As with LETHAL WEAPON 2 and ROAD HOUSE, KICKBOXER is a classic that I’ve already reviewed, and I stand by what I wrote about it the first time. But I thought it might be worth revisiting 11 years later, after also writing about its sequels, remake and remake sequel, and in the context of these other ’89 movies. It hit some European countries in April and August of that year, and the U.S. on September 8th, making it a good closer to THE LAST SUMMER OF ’80S ACTION.
Earlier in the series we had fighting circuit movies from an old Disney live action director (FIST FIGHTER), the World Wrestling Federation (NO HOLDS BARRED), and a guy that did Dorf movies (CAGE). Not surprisingly it was Cannon Films that gave us the season’s slickest version of the form, building off the success of BLOODSPORT (1988) for an in my opinion even better vehicle for shiny new splits-doer Jean-Claude Van Damme. I mean that literally, by the way – in the climax the camera really focuses on the reflectiveness of his muscles as an illustration of how ready he is to triumph.
As you may remember, Van Damme’s character Kurt Sloane, Perrier-drinking kid brother cornerman to ISKA Heavyweight World Champion Eric “The Eliminator” Sloane, sets out on a mission of athletic vengeance when Thai champ Tong Po (playing himself, the credits claim) paralyzes Eric in the ring.
(Odd detail: there are still two fights scheduled for after this momentous event in the lives of the Sloanes. It’s not even the main event!)
Before his defeat Eric is very cocky – he likes to say things like “Everyone loves a winner!” and that beating Tong Po will be a “piece of cake.” In my first review I talked about the subtext of Eric the arrogant American tourist having no respect for the origins or culture of the artform he supposedly represents, and Kurt surpassing him by finding a local Muay Thai teacher who trains him right. Kurt stays out in some woods, trains among the Buddhist statues of “Stone City,” “listens” to visions of ancient warriors who practiced in the same spot. And at the climax of the big fight he cuts off the crude weaponry of glass-shard fists and relies purely on the spirit of those fighters (and the glisten of the aforementioned oily muscles).
But I think there’s also a possible reading that these old ways are fuckin crazy. Sure, we admire the stubbornness of Kurt ignoring the conventional wisdom and even the pleading from his brother that it’s not worth risking his own injury (or even death at the hands of the gang behind Tong Po) for this revenge. It’s not the type of revenge that leaves everyone blind – he’s only trying to defeat Tong Po in a fair athletic competition! – but in a way that makes this level of danger even more irrational. And cooler.
The dark side of it is the collateral damage, and in particular what happens to Mylee (Rochelle Ashana, FEAR OF A BLACK HAT), Kurt’s new girlfriend and niece of his teacher Xian (Dennis Chan, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS). Right before the big match, hoodlums kidnap her and bring her to Tong Po, who rapes her (mercifully off screen). When Xian finds out and all he can do to comfort Mylee is pat her on the hand, the look on his face speaks volumes. I think he’s very aware that all this macho honor shit got her into this and he’s completely unequipped to help her heal.
Even worse for Mylee, she chooses not to tell Kurt, because she knows it was done to distract him. But Tong Po tells him about it during the fight… and then Kurt seems mad at her!
“Tell me. Tell me the truth. Tell me!”
“Kurt. I love you!” she cries, as if she did something wrong. Not cool at all, Kurt. You are a great fighter and a terrible, terrible boyfriend.
As long as we’re talking about shit that wouldn’t fly now, let’s talk about Tong Po. Though not credited, the choice role went to Van Damme’s childhood friend and training partner Michel Qissi, who is Moroccan-Belgian with makeup on his eyelids to play Thai. I haven’t seen evidence of anyone being offended at the time, and the 1989 defense would be that it had to be Qissi but the greatest fighter had to be a Thai boxer. For the 2016 remake Dave Bautista plays Tong Po, but they got around it by having that be a name he was given living in Thailand.
Looking at it today the makeup is a bad idea and the implication of rape is unnecessary, but he’s still a good, hissable villain. Maybe my favorite thing about him is his introduction. Kurt is helping his brother prepare backstage before the fight and hears a loud pounding. He wanders down the hall and before Tong Po comes into view Kurt just sees his braid whipping around like an angry snake. When Tong Po comes fully into view we see that he’s not practicing on a bag, but on one of the columns of the building, and causing it to crumble!
