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No Retreat, No Surrender

tn_noretreatnosurrenderNote: Nothing against this old review, but 14 years later I recorded a commentary track as a Patreon exclusive and that’s much better in my opinion

NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER is easily one of the best “bad” martial arts movies I know of. In the U.S. it’s only on VHS, and the import DVD cover shows a shirtless Jean-Claude Van Damme, like it’s KICKBOXER or BLOODSPORT. Actually, Van Damme only appears in the beginning and at the end as “Ivan the Russian,” the Ivan Drago of kickboxing, the villain who the hero has to beat. He doesn’t talk, but does a good robotic bad guy performance. He even wears a white suit, and if you wear a white suit you’re either a rapper, a Love Boat captain or a villain. In this case he’s mostly the latter.

The actual star of the movie is Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell, a dorky white guy but an actual martial artist at least. Something about his squareness kind of reminds me of Brandon Lee for some reason. His dad runs an L.A. karate school, but shuts it down and flees to Seattle after organized crime figures (with Van Damme as henchman) threaten him.

mp_noretreatnosurrenderJason immediately sets up a practice space in the new garage, visits Bruce Lee’s grave and checks out a Seattle karate school. (I think only the grave is actually filmed in Seattle. I didn’t recognize any other locations, but did spot some palm trees.) Unfortunately a lying fat kid (Kent Lipham, EXTREME PREJUDICE) claims that Jason said L.A. karate was better than Seattle karate, so the assistant sensei humiliates Jason in front of the class. Then Jason runs into the same assistant at a birthday party and gets beat up again, so he goes to Bruce Lee’s grave and cries for help. Next thing you know Bruce Lee’s ghost appears to him for one-on-one Jeet Kune Do training. The ghost looks nothing like Bruce Lee to me, but he’s played by Kim Tai Chong, who filled in for Bruce when they finished up GAME OF DEATH. He does a pretty good imitation of the “(slap) What was that!?” asshole teaching method seen in ENTER THE DRAGON. He also uses a can of Diet Coke as a symbol for knowledge when illustrating a concept to Jason. Diet Coke: the choice of Bruce Lee’s ghost.

The training/fighting over a girl/getting in trouble for fighting/standing up to bullies/winning the competition plot chugs along as usual (like KARATE KID before it or NEVER BACK DOWN after). But part of what makes it fun is the inept way it’s acted and put together. It’s so awkward and full of bad comedy that I guess if it was a dubbed ’70s Jackie Chan movie or something you would think that’s just how these movies are, but when it’s set in the U.S. it makes it more hilarious.

The fat kid is a good example. He’s this frowning asshole always beating up on people for no reason, spraying people with hoses, making up bullshit to get innocent people in trouble, making fun of Jason’s kung fu dummy saying he’s “playing with wooden dollies,” even though he’s a karate student himself and has probly seen one of those before. But then the movie seems to bully him back, always making fun of him by having him standing on the street eating an entire chocolate cake by himself, smearing it all over his face, or eating a stack of like ten hamburgers. And despite all this he has an entourage of fighters who he can send to beat somebody up, no questions asked. And the implication is that they do this just because he buys them all hamburgers, not because he’s a natural born leader or anything like that.

My favortie part of the movie is J.W. Fail as R.J. He’s a neighbor kid who meets Jason minutes after he arrives in Seattle and becomes his best friend. He doesn’t do martial arts, but he’s so loyal he goes to the karate school to help Jason sign up, and rides his bike next to him when he’s jogging. He has jheri curls, he breakdances, does basketball tricks, skateboards and dresses up as Michael Jackson. So you got your KARATE KID, your ROCKY IV, your BREAKIN’ – this is the ultimate ’80s ripoff movie. I only wish there was a lovable alien involved somewhere. Or at least Jason should have to dress up Bruce Lee’s ghost as a doll and hide him in the closet.

