Looking back at the Kickboxer movies

Feature Matt Edwards 16 Jun 2014 - 06:12

Like kickboxing? Like Jean-Claude Van Damme? Then you'll probably like the first Kickboxer movie, but Matt's not sure about the rest...

Did you guys know there are five Kickboxer films?

Kickboxer is my favourite Jean-Claude Van Damme film. It may not be his best film, but it is my favourite. It’s a film I used to watch a lot as a kid and one that’s a great deal of fun to revisit.

Kickboxing champion Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio) is tired of thrashing the competition in the US. The best fighters, he’s told, are competing in Thailand. Eric packs up his championship belt, his gloves, his gentleman’s moustache and corner-man/brother Kurt (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and heads over to Bangkok in hope of a decent bout of fisticuffs. In his first Muay Thai bout, he gets savaged by maniac and spine-elbower Tong Po (Michael Qissi). Kurt swears to avenge his brother, embraces the Thai way of kickboxing, learns some lessons about love and life and then finds out that Tong Po is a dick who associates with ruthless gangsters. Then, fighting!

Essentially a Rocky IV knock off, Kickboxer (which itself was recently remade by Nicolas Refn Wend as Only God Forgives) is a charming, confused little film. Its main strength is its great fight scenes. The Muay Thai final bout, which comes after the iconic scene of Kurt and Tong Po having their hands wrapped and then dipping them in glue and broken glass, is brilliant. It’s wildly over the top with great impact sounds and intensity faces from the participants.

Towards the end of the fight, Van Damme appears to send his opponent sprawling simply by turning around with such tremendous ferociousness that gravity has a panic attack. Also of note in this final battle scene is the skimpy clothing worn by the two fighters. As Jean-Claude rolled around on the floor in just a loin cloth, his arse hanging out the back, I couldn’t help but think that this was completely normal and shut up, it’s totally fine.

A major section of the movie covers Kurt’s training. It starts out odd and gets weirder from there. After being laughed out of a children’s Muay Thai school, he hopes to train with an old master, who greets him with surprise. “But you are… American!” Jean Claude Van Damme? American? Are you sure?

Van Damme spends much of his time practicing super-high kicks. It’s impressive, although probably worth considering that Tong Po is shorter than him. Still, if it turns out that he has to fight Tong Po on some steps he’s laughing. There’s a wonderful scene where Van Damme imagines ancient warriors fighting in the past, although from a character standpoint this could be the result of repeated blows to the head. Another sequence sees JCVD learning Muay Thai in nature while a bird of prey looks on. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted in many films, action movie stars never actually seem to fight birds of prey. How wasteful. Then there’s the bar brawl ruckus, which sees a drunken Van Damme go on a splits-fighting rampage.

There are problems with Kickboxer, though. There’s the gangster storyline, which isn’t badly done, but doesn’t fit. Early in the movie Van Damme climbs into the back of a creepy van at the request of a sassy, friendly stranger (suggesting a film where Van Damme fights Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill to the death, which would be amazing). They become fast friends and at the end of the film JCVD’s pal shoots and explodes the mobsters, committing a tremendous amount of murder.

The shootout is great fun, as action movie shootouts tend to be, but feels like it fell out of another film. It’s only there because they’re clearly having trouble making Tong Po the villain, and maybe because they felt the film needed some shooty action, plot be damned. We also get a surprisingly restrained, but uncomfortably lazy rape storyline thrown in, too, to turn us against Tong Po.

This leads me to another problem, which is that the actual villain of the film is clearly Eric, Kurt’s brother. The inciting incident in Kickboxer is the bout in which Eric is horrifically injured. Eric was already badly hurt from their match when Tong Po delivers an unnecessary blow to his spine. Up until that point, Eric’s beating was entirely deserved. The act of making Tong Po a villain is tacked on to the end of the fight, in much the same way that the short scenes with the gangsters feel added as an afterthought.

Eric had agreed to take part in a Muay Thai bout, but arrogantly refused to find out the rules first. Then, he was warned repeatedly by his brother not to fight (the warning comes after the genuinely brilliant scene, with great use of silence, of Tong Po kicking a pillar in his dressing room). Again, arrogantly, he doesn’t listen. It could be argued that he represents the idea or stereotype of the travelling American (he does have a moustache AND a mullet, after all), ignorant of the culture he’s visiting and expecting it to be tailored to fit his expectations.

