The time has finally come to return to the original KICKBOXER series. We’ve had fun with the new ones, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE (2016) and KICKBOXER: RETALIATION (2018). And of course we know and cherish the 1989 original in which Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloan clashes with the psychotic Muay Thai champion Tong Po, who had paralyzed his brother in the ring. KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD HOME (1991) has both Sloan brothers gunned down and introduces a third, previously unmentioned brother named David (Sasha Mitchell) to bring back the family tradition of defeating Tong Po for revenge. That’ll teach him to murder.
I admit I had somewhat forgotten KICKBOXER 3: THE ART OF WAR (1992), but it mixed it up in a fun way by having David and mentor Xian go vigilante and rescue young women from sex traffickers while in Rio for a championship match.
KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR (1994) brings back part 2 director Albert Pyun (CYBORG) and opens with a 4-minute clip show as David recaps the events of parts 1-3 in a letter from prison. Much more time seems to have passed in the story than the two years between direct-to-video releases. Since we last saw David Sloan he apparently fell in love, got married, opened a martial arts school, worked for the DEA “trying to bring a major dealer to the U.S. for trial,” but got busted for killing the guy. “It was him or me. Tong Po saw to that,” he explains, if that counts as explaining. (Other times he says Tong Po framed him.)
The letter is to warn his wife Vicky (Deborah Mansy, LUCKY LUKE) that Tong Po will come after her too, but mail was slow back then so Tong Po assaults and kidnaps her (she at least beats up a couple guys first) and then it immediately skips over another two years. Luckily “In the last five years, Tong Po’s been the most powerful drug lord in Mexico,” so DEA agent Casey (Nicholas Guest, PUPPET MASTER 5) gets David released so he can use his fighting skills to infiltrate Po’s “damn fortress in the desert.” You see, “Every Day of the Dead Tong Po invites all the top fighters in the world to compete at his compound. The winner takes on Po for a million bucks.”
So I’m honestly not sure if Tong Po is “The Aggressor” or not. I suppose his appalling actions kick off everything, but during the main part of the movie he’s been enjoying his eccentric lifestyle for years and it’s David who comes aggressing.
You may be thinking, “What kind of a Mexican drug lord holds fighting tournaments at his house?” Well, the good kind, obviously. And Tong Po can’t exactly be put into a box. When his right hand man Bill (Thom Mathews, who I didn’t recognize as Freddy from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) introduces him at a party he lists not only his fighting record but “Great humanitarian, board certified psychotherapist, visionary record producer…” That has to have been scripted to be funny, and probly as Bill making a joke, but to me it plays as serious, which I like even better.
Before we hear all that, David has to get into the tournament. His law enforcement connections give him underworld intel, by which I mean a biker with a mohawk drives by and throws a manila envelope at his feet.
Like a tall, crew-cut version of Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE, ex-con Sloan walks around in sunglasses, carrying a gym bag, staying upright and slow, moving a little awkwardly to pull off the bad motherfucker vibe I think he’s reaching for. But we get the idea.
I love how he establishes himself. He walks into an open hangar type place where a circle of bikers cheer on some big dudes fighting. The size of the place and the way the camera moves around on a crane, starting up in the rafters, makes it look epic compared to 98% of underground fighting scenes (which are usually in a dark room the size of a small night club, with some chain link fences and graffiti, and rich people in suits holding handfuls of bills).
He’s barely glanced at as he puts his bag down and does a few stretches. Then he walks right into the fight, beats up both competitors, and a couple more guys that try to stop him. The choreography is impressive enough to help fill that gap between how tough he looks and how tough he’s supposed to be. He dominates those chumps.
So a manager guy named Brubaker (Nicholas Anthony, POWWOW HIGHWAY) gets him an invite to Tong Po’s tournament. Brubaker’s a bit character with a surprisingly high quality of acting. I like what we hear of his phone call: “I’m sending you a new guy. His name is Jack Jones. Hey, listen — don’t piss him off.”
So all “Jack” has to do now is hitchhike to Mexico. On the way there he has another fight with bikers, this time a bar brawl trying to stand up for five foot tall sexually harassed bar patron Megan (National Blackbelt League world champion Michele “Mouse” Krasnoo, who played students in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER and BLACKBELT before being in FULL CONTACT, DEATH MATCH and THUNDERKICK). She turns out to be a little asskicker in her own right, and also headed to the tournament, so instead of thanking him she pouts and tells him to fuck off. I like her sullen teen demeanor.
Anyway, my favorite part of that fight is when he throws a guy through a window and the second the guy gets back on his feet he’s hit by a van and flies back into the bar but through a different window. Imagine how unlucky that is! Getting hit by a van and flying back through the same window would seem unbelievable. But he manages to break two different windows in his journey!
Another good gag is the guy who keeps getting knocked with his face against a window without breaking it, then he finally gets smashed through by one of his cohorts whose kick misses David and hits him.
Note: The bar was in Simi Valley and was called Wallies Hide-Out at the time. I looked it up and it also appears under that name in a few episodes of Twin Peaks.
