po (Dave Bautista, WRONG SIDE OF TOWN, HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN), who brutally defeated his champion brother Eric in an illegal match. In the original Eric was paralyzed, here he dies in the ring, which is made sad by the fact that he’s played by the late Darren Shahlavi (IP MAN 2). There’s a clever new structure where Kurt comes asking to be trained by Tong Po before his intentions and motives are revealed in flashback. He gets in trouble with the (mostly corrupt) cops and is supposed to leave the country. He declines.

mp_kickboxervengeanceKurt’s current skills can be measured by the number of students (including T.J. Storm of BLACK COBRA) he could fight his way through after getting in the door of the compound. He’s gonna need to get through more of them to fight Tong Po. So he goes to his brother’s trainer Durand to prepare. Kind of a counterintuitive plan, since the training didn’t seem to help his brother much, but maybe he wants to give Durand his chance for redemption.

Since this is filmed in Thailand and Tong Po is supposed to be a Muay Thai master, the teacher was originally set to be played by Tony Jaa. He’s always great but I’m so glad he dropped out and was replaced by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme. That might sound like a corny torch-passing stunt, but in fact it’s another great performance in JCVD’s recent streak as a character actor. I never would’ve thought the boyish dork from the original KICKBOXER could grow up to play this cool motherfucker who looks like a macho jazz trumpeter with his unbuttoned white dress shirt over black tank top, his sunglasses he wears for 98% of the movie (including all his fight scenes) and his hat that he only takes off for occasional dramatic punctuation. He’s very deadpan about his crazy training methods, which begin with tying up Kurt in his sleep and beating him with sticks to numb his nerves. At times he’ll finish a fight for Kurt, other times he chooses to sit out, for example when they escape a jail and he just casually points in the direction of oncoming attackers for Kurt to take on.

(I thought about not mentioning this, but I know you guys will: for some reason he’s apparently dubbed in some parts. This has really bothered some people, but I’m not sure I would’ve noticed it if I wasn’t looking for it. It’s not like an OUT OF REACH situation.)

still_kickboxervengeance

The story of KICKBOXER is elemental enough that it would’ve been easy to do something very similar without it being a remake, or also to make a remake that just seems like a generic KICKBOXER-type movie. This has a nice approach to acknowledging the famous parts of the original without either being exactly the same or feeling like corny nostalgic references. For example the mentor still tests the student by getting him into a bar fight, but it’s so much bigger and more elaborate a bar and fight that it feels like a different thing. I won’t give away the tip of the hat they give to what I would consider to be the most memorable part of the original, but I will confess to straight up delight when it happened. (I’m not talking about the part where they glue broken glass to their forearms, but of course they have that in here. This is the type of remake where they’re not stupid, they know that’s a part you gotta keep.)

I don’t know how many will be with me on this, but I really like Moussi in the lead. He has some of Van-Damme-Kurt’s clean cut good guy quality while being a little more cool. He has a bit of dry humor without making a joke out of the role. And he has a good rapport with both Van Damme and Georges St-Pierre (CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER) as a fellow fighter who he sort of becomes fight brothers with. St-Pierre hasn’t been much of an actor yet, but he actually gets some laughs in this by playing dumb and by casually holding a beer most of the time, even when fighting. Gina Carano is not used as well in her bit part – like in HEIST, she’s not doing a very good job at the acting and then they don’t have her do any fighting. She even gets choked and doesn’t fight back.

Moussi does get to fight though. He’s an impressive martial artist who does a ridiculous array of kicks (among other things). There’s a much higher volume of action than the vast majority of modern action movies, and a variety of settings for the fights. At first I was a little concerned because some editing was faster than I prefer, but either it calmed down or I adjusted. What really struck me, after watching so many overly close up post-action movies like THE MECHANIC: RESURRECTION and JASON BOURNE, is that there are literally hundreds of kicks in this movie and for almost all of them you see the kicker’s entire body in frame. It’s so much better that way.

The fight choreographer/stunt coordinator is Larnell Stovall (UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, UNDISPUTED III) and he puts alot of personality and story into the fights. One funny idea I appreciated is the number of times Kurt does an awesome flying move that would normally be the spectacular finish, but his bigger opponent just swats him down like a volleyball. Or catches and bodyslams him.

