Keith Strandberg interview: No Retreat No Surrender
For fans of 80s action cinema, No Retreat No Surrender holds a special place. We've been speaking to the man behind the series...
If you were a kid in the 1980s and you liked action movies, chances are you rented No Retreat No Surrender at some point. It was like a more violent, high-octane take on The Karate Kid, with all-American teen Jason (Kurt McKinney) getting martial arts tutelage from no less than THE GHOST OF BRUCE LEE so he could kick the ass of a muscly Russian (Jean-Claude Van Damme in his first major role). As a kid, this movie was everything to me. It was a 15 cert so a little bit edgy, but still simple and wholesome enough for young me to totally ‘get it’. I had tears streaming down my face the first time I watched it, I was so invested in the final fight. Jason Stillwell was my hero. For a while there, whenever I was allowed back to the video library to choose a film, I just kept choosing No Retreat over and over again.
The film was a massive hit on video and, as a result, generated a stream of sequels over the next few years. Although none were directly related in story, a total of five great films were (in varying countries across the world) given the No Retreat No Surrender branding (or the ‘Karate Tiger’ one if you were in certain parts of Europe): Raging Thunder (1987), Blood Brothers (1990), King Of The Kickboxers (1990) and American Shaolin (1991). The series offered everything from ultraviolent ramboid bloodbaths to lightweight action-comedy. One thing they had in common beyond the title, however, was that they were all written by one man: Keith William Strandberg.
To celebrate the release of the first No Retreat No Surrender on Blu-Ray (in the US, available from Kino Lorber), I sat down with the man himself to talk through the whole franchise.
Let’s start at the beginning with No Retreat No Surrender. It was the first film you ever wrote, right?
Okay, let’s start right from the beginning. My major in college was Chinese languages and one of the first jobs I took out of school was teaching English in Taiwan. I’ve always been a super-fan of martial arts movies; Bruce Lee, Five Fingers Of Death, they all got me into the martial arts, so I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to do something in the movies. When I got back from Taiwan, I started writing for Martial Arts Magazine and I got a bit of a name, people knew who I was, and that’s when I thought it might be a good chance to make a martial arts movie. And I wanted to write a good martial arts movie.
So I got a job taking Americans to China as a tour guide. This is back in the early 1980s. You couldn’t travel to China as an individual back then, you had to go as part of a tour group, and we would typically go into China for 14 days, layover in Hong Kong for 3 or 4 days and then go back to China the next week. And in one of those layovers I decided I would contact a bunch of Hong Kong film companies and see if they were interested in a movie that would have an American story but incorporate the Hong Kong style of fighting. I called Golden Harvest, the Shaw Brothers, I called everybody really and no one would talk to me. I didn’t get past the receptionist in most places.
But I’d done a load of research on Seasonal Films and I knew that Ng See-Yuen [head of Seasonal] spoke Mandarin, because he was from Shanghai. So somehow I got Ng on the phone. He was hanging up on me and I switched from English into Chinese and he was, like, “Oh!” and then asked me to come on over. I went to the Seasonal Film offices and we spent a great day together talking about movies, watching movies, and we just really hit it off.
He liked the idea of doing an American movie with Hong Kong fighting because it had never been done. All those sort of western movies never had anything that was even close to the level of precision and detail that was coming out of Hong Kong so he said “Hey, if I decide to do this then you’re my guy.”
I went back to the US and didn’t hear a thing for about a year. I was teaching in a fitness centre when I got the call and he said “Hey, we’re making this movie, let’s go!” so I flew to Hong Kong and I spent about 2 weeks there, meeting with Ng every day, talking about this picture.
Was the story your idea?
It was Ng’s idea but we developed it together. I was so bad at writing scripts that my original draft of No Retreat No Surrender was about 200 pages!
Wow. That’s insanely long. What sort of stuff got cut?
I mean, one of the edicts of scriptwriting is that you enter the scene at the last possible moment and you exit the scene at the first possible moment but I had written everything. I learned soon after that when you write a fight, you just write ‘they fight’, you don’t have to write out all the details…
It was a great experience for me because I was also the Second AD on the shoot so I was working very closely with the fight choreographer and the director, so I would learn what we cut and why we cut it and I would usually rewrite the next day’s work the night before.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the Bruceploitation genre, and Ng even directed one of the better examples – Bruce Lee, The Man, The Myth. I wondered was that something that fed into No Retreat No Surrender with the ghost of Bruce Lee? Was it ever intended to be part of that genre?