Unfortunately, any message they may have been hoping to communicate with this is undermined by the previously mentioned clumsy gangster plotline. The film starts out telling the story of a corrupt, glory-obsessed American fighter suffering the consequences of challenging a traditional martial artist. Then, in order to make the traditional martial artist a villain, they force in story elements to corrupt him, invalidating the opening conflict, but allowing a new good guy to represent traditional martial arts instead. It’s never addressed that the real opposite of Van Damme’s Kurt, the hero, is his own brother, or that his brother instigated the central conflict.

Still, maybe that’s reading too much into a film that features this scene.

Kickboxer, then, is a great film, full of brilliant fight scenes, but one with the potential, I think, to have been even better.

Kickboxer 2: The Road Back

“Ahhh, cool. They weren’t able to get Jean-Claude Van Damme back!” is not how I reacted to this sequel.

Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, written by modern superhero scripter David S. Goyer and directed by straight-to-video specialist Albert Pyun, is about a third Sloan brother, the never-mentioned-in-the-first-one David. David’s a lovely chap, struggling to maintain the gym set-up by his now dead brothers due to his generous approach to billing (like, being generous is the cause of his gym problems. His generosity didn’t get his brothers killed). He makes a brief pro-kickboxing comeback for money, then retires, declining the bad guy’s request for a rematch. His refusal is met with fire and bullets by a villainous promoter with a hidden, Tong Po revenge based agenda. David is shot, his gym is burned down and his most promising young fighter is poached. Luckily for him, his brother’s trainer from the first film has turned up in California to help him recover. Then David sets about fighting Tong Po’s face off.

The first half hour of Kickboxer 2 is alright. It’s a much lower budget film than the first one, and even at its best is nowhere near as good, but it’s not bad. I put that down to pleasantness, because the first half is full of David Sloan being kind to vulnerable people and helping them out by demonstrating awesome kicks. Sloan is played by Sasha Mitchell, who is the best thing about this film. Mitchell brings a genuine charm and a sincerity that sells good egg Sloan as both believable and someone we want to spend time with.

Around the point where the gym gets burned down the film craps itself. For a start, given the light, sweet tone up until that point, to kill a young homeless child with fire feels like a miserable way to raise the stakes. Over the course of the film another character is killed to give David motivation, but it’s already about him fighting the guy who killed his brothers. It's revenge and revenge and revenge and revenge. That's too many revenges. By piling on more and more motivation they’ve over-stacked it and bloated out the story. There’s no pace after this point, either. A 90 minute film passes over what feels like a good few hours.

The fight scenes are terrible. The kickboxing bouts in this film are conducted under movie rules; you can duck and you can move out of the way, but no blocking, and if you’re going to throw a knockout blow, do so in slow motion. The final bout is particularly poor; all close ups of the blows being throw and then slow motion impact shots. This fight plays out with less aggression and urgency than I flung the DVD out of my window with once it finished. It's a shame, too, because the film clearly contains some talented martial artists. I’d also like to question the bout where Tong Po (played by the returning Michael Qissi) fights David’s former student, because when one of the fighters throws the referee out of the ring and then bludgeons his opponent to death, I think that’s grounds for disqualification. At the very least the bout should be ruled a no contest.

Perhaps most notable for a training sequence which sees the hero punted off a roof and for wasting the time of the brilliant Peter Boyle by making him say and do nonsense, Kickboxer 2 is not recommended viewing. That said, I find it hard to be too critical of the film, because if I had £50 and access to a gym Kickboxer 2 is probably what I would do with it as well.

Kickboxer 3: The Art of War

Kickboxer 3 sees Sasha Mitchell return as David Sloan. Having plucked his revenge banjo until the strings broke in Kickboxer 2, Sloan changes things up a little in Kickboxer 3. Very much the Fast 5 of the Kickboxer franchise, this instalment sees the action moved to Brazil. Sloan is competing in an exhibition match, but soon finds himself helping a little orphan boy rescue his sister, who has been kidnapped by a smug looking American pimp who will either sell her or put her to work in his brothel. But will Sloan have to throw the big fight to get her back?

Kickboxer 3 is a better film than Kickboxer 2. It’s better paced. It has a tone better suited to its subject matter. It’s more fun, the story is simpler. It’s just better.