A smaller detail that I like is that after he defeats Eric he takes his championship built and tears it in half with his hands. What an asshole! How much is it gonna cost to get that thing fixed?
By the way, did you know they call him “Tiger” Tong Po? At least the people who make all the signs and banners hanging up throughout the movie do. That’s one way Kurt is able to compete with his enemy “Tiger” and his brother “The Eliminator” – by earning a nickname. Xian builds Kurt’s legend and confidence by getting the crowd to chant “Nak Soo Khao,” which we’re told means “White Warrior.”
The supporting cast of characters help to make KICKBOXER so lovable. I get a kick out of Winston Taylor (Haskell V. Anderson III, BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH), who introduces himself as “Army, Special Forces, retired, sort of.” He’s a fellow American sitting in the front row for the Eliminator vs. Tiger fight and reluctantly helps after Kurt gets thrown onto him. They become close and by the end he’s firing weapons of war and saying one-liners to help the brothers.
And of course there’s Xian, a great use of the quirky (“weirder than a three-headed cat”) mentor archetype. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, an inspiration, or a previously existing trope I’m unaware of, but when Taylor drops Kurt off at Xian’s place miles from civilization and says “By the way, don’t you provoke him, okay?” it reminds me of KILL BILL and the not particularly comforting things Bill says to Beatrix when he drops her off with Pai Mei.
Xian seems to have a connection to animals. His dog Ki Ki helps with the training, and there’s a hawk (or eagle? I can’t ever tell the difference) he looks up to a few times that is later seen perched and watching Kurt train in Stone City. I assume that means it’s some sort of reincarnation or representation of the ancient warriors, since we also see a flash of the bird cawing in the middle of the big fight. (The bird made the poster, too.)
Of course Xian is a legend not only for the training methods that make for cool montages (dropping coconuts onto Kurt’s stomach) but for the time he gets Kurt drunk at a small bar, gets him to dance like a goof and then tells everybody in the bar he insulted their mothers. A slightly more subtle example of his unique approach is when he needs to get into a back room to stop some shenanigans during the fight and he steals keys from a guard. It cuts not to him unlocking the door as you might expect, but crashing the car that the keys apparently belong to through the wall. Good gag.
I think it’s interesting that Kurt is always identified as American. To explain his Belgian accent, there’s a backstory about their parents splitting up, Eric living in the States with their dad, Kurt “in Europe” with their mom. But the first time Xian meets Kurt he somehow knows to call him “an American,” as the villains also do in various scenes.
And there’s definitely some American blood pumping through the movie’s international heart. All of these western martial arts competition movies have roots in Asian cinema, or at least ENTER THE DRAGON, but this is one also takes undeniable influence from the ROCKY sequels in its montages set to inspirational rock anthems. The soundtrack includes three songs – “The Streets of Siam,” “Fight for Love” and “Never Surrender” – by Stan Bush, who’s rivaled only by Survivor for the title of montage rock G.O.A.T. If you’re not familiar with him, Bush also provided two for BLOODSPORT, but is best known for “Dare” and “The Touch” from TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (the latter of which received new life from Dirk Diggler singing it in BOOGIE NIGHTS). KICKBOXER also has songs by gospel singer Beau Williams and lesser known artists Michael Logan, Lucinda Ramseur and Jam Box.
I’m obviously a sucker for movies of this type. I’ll watch anything like this and I enjoy all different variations on them, from scrappy and idiosyncratic to crappy and ridiculous to legitimately awesome. KICKBOXER is one of the best because it has a great version of all the crucial elements: the villain, the mentor, the training, the setting, the fights. It has good melodrama, good quasi-philosophy, good training gimmicks and secret moves, good humor (some intentional and some – like the dancing – possibly not). It’s well made and in some ways timeless, but also unashamed to Bush out. And though Van Damme ( who got a “Fight scenes choreographed and directed by” credit) has become a much better actor over the years, his physique and the showcasing of his kicks represent a hungry new screen martial artist exploding into icon status.
