"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Last Kumite

THE LAST KUMITE is a movie designed for a very specific demographic some of you may be familiar with. It’s a throwback to ‘90s tournament fighting movies, its cast is heavily populated with venerated icons of the genre, and they even managed to get a score by Paul Hertzog (BLOODSPORT, KICKBOXER), his first since 1991’s BREATHING FIRE. Best of all it features two new songs by the king of montage rock, Stan Bush (if you’re not familiar he did multiple songs on KICKBOXER and BLOODSPORT and “The Touch” from TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE).

Knowing all that, and that it was partly funded with Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, you could reasonably expect it to be directed by some young fanboy, but in fact it’s from someone who’s been in the trenches of legit DTV martial arts movies since the ‘90s. Ross W. Clarkson got his start doing cinematography for Ringo Lam (he’s worked with him on five movies) and he did Dolph Lundgren’s THE MECHANIK, Isaac Florentine’s UNDISPUTED II and III and NINJA I and II, and Michael Jai White’s NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER. So he knows what he’s doing.

Michael Rivers (Mathis Landwehr, stunt player in V FOR VENDETTA and SPEED RACER) is a widower, single father of Bree (Kira Kortenbach), owner of a small dojo, and new champion of a sanctioned martial arts competition. A bigshot named Ron Hall (Matthias Hues, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER 2, FIST FIGHTER, CAGE, I COME IN PEACE, KICKBOXER 2, BLACKBELT, MISSION OF JUSTICE, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2, BLACK ROSE, SHOWDOWN IN MANILA) approaches him at the after party, buys him a drink and tries to recruit him for what he straight up calls a kumite. Michael politely declines, doesn’t take his fancy black business card, and by the time he gets home they’ve already kidnapped his daughter.

So he finds himself in Bulgaria (I think they just call it “Eastern Europe”) along with a bunch of other fighters, some representing different styles, even a masked luchador. Many of them have also been forced into it to save their loved ones, others are just assholes. As in many underground tournament movies it’s a little muddy about how much it’s a fight to the death – you don’t have to kill your opponent to advance, but it’s encouraged, for the entertainment of the rich pricks and gamblers watching. (By the way I was able to guess by the goatees that some of the bloodthirsty spectators were Kickstarter investors. That’s a pretty cool cameo opportunity.)

There’s some time to train before the competition begins. Michael befriends a couple of the other fighters, Damon Spears (Kurt McKinney, star of NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER!) and Lea Martin (Monia Moula, stunt double for Ana de Armas in NO TIME TO DIE), forced out of retirement to save their wife and sister, respectively. Damon immediately finds a way to get into town and go to the police, but the cop he talks to (Abdel Qissi, Attila from LIONHEART) is either on the payroll or too scared to do anything, so that’s off the table.

Hall is very proud of his current champion, Dracko (Mike Derudder), a cocky overmuscled younger dude who struts around and smirks at everybody. He’s known for crippling or killing his opponents, and the conventional wisdom is that he’s unbeatable, but a servant at the mansion who has reason to be disgruntled tips off Michael that there’s a guy called Master Loren who knows how to defeat him.

Michael assumes the guy humbly sweeping the floor is a janitor, but we know that’s gotta be Master Loren because he’s played by Billy Blanks (BLOODFIST, CHINA O’BRIEN II, THE LAST BOYSCOUT, TALONS OF THE EAGLE, TC 2000, BACK IN ACTION). I can’t help but love that our hero trains outside by some ruins as motherfuckin Billy Blanks gives him inspiration. And after he’s done that for a while Loren tells him it’s time to meet Dracko’s sensei, and he leads him over to a place where none other than Cynthia Rothrock (YES, MADAM!, RIGHTING WRONGS, CHINA O’BRIEN I and II, MARTIAL LAW I and II, FAST GETAWAY I and II, LADY DRAGON 1 and 2, TIGER CLAWS I, II, and III, UNDEFEATABLE, GUARDIAN ANGEL, MERCENARIES, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID) is waiting in a dramatic pose. We hear that she found Dracko in a pit of dead bodies when he was a kid and trained him but he turned even more evil or whatever. Now he must be stopped.