RJAnyway all that would be enough to make R.J. funny but it’s Fail’s performance I really love. I don’t know if I can describe what it is, but it’s a hilarious acting style. It’s not the same kind of stiff acting you get from some of these movies – it’s the opposite. He’s always got something on his face: confused face, watching anxiously face, most often puppy dog happy face (right). He just seems like such a happy and positive person. But he does get to be the guy who introduces the titular line and repeats it again to encourage Jason during the fight.

That’s another funny thing, actually. A huge deal is made about Jason trying and trying and eventually finally pulling off a move where his right leg is up, tied to a rope, and he jumps up and kicks a sandbag with his left. You expect that to relate to the winning move in the fight, but it never comes up. Instead the secret seems to be for R.J. to yell out the title of the movie. It powers him like spinach.

There’s something kind of sweet about the Jason/R.J. relationship. Racial difference is never an issue, never even mentioned, not even by any of the many bullies (unless that’s what Scott the fat kid means when he says “I have my reasons” for hating R.J.). And their different interests are not an issue, they just immediately like each other and accept and support each other unconditionally after 20 seconds of bonding over basketball tricks.

Of course, there’s also something kind of homoerotic about it. You will not believe the scene where R.J. eats an ice cream bar while sitting on Jason’s thrusting crotch. RJ-crotchThat’s kind of sweet too, that they didn’t worry about what that would look like. So naive. Hopefully neither of them went back to school ever again after that movie came out.

The Bruce Lee aspect is pretty questionable in my opinion. I mean, do you think Bruce Lee would really fight back from beyond the grave to help some kid because he got kicked at a party and it was embarrassing? I just think it’s a poor use of his ghost powers. I’ve been to his grave, but I’ve never asked for help. If I did I’d ask for help with something more constructive, like getting a statue of Bruce put up in Seattle somewhere. Or something general like “help me to be a better person” or if it was gonna be “train me to fight” I’d wait until I had a stronger motivation like somebody killed a relative and I had to get revenge or something like that. This is just an irresponsible waste of our precious local resources, in this case Bruce Lee’s ghost.

Unlike THE KARATE KID this one’s from an accomplished martial arts director – Corey Yuen, who went on to direct FONG SAI YUK, MY FATHER IS A HERO, also THE TRANSPORTER and D.O.A.: DEAD OR ALIVE. (He also choreographed pretty much every American Jet Li movie and appears in tons of movies from FIST OF FURY to OILY MANIAC to THE MAN FROM HONG KONG to HERO.) So the fights are legit, but not as good as most of those other ones I just listed, so the reason to watch it is for all the goofy shit. I cannot claim this is a good action movie, that would be ludicrous. But I highly recommend it. It’s just full of ridiculous touches, like the dad who looks only a few years older than the son, the mom who moves to Seattle with them and then is barely seen or mentioned again, or the part where Van Damme does the splits on the ropes in the ring and then folds his arms and smiles proudly. And why shouldn’t he? He’s in NO RETREAT SURRENDER.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 13th, 2009 at 11:48 pm 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.

39 Responses to “No Retreat, No Surrender”

  1. my cousin told me about this movie once on the subject of “so bad, they’re good” movies and his description of R.J. made me laugh my head off

  2. Vern, have you seen No Retreat, No Surrender 2? Great fight work, but it’s probably the only pro-Khmer-Rouge movie I’ve ever seen.

  3. my favorite aspect of the film is how there is a lot of sped up action, like the fights would have been so much longer if the filmmakers didn’t fast forward for us.

  4. What do you mean the move isn’t important? In the version I know, in the beginning Ivan breaks the father’s leg and destroys his martial arts career: he grabs the leg, then punches down on the knee. In the final fight, he grabs Jason’s leg, but Jason then does “the move” and instantly becomes unbeatable.

  5. This was a big “Sunday morning on Cinemax” favorite for me as a kid. I think this & GYMKATA would make a great double feature.

  6. “The Move” could arguably be about how to kick when one of your legs is caught – and Jason does this two different ways. The first time he kicks the hanging bag like a normal person, keeping his body upright, jumping with his free leg, snapping it up to kick, and landing on the same leg. The second time is when he’s fighting JCVD, and he does it by doing a back flip – the same move Bruce did to him earlier in the movie and also in “Enter The Dragon.”