Once they get to Mexico and the hospitality of the Dr.-Han-meets-El-Chapo-meets-Phil-Spector of the ’90s, the vibe kinda goes from SNAKE EATER trilogy to EL MARIACHI for a minute. There are regular looking dudes in sunglasses standing on roofs with guns, and there’s also an outdoor fight initiation that looks alot like the one in DESPERADO. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Rodriguez watched this during production, though I’d probly remember it if he mentioned it in his Rebel Without a Crew diary (I only remember him talking about THE KILLER).
Soon it turns into a less fantastical MORTAL KOMBAT, with Tong Po sitting in an actual throne lording over fights between people in different styles, even demanding a fighter “finish him!” The tournament stays in this one location, with other fighters sitting cross-legged studying the athleticism, but the fights are strong enough to keep it entertaining. IMDb lists three choreographers: Burton Richardson (KNIGHTS, BRAIN SMASHER… A LOVE STORY), Shuki Ron (KICKBOXER 3) and Webster Whinery (also KICKBOXER 3, and frequent Mickey Rourke stunt double). Outside of competition they’re good about working in found items including pool sticks and a pool skimmer.
I noticed one fighter (Earl White) wears a t-shirt that says “Dacascos Kung Fu ” on the back. That’s because he obtained his black belt under Sifu Al Dacascos, father of Mark, who will star in part 5. Other fighters include Rigan and John Machado of the legendary Brazilian Jiujitsu family who starred in a silly movie I once reviewed called BRAZILIAN BRAWL.
Mitchell must’ve been on a short schedule, because the middle of the movie keeps switching over to scenes with handsome fellow competitor Lando Smith (Brad Thornton, SORCERERS, RICHARD III, THE SENSEI), a friend of a student from David’s school, who has some sexual encounters with one of Tong Po’s captives, Darcy (Jill Pierce, CYBORG COP II, BLAST), and wants to rescue her. David conveniently leaves the pre-tournament party right before the big fight where Lando helps Megan take on everybody else because Tong Po offered money to “Get that little bitch!”
And there are two different sequences where David wears a ninja mask to sneak around and get in a couple fights. I guess we’ll never know if this was a way of using a double for extended shooting periods. At least he shows his face in a short scene about teaching Megan some new moves to make up for having choked her out when they had to fight each other in a preliminary.
I had a hard time buying the premise that David could go in there without so much as growing a mustache and expect not to be recognized just because “it’s been alot of hard years since Tong Po’s seen me.” When Tong Po reveals that yes, he does know that this “Jack Jones” is actually that guy he had a life-changing fight against and murdered the brothers of and is currently holding the wife of captive, it’s played as a big “Oh shit!” surprise.
To be fair, he does sometimes wear sunglasses.
Michel Qissi is no longer playing Tong Po, and instead of finding a real Thai boxer this time they got Kamel Krifa, another one of Van Damme’s childhood friends turned personal trainers. Krifa can also be seen in LIONHEART, DEATH WARRANT, DOUBLE IMPACT, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, MAXIMUM RISK, LEGIONNAIRE, and even KICKBOXER: RETALIATION, so maybe he brings some Van Damme authenticity to the proceedings. The trouble is the heavy prosthetic makeup they put on him. He looks like a wax dummy!
It’s not my place to judge Pyun’s casting prerogatives, I’m just noting it, since you don’t expect to see yellowface even in a movie from the ’90s.
I like that they give Tong Po some odd little quirks. One is that his masseuse helps him practice his diction. Another is that he taps his feet excitedly and giggles while watching fights. But he really doesn’t seem like the “great humanitarian” Bill introduced him as, so that may have also been a lie about him being a record producer. We do get to see him briefly play a stringed instrument, but never go into the studio to lay down some harmonies. I bet he’s kind of a Rick Rubin type who brings bands out to stay at his fortress for a couple months and get away from it all while they find their vision. And he probly has them dip their hands in hot wax and glass shards before recording their solos.
The end of this one (END SPOILERS) has some ambiguity to it. Megan convinces everybody the tournament is a fraud with no prize, and they fight against Tong Po and his men. David does get to fight Tong Po and clearly defeats him. I like this shot with the roasted pig in the foreground, representing the opulent post-tournament celebration that I’m afraid is going to have to be cancelled. Sorry, Tong Po Desert Compound Catering Staff.
David does save Vicky (we never hear them even talk to each other), but Tong Po literally crawls away, so David does not achieve his mission from the DEA and for all we know has to go back to prison now.
Pyun wrote the script with David Yorkin, who also wrote Pyun’s SPITFIRE as well as BLADE RUNNER. Not the movie, the 1997 PC game. His dad is Bud Yorkin, the producer of both BLADE RUNNER movies and director of ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS.
I’m glad I came back to this series. It maintains a high standard of fulfilling the kind of formulaic shit I desire in an underground fighting movie while flying off in a few unexpected, crazy directions. The KICKBOXER series is an American institution.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.