Landwehr is German, so we have a new addition to the Van Damme/Bernhardt/Gruner accent lineage. He’s been working as a stuntman since the early 2000s, now trying to graduate to action star with this, the upcoming LION FIST and another one they’re trying to make called BERLIN NINJA. He’s in his 40s, but that’s young enough for a generational theme with these icons of ‘90s western martial arts movies passing their knowledge on to him. Meanwhile, Dracko has two great villains of the genre in his corner – in addition to Hues as the mastermind we have his henchman Wolf, played by Tong Po himself, Michel Qissi (BREAKIN’, BLOODSPORT, KICKBOXER, LIONHEART, KICKBOXER 2). Both of these guys are scary old men giving each other sinister looks and nods, and Hues walks around with a cane that he sure seems to be holding more like a weapon than an assistive device, and is always adorned with two or more younger-than-him women.

The recipe calls for some fighters who aren’t as friendly so you don’t feel bad about them losing. The scariest looking one is Yulong, played by David “Bolo Jr.” Yeung. The son of the original BLOODSPORT villain is new to movies, but doesn’t look like it (and he’s also filmed a co-starring role in the upcoming THE CIRCUIT 4, directed by Jalal Merhi).

This guy David Kurzhal looked so familiar, I couldn’t figure out where I knew him from and when I looked him up I realized he’s an action/martial arts Youtuber known as “Viking Samurai” who I knew about because he once praised Seagalogy in one of his videos. He’s really into Seagal and has interviewed a bunch of people to debunk the famous Gene-Labell-made-him-shit-his-pants legend, which I find interesting, though he also seems to have a video calling him “a great man” so I don’t think I agree with him on everything. But whatever Kurzhal’s merits as an online commentator I think he’s legit in this, with a strong screen presence and a good fight scene. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed he was a Youtuber.

The action is well shot and performed, and not entirely a throwback, but updated to styles that have evolved since movies like this started. The fight choreographer and stunt coordinator is the same guy who plays Michael’s most challenging training partner, Lightning (Mike Möller, PLAN B, ULTIMATE JUSTICE, THE EXPENDABLES 4). Though I think it’s a little light on the inventing-weird-training-gimmicks side of the montage discipline, it’s high on showing all kinds of practice fights, spinning kicks and cool looking katas in front of sunsets. And yes, he gets to train to a new Stan Bush song.

The original songs are called “No Surrender” and “Running the Gauntlet,” and they’re almost too good to be true. The first words of “No Surrender” are “Getting ready for the fight of your life / The lion roars, the cobra strikes / Law of the jungle.” He goes on to mention steel, ice, fire, warriors, hero, honor and glory, lightning, and a dozen or more inspirational cliche phrases (no turning back, it’s all on the line, now or never, live or die, etc.). Also there’s a guitar solo. It’s beautiful.

If any uninitiated eyes somehow fall upon THE LAST KUMITE I wouldn’t expect them to be converted. And for the fans who would seek it out there are a few weaknesses I could point to – I originally mentioned the length, but it has pointed out to me that the runtime I originally mentioned (from Wikipedia) must be incorrect, so I apologize for the confusion. Possibly only an hour 45, which I guess explains why, as I originally wrote, “It worked for me at that length.”

So the more relevant complaint is that it never really goes beyond the warm nostalgia of the obvious. Written by Clarkson and Sean David Lowe, the story is intentionally made of familiar tropes and cliches of the genre. That’s what makes it so appealing, but I would note that the best of these throw in more eccentric character details or unexpected tangents than this, and that’s what gives them their personality. I admire the classicism here, but wish there was some unpredictable factor.

Also, man did I miss film grain during the footage of the city at the beginning. But the digital looks way better in Bulgaria and it’s got good production value to it.

What more than makes up for any of those issues is the movie’s unwavering sincerity. There’s not a single moment that seems ironic or winky or an in-joke. Even what you might call “fan service” doesn’t play like “Do you see this? Do you see what we’re doing?” but more like of course they’re doing that, that’s what movies are supposed to be. And yeah, it kind of is, isn’t it? I’m sold.

