Kickboxer (Mark Disalle and David Worth, 1989)

At the beginning of my review of the odd Toby Russel/Robert Tai feature Death Cage, I listed off a bunch of movies that I remembered. Surprisingly enough, I failed to recall Kickboxer, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s follow up to his (I assume) biggest film, Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988). Come to think of it, I didn’t even think of Bloodsport, initially. The similarities between Kickboxer and Death Cage are pretty striking, actually. Both feature location shooting in Thailand by non-Thai crews and Thai characters played by non-Thai actors. Even the martial arts choreography featured in both are
less than representative of actual Thai kickboxing.

Kickboxer tells the story of Kurt Sloan (Van Damme), the brother and corner-man of cocky kickboxing champ Eric Sloan (Dennis Alexio, an actual heavyweight kickboxing champ), who learns Muay Thai from Xian Chow (Hong Kong actor Dennis Chan), in order to avenge a crushing defeat of his brother at the hands of Tong Po (Michel Qissi) which has left him a paraplegic. Of course, the Thai boxing promotion is corrupt, with crime bosses exercising control over local territory with threats and violence. They don’t really want to see Kurt Sloan beat their guy, so they resort to underhanded methods, like kidnapping Xian Chow’s niece Mylee (Rochelle Ashana) and raping her, and holding Eric hostage. How this makes more sense than just shooting Kurt and killing him makes little sense (he will later die offscreen by this method in one of the sequels).

Kickboxer is quite risible. Structurally, it resembles its Hong Kong peers, setting up its simple revenge premise early, devoting a large portion of its run-time to training sequences, complicating the circumstances surrounding the final brawl, albeit according to some very Hollywood action movie conventions (raped girlfriends and whatnot were not the go to plot point for the Hong Kong martial arts genre) and ends the whole thing cleanly with a victory for the protagonist.

That’s not what makes it laughable. The humor comes from different sources, mostly related to the writing. There is some incredibly leaden expository dialog from the brothers Sloan, explaining why one of them has a Belgian accent, which resembles a real conversation between actual people the way that Van Damme and Michel Qissi’s fight choreography resembles actual Muay Thai. The acting by non-actors Van Damme and Alexio is, to put it nicely, quite apt for the writing here.

There’s also a typical Hollywood Black Guy named Winston (Haskell Anderson), who introduces Sloan to Xian, and mostly jabbers about how he doesn’t want to get involved. Mylee is eye-candy and designated love interest, who also has the important job of getting raped to provide extra motivation for Slaon, but since she doesn’t tell him before the fight, and he only gets angrier upon finding out, even this seems like it was pretty damn unnecessary. Why let her go after the fact? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep her hostage if they wanted to mess with Sloan’s performance?

In spite of the fact that audiences and US film makers are far more sensitive about this sort of thing in the 2010’s than they ever were during the 1980’s, these character types are still relatively prevalent. We still get the typical Hollywood Black Guy and still have pretty designated inter-racial girlfriends. We even still have wizened Asian martial arts masters of indeterminate nationality and age. What we don’t usually have is the slope-browed antagonist played by an actor literally against genetic type. Michel Qissi’s character and performance would be accused of being horrifically racist caricature there days. And there would probably be more people describing Kickboxer that way if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing is so endlessly silly that to take it seriously...

Let’s just say you can’t.

I actually really enjoy these earlier Jean-Claude Van Damme films. The fight scenes are preposterous, as are the training sequences. But while the fight choreography and even the shooting and editing might compare poorly to the same from Hong Kong during the same period (keep in mind that Jackie Chan was making films like Police Story 2 and Miracles around this time), the training sequences are definitely fun to watch.

I think the most interesting thing, when comparing Kickboxer to Death Cage, is that Death Cage apparently saw release in advance of Kickboxer. In other words, it isn’t a rip-off, one presumes. And a lot of the similarities can be accounted for by the nature of the productions. Each feature a Thai setting and Muay Thai, but neither utilize the local stunt talent, which, given the talent of Panna Rittikrai's crew even at this point, probably prevented them from being sorely upstaged. Smart move there. And so that may be why each feature so much ersatz Chinese martial arts in the training sequences. But at least Death Cage tells the audience that Mark Long is teaching Robin Shou Chinese Boxing. Kickboxer just throws in some Tai Chi looking stuff and calls it a day.

All said, I liked Kickboxer well enough. It’s hilarious to watch now, so transparent and goofy, that even the cornucopia of politically incorrectness can’t possibly be considered offensive by (the following word is important to read) normal people. As said, the fight choreography, which was once the film’s raison d’etre, is part of its unintended humor. But that's the appeal. And although he's no Roy Chiao, Dennis Chan is a plays a pretty grand martial arts master. And we get plenty of the rest of that dated, goofy appeal that make Van Damme so watchable. Like him doing the splits and dancing. Dancing seems to be a common denominator in movies I enjoy these days. Good times.