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

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Hard Target (1993)

This is perhaps a bit too big and polished for us to review here at the ISCFC – directed by John Woo before he became a Chinese government propagandist, hefty budget, people you’ve heard of in starring roles – but they made a “sequel” last year starring Scott Adkins, and we love Scott Adkins, so we decided to watch this again for fun. If you’re a reader of this site, I’d be genuinely surprised if you’d not already seen it, so let’s take a wander through a real B-movie classic.

The presence of the cajun subculture in the USA is a huge boon to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s played one in multiple movies so he doesn’t have to hide his accent. He’s played characters like “Luc Devereaux” (the Universal Soldier series), “Frenchy”, “Philip Sauvage”, “Kyle LeBlanc” and here he’s “Chance Boudreaux”, the former soldier and now semi-drifter who’s brought into the orbit of Natasha “Nat” Binder (Yancy Butler, whose struggles with alcoholism aged her rather significantly so looks weirdly young here) pretty much by accident.

Nat is in New Orleans looking for her father, who she lost touch with many years ago. He was a former soldier who found life after the service to be difficult and slipped into a subculture of homelessness and infrequent labour; I’d say the movie had something interesting to say about how countries treat their soldiers but it’s all over the place politically, being vehemently anti-union too (the cop who helps them out, eventually, is the only scab as the rest of the police department is on strike).

We saw, though, from the first scene, that her father was killed by a group of scumbag “hunters”, led by Lance Henriksen with support from Arnold Vosloo (two actors with many, many ISCFC credits between them). Yes, it’s “The Most Dangerous Game” once again, as reviewed by us in “Death Chase”, “The Condemned” and “The Condemned 2”, “The Eliminator”, “Turkey Shoot”, “Deadly Run”, “Deadly Prey”, “Immortal Combat”, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten (as well as literally hundreds of movies we’ve not got round to covering yet), where wealthy people with an inexplicable desire to literally murder the underclass they’ve already successfully exploited pay a group of villains to help them hunt a person.

The cold open is one of these scenes, and it immediately poses a question. How excited would you be if your heavily armed, rested, well-trained group shot a completely defenceless, exhausted man? Because they all seem way too pleased at what they’ve done. Perhaps actual hunters are like that when they shoot a deer or whatever. “Look at me! I can kill things!”

But this is John Woo, who knows how to make an exciting action movie without too much rubbish in it, so it’s packed with incident. One of the friendly homeless former servicemen is picked as the next victim of the hunt, the villains discuss how they wait for a place to have problems (like a police strike, or a war) to move in and ply their trade undisturbed by the authorities, and Chance, Kat and the cop work their way through the underbelly of New Orleans to find what happened to Kat’s dad.

You know, of course, it’s going to be JCVD as the subject of the hunt at some point, but they don’t give it to us immediately because they have a plot and actors who can act and a budget and all the other things that ISCFC movies are almost always lacking. You want to see him kick a bunch of ass, and he does. There’s a combination of JCVD’s brilliant fight scenes of the time and Woo’s gun-battle expertise (Woo didn’t usually have a lot of hand-to-hand in his classic movies, if memory serves), and there’s rarely a dull moment.

Ted “brother of Sam” Raimi pops up in a brief cameo as a douchebag, and I was all “huh?” Then I checked the credits and Sam Raimi is one of the producers, along with Robert Tapert (the two of them have produced pretty much all Sam’s movies). How the hell did that happen?

Okay, I know how it happened, but it’s still a bit of a “huh?” answer. Due to John Woo’s limited command of English, Raimi was hired to oversee the production and take over direction if Woo was unable to direct the English crew. Makes sense until you think, why Sam Raimi? A possible answer is that he and Van Damme were thinking of working on another movie together a few years previously, and had perhaps become friends; given Van Damme’s cosmic-sized ego, maybe they wanted a friend on set in case he tried to take things over? I’d like to see a Raimi commentary on “Hard Target”, definitely.

I’ve not even mentioned Wilford Brimley and his super-unconvincing cajun accent; the scene where JCVD punches out a snake; or even the plot of the second half of the movie. Van Damme gets upset over the killing of his old friend Roper, the saintly homeless soldier who supplies the main cast with most of their information, and goes after Henriksen; he then offers some former clients the chance to hunt the ultimate prey for $750,000. Although after he shoots the first hunter for not being violent enough, if I was one of the other three guys, I’d have packed my guns up and gone home. Perhaps why I’m not a psychopath, maybe?

It’s a glorious movie, I reckon. All Woo’s trademarks are there – the doves, the slow motion, the bullet ballet – but it’s filtered through our favourite lunatic Belgian action hero. Apparently, Woo’s original cut was almost two hours long and focused much more on Henriksen (he and Arnold Vosloo, as his assistant, are fantastic together and I wish they’d done a lot more as a team) so JCVD and his editor locked themselves in a room for two days and cut it to the length we see now. I would love to see that version!