So we’ve got a pretty appealing (if generic) hero, two great senseis, a trio of strong villains. Hall and Wolf take care of the decadent evil while Dracko is more like a wrestling heel, yelling and taunting. I think his best feature as a villain is that he just looks like a guy you immediately want to hate, it would qualify as a punchable face except you know he would fuckin clobber you if you did. There’s lots of good martial arts on display and though it’s mostly left to the younger generation, Clarkson and Lowe were very thoughtful about treating the elder icons as real members of the cast, not just cameos, and giving them all a chance to be put over. I was particularly surprised and impressed by McKinney’s role as a former hot shot who knows his limitations but won’t give up. As you know NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER is one of my favorite movies (you can get my commentary track for it on Patreon if you’re interested) but I’ve really only seen him as that young goofball. It’s really cool to see the actor and adult he’s grown into since.

Martin is also really cool – that’s an easy trick to improve your movie, cast veteran stuntwomen as badass supporting characters. That’s a free tip, go ahead and use it.

So with the above caveats in mind I am happy to recommend THE LAST KUMITE to the sort of person who would be interested in watching THE LAST KUMITE. You know who you are. A champion who rises from the ashes of the phoenix, eyes of steel, fists of power, thunder of courage or whatever.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 18th, 2024 at 7:29 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Martial Arts. 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.

17 Responses to “The Last Kumite”

  1. I almost picked this up the other day but decided against it. The reviews were not encouraging. In my old age, I’ve found that generic action is not as much of a draw as it used to be. You can’t just serve up all the same old ingredients. You gotta mix ’em up in an interesting way. And you especially can’t just run through the motions of the shit they used to do 30 years ago, but at six times the budget, with real actors, and on actual film. I’ve gotten to the point where the second I see that cheap digital look, my brain shuts off. “That’s not a movie,” it tells me. “That’s a Reel.”

    But then I clicked on that song and now I’m thinking maybe I fucked up. I might have to circle back.

  2. I liked this. The sheer sincerity and love on display just bleeds through, papering over it’s more obvious flaws. It’s THE EXPENDABLES for fans of pure 80s chop socky and for a crowd-funded affair, it’s really cool they got some of the Stalwarts of the genre like Blanks, McKinney, Qissi, Hues and Rothrock, just barely missing Don The Dragon Wilson, Loren Avedon or Olivier Gruner.

    Been watching Viking Samurai for awhile now so it was pretty cool to see him in quite a substantial role. Another YouTuber who got to shine here is Oliver Harper, who edited the movie, he has some great in-depth breakdowns of genre movies on his channel.

  3. I was going to just comment, “See, Expendables. It’s not that hard.” But Kay Kay kind of beat me to it.

    As someone who knows very little of the technical side of filmmaking, I do wonder why there’s such a wide gap in quality between films using digital cameras. Some films shot digitally look just as good as film. The Holdovers was supposedly shot digitally, but they spent so much time trying to recreate the 70s look of 35mm, it’s hard to tell. And of course Fincher has been using digital for a long time, and his films look immaculate.

    But then there are so many movies, some with decent budgets, that look kind of crappy. A lot of mid-tier Netflix movies are like this. They’re not unwatchable by any stretch of the imagination, just too clean and without much contrast. They’re also often overlit, even though I believe that digital is better at picking up images in low light.

    Is the issue that the cameras they use are just cheaper or do they not properly lit the set? What’s going on here?

    (Like I said, it’s not even a dealbreaker. The images from the Stan Bush video look perfectly fine, but, of course, they would look nice if they were on film).

  4. One thing that I’ve learned from working with early digital pro-sumer cameras around 20 years ago, is that lighting is fucking important! Even your average porno camera (Sony XL-2) can catch some great pictures, but you really need to know every setting and can’t half-ass your lighting. And I don’t wanna sound like one of those grumpy ass “get off my lawn” people, but I do feel sometimes like Instagram and YouTube have done a lot to ruin the visual side of things. Not that today’s cinematographers don’t know how to handle their cameras because they only know webcams and smartphones, but that I feel that they’ve been told to cater to the people who spend all day on social media. Especially the low contrast thing reminds me often of random internet videos.