So there it was. KICKBOXER, the last of the Last Summer of ’80s Action. The rest of the year gave us BLACK RAIN, NEXT OF KIN, BEST OF THE BEST (another franchise-launching fight competition movie!) and TANGO & CASH, and that was that – the nineties, in my opinion, began. I think most of the major action trends of that decade are hinted at in the movies we looked at in this series. KICKBOXER represents the arrival (and training) of Van Damme. He subsequently expanded from the fighting tournament format to a HARD TIMES style underground fighting circuit in LIONHEART. From there he continued to grow in ambition: the prison movie DEATH WARRANT, playing twins in DOUBLE IMPACT, doing sci-fi in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, etc.
Meanwhile – mostly in the realm of home video – a slew of would-be the-next-Van-Dammes made western martial arts b-movies more in line with KICKBOXER (or at least FIST FIGHTER, CAGE and THUNDERGROUND). These included Van-Damme-less sequels to KICKBOXER and BLOODSPORT, and even a few films by both credited directors of KICKBOXER. Mark DiSalle’s only other movie as director was THE PERFECT WEAPON (1991) starring Jeff Speakman. David Worth (POOR PRETTY EDDIE) did LADY DRAGON, LADY DRAGON 2, CHAIN OF COMMAND, AMERICAN TIGERS and TRUE VENGEANCE.
The studios built up Van Damme and Steven Seagal in more polished cop movies and DIE-HARD-on-a-____s like SUDDEN DEATH and UNDER SIEGE. The latter was directed by THE PACKAGE’s Andrew Davis, who later hit an expensive-meant-for-grown-ups-studio-action-thriller home run with THE FUGITIVE. That film’s star, last crusader Harrison Ford, would remain the era’s biggest action hero for people who turned their noses up to blackbelts and body builders.
Meanwhile, there were these stories about people with rubber muscles or leather outfits trying to right wrongs in fictional cities, exaggerated urban hellscapes, more matte painting than physical location. BATMAN was solely responsible for kicking off a slew of stylized super hero/comic book movies (see my article at Polygon about the genre).
The summer of 1990 was already quite different from ’89. It brought us only one Michael Kamen score, and zero movies about competitive fighting. The most ’80s-style action of that season were sequels to the previous decade’s hits: ANOTHER 48 HRS., DIE HARD 2, DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLOMBIAN CONNECTION and YOUNG GUNS II. FIRE BIRDS and NAVY SEALS followed in the slick, military-glorifying tracks of TOP GUN. Otherwise it was only action comedies (BIRD ON A WIRE, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, AIR AMERICA) or sci-fi action (TOTAL RECALL, ROBOCOP 2, DARKMAN).
And then there was DICK TRACY – a film Warren Beatty had wanted to do since the ’70s, originally with the writer of SUPERMAN. Throughout the years it was developed for Clint Eastwood, or with John Landis directing, or with Walter Hill directing and Joel Silver producing. Since the eventual version was conceived before the release of BATMAN, most of its similarities – aggressively stylized sets built on a soundstage, ’30s-inspired style, tie-in album by iconic one named pop star, hero dropping through skylight – might be coincidence, or something in the air. But surely other elements – score by Danny Elfman, simple iconic key art – had to have taken a cue from Burton’s film. At any rate, movies like this weren’t being made before Burton. You could shoot people with a tommy gun, but they wouldn’t let you do it in a bright yellow jacket in front of a bunch of freaks and a weird red and green painting of a city. From then on, the summers were different.
ICYMI (which is an abbreviation for “in case you missed it,” so you don’t have type out the entire “in case you missed it,” you just do the letters that stand for “in case you missed it,” which is ICYMI, in case you missed that), here are all the previous chapters of the 1989: THE LAST SUMMER OF ’80s ACTION series:
1. prologue and RED SCORPION
2. FIST FIGHTER
3. FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY
4. ROAD HOUSE
5. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
(you can also check out my old review of PINK CADILLAC)
6. NO HOLDS BARRED
9. THE KARATE KID PART III
10. LETHAL WEAPON 2
11. LICENCE TO KILL
12. LOCK UP
13. THE PACKAGE
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.