    Strictly speaking, Jason does not do “The Move” against Van Damme – rather, he copies a sparring move that Bruce did. Maybe if the Russian trainer (is there one?) came over and grabbed one of Jason’s legs while JCVD was advancing on him, and Jason had to kick JCVD in the face to fight him off, he would have done “The Move” the same way the second time, and then we’d all be satisfied.

    The bottom line is that “Rad” handles this story-telling convention much better.

  7. Corey Yuen is the man. He pushed Jet Li to the limit in Kiss of The Dragon.

    And DOA: Dead Or Alive was the best modern use of Eric Roberts. Sorry Dark Knight, you can’t win them all.

  8. Hell yeah! Last month I celebrated “No Retreat, No Surrender, No Vember” by watching all five films in the series. Picked them up in a DVD box set for next to nothing. They are interesting because they were all produced by Seasonal Films with a largely Hong Kong crew, so it’s like the American martial arts movie viewed through a fractured lens. There’s a weird, heightened feel to them, like a Spaghetti Western.

  9. RAD is hands-down my favorite inspirational eighties movie ever. If you don’t get choked up when Cru says “What I wouldn’t give to go ass-sliding with you right now,” you have no love in your heart.

    This one is awesome, too, though. I just bought the last Region 4 copy on Amazon. Sorry, fellas. I just wanted it more.

  10. I think it’s funny that Jason Retreats and Surrenders four times during the course of the movie before he finally fights Ivan. He retreats from the fat kid and his gang at the burger stand, surrenders at the dojo, retreats from the birthday party fight, and retreats after his dad rips up his posters. This is probably my favorite movie Van Damme was in (I think it’s unfair to call it a “Van Damme movie” because he’s only in the first and last ten minutes) because it’s so damn nutty. It’s heart is definitely in the right place and that makes up for a lot of it’s shortcomings. I mean when’s the last time you saw genuine heartfelt emotion in a low rent Kung Fu movie?

  11. I think you’re forgetting the heart-wrenching scene in The Perfect Weapon where Jeff Speakman destroys an old couch with a pair of sticks. Do you have any idea how much he loved that couch?

  12. I visited Bruce Lee’s grave in Seattle back in the mid 90’s.

    Some motherfucker had stolen the headstone.

    Who the fuck does that?

  13. Vern, have you ever seen SUPERFIGHTS? It’s the movie that replaced NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER as my own personal favorite bad martial arts movie. The trailer’s on Youtube; once I saw it I was compelled to see the whole thing, and I think you’ll have the same reaction. I implore you to see it; I think it was made specifically so that one day you could write a great review of it.

  14. Quality it maybe but it sets up the completely unrelated, war based sequel perfectly. You expectations become so low that you are generally gob smacked by the direction they chose to go in

    1st film, bullied high school kid meets ghost of Bruce Lee
    2nd film, kid fights Russian army with Cynthia Rothrock in Cambodia
    3rd film, aliens ?, cyborgs ?, time travel ? (who knows)

    Couldn’t watch anymore NRNS after that (may have watched all of the third, but may have dreamed it when ill), but for some reason i seem to remember the second one fondly, although that could have been down to the tagline (from IMDB)

    ‘In this sequel, Scott Wylde, an American kickboxer, must go to Cambodia to rescue his Vietnamese girlfriend from Russian and Vietnamese troops’ (Spoiler)

    What not to love about that ?

    Too many drugs in the 80’s perhaps ??

  15. Where does one get the complete No Retreat, No Surrender DVD box set? What region?

  16. Mike — see, now THAT’S a good situation to use Bruce’s ghost. I want a full-fledged DRAG ME TO HELL with the tombstone theif getting his ass gradually more and more kicked over a few days until Bruce finally comes for his soul.

  17. This review hit just about all the right notes. I watched it months ago and wanted to review it, but Vern did it more succinctly than I ever could.

    Crustacean Hate- I know “King of the Kickboxers” is technically a “No Retreat No Surrender” movie so what would the other be because the only five martial arts film box set I know of is the “Kickboxer” Collection and you can’t possibly be confusing those. I need to know in case I haven’t seen it.

