Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)

After a franchise resurrecting movie which didn’t have the action, the humour or the technical chops to be enjoyable enough, we have a sequel which, despite a lower budget, fewer stars and a writer/director I’d never heard of, manages to be vastly more entertaining. All those little things that fell flat in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” work exactly as they’re supposed to here.

The theme of this movie is, if you’re really good at martial arts, you can predict the future. Well, there’s other stuff to it, but you’ll definitely turn it off with that impression. Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi) and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) are on a train going through the mountains, and their dance number is interrupted by a bunch of bad hombres who want to kidnap her and kill him. A few well-places kicks and a fight on top of a train later, and…it was all a dream! But, despite him never meeting these people before, a whole bunch of them turn up as the villain’s goons in the last third, and Kurt has that “where do I know you from?” face.

Kurt’s a UFC (or whatever off-brand cage-based fighting league they’re saying it is) fighter now, living his best life and making mincemeat out of his opponents. After getting kidnapped by a couple of fake cops one night, he finds himself in Thailand, in front of the fellow we presume is part 1’s unseen Mr Big, Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert, who should have fired his agent around 1990, and now looks like the reanimated zombie version of himself). It’s a matter of honour that Kurt should give him a chance for a rematch, and is even prepared to pay him a million dollars for another fight to the death. If not, well, they’re fully prepared to throw him in a Thai jail for the murder of Tong Po in “Vengeance”…despite, one would imagine, that all having been cleaned up a while ago, what with his wife being a cop at the time and them not exactly leaving Thailand in a hurry.

But, you may not have seen “Vengeance”? So let’s not poke too many holes in the continuity, as continuity snobs are the worst – yes, I’m definitely one myself, but I’d go to Continuity Snobs Anonymous if I could.

Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and the first thing he does is fight his way through the place in a brilliant fight scene which is all done in one continuous take. I mean, it’s not really, as you can see the cuts, and it’s a very long way from the frenetic pace of the modern classic of this mini-genre, Tony Jaa kicking an entire hotel’s ass in “The Protector”; but they’re trying! It’s easily better than any individual scene in “Vengeance”.

So, he hangs out in prison, not breaking as Mr Moore throws everything he can at Kurt to get him to submit, including regular whippings. Eventually, Kurt discovers a little gang of friends inside the jail, including his old trainer Master Durand – a welcome return for Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was blinded after the events of part 1 for his role in the murder of Tong Po; a footballer, played by real-life Brazilian footie legend and far-right lunatic Ronaldinho; and Briggs, a boxer, played by Mike Tyson. The scene where Kurt meets Briggs is hilarious, because you can imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get Tyson to appear – even though Kurt is supposedly one of the world’s best martial artists, the 51 year old Tyson has to win the fight and do cool stuff like punch straight through walls and so on. There are also a boatload of appearances from UFC guys like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua playing pretty much themselves.

As well as learning to box, he gets some wisdom from Durand. Now he’s blind (sort of a reference to his other beloved 80s franchise “Bloodsport”), his other senses are heightened, which results in him being able to “see” where a blow will land before it’s even thrown (not sure what sense this is, but whatever, it’s not played seriously anyway). Both these new skills are shown to us in that favourite of all scenes, the training montage! I love a training montage! Oh, and he can even “see” fights he’s not involved in due to sensing the air, or something. I have no idea, but it’s wonderful.

The guy he’s got to fight is Mongkut, played by none other than Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, former World’s Strongest Man contestant and currently The Mountain on “Game Of Thrones”. He’s genetically engineered like Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky 4”, for much the same purpose, even though you might wonder why a 6’8”, 400 lb beast of a man needs any more chemical help to beat up the 6’0”, 200 lb Kurt. The bit during the final fight, when Mongkut’s hipster trainer / technician just openly shoots him up with high-grade pharmaceuticals at ringside, is a hoot.

There are a few logic holes that, weirdly, just add to the camp charm of this gem of a movie. Even though Kurt is presumably a relatively famous martial artist back in the States, no-one seems to give a damn about getting him out of the jail where he was illegally kidnapped and taken to…apart from his wife, thank heavens. His American promoter doesn’t send over a group of tough dudes to bust him out, or anything! There’s also the way that in this almost entirely Thailand-set movie, none of the people we meet (apart from background extras and so on) is Thai. Hero and villain are both white Westerners, the villain’s boss is French, the main people in the jail are a black American, a Belgian and a Brazilian, the fight MC apparently has Asian, Hispanic, French and Native American ancestry….you’re about twenty people deep in the cast list before you get to anyone who’s actually from the country they’re traipsing through, and that person has the huge role of “Female Valet No.1”. One last bit of racial business – the chanting of “White Warrior” by the crowd during the final fight was problematic in “Vengeance” (although perhaps I’m missing something in translation) but its return here makes literally no sense as both competitors are white.