I’m a huge fan of Bruce Lee and I would never have wanted to do something that would harm his legacy or cheapen him so I definitely didn’t want it to be an exploitation film. I wanted it to be a homage because when I was training, Bruce had died and I had a poster of him right there in the area where I trained…
Ah, just like Jason in the film!
Exactly! So it was more a “hey, what would’ve happened if Bruce Lee had come back while I was training and appeared to me like that?” and I thought it would’ve been a dream come true to someone who was training and needed help.
In fact, I remember quite clearly watching one of these exploitation films where they’d used some footage of Bruce and cut it in with footage of another guy. I had this huge argument with Ng because we were sitting there watching it together and I said “That’s not Bruce Lee” and he said “Oh yeah it is!” and I said “No it’s not” because I’d studied those films so closely and I knew so much about Bruce Lee. In the end, Ng ended up calling the producer of the film and saying “Hey, we’re watching your movie and there’s this scene – is that Bruce Lee?” and the guy says “Nah, that isn’t Bruce.” so I won the argument with Ng! [Laughs]
[Laughs] So after all the work you did on set with the rewrites and all, how did it feel to finally see it on the big screen?
I went up to L.A. with my wife to go to the premiere. I’d been involved a little bit in the editing but I really enjoyed seeing the feature and I liked the fact that my name was up there! For me at least though, I always see what we could do better. Even today when my magazine comes out, I look through but I don’t look through too closely because I don’t wanna see any mistakes. There’s always gonna be a mistake in everything that comes out.
True. Although the fact that it’s now out on Blu-Ray shows there’s still very much a fanbase for the movie. It’s much loved!
Oh yeah, I probably get an email or two a week saying something about No Retreat No Surrender or one of the movies and it’s really nice. It did resonate with people. It was very of its time but when I saw it again for the Blu-Ray commentary, I thought it held up pretty well. I mean, there’s still a lot of cheesy lines and you laugh at some of the naive stuff that we did but the fight stuff stands up and we did some things that nobody had done before, which I’m really proud of. We started something, for good or bad.
So No Retreat No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder, then. That’s a very different film to the first one…
It’s funny because it wasn’t written as that different a movie. Kurt McKinney and Jean-Claude Van Damme were both signed to a second film so, even though the script wasn’t written as a sequel, it was supposed to have them in it. For various reasons, both of them declined to do the picture and I actually dropped out later too… See, the Kurt McKinney character was written as this naive kid who was travelling around Asia – like a little bit of Jason from the first film. He was a good kid who basically gets in over his head. But what they did in the end, the guy who co-produced Raging Thunder changed the script. They made his character much harder. He didn’t have that transition from being a naive kid to being a hero and that was my whole argument, that’s what I didn’t like about it. It’s just a straight action movie and there’s no change for the character.
So were you involved at all on the set of that?
No, I didn’t go to the set, I stayed away from that. I went to the premiere because Ng invited me and after I watched it I did think “Eh, I don’t want my name on that”… I’m good friends still with Matthias Hues and Cynthia Rothrock and a lot of people that worked on it though.
Speaking of Cynthia, one of the most controversial aspects of Raging Thunder is when **** SPOILER ALERT **** her character, Terry, gets killed, something that a lot of fans don’t like. And I have to admit it is kind of a shock. Was that in your original script or was that something that changed?
Hmmm. I don’t think it was. I’m not super clear on it but I don’t think it was in the original script.
Okay, so we can’t blame you for that.
[Laughs] Oh, there’s lots more you can blame me for…
Did you meet Cynthia during that period?
I had known Cynthia before. She grew up in Pennsylvania and I lived there for quite some time, so we’d met before but then I saw her again at the Raging Thunder premiere and we’ve kept in touch. I just saw her recently in Switzerland when she came over for a Hall of Fame induction so I got to hang out with her for the weekend.
She’s a cool girl.
She’s incredible. I think actually Raging Thunder was probably the first time I’d seen her on film.
Finding women who can realistically fight onscreen is a hard thing sometimes because of the power and the speed that’s needed to make it look good. We tried a similar thing in Blood Brothers with someone different and it didn’t work as well.
Okay, so let’s talk Blood Brothers then. Loren Avendon was back again but you say it wasn’t originally written as a No Retreat movie?
We had a three picture contract so we knew we had another picture to do but it was originally just going to be known as Blood Brothers. I had become good friends with Keith Vitali so we decided to put together a project about two brothers but yeah, because of the success of the first two, we had to call it No Retreat No Surrender 3 which made it a lot easier to market.