Every day where I don’t find out that Van Damme was a massive sex-pest in his prime is a good day; so I can still enjoy his classic movies, when studios gave him a budget, great co-stars and high-end directors (see also: Timecop, which we’ll cover soon). A true blending of Woo’s sensibilities with his star’s abilities, one of the great action movies of the era.

Rating: thumbs up

The ISCFC vs. Martial Arts franchises

The name value of a sequel seems higher in martial arts movies than it does in other genres, so luckily for us we get a lot more film series. Now, continuity isn’t important at all, so just about all of these movies could qualify for “unquel” status, but it’s best to ignore all that and just enjoy the punching, kicking and “acting”.

American Ninja

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Michael Dudikoff and David Bradley shoulder the starring work in this series, along with the late great Steve James as their perennial sidekick (because black people most definitely did not star in Cannon movies). Ninja-ism went from the most secret art in the world at the beginning to “literally everyone you meet will be a ninja” by the end.

American Ninja (1985)
American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)
American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)
American Ninja 4: The Annihilation (1991)
American Ninja 5 (1993)

Bloodfist

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Don “The Dragon” Wilson stars in the first 8 movies of this series. Given that his characters are all different and there’s noting to really tie them together, you could have picked any 8 movies from his career, renamed them (as they indeed did with films 7 and 8) and the result would be the same. Part 9 followed nearly a decade later with a diffrerent, better, star.

Bloodfist (1989)
Bloodfist 2 (1990)
Bloodfist 3: Forced To Fight (1992)
Bloodfist 4: Die Trying (1992)
Bloodfist 5: Human Target (1994)
Bloodfist 6: Ground Zero (1995)
Bloodfist 7: Manhunt (1996)
Bloodfist 8: Hard Way Out (1996)
Bloodfist 2050 (2005)

Bloodsport

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Dreamed up off the top of his head by Frank Dux, a man whose autobiography is apparently a tissue of lies, the “kumite” (secret underground martial arts tournament) is the driving force behind most of these movies. Jean-Claude Van Damme abandoned this series after the first movie and the rest of them starred Daniel Bernhardt, a surprisingly competent choice.

Bloodsport (1988)
Bloodsport 2 (1996)
Bloodsport 3 (1996)
Bloodsport 4 (1999)

 

The Circuit

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Olivier Gruner, who deserved better than being paired with director / producer Jalal Merhi for three movies, is Dirk Longstreet, former underground fight league champion turned teacher, who just keeps getting involved with fight-to-the-death style operations wherever he goes.

The Circuit (2002)
The Circuit 2: The Final Punch (2002)
The Circuit 3: Street Monk (2006)
(also released under the title “The Circuit 3: Final Flight”, obviously no-one told Merhi what the word”final” meant).

 

Kickboxer

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Another franchise abandoned by Jean-Claude Van Damme (yes, there’s a third as well), these films are usually about evil people wanting to set up their own to-the-death martial arts tournaments, often featuring Thai super-badass Tong Po. The last one is probably the best, but part 1 is decent too.

Kickboxer (1989)
Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991)
Kickboxer 3: The Art Of War (1993)
Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (1994)
Kickboxer 5: Redemption (1995)

No Retreat, No Surrender

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It took them several movies before they figured out that these were bad titles, given people retreated and surrendered all the damn time in them. No real reason for these to be a series – they have nothing in common with each other at all, and Loren Avedon (star of 2, 3 and 4) plays different characters in each. There’s also a weird bit of numbering at the end of the series. 2 is the best of the bunch, but 4 is fun too. This is the third of the franchises that JCVD ditched after the first installment.

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (1987)
No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers (1990)
No Retreat, No Surrender 4 (aka King Of The Kickboxers) (1991)
No Retreat, No Surrender 5 (aka American Shaolin) (1991)
King Of The Kickboxers 2 (aka Fighting Spirit) (1992)

 

Tiger Claws

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Jalal Merhi paid for his own film so he could star in it (there’s a 1:1 correlation between “films he produces” and “films he stars in”). He’s a charisma-vacuum of a cop who has to learn the super-secret Tiger Claws technique. Cynthia Rothrock is along pretty much as a spectactor and Loren Avedon pops up as the villain in the last one. These films are garbage.

Tiger Claws (1991)
Tiger Claws 2 (1997)
Tiger Claws 3 (2000)

Street Fighter (1994)

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Our series of films based on computer games continues (possible title: “Them’s Fighting Films”) with this, probably the most famous of the lot. Currently rated at 3.7 / 10 on IMDB and 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, how bad is it? Were reviewers and fans just upset this was Raul Julia’s final film?