The best thing about Kickboxer 2 is the best thing about Kickboxer 3. That’s star Sasha Mitchell. His nice guy David is a grand action hero. He’s positive, sweet and pleasant. He’s a great kickboxer, too, with plenty of super jumping kicks and spinning doo-dahs. In this one he’s always dressed in the most brilliantly colourful 90’s clothing.

The fights in Kickboxer 3 are much better. There’s less an emphasis on slow motion impact shots and more an emphasis on brutally kneeing bastards until their ribcages are shattered. There’s still no blocking, but the actual kickboxing bouts have seen a massive improvement in the standard of refereeing, with a fighter actually docked a point in one bout. Now, to be fair, the final match does end up with the hero accidentally kicking the referee unconscious (I would have called this one Kickboxer 3: Accidents Happen), causing things get all ‘no holds barred’. It’s worth noting, though, that ‘no holds barred’ is pretty fun. Also, massive high five to Kickboxer 3 for embracing the power of leg kicks, which never get any movie credit in spite of how much they hurt (so, so much).

The villain in Kickboxer 3 is pretty good, too. He’s a creep with a punchable face who occasionally wears a bow tie. What a shit. That said, his plan stinks of Godzilla farts. He wants David Sloan to lose so he can make a fortune gambling on the fight. He has kidnapped a young girl that Sloan wants freed. He decides against making Sloan throw the match, for no reason, instead making him do manual labour the day before the fight, counting on tiring Sloan out. Probably just make him throw the fight next time, chap.

This has been pretty praisey, so before you all go running off to buy Kickboxer 3 DVDs, I should highlight that the film is still pretty rubbish. It’s cheap, it’s incredibly predictable, it’s not in any way tense and it features music that surely sounded dated even when it came out in 1992. It also features a shootout that is as bad as it is weird (it’s also where they were hiding all the slow motion impact shots). As David and his trainer storm a mansion looking for the kidnapped girl, they take out a few armed baddies. They then search the house for the rest of the henchmen, finding one hiding behind a sofa and another hiding in a wardrobe. I remain unconvinced that they didn’t just massacre a family after going to the wrong address.

So, Kickboxer 3, is unlikely to blow you away (although if it does it’ll do it in slow motion). It’s not bad, though. I think it’s about as much fun as you can realistically expect to have when you decide to watch the second straight-to-video sequel to Kickboxer.

Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor

Kickboxer 4 starts out with David Sloan, again played by Sasha Mitchell, having a vivid, montage-like flashback of some of the events that have led to him to where he currently is in life. Where’s that? He’s only in bloody prison. Framed by Tong Po, Sloan is offered release if he can infiltrate a fight tournament on Tong Po’s Mexican compound and bring down Po’s drug empire. Sloan’s only too keen to accept the offer as Po has been keeping Sloan’s wife prisoner for two years. But can Tong Po be beaten? Again, I mean. Obviously he was already beaten in Kickboxer 1 and 2. Can Tong Po be beaten for a third time by a guy who already beat him?

Again Sasha Mitchell is the best thing in the film. Returning Kickboxer 2 director Albert Pyun has clearly recognised this, which is why Mitchell is sidelined for much of the film, albeit in favour of some actually not that bad supporting characters. It’s a fun enough movie that moves at a good pace, when it works (which is, generously, about half the time). The fights aren’t bad at all, except for the final one, which I’ll come to in a bit. There’s a particularly awesome fight in a diner/bar, with Sloan walloping rednecks, busting furniture and flinging fartbags though windows.

Easily the strangest element of Kickboxer 4 is the returning Tong Po. Po is now a feared drug kingpin, which doesn’t make a great deal of sense as when we last saw him he was still just a revered fighter with anger management issues and a furious grimace. In this film, he’s just not the same guy. Also, he’s literally not the same guy. He’s recast as Kamel Krifa, who looks nothing like the original Tong Po (Michael Qissi), which raises the question of why they showed Qissi so much and so clearly in the flashback at the beginning of the film. Krifa uses an accent for Po that is reminiscent of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s in Kickboxer, which is more confusing than some of the feelings I experienced watching Van Damme in a loin cloth in Kickboxer 1. I will say this for the new Tong Po, though; he sends Sloan a letter early in the film and he has lovely handwriting.

