How much you’re likely to enjoy Kickboxer: Vengeance will be dependent on two main factors – how heavily you were invested in, or even loved, the glorious heyday of westernised martial arts action movies released in the 80s and how much you still love them. Since the new Kickboxer has already seen its release Stateside there’s a swarm of reviews that seem content to rubbish it, as is often the trend with action cinema, based on the notion that the original Kickboxer, and all movies of its kind, are disposable and worthless.
If, however, you happened to be a teenager when Jean Claude Van Damme’s star was on the rise, maybe taking up a martial art to emulate your hero, perhaps even drawing pictures of him on your text books at school, then his films were anything but throwaway.
I loved the original Kickboxer and still do, as it, and the plethora of similar films that populated that era, continue to bring an unabashed joy to nights spent in need of a distraction from the world, preferably with a beer in hand. So it was with more expectation and concern than most, that I approached the retelling of such a beloved genre classic.
Thankfully Kickboxer: Vengeance is the nostalgic treat I’d hoped for, the cinematic equivalent of an old, warm, blood stained blanket, that you wrap yourself up in and then hope more people will want to join you under, but most likely won’t. There is a strange comfort to watching familiar events unfold from a new perspective, but it’s the respectful way it treats the original that makes it such good entertainment for long time Kickboxer fans. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, but then it was always unlikely to be, all it had to do was stick to the formula and throw some good looking fights at the screen, which is succeeds in doing. While that might sound like a way of setting low expectations, it’s quite a compliment as a large percentage of DTV action movies are unwatchable – especially those which feature former eighties stars.
Talking of talent, Alain Moussi, who’s finally made the transition from stunts to star in Kickboxer: Vengeance, proves to be a decent leading man, especially in his debut lead role. It’s not an easy position to fill and certainly not one that’s often appreciated, as there’s a shortage of new action icons rising through the ranks (just look at the young cast that Stallone featured in The Expendables 3 for a case in point) so I’m always going to champion someone as likeable and physically able as Moussi. More importantly though, he’s in a film called Kickboxer, so it’s his physical attributes that should be judged first – you wouldn’t expect the likes of De Niro to turn up his first day and ask him to roundhouse kick someone in the face, then deride him for not being able to do it.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Vengeance is Moussi’s relationship with sidekick Georges St-Pierre (if you can call a man-mountain that), who plays a comedy drunk but helps to keep the grand tradition of the action flick ‘buddy’ alive and well. The two play off each other nicely, to the point where it’s a shame that St-Pierre’s character is absent for a good chunk of the film and even more so that he doesn’t appear to be signed up for the sequel.
In a somewhat disturbing trend for 2016, the rather fantastic Gina Carano (go on CW, you know she should be your Wonder Woman) plays a role that involves approximately zero ass kicking, so just as Michelle Yeoh strangely played a normal hotelier in Mechanic: Resurrection, Carano is cast as a fight club promoter with no physical ability. There’s even a prime moment towards the end of the film where she could have happily broken every face around her, but it was not to be. Still, it’s always great to see her in any capacity and that needs to keep happening to avoid all this talk of her giving up on a film career, especially at a time where cinema is finally seeing a well overdue increase in female action roles.
The towering Dave Bautista replaces long-time Van Damme chum Michel Qissi as concrete pounder, Tong Po, and is suitably villainous (if not more so) that the first iteration of the character, but has no line about how “You bleed like Mylee”, but for diplomacies sake I won’t say if that’s a good or a bad thing. In fact there’s no Mylee at all, but rather a stronger substitute in Sara Malakul Lane’s Liu, whose police detective is a lot more proactive in how the story plays out, though could really have done with some quality fight scenes to get her properly in the mix.
One element that does suffer in the retelling is the editing, as there is an entirely unnecessary amount of jumping backwards and forwards through the timeline, leading to a lot of additional subtitling to keep us up to speed, which is always a bad sign – as an audience that style is quite familiar, so it shouldn’t need sign posting so heavily. It confuses a simple tale, I think to try and detract from that very point, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, but as a consequence the attempts to add depth just get lost, especially in Liu’s relationship with Kurt, which feels all too contrived and rushed.
Still, saving the best for last we have the casting of Jean Claude Van Damme, which is an absolute delight, especially as so much of his early work was franchised without him. No Retreat No Surrender, Kickboxer, Bloodsport, Cyborg… and so the list goes on of his successes that never saw him appear in the multitude of sequels, which as a teenager was always a crushing blow (and to this date I still haven’t bothered with most of them).
In Vengeance JCVD picks up as the sagely mentor, sporting sunglasses and a natty hat, and is just as much of a bastard in his training techniques, though instead of swinging coconuts he employs small children to throw them at his new protégé, as one does. It’s a role that Van Damme conveys with ease, but as with The Expendables 2, it’s more than overdue to see him back in a higher profile role, as his easy going charisma and infamous spin kick will never cease to entertain.
Yes, Kickboxer: Vengeance is a basic throwback to eighties action movies and it could do with injecting a little more humour (the bar dance is only referenced in the closing credits I’m afraid) but it’s well cast, shot and a damn sight better than most attempts to replicate the formula. For a slice of bone-crunching action to go with your pizza, you can’t go wrong and with the sequel due next year – now with added Christopher Lambert – I’m excited to see what’s next.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is in UK cinemas now.
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