But please put any notion I didn’t enjoy this far from your mind. I loved it, and I think you will too. First up, the fights are very well shot, with the epic final confrontation even telling some of the story, and the action is fun and exciting. Kudos to director Dimitri Logothetis, who, if he’s known at all, is as a producer, not a writer / director (although he’s done all three). I imagine there’s an interesting story behind it all, or perhaps he just came into some money and bought into the relaunching franchise. Who knows? But he’s a great match for the material.

The script is over the top in all sorts of subtle ways, and it appears Moussi learned a lot about acting in the intervening years, as he’s able to deliver its ludicrous premise much better than he did before. I do like how some of the reviews of this complain about the silliness, as if a movie about an underground fight league where people are regularly murdered by a giant steroid freak should be serious business. Come on! What some people seem desperate to forget about the golden age of martial arts movies is that they were, by and large, silly as hell. That’s fine, of course, and you can still have tight action and good performances in a camp movie (which I believe “Retaliation” achieves).

Okay, before I leave you, I want to talk Bad Guy Economics, one of my favourite subjects. Moore puts his giant up against Kurt, and works hard to ensure Mongkut wins – including injecting him with steroids at ringside. Now, given Moore is in charge of the betting, who the hell is betting against the monster, especially after the first round when Kurt is virtually dead and Mongkut is entirely unharmed? No matter how short the odds, everyone would have been betting one way, so he’s definitely going to lose money, right? He really ought to be either telling Mongkut to go easy on him for a while, or to finish things off quickly, because the longer it goes on the worse his payday gets. Or, he should want Kurt to pull off the upset!

Rating: thumbs up

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Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

It was with great excitement I greeted the news of a new entry into the Kickboxer franchise. The series, which started off with Jean-Claude Van Damme before handing the reins over to the excellent Sasha Mitchell (and then, briefly, Mark Dacascos), was a lot of fun – even though some of the series was directed by ISCFC Hall of Shamer Albert Pyun – with colourful locations, and lots and lots of fights. They also established / popularised the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which goes as follows:

  1. Two brothers / best friends, one of whom is a champion fighter

  2. Champion fighter is killed by a master of a slightly different martial art

  3. Brother / best friend tries to get revenge and fails

  4. He (it’s always a he) goes to exotic locale, learns new martial art

  5. He falls in love with a local who really doesn’t want him to die against villain X

  6. Revenge is had

Although there are some minor differences, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” follows this plot almost to a T. But it’s got the extra fun of starring some fairly big name UFC fighters, martial arts / acting crossover star Gina Carano, and JCVD in a supporting role, showing that he’s kinda sorta learned how to act in the intervening years.

I’ve long disliked the trope of show a clip, then go “6 months earlier”, because it’s often done by people who don’t really understand it, because they’ve seen it done in other better movies and want a bit of that class. Much is the same here, as we start with Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi, better known as a stunt performer) goes to the compound of Tong Po in order to train – only, he’s not there to train, he wants revenge for the death of his brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi, who we’ve covered before and is sadly missed, having died in 2015). He gets his ass kicked, of course, but Tong Po lets him go rather than killing him. Insult!

Tong Po’s gatekeeper is played by UFC champ Georges St Pierre, who, what he lacks in acting ability, makes up for in lack of acting ability; one of the other goons is UFC guy Cain Velasquez; and Tong Po himself is former WWE guy, surprisingly good actor and current star Dave Bautista. Judging by Shahlavi’s involvement (he died early in 2015) this was probably made in 2014, before “Guardians of the Galaxy” pushed him out of the price range of productions like this, one would have thought.

I was also about to make a slight comment about how sad it is Tong Po, judging by his name, has never once been played by an actual Asian actor (the guy who played him in parts 1-3, Michel Qissi, is Moroccan/Belgian, and his replacement for part 4 is Kamel Krifa, a Tunisian). But, Mr Bautista has a Filipino father, which makes him closest, geographically speaking. Sort of well done, movie! My wife also didn’t believe Liu, the cop / love interest was a local either, but she’s Sara Malakul Lane, ISCFC regular (“Sharktopus”, “100 Degrees Below Zero”), and half-Thai, which means they can have scenes where she’s talking to locals and other cops and it can be in actual Thai, not just heavily accented English.

