How do you know when Jean-Claude Van Damme has really annoyed the producers of a franchise? When they hire an unconvincing lookalike so they can have his character shot and killed by the guy he beat in the first movie (his brother and girlfriend don’t even get an onscreen death). A previously unmentioned brother gets called up from the bench, and on we go.
There are a number of signs this isn’t your average martial arts movie. A bad sign is the director, Albert Pyun; but good signs come thick and fast. We’ve got writer David S Goyer, waiting around for that big break that would take him to the very top of the A-list of screenwriters; plus some strong acting – Peter Boyle must have owed someone a favour, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa does “evil” like few other actors; Matthias Hues pops up for a rather odd little cameo too. Plus there’s the star, Sasha Mitchell.
We last saw Mitchell in “Slammed!”, the sadly not great wrestling comedy – he’s great at playing those “goofy jock” types, but it’s interesting to see him take on a completely dramatic role. He’s David Sloan, brother of Kurt and Eric from the first movie (his parental status is never mentioned, as those two were brothers from other mothers, perhaps Papa Sloan was married again), and he teaches at a tiny run-down gym where he not only trains top-level fighters, but gives the kids from the very poor neighbourhood something worthwhile to do. Basically, he’s a saint. When the UKA, a hot new kickboxing league, starts buying up gyms and booking all the good fighters, their boss (Boyle) and his moneyman (Tagawa) come into conflict with David.
The plot is really predictable, like, more so than even your average straight-to-video kung fu film. You’ll be able to predict every success, roadblock and twist in the story from a mile away – the trainee who’s going to turn to the dark side; the “surprise” entrance of part 1 villain Tong Po; the tragedy that’s going to strike; and so on. It doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, but if a dummy like me can call every major bit of your movie from the first ten minutes, then you might be in a bit of trouble.
So yes, Tong Po (Michel Qissi) is back, and the rather convoluted way they bring him and David together is all about honour, and restoring it. Reference is made to the national honour of Thailand, after Kurt took it away by winning at the end of part 1, so to defend their national honour they’ve sent a Japanese guy (Tagawa) and a Moroccan (Qissi), neither of whom look remotely Thai. Ah well! Tong Po is still invulnerable to everyone but the guy he fights at the end, which looks sillier and sillier the further martial arts cinema moves away from the “mystic powers” era and grounds itself, at least a little, in reality. Also, he’s really not that scary-looking. He’s not ripped, not particularly big or tall or fast, so it’s on the tough side to buy him as the monster he’s supposed to be.
There’s fun stuff in this movie, though. Zhin from part 1 comes over from Thailand to train David and help him recover from being shot, and he has fun adapting to American life (the training scenes are a clever spin on the same sequences from part 1); there are some magnificent sadness montages with the most hideous 80s soft rock imaginable over the top; and “Judo” Gene LeBell, the man “famous” for beating Steven Seagal (a good 25 years younger than him) so badly in a real fight he ended up shitting himself, pops up too. If you can accept that a large, commission-regulated, TV-broadcasting martial arts league could replace one side of their main event with an unlicenced Thai lunatic who murdered a bunch of people, then you’ll probably have a good time with this one.
There’s precious little evidence that this was written by the man who’d go on to pen the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies, but quite a bit of evidence it’s directed by trash-master Pyun. Mitchell is fine, but he’s wasted doing a straight role when he’s so good at comedy…it’s an okay film, I guess?
Rating: thumbs in the middle