  5. One thing I’ve noticed is that cheap digital cameras can look totally fine at night or in interiors, but take them out into broad daylight and your movie instantly turns into a wedding video. You can even see it in the selected stills in this review. Most of them look just fine, like a real movie even, but the one daylight exterior looks like absolute dogshit. I’m not a tech guy so I don’t know what the cause is but it’s been a problem since the dawn of the format.

  6. That’s because technically digital cameras are better. Simply said: they catch more light. As Michael Mann once pointed out: There are shots in COLLATERAL that were done without any extra lights. Only the normal street lights that were already there and you could see buildings in the background that were miles away. You couldn’t do that with a normal film camera.

    BUT of course you really need to know what you are doing in broad daylight with them. And the strength and weaknesses of the camera you are using. In a way, digital cameras made things much easier and more complicated at the same time.

    (Disclaimer: Please don’t ask me about any technical details. I am a learned audio-visual media designer, but outside of working at a small advertising agency for three years and a few quick TV gigs, I was never able to put it to use and most of my knowledge about these cameras is most likely outdated.)

  7. I think the problem with digital camera is that they’re too easy. Shooting on film is a fucking bitch. To get it to look “normal” you have to light things in a way that looks extremely artificial and counterintuitive while you’re actually looking at it on set. You have to pick your shot carefully, fiddle with the lighting until it hits the actors right, and block them so that the light doesn’t go wrong and they don’t walk out of focus. With digital, you don’t have to do any of that: point and shoot is always an option, and it breeds… I don’t want to say “laziness” because, you know, it’s hard to make a movie… but certainly it doesn’t force you to think and plan about the image in the same way.

  8. Subtlety, what you’re saying about what a bitch using film was makes me think of how way back in the 90s, I think, I read a blurb on Meg Ryan in People’s Most Beautiful People where someone said it was hard for them to use a stand in for her to set up the lighting because she was so luminous they would have to redo it when she came in to take her place. I wonder if they still use stand ins for stuff like setting up scenes when they use digital.

  9. It used to be that just getting a usable image was the hard part about making a movie. Now that’s the easy part. You’d think that would leave more time to fine-tune the lighting, the composition, etc. Instead, it’s often just an excuse to cut shooting schedules. So you get these images that look great on a superficial level but don’t have the depth of a shot that took more time and effort to plan out.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on a classic film journey. And one thing I’ve learned from that is that I like seeing things play out on-camera. In old movies, moving the camera to a new set-up took time, so they tried to tell the story in as few cuts as possible. Now, it’s easy to move to a new set-up, so they get as many as they can. This gives them options in the edit, but I think it hurts the performances and the reality of the movie. You don’t get to see anything play out. Everything is done in montage. It often makes new movies feel like long trailers.

    When something is too easy, you don’t have to make choices. And choices are what make art.

  10. I think there’s a not insignificant part of the distaste for digital film is that we’re currently in the era of digital film. Old films shot on video instead of film used to get the hatered for looking cheap and shitty and now that we’re past that being the current cheap and shitty thing its not seen as so bad when the new cheap shitty thing is digital so everyone hates it and when the next cheap shitty thing comes out people are going to be trying to make their new holographic mind images look like digital film instead.

  11. Is the running time really 135 minutes? I checked on Youtube, and the stated runtime is 1:45:10, which sounds accurate for a movie like this. The MPI Media page for the Blu-Ray also gives a runtime of 105 minutes. Did they release an extended cut for backers or something?

  12. I think you’re right, Falconman – I got that from Wikipedia, but I don’t remember if I checked on the actual blu-ray (which I don’t have anymore) and now that you point it out that seems unlikely, so I changed that paragraph. Sorry for the confusion.

  13. As someone who knows very little of the technical side of filmmaking, I do wonder why there’s such a wide gap in quality between films using digital cameras. Some films shot digitally look just as good as film. The Holdovers was supposedly shot digitally, but they spent so much time trying to recreate the 70s look of 35mm, it’s hard to tell. And of course Fincher has been using digital for a long time, and his films look immaculate.