Anyway, back to the movie! If you don’t love training montages, I don’t think we would ever be friends. This movie features a couple of beauties, where Kurt is taken by Liu to hide out at Master Durand’s place and Durand takes him from zero to hero. JCVD plays him in a half-homage to Xian from the original, half as a weird hipster gone to seed sort of guy, and it works. There’s a recreation of the famous scene from the original where the trainer takes Kurt to a bar and gets him involved in a brawl to test his mettle, too.

Gina Carano, who I think deserves better roles than the sort of middling straight-to-VOD stuff she’s gotten recently, has a very curious role in “Kickboxer”. She’s the fight promoter for Tong Po, responsible for getting Eric to go to Thailand to fight him, and seems genuinely upset that he died (perhaps they had a relationship). And given that Eric was also trained by Durand, her remorse appears genuine…until she reveals her true colours later. Also, she never so much as throws a punch in this movie, a curious choice at best (it’s like having Fred Astaire and not having him dance). Best guess is they hired her for a day or two and having her fight was too expensive. But it’s a shame, and her weird motivation doesn’t help. Also, they pay Eric $200,000 to fight, and when you see the contest, it’s in what looks like the back room of a bar with maybe 200 people in attendance, none of whom look that rich. No signs of broadcast, no betting going on. How’s she making her money in all this?

I want to talk two scenes now, which I think reveal the rather shoddy finished product that we get. One is a fight on top of two elephants. Now this sounds exciting, and in different hands it would be! But what director John Stockwell gives us is perhaps the least convincing fake elephants of all time, with occasional cuts to real elephants that definitely don’t have anyone on top of them. Now, I don’t want animals to be abused for the sake of my entertainment, but if you’re going to use fakes, either use better ones or cut around them more. Come on!

And the second scene is when Carano sends her goons to kill Liu…and tells them to “make it messy”. Again, could be a great scene! But what we get is one guy. They send one guy! And he, despite having all the time in the world to hide and aim his rifle, misses them all and then dies fairly quickly. Could they not have just filled a car up with bad guys?

Alan Moussi is a gifted screen fighter, for sure, but he needs better direction than he was given. A huge majority of his fights are just repeated attempts to go for some wildly OTT manoeuvre like a double-back-flip kick or a Superman punch, and he gets blocked and thrown to the ground every time. Learn to stop doing that! After a while, it just becomes monotonous, and I don’t think it’s being played for laughs either.

It appears there was some rather substantial reshooting of the final fight scene, as there are quite a lot of cuts where you don’t see Van Damme’s face, indicating he wasn’t there, and his voice is dubbed by a very different sounding actor. Plus, they show the same scene of him looking slightly pensive maybe five times.

I wonder what Bautista thinks of his role in this. While he’s a bad guy – watching his trainees beat the crap out of each other, he just gets bored and wanders back into his room, where two women immediately stop what they’re doing, disrobe and join him – he’s not really bad enough. He treats Kurt, at least in the beginning, with a modicum of honour, and is seen meditating in front of a statue of the Buddha. He doesn’t strike me as a man villainous enough to kill the multiple in-ring competitors the MC tells us he’s killed, and he’s a little too low-key.

One last point – the presence of UFC fighters hints at this, but the last 20 years have proved to us that Eastern martial arts, Muay Thai among them (the exotic skill Kurt has to learn) is no better than any system designed anywhere else. UFC fighters have to be able to box and wrestle as well, and a fighter who only specialises in one style is going to get their ass kicked, quickly. So it’s weird to see the fetishisation of the mystic East here, which you can forgive in the pre-UFC days the original movie existed in but not so much now.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Stockwell is that good a director, or has any particular flair for martial arts movies. The original was made by a couple of journeymen too, but its definite B-movie aesthetic made it more willing to be slightly camp, plus the fights were very well staged. While “Kickboxer: Vengeance” has some humour in it, it takes itself a little too seriously, I think – as an example of what could have been, Alan Moussi recreates JCVD’s famous dancing scene…over the end credits. Too little, too late! And even though having your stars able to fight means there’s little having to edit round them, I feel Stockwell never takes advantage of this.

I was really pleased to hear about this, and thought up to the point I pressed play that I would have a good time with it. But, while it has its moments, it’s just not quite up to the standard of the original.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Puppet Master: Axis Termination (2017)

Puppet Master is back! After a break of five years since 2012’s “Axis Rising”, the WW2 setting of the previous movies continues. This also represents the first series to have made a new instalment since we’ve started covering them. But let’s talk Full Moon for a minute first!

