This is an almost certainly deliberately misleading poster. If you could look at that, and tell me correctly what the film’s actually about, I’m afraid I’d be accusing you of being a witch (or just cheating). Seriously, glance up, then come up with your best three guesses what “No Retreat, No Surrender” is about.
If you said “it’s sort of like The Karate Kid, only with a Russian in place of the blonde kid at the end, the Mafia in place of Cobra Kai, and the ghost of Bruce Lee in place of Mr. Miyagi” then give yourself a shiny prize. I’d have perhaps liked it more (or just avoided it altogether) if I’d known what it actually was, but there’s some strange delights to be had anyway.
The mafia want some guy’s dojo in Los Angeles, but he’s not interested in giving it up, so JCVD (The Russian) kicks his ass and permanently injures his leg. Then, the trainer and his son move to Seattle in a segment that feels like it was edited wrong, and the son (Jason) makes a new friend (RJ, played by a chap with the unfortunate name JW Fails). Jason, a Bruce Lee obsessive, goes to visit his grave, which is in Seattle, and the movie uses Lee’s real actual grave to film at.
Jason goes to train with the local dojo, but they’re all assholes so he retreats to his garage, where eventually the spirit of Bruce Lee emerges from a poster and trains him in jeet kune do. In a parallel storyline, rather implausibly, the mafia show up wanting to take over Seattle’s dojo as well, and it all comes down to a big team vs. team fight in a local high school gym, which Jason isn’t really supposed to be involved in.
JCVD had some problems on this. He twice knocked out the guy he was fighting at the end, for real, and injured Jason’s dad while filming their scene. If you’ve read our “Cyborg” review, you’ll know about the court case that was filed against him for stabbing someone in the eye – well, the two guys he injured in this movie appeared as character witnesses against him in that trial. Given this was his first role of any significance, I’m sort of surprised he became such a big star.
Leaving JCVD aside, I imagine this must have had some huge problems in filming. None of it feels like it fits together – there’s a load of neighbourhood hijinks with Jason and RJ versus the local ruffians…but then they’re all part of the local dojo and we’re supposed to cheer them on at the end when they fight the mafia guys? The family has a mother who’s not seen on screen til 1:05, and then only gets one brief scene before the movie forgets her again. The whole romance subplot seems tacked on too, as if they knew they needed to humanise the weirdo who was being trained by a ghost. According to the writer, he would do major rewrites every night, which helps to explain how it all feels a little disjointed.
All this is even more surprising when you know who the director is – Corey Yuen, who was a friend and contemporary of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao from childhood; his first movie as director was “Ninja In The Dragon’s Den”, which I loved, and he’s done “Dragons Forever”, “The Transporter”, “DOA – Dead Or Alive” and six movies with Jet Li. This was his first movie in the USA, and perhaps that caused issues, because it does not feel like the work of an expert like him – as an example, it has maybe the longest boom-in-shot sequence in movie history.
What’s weirdest, though, is how much the fighting sucks. There’s no tactics on display, just show-off martial arts like big roundhouses and suchlike that just wouldn’t work in an organised bout. If there’s two things I’m grateful towards UFC for, it’s for forever destroying the mystical air surrounding Eastern martial arts, and for showing what actually works in a fight. This looked silly at the time, I presume, but looks incredibly silly now.
Unless you’re a JCVD obsessive, just watch “The Karate Kid” instead. Or a better JCVD movie (there are a lot of them). This is pretty much just a mess. Although it does appeal to me, having four sequels, none of which have anything to do with this, and the last two not even being part of the series, just having their names changed after filming was completed.
Rating: thumbs down
PS – both main characters retreat and surrender several times.