Tong Po, as originally played by Van Damme’s buddy Michel Qissi, is one of the few iconic villains of the subgenre, and Bautista is a brilliant choice to elevate him to further outlandishness. Covered in tattoos, he still has the top knot but is no longer quasi-Asian (other than in his interior decoration and tea drinking).

This version is almost like a cult leader who not only fights in organized death matches but lives in a compound full of disciples who fight each other while he watches them literally from his throne. When one student kills another during sparring he doesn’t give a shit. In fact he seems to get bored, just gets up and walks into his living quarters, where two women are waiting to drop their bathrobes and follow him to bed.

Yet there’s a little more humanity to his evil. He’s able to talk about honor to shame Kurt for trying to avenge him in what he labels as a cowardly way. The only way for him to get justice is to do what his brother couldn’t. And you know what that means: he better train.

I think we can all agree that

1) training montages are one of the greatest traditional art forms created by mankind and

2) there really have not been even remotely enough training montages in the past 25 years of cinema, causing a crisis of untrained millennials listening to music with passive, uninspiring lyrics that rarely mention steel, fire or courage.

KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE doesn’t have any Survivor-esque songs, but it does have two very long, very involved, very enjoyable training sequences. You got ropes, coconuts, splits, pulling people around in wagons, practicing kicks silhouetted in front of beautiful scenery, cruelty in the tradition of R’as Al Ghul or Pai Mei, and of course weird new methods that probly would not cause anybody to win a fight but are really awesome anyway (dunking him in water while he pedals a bike).

In a weirdly indie touch one of the montages is set to an aggressive song by the Chicago rapper Rhymefest. And the score is by Adam Dorn, better known as drum ‘n bass DJ/jazz bassist Mocean Worker. It’s mostly the cliche exotic flutes and percussion, and at times a little overbearing, but I did dig on a weird slap bass tune during a foot chase.

Director John Stockwell (UNDER COVER, TURISTAS, IN THE BLOOD) is a pretty good journeyman type director who can sometimes sprinkle his lowbrow movies with unexpected class, and I think this is one of his best. He’s working from a script by Dimitri Logothetis (producer of HARDBODIES 2, director of SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK) and Jim McGrath.

Either the producers are very optimistic, or somebody has finally figured out the formula for profitable b-action franchising in this era, because they’ve already completed a sequel, KICKBOXER: RETALIATION, and announced a third one to start filming in February. Moussi returned for part 2, so they don’t have to say Kurt’s dead and introduce a third Sloane brother as Albert Pyun did in KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD HOME. Van Damme also returns for his first ever KICKBOXER sequel – hopefully a real role and not a cameo or opening death scene or something. It’s impressive that he’s not just there as a reference. He has a more memorable character now than he did in the original! Logothetis took over as director, so we’ll see how that goes.

So far this has not been a banner year for the genre, but not counting good low-on-action stuff like BLOOD FATHER and CRIMINAL, I’m thinking KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE must be the American action of 2016 that I had the most fun watching. I put it slightly above Michael Jai White’s NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER, another underground fighting circuit movie choreographed by Stovall. Neither of these are going to the top of my Best DTV/VOD Action Movies list, but they’re enjoyable, solidly crafted martial arts movies and I’m happy to welcome this type of thing back into my life.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 5th, 2016 at 11:11 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Kickboxer: Vengeance”

  1. Glad to hear that Tong Po has been handled well. One of my favourite villains.

  2. I don’t think this thing is bad as I’d read but I didn’t think it was all that good either. Maybe my disappointment wouldn’t have been as big if I hadn’t seen it in a theater instead of VOD and the producers being so confident that they are already making a part 3. In that sense it’s my fault I got disappointed for actually believing the hype. I thought it was a decent time-killer but no more and it gave me no reason to look forward to future sequels and spinoffs and cinematic universes.

    -To further completely discredit me, everyone is bitching about SKIPTRACE also being awful but I thought it was on par with CZ12: Okay-ish for JC fans but can’t fathom recommending it to non-hardcore JC fans. I guess the Canto-comedy is what’s really turning people off *puts on obnoxious true-fan glasses* I guess I just built up an immunity to Canto-comedy with a life-long training I got from watching these things. It entertained me.

