Jean Claude Van Damme has become something of a reality TV star in recent years, so to add to his immense martial arts abilities, surprising comic timing and sweet dance moves, we have him being a bit of a sexist asshole. If you can watch how he treats his assistant in his “Behind Closed Doors” show and still want to see his movies, pull up a chair and read about one of his first starring roles.
Explained away by being raised by separated parents, JCVD is Kurt, the Belgian-sounding brother of the very American-sounding Eric, and Eric is the ISKA World Kickboxing champion. When Eric decides that he’s beaten everyone ISKA has to offer and goes to Thailand to fight the top muay thai guys, he meets the extraordinarily evil Tong Po and, thanks to the complete absence of DQs, law enforcement or medical care, is paralysed in his very first fight while his opponent barely breaks a sweat.
Now, right away it’s a little odd, because the ISKA is a real organisation and that is a real championship (also, Dennis Alexio, who plays Eric, has held it in real life). Muay thai is seen as the ultimate style, so much so that Eric is barely competitive in his only fight. Now, if I was in charge of ISKA, which is a serious group, I’d be less than thrilled to have my top guy portrayed as a chump – the only thing I can think of is this film being a love-letter to the main Muay Thai organisation to try and get them into the ISKA family? It’d be like a film where one of the Klitschko brothers, while holding his real world heavyweight boxing titles, gets his ass thoroughly kicked when he goes to fight in England, the home of real boxing. It makes no sense.
Kurt, wanting revenge, meets up with a former CIA agent in Bangkok, who takes him under his wing and then introduces him to Xian Chow, a mystical Yoda-like trainer who lives out in the wilderness. Kurt works his way into training with Xian, and in a montage you’ve seen a hundred times before, goes from scrub to killer in ten minutes. Thanks to Tong Po being involved in organised crime, it’s fairly easy to bait him into a fight, but can Kurt compete in the “Ancient Way”, where the hands are wrapped in twine, dipped in resin and then broken glass?
“Kickboxer” comes right at the end of the life-cycle of movies which show Oriental martial arts as intrinsically better than Western fighting, due to the mystical element, their kids being brought up in it, and so on. It seems odd because the year before, JCVD made “Bloodsport”, about a Westerner going to Japan and dominating their fight league; and the Eastern dominance of martial arts was ruined forever in the early 90s, when Royce Gracie, a small Brazilian guy, beat the world’s best and toughest fighters in the UFC; along with Ken Shamrock, an American wrestler / submission grappler, destroying all comers in Japan’s Pancrase league.
As I’ve seen this film many times before, my mind pondered some of the finer points of this particular gem. For instance, Eric’s first activity in Thailand is grabbing a prostitute (and when he’s in hospital, you know he’s recovering because he pinches a nurse’s ass). Oh, isn’t sexual harassment a blast? There’s the way they filmed this in some really beautiful locations – Buddhist temples and places where a 2014 film crew would never have a chance of going to. There’s wondering how a dangerous, violent lunatic like Tong Po, who regularly hospitalises people in the ring, could be the popular hero. Then, of course, there’s the dancing, showing that JCVD is perhaps the finest mover ever to grace the silver screen:
The oft-repeated message of this film is that revenge is bad. But, what it says and what it does are very different – although he’s told over and over again not to get revenge by fighting Tong Po, he does so in quite spectacular fashion. Perhaps, because Tong Po kidnaps his brother and almost kills Xian’s dog, it should be “revenge is bad, unless the guy you’re getting revenge on is a real scumbag”.
It’s great, though. The storyline is fairly slight, but Van Damme is obviously a star in the making and the fighting looks suitably meaty. A relic of a bygone era, for sure, but one where it’s a lot of fun to hang out for a few hours.
Rating: thumbs up
PS – In news I’m really looking forward to, they’re currently filming a remake of this, with JCVD in the Xian role, Dave Bautista of pro wrestling and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame in the Tong Po role, and Gina Carano as…not sure. I get the feeling they’re not going to waste someone as awesome as her as the simpering love interest, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it.