You changed directors on Blood Brothers from Corey Yuen to Lucas Lo. Did this make a noticeable difference?
Yes. Lucas wasn’t a martial arts guy, he was a film director. He paid more attention to the setup of a scene cinematically than he did to the action. I remember very clearly we were doing the funeral scene near the start where the father’s been killed and the brothers are there and Lucas spent so much time with the extras that we had very little time to shoot the dialogue. And this happened time and time again. He’d spend four or five hours getting all the setups right then come over to me and say “We don’t have time to do this scene, cut it!” It was a nightmare, just having to keep cutting down the dialogue. He had a really really good eye for things but just wasn’t super-organised when it came to how to get the most of everything.
The choreography this time was all done by Tony Leung. What’s he like?
Tony is a great guy and a very skilled choreographer but I hadn’t realised until that point that, sometimes, the choreographer and the fight guys don’t read the scripts. So we were doing the very first fight scene with the two brothers where Keith, the CIA guy, ends up killing one of the attackers and Loren is shocked and suddenly finds out how real this all is. Up to that point, it’s all been training stuff so his experience has always been in the dojo.
So I’m watching Tony set up this fight and I can see they’re having Loren kill some guy with a sword… and the whole point of the fight is that Loren has to be surprised at the violence and if he kills somebody in the fight, he can’t be surprised by this. So I go up to Tony and I ask “Why do you have Loren killing somebody?” and he goes “Because this is gonna look GREAT!” and I’m, like, “Well, yeah, but this isn’t really the story…” and he goes “Oh, okay!” and then just changes it.
Wow. That explains a lot about a fair few martial arts films I’ve seen that don’t make sense…
That’s right. I had to really make an effort to explain to them what the point of the fight is because, until then, I always thought everybody reads the script but that’s just not the case. [Laughs]
We did a smart thing starting with that movie too, actually. We started to train people before we started shooting. We opened a fight camp so that in the summer, with martial artists who wanted to be in the movie, we’d bring them and train them ahead of time. So we probably hired 50 people from that camp and we continued to do that for another 10 years while I was making movies. That streamlined the process so that we didn’t have down time. We could spend all our time on set doing the fighting and I think that really showed out. The stars were always great but it’s the guys that get beat up that make the stars look good. And we had a much better core of people who could take a punch!
So the next movie was King Of The Kingboxers, again made with Lucas Lo and Loren Avendon… that was never meant to be No Retreat No Surrender 4?
No, this is a much darker film. In general the martial arts industry was maturing a little bit and it was all about revenge stories, so we wanted to go down that path and do something that was harder core and really showcased everybody’s talents, including the choreographer’s. Luckily, we were able to get Billy Blanks too, and Keith Cooke who is fantastic and I think the fighting in that film is some of the best that I have ever seen.
Yeah, it’s phenomenal. What was it like working with Billy Blanks, because he is terrifying in that film?
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s terrifying in real life! He’s such an amazing actor. I remember following his career as a fighter and he could do stuff that no one else could do. I saw him do something called the Rolling Hill Kick where you do a forward roll and you take your back foot and you hit the guy in the top of the head as you roll over. He did this in the final and just knocked the guy out because the guy’s looking at him thinking “What’s this guy doing? He’s rolling?” and then this foot comes over and hits him in the head! So being able to cast someone like Billy or Keith Cooke, it was like a playground for Tony and the fight guys.
That last fight in the dome is just incredible. I think I read somewhere that it took two weeks just to shoot that scene?
Yeah, it was two weeks in the jungle. It was just… ugh… I like to call that ‘Fight Hell’ – you have no idea when you’re coming out and you lose perspective about where you even are in the fight. In movies usually, we shoot out of sequence but with the fights they have to shoot A to Z because even though they have a plan for what the fight’s going to be like, they can’t jump around and do different parts of it. They have to get to each part in a line and so it just takes forever. That two weeks in Thailand was great but really hard. It was hot and we were working 16 hour days… Both guys are just such incredible athletes.
So how did we get from there to American Shaolin [which, in some countries, was marketed as King Of The Kickboxers 2 and others as No Retreat No Surrender 5]? I mean, those movies couldn’t be more different in tone. It’s very comedic.