    Vern- Also, “Bloodmoon,” “The Ring of Fire” series and all of the “Bloodfist” films are pretty fantastic martial arts cheese although “Bloodfist” has the fewest good films of all franchises. I also heartily recommend “King of the Kickboxers” because the hero is kind of a prick with an obnoxious personality like a villains. Maybe seeing your brother die changes you, but most martial arts movie heroes seem to be more square and humble. Also, I believe the ultimate “Never Back Down” pre-cursor/ “Karate Kid” rip-off is “Showdown” with Billy Blanks as an ex-cop turned high school janitor who teaches a kid to defend himself from a bully. The sensei and other students also engage in illegal underground fights. It’s weird to see movies where the handsome hero(NRNS and Showdown) is constantly having his ass kicked because he likes the villain’s or an adversary’s girl or various other reasons. He’s not really socially inept or too scrawny and weak but he’s always getting embarassed. “Karate Kid” always made me think you had to be a puny little putz who gets one over in the end, but upon repeat viewings I started to realize you’re never too pretty to get kicked in the face.

    My point is, you should watch and review some of the above mentionedm martial arts movies.

    Also- I reviewed the “Bloodfist” saga if anyone wants to read it. I’ll post a link but don’t want to take shameless self promotion to the level of posting a link unless someone shows interest.

    Good talk everyone.

  18. Very strange progession of sequels, NRNS, NRNS: Port of Call Phnom Penh, NRNS: Season of the Witch

    Are you really standing on your own if Bruce Lee’s ghost is next to you? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etQteVlyUXY&feature=related

  19. Brandon: The fifth NRNS film is NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 5: KING OF THE KICKBOXERS 2: AMERICAN SHAOLIN (yep, that’s how it’s titled). It’s about an American teenager traveling to China and joining the Shaolin temple (like 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN or SHAOLIN TEMPLE) after he is pantsed by his arch rival, Trevor Gottitall(!), during a local Karate tournament. Seriously, that’s his motivation for becoming a Shaolin monk. Not that his family was murdered or his girlfriend has been kidnapped; that the bad guy exposed his tighty-whiteys in front of a crowd of spectators. Pretty hilarious. Also, I’d like to see your BLOODFIST reviews, you can never have too much Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

    Okay, the two KING OF THE KICKBOXERS films aren’t technically part of the series but I count them because
    a) They are produced by Seasonal Films and have most of the same crew
    b) They were distributed at part of the NRNS series in certain countries (including here in Aus)
    c) It’s not like the series had any continuing story anyway

    Lawrence: This is the box set I have (it’s region 4) http://www.ezydvd.com.au/item.zml/796120

  20. Crustacean Hate: (or anyone who is interested for that matter) my reviews for “Bloodfist” can be found on my facebook page just by clicking on the notes section: my name is Brandon Curtis, by the way if you want to just do the old search and click on facebook


    here at my blog: http://brandoncurtis.blogspot.com/2009/11/fists-of-blood-heart-of-dragon-reviews.html

    I like to write reviews, but don’t do it often enough. The “Bloodfist” reviews feel pretty heavily Vern influenced in terms of how they sound (to me at least) so I hope you have fun reading them. If you like them it would be cool if you became a follower but I don’t want to ask for too much.

  21. The lead actor Kurt McKinney actually became famous somewhat…as he’s on a day time soap opera. (Guiding Light according to IMDB) Also Van Damme of course. I think everyone else vanished without a trace. How does that happpen in the genre? In which an action star fights a soap opera star meet in a fight to the finish. Absurd.

  22. Man oh man. Vern, when I saw you had reviewed this I whooped like a little school girl. This has been a favorite of mine that has only gotten better through the years. Everything you said about this movie was spot-on perfect and you’re the only person I’ve ever seen point out the possible reason for Scott’s distaste for R.J. I’ve never seen the dvd version (heard they switched around some tunes on the “training” scenes and added some other stuff) as I still have the old recorded vhs tape from my youth.