  3. The Undefeated Gaul

    September 5th, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    FYI, Scott Adkins is doing an AMA on Reddit right now if anyone’s interested. I’ve posted a question about Isaac not directing Undisputed 4 – but not expecting it to get answered.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/51apb2/hi_reddit_im_scott_adkins_actor_martial_artist_i/

  4. The Undefeated Gaul

    September 5th, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Sorry if off-topic. At least there’s the connection of Adkins being asked to play the brother role before Shahlavi!

  5. The Undefeated Gaul

    September 5th, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    I’m giddy; got 3 of my questions answered. He didn’t give a reason for the Isaac/Todor thing – just said Isaac is producer and his stamp is all over it, we won’t be disappointed.

  6. Vern, the editing, and camera, did get smoother and steadier after the intro and I’m glad it did. I was worried.

    I also loved Moussi, will love to watch him more.

    And agree about the art of training montages and the impact on millennials!

  7. Gotta disagree, I thought it was shit. The fight scenes (especially the street fight seen with the fake elephants) where almost half speed.

    Tong Po being some american didnt work, The new Kurt made JCVDs acting in the original look oscar worthy(and his martial arts on display where nothing to shout about) GSP(wasted) just randomly showing up here and there and at the end chanting that thing for no reason, it had no meaning. Even if you forgive any changes that had to be made for the passing of Darren, its still a mess of a movie.

    Van damme not taking hs hat off was clearly because hes had some kind of hair transplant in recent years (as obvious by JCVJ) , and he was wasted.

    When compared to some of MJW or Adkins recent stuff (or even any of the late DS stuff) , its night and day. I was devastated as i had been really looking foward to it. So i watched a back to back double bill of Kickboxer and American ninja 2(the greatest movie of all time) to cheer myself up.

  8. The Adkins AMA is a good read. I love this:

    You vs Michael Jai White (both prime), who’s winning that fight?

    ScottAdkinsOfficial:
    Mike is a fierce MF. I reckon I could out run him, otherwise I’m screwed

  9. I’ve gotta agree with RicFlairAndy, i found this to be extremely incoherent to the point of distracting, and almost insulting. I felt like I was watching a rough cut. I have a feeling the 30+ producers was part of the problem, but I would’ve much rather watched a movie about Van Damme and his inexplicable children at his training facility. Or of Tong Po and his cult of fighters. (I will say I was happy to see parkour guy from Punisher War Zone as one of the fighters).

    I thought new Kurt was a decent fighter, but was a charisma vacuum. I thought the fights were shot and cut poorly. The inexplicable sex scene in the middle of the montage made no sense, neither did the fact that I wasn’t even sure the cop was the same woman that he was having sex with. Georges St-Pierre disappears after barely showing up at all, then magically reappears with a broken arm chanting about White Warrior. And don’t get me started on those horrible Man-on-fire-esque subtitles, where one word is inexplicably a different color.

    I was so excited to see this in a theater, and wish I saw the movie the way you did, but as it rolled on I was just waiting for it to end. (I will say JCVD is the best thing in it, but I felt like even he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could).

  10. I just realized that the dude who directed this is Cougar from Top Gun!

  11. And a brief blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the original Tong Po in the prisons Moussi escapes.

  12. I enjoyed it well enough.

    Yes the random dubbing on Master Durant was as jarring as “Yippee Ky-Yay Mister Falcon!” at times but he was a pretty endearing character to me. The whole hat and glasses quirk worked for me. I legitimately chuckled when he was shirtless and still kept them on and the one scenes where he removes either had more weight cause of it. You knew at those moments shit got real. Also the clincher for me was that because of the use of coconuts in the training and JCVD’s affinity for coconut oil on his Amazon pilot I was expecting Durant to yell “coconuts” at some point during the final fight and once it finally happened my friend and I both cheered since I kept bringing it up so much during the fight up to that point on some “come on!!! yell coconut!!” type shit.