Right. We wanted to come back to something a little bit more wholesome. I mean, one of the reasons I got into martial arts films was to pay back the martial arts for what they had done for me in my life. When I got the cheque to do the next picture after King Of The Kickboxers – which was hugely successful, probably the most successful movie we had made – we had the opportunity to do something that was on a big scale but I wanted to do something that really went back to the ethics and morals of the martial arts.
I’d always wanted to do a Shaolin picture and tell that story but tell it from an American viewpoint of going in and becoming a monk and I think that’s where a lot of the comedy came from.
The fish out of water thing, yeah. Was it a tough pitch in terms of selling the concept? I mean, kickboxing and brutality were the big trends in martial arts and there’s not a lot of Shaolin films from that era. Did that make things hard in terms of getting funding?
No, we’d been so successful with King Of The Kickboxers and I think people looked to Seasonal to kind of do something different. We couldn’t just make another one, we wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries a bit. We’d done it with KOTKB by taking that genre and making it bigger and I pitched American Shaolin to Ng and he was just like “Yeah! I see it!” He also had a real affinity for Shaolin and he was behind us from the go.
And Reece Madigan, your lead. Where did he come from?
He was a bit like Kurt McKinney actually. He was a trained actor who had some martial arts experience. Kurt was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I think Reece had a little bit of training but not that much but we decided to choose an actor over a fighter in that role. And we did the same with the Trevor character too.
Yeah, I suppose there’s more focus on the story and the comedy than the fighting in American Shaolin? It feels almost like there’s a 1950s influence to some of the jokes, I get a real Leave It To Beaver vibe off it?
Would you say that’s what you were going for, that kind of old-fashioned all-American humour?
Well, I was going for wholesome. I really liked King Of The Kickboxers but it wasn’t a movie that kids should see, it was way too violent. So I wanted to do a movie that could reach those younger kids and get them involved in the martial arts. A movie that anyone could see that told a good story and had the right morals. KOTKB wasn’t really a moral story – it was a revenge story about getting that guy – but American Shaolin was the story that I thought I could show to my kids and they’d feel good about it.
And I’ve got to ask: the song, The Shaolin Temple Blues, was that… your idea?
It was. That was a 1950s song and we were looking for a song to adapt that the monks could do as sort of a fun thing so I played Summertime Blues to Lucas and he was like “Yeah, we can do that but we can change it to Shaolin Temple Blues!” and it worked out really well.
It’s insistent, alright…
So what happened after American Shaolin? You seem to have stopped making films for a little while?
Actually the UK was one of our strongest markets, and the marketplace changed overnight from King Of The Kickboxers to American Shaolin. We got a lot of money for the first one so we showed up with what we thought was at least as good a movie if not a better movie and we were told that we wouldn’t get nearly as much for it because the rental market had sort of disappeared. And we were just shocked because we’d spent more money on American Shaolin and even though it did well it didn’t do as well as the other movies because the market had changed so much. So we needed to regroup and figure out what we were going to do.
When we made Bloodmoon (1997, directed by Tony Leung), that was bigger because that’s where we thought the market was going. Bigger movies, bigger stars, so we got in Gary Daniels and some big stars and we were right for the short term but then… the market died again and it went to super low budget, under $100,000 movies and we just couldn’t compete.
Yeah, the genre kinda dried up for a while there in the late 90s/early 2000s. So now people are revisiting the first No Retreat on Blu-Ray, do you know if there are any plans for restorations of the others?
I’m still in contact with Seasonal and we’re working on a couple of different projects and we have the rights now to many of the movies. So we’re looking at putting together a new project and maybe packaging a re-release of the others at the same time as the new one comes out. I don’t really want to make a reboot of No Retreat No Surrender or anything like that but I think there’s room for going back to a wholesome story with some kickass real action. I think for a while there we almost veered into fight porn with things like The Raid and it’s just too much. I mean, I called up Chuck Jeffreys (Bloodmoon) after I saw The Raid and just said “What the Hell is THIS?” I couldn’t believe it! [Laughs]
I recently saw a movie called The Martial Arts Kid and it was a great movie and had a certain measure of success, but didn’t get the success it deserved because it just wasn’t big enough. So I think there’s room for a bigger budget movie that brings back some of the real fighting with a good story and some lessons to be learned. I don’t think I’m done making movies but I want to make them on my terms.
Well, I hope that it happens and maybe in a year or two’s time, I could be interviewing you again about the new one.
There you go, I hope so!
Thanks, Keith Strandberg, for the interview and also for kindly providing some awesome behind the scenes photos.