    I also agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Majestyk about “Rad”. The BMX dance scene montage in that one is enough to make it a classic.

  23. My favorite moment from Rad is a subtle one. It’s in the scene in the Home Ec room when all the kids are printing up Rad Racing T-shirts (of which I am the proud owner of an exact replica). Out of nowhere, this character that we’ve never seen before and will never see again walks up to Aunt Becky, places a human skull on her desk, says “Thank you,” and leaves. What the fuck was that all about? Was this some kind of Hamlet reference? Was he reminding us that, for all of Cru’s gambols and jibes atop his bicycle, he, like poor Yorrick, will one day be naught but bones in a dusty grave? I don’t know, but that’s the great thing about stuntman-turned-guy who crashed on Burt Reynolds’ couch for a year-turned-Cannonball Run director Hal Needham: His work is open to multiple interpretations.

  24. Wolfgang: I’m glad someone else recognizes DOA’s dumb genius, but the twist involving Eric Roberts was my absolute least favorite part of it. Look, that movie was about girls in bikinis doing acrobatic bloodless martial arts in bikinis. That’s what it was, that’s what it did best. Why abandon it in the last third for a bizarre plot twist involving an evil stepfather and a bunch of nanotechnological bullcrap that doesn’t even pass a Hollywood-Science test? (Y’know, the kind of test that determines how big explosions are in space, or how many bullets need to hit a helicopter’s door before said helicopter blows up in an enormous midair fireball [hint from “Exit Wounds”: one will pretty much do the job just fine.])

    As for “No Retreat, No Surrender”, if it’s what I’m thinking of, I started watching this movie once and just couldn’t get through it. Look, I’m a fan of JCVD as much as anybody, but he’s gotta be used correctly. I remember watching it for about an hour before giving up. I can’t remember the “goofy shit” so it can’t have made that much of an impression on me. Honestly I can’t recommend it based on what I saw, but then I didn’t see enough of it to give an opinion with any substance. Look, I like a good bad movie as much as anybody, I just didn’t think this one had much to offer. Sorry to be a party-pooper. :(

  25. With a tear in my eye I have to tell you all I saw this in 1986 and sold it at school to buy trainers along with Kung Fu vs. Yoga of all films [that part of my life was over very quickly,piracy for profit is wrong and can get you into trouble with your parents,I was scared straight,this was a good thing].
    Even as a kid I could tell Van Damme was going to be a star from this film,I thought it wasn’t all that at the time but having Bruce Lee’s ghost in it gave it currency,I’d like to see this again [and I will just don’t tell my Dad about how I “obtain it”………………….I’m very surprised there isn’t a statue of Bruce Lee in Seattle,I’d go as far as to say that is a disgrace,that is one citizen that city can be proud of.This review was a nice surprise :>

  26. I just went back and rewatched it. Glad to report that it still hasn’t lost one ounce of power. The scene where R.J. stands up and shouts out the title to Jason gives me goosebumps.

  27. If you haven’t seen DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE yet, and if you think you can find room in your heart for a ridiculous movie about a bunch of female ninjas in bikinis, minidresses and high heels fighting old Eric Roberts in pajamas who’s super good at martial arts cause he downloaded some karate moves that he stole from the best fighters in the world into his AVATAR 3D glasses, you should definitely try to get the DVD.

  28. Loved this movie! Very good review you made, but I have to point out your hasty assessment of using Bruce Lee’s ghost powers to something better like if somebody killed a relative he could help you get revenge. I see your general point, but remember that the spirit firmly states in the movie that Jason is not to use his martial arts training for revenge. That scenario would therefore be against the spirit of Bruce Lee. Actually, helping a good-hearted kid who is being bullied by some jerks for no reason may be excactly what the ghost of Bruce Lee would care about – himself getting beaten up as a youngster, motivating him to learn how to fight in the first place.

    By the way – the sitting on top of upwards-thrusting crouch gave me the excact same associations as you – and led me, among other things to ponder the movie’s charming naivity.