After “Axis Rising”, apparently, Charles Band promised Full Moon’s fans that there would be a new Puppet Master movie every year. This, of course, didn’t happen. They’ve been too busy churning out new instalments in the “Evil Bong” franchise, I guess? Then, they decided to do an Indiegogo campaign for “Axis Termination”, which was apparently a success although if the news of its existence didn’t make it to me (I’m on their mailing list), I’m not sure how well it was advertised. Anyway, the $77,000 or so they raised allowed them to surpass their goals and bring back Six-Shooter, one of the more beloved of the puppets.

Now, a cruel, or realistic, person might say “perhaps if you can’t afford to make it, don’t” but clearly none of those people spoke to Charles Band before production. If you’re an extremely well-established movie company with a decent fanbase, how on earth do you need to raise money before the actual thing-that’s-supposed-to-make-profit release? The money that was raised for Six-Shooter, by the way, resulted in a grand total of ten seconds of screen time and basically no animation for his puppet. We were promised stop-motion, and there’s perhaps a few seconds of that, too – the low point for special effects comes when we’re treated to a long-shot of a few of the puppets, which is clearly just people in puppet costumes filmed from a distance (they move entirely unlike our friends normally do, for one). We were also promised puppet Torch, but they obviously couldn’t afford to animate him…er, “couldn’t find a place for him in the script”.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, a little. Full Moon being somewhat economical with the truth and acting like scumbag carnies (one of the reasons they were dropped from their major studio development deal back in the 90s, I’d have thought, from which they’ve been dying a slow death ever since) is old hat indeed. Let’s talk the result of their campaign.

Friend of ISCFC Jean Louise O’Sullivan, by far the best thing about the last chapter, does the Final Girl thing of being killed immediately at the beginning of the next – her boyfriend’s muscle-bound Army brother Brooks cradles her dying body and vows to look after her sack o’puppets. Almost immediately, the movie then pivots to be a black magic movie, as evil Nazi black magic guy Sturmbahnfurher Krabke and evil Nazi scientist Dr. Gerde Ernst try, for some reason, to find the formula for the serum that creates the puppets. They both have extremely deadly psychic powers, so quite why they’re so determined to master the puppets, when the little fellas are, to be fair, a bit limited, is a question the movie never answers.

In fact, the entire puppet cast is secondary to proceedings – the Nazi puppets Bombshell, Blitzkreig and Weremacht; good puppets Blade, Pinhead, Leech Woman, Tunneler, Jester and Six-Shooter (with the last two barely even making an appearance) could be removed and I’m not sure anything would be that different. The good guys have a black magic fellow too, “Russian” Dr Ivan Ivanov (who, even though they draw attention to his accent, sounds completely English throughout – fun fact, he’s also Peter Dinklage’s stunt double in “Game Of Thrones”) and the real conflict is between those two forces. The only two puppets who get anything close to any animation are Blade and Tunneler – a few of the others are just shown hanging on to people’s backs as they thrash about in pain.

What they’ve done is really camp things up. Out are the realistic-ish characters of the previous two instalments, in are wild overacting Nazis and weird colourful Russians and impossibly brave square-jawed American soldiers. They’ve also removed the central character of Andre Toulon, the guy who created the puppets – he shows up in footage borrowed from part 1, at the beginning of 2010’s “Axis of Evil”, and since then he’s been written out of the story, basically. Well, as much story as there’s actually been (all three movies could reasonably have been made into one good, action packed one). I know he’s supposed to be dead, but that never stopped anyone before, and it’s weird that his name never even comes up.

This camp element could be fun, and a few of the actors go for it, but it’s so amateurishly acted in the main, poorly made and leadenly directed by Charles Band (garishly lit interiors, no visual flair at all) that it ends up not being that enjoyable. I can see what they were going for but I genuinely expected more from a guy who’s been making movies for over 30 years. He must have developed some directing chops, right?

While my first hope is that this franchise is now done with forever, I’m aware enough to know that’s not going to happen. I at least hope we can wave goodbye to this setting, which is among the more pointless cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac?) in horror franchise history and has never done anything remotely interesting (that wasn’t already done to much greater effect in part 3, also set during WW2 but with the benefit of a budget).

While it’s not as awful as “Axis Of Evil”, or “The Legacy” (which remains the most shameful pathetic rip-off of a movie we’ve covered at the ISCFC), it’s still bad. At least it’s short, scraping in at 74 minutes, with a decent amount of that being credits? Avoid, obviously, unless you’re a glutton for punishment.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – 2018 is set to bring us bizarre Puppet Master news – a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, called “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich”, starring Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Mattias Hues, Barbara Crampton and Michael Pare, among others! I mention it because I’m not entirely convinced it’s not just a joke or a tax dodge or something, but if it is released this year, we’ll be there to cover it.