    I thought Moussi was serviceable. Definitely a cooler more relatable Kurt however I did miss the 80s squareness of OG Kurt. It added character and an interesting juxtaposition to the original considering the state of most action heroes being very macho back then. We’ve seen a lot of protagonists like new Kurt all over action films by the point of his film. Not so much with old Kurt within the context of the era of his version.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the Canon-ness of this movie. I thought it would try to be more grounded and Nolan-esque but nope it just rolled and embraced classic unbelievable b-movie tropes all over the place and that was cool. Gina Carano in the Freddy Lee role was ok but very contradictory. It’s like they had 2 different aims for the role and then just said fuck it by the end. At one point she seems earnestly concerned and even kinda guilty and uncomfortable by Eric’s excitement for this illegal match but then later in the end they just go all stone cold bitch. They didn’t really have a direction for it.

    The Mai Li and Taylor amalgam cop lady was really weird and contradictory. “I can’t let you do this!” “ah fuck it just go ahead while I turn my back cause the sex is good” and then “no wait I’m arresting you” to “ah fuck it let’s just go lay down again and what the hell I’ll enable and disable support towards this fight at the same time” just strange and almost felt like a last minute addition just to have a love interest at the last moment because it was so poorly thought and undercooked. She was pretty cute though. I liked Batista even though sometimes his chicken legs made me laugh considering he’s supposed to be the baddest KICKboxer. However he had a cool presence and played it quite and edgy which he did well.

    One thing that was interesting was the approach to the conclusion of the fight. My friend didn’t like it and thought it was too much but I felt it lived up to the fact that it’s called KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE and not KICKBOXER: JUSTICE so it didn’t really trip me out. Plus this version of Tong Po kinda deserved it.

    The Michael Qissi cameo was cool. Noticeable enough that my friend said “hey it’s Tong Po!” like he always does when he spots Qissi in any JCVD joint we watch together. Yet still not distracting enough to take you out the moment.

    Overall I thought it was straight for the most part. Could’ve been so much worse but basically kept the spirit and structure of the original while doing enough new stuff that it didn’t distract.

  13. Happy 56th Birthday, JCVD! From a fan here in Singapore.

  14. KICKBOXER RETALIATION THIS TIME IT’S TYSON Trailer:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyKov36SSRs

  15. Van Damme, Christopher Lambert and Mike Tyson all in the same movie? I can now die a happy man.

  16. Is it a prison fight movie? I think they should have called this Bloodfist: Retaliation instead because they seem more Bloodfist then Kickboxer.

  17. Teaser for KICKBOXER RETALIATION

    Kickboxer Retaliation | 30 second trailer

    Kickboxer: Retaliation continues where Kickboxer:Vengeance left off. It has now been 12 months since Kurt Sloan left Thailand vowing never to return. We pickup the…

  18. Teaser for KICKBOXER RETALIATION

    Kickboxer Retaliation | 30 second trailer

    Kickboxer: Retaliation continues where Kickboxer:Vengeance left off. It has now been 12 months since Kurt Sloan left Thailand vowing never to return. We pickup the…

  19. Am I the only that’s getting tired of seeing convicted rapist Mike Tyson in so many movies?

  20. Other then he isn’t really that good of an actor, I don’t really care. I live in a society where, in theory, if you get convicted you go to jail, serve your time, then you get to come back to society. He did that so dude is allowed to work.

  21. Yeah he served his time. What more does he owe people? Mike Tyson gotta eat and if producers want to pay him to do so more power to him. He’s been doing what he’s supposed to since serving his time. He earned the right.

  22. I do believe in second chances but I also believe in consequences. And I don’t think that going to jail for a few years and coming out a millionaire and being in movies is really paying your dues for that particular crime. I don’t think he earned that at all – especially when he shows up in comedies playing up his violent past for laughs. That bothers me and it seems like too many people just shrug it off and act like he’s a cartoon character or something when he actually did some evil shit and does not seem to have had any remorse about it (which may or may not be true but I’m basing that on the way he projects himself in public). So personally I don’t enjoy seeing him in movies and it rubs me the wrong way. But I guess I’m in the minority.

  23. It’s how I feel about Victor Salva so I do see where you are coming from.

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