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The King of the Kickboxers (1990)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS (1990)

Starring: Loren Avedon, Billy Blanks, Richard Jaeckel, Sherrie Rose, Keith Cooke, Don Stroud

Written By: Keith W. Strandberg (also story), Ng See Yuen (story) Directed By: Lucas Lowe

The Short Version

An American kickboxer seeks vengeance in Thailand!

Call this a knockoff at your peril; there’s some good stuff going on here.

Loren Avedon proves to be a charismatic hero.

The climactic battle scene is one of the classics of the Video Store Era.

If martial arts action is your genre, you need to check out The King of the Kickboxers.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PEPPER JACK.

It’s got kick, though Our Hero might call it “Pepper Jackson.”


Pairs Well With...

A TASTY I.P.A.

Something hoppy to knock back while you’re waiting for trouble.

“What’s the op?”

“Something about illegal movies.”


It’s a given in genre moviemaking: as soon as a movie becomes successful, a dozen lower rent versions of the same plot will immediately pop up in its wake.  And if one of those hits it big, a dozen more imitators will show up built around whatever twist it had.  So, if the plot I’m about to describe sounds awfully familiar… it should, and from several different directions, at that.

Jake Donahue (Loren Avedon, The Circuit) is a bad boy cop who specializes in undercover work… and in giving his boss (Richard Jaeckel, Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection) fits.  But the latter probably has to do with some unresolved post-trauma issues after watching his brother get murdered by a disgruntled fighter in Thailand named Khan (Billy Blanks, Showdown) ten years earlier.  Not that he likes to talk about it, mind.

Meanwhile, Interpol has asked for some American police help cracking a case in – wait for it – Thailand.  It seems that some mysterious underworld types are conning foreign fighters into taking “starring roles” in kickboxing films… only to have those foreigners killed for real as part of those films’ climactic scenes.  If only a Westerner could be found to go undercover and blow the operation wide open…  Hmm…

At first, Jake refuses to take the assignment, but once he gets a look at some video and sees that his brother’s killer is one of the bad guys, oh yeah, it’s on, all right!  At least it will be after he finds the one hermit (Keith Cooke, China O’Brien) who might know the secret of defeating Khan, which will of course involve spending almost the entire Second Act doing a training montage in the back jungles of Thailand, after which it’s off to the Thunderdome…  Or something…

Like I said, no one’s going to accuse the “let’s go to Asia to avenge my brother” plot of The King of the Kickboxers of being original, but for real fans of chop socky flicks, it doesn’t have to be.  Hell, seeing how a movie plays with an established formula is part of the fun, and you’ve got to admit that the snuff film twist is novel (even if the script does conveniently put it away for extended periods of time).  That twist allows a level of humor that doesn’t require any of the characters to start cracking jokes, and a way for the script to be self-aware while still taking itself seriously.  Through the snuff film plot device, The King of the Kickboxers gets to break the fourth wall without really breaking it, providing opportunities to poke a little fun at the genre (the highlight there being Loren Avedon eyeroll-critiquing one of his own flicks by saying that it “looks like a Bruce Lee movie without Bruce”) and to give the audience a slight taste of the off camera side of things… assuming that directors really are out to kill actors, of course.  (Which they’re not; at least not openly.)  Pretty neat tricks, those, if you think about them.

But maybe you don’t want to think about them.  Maybe you’re just here for the fights, because at the end of the day, those are what most fans really want to see from a flick called The King of the Kickboxers.  Well, good news, everyone!  This movie delivers!  Sure, there might be room for an extra feature fight or two had the filmmakers really decided to go for it (there are some definite pace-dead moments in this flick), but overall, fans can expect to walk away satisfied, because when fists and feet do fly, the results are a lot of fun to watch, and the camera captures them to great advantage.

This is why we don’t question the fact that American drug dealers are down with the chop socky, because the fact that they are makes it all the more fun to watch Our Hero kick the crap out of them.  And we really don’t mind that the final battle takes place in a bamboo version of the Thunderdome (a vastly improved bamboo version, mind, complete with multi-level platforms and a moat full of punji sticks), because that fight is just plain awesome; indeed, it’s one of the best you’ll find from this era, especially on this kind of budget.  Athleticism and entertainment; oh yes, folks, it’s all there.

Speaking thereof… how about Our Hero as played by Mr. Loren Avedon?  The character of Donahue comes from an amalgam of archetypes, including the Chop Socky Nice Guy, the Well-Intentioned Dick, the Burnout Cop, and, of course, the Vengeful Relative On A Mission.  Unlike many other screen fighters who can handle maybe one or two of these things at best, Avedon has the acting chops to take all of them on at once, presenting not just a character type, but a real, complete character.  (There is a world of difference, folks.)  For those who choose to pay attention, this allows for a much richer movie, since it means Our Hero can actually make mistakes without it seeming contrived or looking like something that came up on a cue card, and can even – drum roll here, people – feel feelings that don’t automatically make the audience want to start laughing at him for.  Why does this matter?  Because the strong acting provides extra punch to the character’s motivation when it comes time to kick ass in the alley or inside that dome, and that in turn makes the fights all that much more rewarding.

As does the attention paid by the director and the cinematographer to setting the scene, for that matter.  There’s no location in The King of the Kickboxers that comes across as “just a backdrop;” the filmmakers want to be sure that the audience has a very definite feel for everything about the stage before stuff goes down on it.

By now you’re probably wondering if there’s another shoe waiting to drop, or at the very least if I’ll admit to it.  The answer is “yes,” because as much as I like The King of the Kickboxers, it’s certainly not perfect.  Sure, the director knows how to set a stage and make the stuff that happens on it look good, but during those moments that don’t count as heavy drama or mortal combat, as suggested above, the pacing can start to crawl.  I also think that the film’s a bit too flashback-happy (did we really need to see the death of Donahue’s brother again just fifteen screen minutes after it happened the first time?), which threatens to be another momentum killer every time the audience is asked to crawl back down the memory hole.

And then there’s the matter of our menacing bad guy: our menacing Thai bad guy, played by Mr. Billy Blanks.

Go ahead; get the “Thai Bo” jokes out of your system; I’ll wait.

I’ll start off by saying that I give Billy Blanks a complete pass here; his main reason for being on the screen in the role he’s playing is that he can fight, and this is one of his best showcases for proving it.  (It’s said that his performance here was the direct inspiration for the “Street Fighter” video game character of Dee Jay.)  There’s no doubt that the man is an effective ass kicker… and I’m certainly not going to blame him for being reduced to broken English and Frankenstein style grammar while he’s being asked to play a character who’s definitely not an African American from Pennsylvania.  Is it distracting and disturbingly hilarious whenever he opens his mouth?  Yes.  But I’m not watching The King of the Kickboxers to listen to the character of Khan talk with his mouth, y’know?  And if the director wants him to stalk around like a pissed off caveman whenever he’s not fighting, so be it.  The villain can get away with these things, and the guy playing the hero’s already proven to be a way better actor than any sensible person walks into a movie like this expecting to see.

And so, Academy Award winner though it may never be, The King of the Kickboxers is certainly good enough to punch past its own shortcomings and enter the ring as one of the standout flicks of its era and genre.

Bottom line, if chop socky is your thing, you need to have a look at The King of the Kickboxers.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2014


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


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