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Kickboxer (1989)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

KICKBOXER (1989)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michel Qissi, Dennis Alexio, Dennis Chan, Haskell V. Anderson III

Written By: Glenn A. Bruce, Mark DiSalle (story) Directed By: Mark DiSalle, David Worth

The Short Version

Kickboxer wants to be something more than a standard action flick.

It succeeds… but not without sabotaging some of its own aspirations.

The script can’t resist taking the bad guys too far.

But don’t let that keep you away from the interesting drama and yes, the (mostly) good fights.

For fans of Golden Age Action, Kickboxer is part of the essential canon despite itself.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE & PEPPERONI PIZZA, WITH ONE ANCHOVY.

It’s tasty, but with a bit of drama… and something that could sour the experience.


Pairs Well With...

TEQUILA.

No, it’s not the mystery firewater that Kurt drinks in the bar before his “dance fight,” but it’s been known to produce similar effects.

“Bangkok, Taiwan, Tokyo… Hey, what’s the difference?  I’m kickin’ ass wherever I go.”


Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer is one of those flicks that stares right back at the members of the audience and dares them to try and pigeonhole it.  Of course, it knows damn well that almost everyone will try, but it also knows that almost everyone will be wrong in the attempt.  Despite its general categorization, Kickboxer pushes past the boundaries of being a Westernized chop socky film and aspires to be something more, with a greater emphasis on true drama and on developing the hero as a real character.  For a surprisingly long time, it even succeeds…

…until the writer can no longer help himself and cheesy melodrama moves into the third act to bring Kickboxer crashing back down to the solid bedrock of standard Westernized chop socky.  Does that make it bad?  No.  The fact that it tries so hard and succeeds for so long even drags it past simple mediocrity.  But Kickboxer could have been great, and that, it is not.  An essential piece of the Golden Age Action Canon, yes, but not great.

Our story begins with a cocky American fighter named Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio, Picasso Trigger) winning himself a championship belt while his adoring younger brother, Kurt (Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Expendables 2), watches from the trainers’ corner.  Feeling that he’s kicked all of the ass that he possibly can in the US, Eric decides to head over to Asia to face a new challenge.  Specifically, he decides to go to Bangkok to take on the local Muay Thai champion, Tong Po (Michel Qissi, Lionheart), with what amounts to zero preparation beforehand.

Bet you can guess where this is going, can’t you?

Tong Po not only annihilates Sloane in the ring, but he also decides to leave the American a little souvenir in the form of a broken spine and permanent paralysis.  This doesn’t sit well with young Kurt, who vows to avenge his brother in the ring… if only someone would be so kind as to teach him the art of Muay Thai first.  Think there might be a mentor for him somewhere?  Maybe even a love interest on the side?  Only a retired US Special Forces soldier (who also happens to be the film’s Token Black Guy) knows for sure…

To many fans of “The Muscles From Brussels” – including my old pal Kenner – Kickboxer stands as one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s all time best movies, if not the best.  And if I turn a few jagged corners and look at things from a very specific perspective, I suppose I can understand their point.  I can’t bring myself to go along with it, but I can understand it.

Let’s start with the good stuff that they’re seeing, all of which is indeed there and which I will agree is good.

The big standout here is the drama.  Sure, every action flick – and especially every chop socky flick – has its share of drama, but it tends to be of the “just enough to shove the plot along” variety and tends to play pretty thin.  Kickboxer, however, takes a much more serious approach to its dramatic elements, devoting an unusual amount of time and attention to this aspect of the story, to the point where the first two thirds of the film feels less like an action movie with dramatic elements than it does a drama with an unusual number of fight scenes.  Directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth really try to sell this as a more “serious” film, and for a long time, their efforts succeed.  Kickboxer really is an engrossing film for its first hour of runtime, often in spite of itself.

All of this drama, of course, comes at the cost of combat sequences, but somehow, Kickboxer manages to fit in many more fights than one might realize until one looks back later on and tries to do a count.  Once the fists and feet start to fly, the directing duo takes a back seat to their star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who not only serves as the fight choreographer for Kickboxer, but also as the action sequence director.  Overall, the fights look very good (even the one-sided fights; at least the victor looks like he knows what he’s doing while he pummels his poor opponent into the mat), with the ultimate highlight being the drunken dancing-turned-kickboxing scene in the bar.  Not only is this scene hilarious as a piece of physical comedy, but it’s also seriously fun to watch as an out-of-ring combat showcase.  Van Damme puts on a fine show here, and the end result is indeed one of my personal favorite scenes from his entire resume.

He’s not selfish, though; others get to have some fun with their fights, as well.  I won’t spoil a certain scene for you, but I will say: nice hook.

Toss in lots of late-80s goodness – cheesy music, awful hair, random strip clubs to offset the unintentional homoerotic moments, etc. – and you’ve got a flick that begs for a pizza.  So far, so good, right?

Absolutely.  Had everyone stuck to this plan, I’d probably have ended up agreeing with Kenner that Kickboxer had reached some very rare heights indeed.  Sure, there are some inherent flaws to be found – at the start of the story, bother Eric is a complete idiot whose arrogant ass deserves the kicking it gets, and while Michel Qissi may be a convincing meanie, he has absolutely none of the theatrical presence demonstrated by Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport – but they’re pretty easy to forgive in the face of all of the other good stuff that the filmmakers are trying to accomplish.  Unfortunately, the temptation to dive past the drama and into the next realm – melodrama – proves to be too great, as does the temptation to make the bad guys really, really bad well after the sale has already been made.

During the first act, Tong Po is revealed to be a mean, sadistic asshole in the ring.  Okay.  During the second act, while our hero is going through his extended training montage (which is what I consider the entire second act to be), Tong Po is further revealed to be some kind of Thai mob underboss/enforcer.  A stretch, but fine.  Then the third act happens, and it all falls apart.  See, the filmmakers apparently figured that it wasn’t clear enough that Tong Po and his underworld sponsor are, y’know, bad, so they decided to pour it on really thick for the final half hour.  Instead of treating the audience to the big, intense fight that everyone’s been waiting for, the script first decides to have Tong Po and fiends (yes, I did that on purpose) do some psychological warfare against our hero by raping his girlfriend, trashing his mentor’s property, knifing a dog, and kidnapping his paralyzed brother, all of which is completely unnecessary and which in fact kills the pacing of the flick, serving as a massive, time-wasting distraction.  My own distaste for this kind of over-the-top ridiculousness aside, all of this also ends up cheating the audience out of that awesome fight that was supposed to happen at the end.  Oh, there’s still a fight… but most of it is spent being thrown for the sake of all of that psychological warfare.  A comeback happens, of course… but, well… I’ll just let you watch for it for yourself.  If you can call that bout the best you could have hoped for after the lead-in provided by the first two acts, I invite you to go watch Bloodsport and change your mind.

With all of that said, while the melodramatic overkill and subsequently disappointing final fight do pull Kickboxer down from the great heights being reached for during its first two acts, they don’t reach the point of wrecking the film; indeed, it's still good, which should tell you all you need to know about just how strong this movie’s strong points really are.

Bottom line, for fans of the Golden Age of Action Movies and of Jean-Claude Van Damme in particular, Kickboxer is still very much worth the watch despite its flaws, standing as one of the essentials of the Golden Age pantheon.  More casual fans will probably not catch the real potential of what they’re seeing, but even there, it works as martial arts candy that goes in one eyeball and out the other.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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