The fights leading up to the final fight are okay. The climax starts out as a death fight tournament before the concept of continuity gets bored, at which point it goes all winner stays on and then full-on royal rumble. The final fight takes place at an outdoor set up that Tong Po has in place that makes it look like his kingpin headquarters might be doubling as a wedding venue. As Po and Sloan tumbled across the tables, smashing glasses and Muay Thai-ing each other in the face, I couldn’t help but think of my own wedding. When Tong Po is soundly beaten, he legitimately scampers away into the bushes like a humiliated badger. In the meantime, twenty dudes with machine guns get beaten up by five unarmed people because they apparently forgot how to shoot and decided to use their guns as clubs.

We’ve covered action movie fighting so it’s only right that we move on to sexual confusion. Holy shit, Kickboxer 4 is horny and it has no idea who or what turned it on. The main sex scene in this film is kind of sleazy, a threesome that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. It feels a little gross and cynical. Or at least, it feels gross and cynical until they start cutting between it and a ninja on a murderous stealth mission. For me, this actually oversold the eroticism. We get it, Kickboxer 4; large breasts and ninja slaughter are the sexiest things in existence.

Kickboxer 4 is a really disappointing film, though, due to its incredibly wonky tone and its lack of self-awareness. It never aims to be as light as the considerably better Kickboxer 3, but it works best when it’s being fun. The problem is that it also attempts to be brutal and gritty at times, with a skeezy rape scene and some grimy torture scenes. Even if these scenes weren’t total balls, and they are, they’re still not going to sit right in a film that features a battered Tong Po badger scampering.

So, Kickboxer 4. Think the Mortal Kombat movie, but worse. No, you’ve just started thinking about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Ok, think Mortal Kombat: Annihilation but just as bad and different. I would suggest that the success of Kickboxer 4 as a film is not dissimilar to the success of the characters’ mission in the film. While they do manage to rescue David’s wife and just about not die, the headlines will ultimately read ‘Botched Drug Mission; Kingpin Escapes, Hundreds Dead’.

Kickboxer 5: Redemption

You know what? You watch Kickboxer 5 if you’re so desperate to find out about it. Why is it always me that has to watch the Kickboxer sequels? What did I ever do?

Sorry, that was unprofessional. It’s just very frustrating, to take such a long journey only to reach your destination and find yourself standing in dogshit.

The fifth Kickboxer film is about South African crime lord Negaal attempting to set up a definitive worldwide kickboxing organisation, which would be fine if he weren’t being so murdery about it. Former franchise lead David Sloan appears as a silhouette (almost as if actor Sasha Mitchell had declined to appear) only to be kicked to death by villains in the opening credits. It’s left to fellow fighter Matt Reeves and an assassin sent to kill him to head to South Africa and defeat Negaal and, perhaps, form a heart-warming friendship.

I’ll say this for Kickboxer 5: it’s rare to find a film this stupid that’s also incredibly boring. In that sense, and that sense alone, it’s something of an achievement.

New lead Mark Dascascos is fine, although he lacks Sasha Mitchell’s charm and Van Damme’s all-round perfectness. He excels at super-duper jumping kicks, but struggles to make an impression with the films script, which is fair given that it is kind of a bastard of a script. At one of point the main villain describes the plot of Kickboxer 5 as ‘absurd’. At another point he remarks that the two good guys are “running round the country like they own it!” I’ll accept that I don’t know much about owning a country, or running, but when he says this the good guys are being chased through the wilderness by furious dogs, so I’m not convinced he’s correct. The reason I mention these things is that they’re typical of the nonsense that will not stop happening for the entire 90 minute runtime.

Kickboxer 5 is a Kickboxer film with next to no kickboxing in it. Well played, whoever spent an afternoon huffing paint fumes and making that decision. The action scenes are not well photographed or choreographed. One action sequence, a chase through an airport, is the answer to the question “What would Die Hard 2 be like if I hated it?” Another, a chase through the streets, is the answer to the question “What would Ong Bak be like if I hated it?” The only action movie high fives I can give it are for Mark Dascascos’ jump-kick parade and a man-on-fire stunt. Oh, and from a trivia point of view, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game director Gavin Hood has a small role as a ponytailed German kickboxing champion.

Kickboxer 5 is certainly no Kickboxer 3. It’s so far removed from the first film that I honestly think they’d have been better off leaving it 20 years and just remaking the original.

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