  29. By the way – Corey Yuen is among my favourite directors. You should seriously check out his movie Ma Wing Jing (sometimes named “Hero”) from 1997 (only 284 user votes on IMDb presently). Great martial arts fighting (one scene has two men fighting over a clock on the backs of some galloping horses), great acting, some goofy comedy and a surprisingly complicated and interesting story with a great climax. It stars a very good performance from Takeshi Kaneshiro (from House of Flying Daggers fame).

  30. All the love for RAD in here has made me misty eyed. This movie, RAD and THE DIRT BIKE KID were probably my most favorite low budget 80’s cheesefests back in the day.

    NRNS has a lot of gold that Vern pointed out in his review but my favorite parts out of all are RJ’s awkward rap in the beginning where he struggles to rhyme something with “Bruce Lee” and the scene in the club where his obvious stuntman rocks the house.

  31. SEND ME AN ANGEL became one of my favorite songs of all time thanks to the BMX dance off in RAD. Powerful cinema.

  32. Jot – I vividly recall NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 3 being a revenge story starring Loren Avedon of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 but of course playing a completely different character from part 2 altogether.

  33. I never saw this one before and just watched it. And wow! I mean….wow. I love cheesy 80s movies but I was not prepared for this.

    I don’t think it’s fair to call this a Karate Kid rip-off because this one has some talented martial artists and they do get to show their stuff. There is a surprisingly good amount of action in this one. And the entertainment value of this one is off the charts. I mean, I love Karate Kid (I own the box set) but there is so much more to love in this one.

    I think my favourite part is the sound effects. I’m looking forward to rewatching it for this alone because I only really noticed halfway through. When the dad is getting beat up in the parking lot, one of the dudes punches him in the stomach a few times and the sound effects are like someone pounding on a wood door. After that, I kept listening for sound effects and they were always amazing. Like even before the tournament at the end, when guys were warming up and punching air, there would be sound effects.

    Anyway, this is probably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

  34. I forgot to mention – I remember seeing No Retreat No Surrender quite a few times on VHS as a kid. So I have not seen it since the 80s or 90s. Looking forward to revisiting it…from what I recall it could not have less to do with the first one???

  35. I dunno what the general feeling around Mystery Science Theater 3000 here is (I love it, grew up watching it as a sad nerd alone on the upstairs TV on Friday nights), but they had a live show here a couple days ago that I got to go to, and this wound up being the movie they showed (appropriate, since the show was in Seattle). I’d never seen it before, but it was a lot of fun. There was a *big* audience reaction when Bruce appeared, and I kept expecting JCVD to, like, have a line but he never did.

    And, I know I’m echoing decade-old comments here, but it bears repeating- for a movie titled NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, there was an *awful lot* of retreating and surrendering.

  36. The Kurgan, I’m a huge MST3K fan but missed the live show – that was probably a mistake since it’s supposed to be Joel’s last time wearing the jumpsuit AND this would be a great flick to watch in that setting.

    How packed was the show? Did they do some cool things with Tom and Crow in the circus theme?

  37. It was a totally packed house, I think they sold it out. I wound up having to be up in the nosebleeds (which, at The Moore, are fucking terrifying. Standing in them somehow induces the death urge and you feel yourself hurtling towards the stage), but even there was fine.

    As far as circus theme, not that I especially recall, but I have to say during the live segments I mostly found myself quite distracted by how odd it was to see Crow’s legs (there were edibles involved).

  38. Nice. I saw the MST3K show here in San Antonio a few days ago and during the show I was thinking that VERN must have a review up on this one. It was good fun and I can concur that seeing Crow’s legs was disturbing. He’s much taller in person.

  39. Seeing this made me more wistful for what could have been Van Damme’s career. Cause he performs well in that fight. And after that, never really again. Fights in Van Damme movies were SHIIIIT. No amount of nostalgia goggles will make the fights in Bloodsport worth a crap, it’s all slo mo shots of Van Damme throwing the exact same kick, then they do it again and again and again. And Cyborg overall is about the most boring, lame movie ever made but the climax COULD have been amazing…Vam Damme vs the Jacked Metal Dude in a rainstorm? That’s epic. But they never pulled off a halfway decent fight.

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