    I think it was the Drive/Valhalla Rising guy who said “the colorist is the new gaffer”

    Unfortunately, good colorists know their worth nowadays, and charge accordingly (exacerbated by many of them having a top secret process called ‘screw around with it until it looks right’). So their services can balloon budgets, and are employed at a point where many low-budget affairs have already emptied the coffers on the actual shoot

  14. I did circle back for this. Came home and popped it right in. And…ugh. I’m sorry to say it was a real chore.

    Maybe I’m asking too much of a micro-budget throwback martial arts movie whose only goal is to stand in the shadow of, like, BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE, but this script was terrible. It introduces its premise in the first ten minutes and then proceeds to simply wallow in it for the next hour. No new developments occur. No new challenges are placed in our heroes’ path. They just hang around and have training montages, and a series of guest stars say generic things that could apply to any situation, and then the tournament happens, and even then we keep having breaks where we go back and talk about the premise some more. The version I saw is not 135 minutes, just an 105, but man, did it ever feel like 135.

    At no point is there a line worth saying, and nobody who could say it if there was. Everybody’s got a thick accent and can’t act, except for a few of the old vets, who get by on screen presence, as they always have. Every line is the same line you’ve heard a million times before, but with no twist, no flavor, no nothing. Just said slower, with the emphasis on the wrong syllables.

    All these things can be overcome. I mean, I just watched BLOODSPORT the other day and hardly anybody in that movie can string more than three words together. But they had a few ringers who were there because they could act, not because they could do a roundhouse kick. You need a couple of those people to tie a movie together. I love Cynthia Rothrock, but Cynthia Rothrock can’t be the best actor in your movie. That’s just not gonna work.

    For bog-standard bullshit like this to fly, it’s gotta be an exercise in style. It’s never gonna win you over with its drama, so it’s gotta look great and move fast. BLOODSPORT is dumber than a bag of hair, but the footage is phenomenal and it’s edited like a motherfucker. It doesn’t need a good or even functional story because its filmmaking is so dynamic.

    This one looks like shit and just wanders in circles. The digital photography is never not hideous to look upon, and the editing is lethargic, constantly throwing away any meager propulsion its competent but unexceptional fight choreography might generate. Those awesome Stan Bush songs and the overachieving score do their best, but they can’t generate any interest in this dull eyesore of a movie.

    There’s a couple of good bits in the fights. I like how everybody must be holding a pint of blood in their mouths before they get hit. It’s eerie how much of his dad’s presence Bolo Jr. has. He should have been in it more. I can’t decide if I like that the main evil fighter looked and sounded like Stifler if he drank the ooze from TMNT 2.

    This was clearly a labor of love that took a lot of hard work and dedication to pull off. I hate to see all that ruined before they shot a single frame of footage because they went into production with a lousy script. Writing is the cheapest part of moviemaking and yet it always seems to be the first thing that gets skimped on.

  15. CJ, capturing more light does not make a camera better, really. The most important things are color space and dynamic range. That’s why these cheap ones look so bad, they don’t have the color to capture all the colors of the face, the light falloff is harsh, the sharpness is too harsh and you have no latitude in capturing gradients of light. I have a few digital cameras which are great, but to get really good footage from them, they need to be legitimately lit. I CAN get an image without lights, but if I were shooting outdoors at night withough them, the footage would end up having ugly artifacts.

    I actually have a few older cheaper cameras too and if I shoot, say, a stage play or any number of indoor events I sometimes use them just to grab extra angles. They cut together pretty well. Use them outside? The average person maybe can’t tell the difference but it’s pretty big…the color is extremely weak, highlights get blown out.

    As for this movie…ugh this kind of thing was pretty boring the first time around, but this seems like just more grist for the memberberry wheel that’s so popular these days.

  16. I may have missed it if this came up somewhere but have you ever seen or reviewed the BEST OF THE BEST movies? If there are any sequels past the second, I’ve never seen them but I remember absolutely LOVING those first two movies as a kid.

    “Drop him like a toilet seat, Tommy!”

  17. Yes, I’ve reviewed all of the BEST OF THE BESTs. As I always say, “BEST OF THE BEST 2 is the best of the BEST OF THE BESTs,” and parts 3 and 4 are much smaller in scale because they’re DTV. But I enjoy them all because they’re each a different action subgenre. It’s a really unique series.

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