The key to understanding this film comes, I think, from writer/director Steven E DeSouza. His writing credits include Arnie movies (“Commando”, “The Running Man”), action classics (both “48 Hrs” and the first two “Die Hard” movies), action not-so-classics (“Beverly Hills Cop 3”, the first and worst “Judge Dredd”) and, crucially to us, “Hudson Hawk”. That film’s OTT nature – acting, plot and colours – is the same here, and I think it could reasonably be said that this film is that one’s spiritual sequel. If that idea horrifies you, sorry to see you go; if if doesn’t, read on.

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Crisis in Shadaloo! Shadaloo is a country which seems like a mix of Thailand and Russia, and is home to the super-evil warlord General M Bison (Julia). He, along with henchman Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski, who we also loved in “Hudson Hawk”) and his red-and-black-clad soldiers, have kidnapped a large group of Westerners and the Allied Nations, led by Colonel Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme), want to put a stop to his reign of terror. Into this are dropped Ken and Ryu, a couple of hustlers who try and trick arms dealer Sagat and his sidekick Vega, aka “Mexican Hugh Jackman”; Chun Li, Balrog and E Honda, the presenter and crew of the CNN standin; and Bison’s kidnapped scientist Dhalsim and scientific experiment Blanka.

This represents the majority of the characters from “Street Fighter 2”, perhaps the best-regarded video fighting game of all time. There are a few others (Kylie Minogue plays Cammy, one of Guile’s lieutenants, for example), but…there are a lot of different versions of “Street Fighter 2”, with different characters and clothing styles and so on, and it’s a pretty dull street to wander down unless you really, really like the games. I’m sure some of those games have a story of some sort as well, but we’re far enough away from them to treat this movie as its own thing. Characters not from the games include the real Adrian Cronauer (the “Good Morning Vietnam” guy) as the Allied Nations radio announcer; and Simon Callow as an AN official. I do like a good British “luvvie” popping up in a film like this!

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The story is sort of fun – the fictitious setting allows the film to go all out, and Bison’s idea for “Bisonopolis” with all the ransom money is a splendidly ridiculous movie villain idea. It doesn’t particularly rely on the classic 1-on-1 fighting which means it can have non-fighters like Julia, Minogue and Ming-Na Wen (as Chun-Li) in prominent roles; although the fights they do have – E Honda vs. Zangief (who gets the two funniest lines in the whole movie) and the climactic Guile vs. Bison – are great. There’s also a healthy dose of in-jokes for fans of the game which don’t detract from the movie, such as the rather convoluted ways the characters end up in their “famous” gear. Effort has been taken, is what I’m saying.

Okay, it doesn’t all work. It’d have been nice if Ken and Ryu had been played by slightly stronger actors, it’s quite long for an action-comedy and Raul Julia looks visibly ill, which sort of puts a slight damper on proceedings, knowing it’s his final movie. But this is small potatoes and doesn’t explain just why this film was so poorly received, or why this and Hudson Hawk pretty much killed off Steven DeSouza’s career. My best guess is that films that are deliberately cartoonish and OTT, with big name actors hamming it up, really struggle. People expecting another “Die Hard” or a full-on martial arts movie might be initially disappointed by “Hudson Hawk” or this. Now, over 20 years later, there’s been so many snarky reviews from people who see its poor box office, that it’s never going to get a fair crack of the whip, and that’s a shame.

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It’s a fun film, full of great lines, one exchange that “Guardians of the Galaxy” ripped off (Bison saying “for me, it was Tuesday”) and deserves a rewatching with an open mind.

Rating: thumbs up

PS. While you’re watching this, just think about the woman who recorded all the sayings for Bison’s PA system. When she was saying “Hostage Pit is now open” do you think she wondered about her life choices?

Bloodsport (1988)

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Frank Dux is a lucky man. In an era like today, when fact-checking is almost instant, his rather wild life story would have been pulled apart in seconds; yet, growing up when he did, he was able to become a successful martial arts trainer, friend of celebs and bestselling author.

To quickly break it down – he almost certainly never fought in the kumite (the secret underground fighting tournament), as the address he gave for the organisation was his own home. The trophy he claims to have won was just bought at a local trophy store, as a reporter found the receipt. He almost certainly never trained with the famous ninjitsu master he claimed. His prior military service can’t be verified. Add that to the list of kumite records (a tournament there’s no evidence for the existence of outside Dux’s book) displayed at the end of the film that Dux apparently still holds, and you’ve got an impressive amount of lying.

But who cares? Jean Claude Van Damme is kicking ass! There’s a moderately confusing first ten minutes where he jumps forward and backward in time (the only clue is the hair), a jumble of scenes where he breaks into Master Tanaka’s house, gets his ass kicked by Tanaka’s son then becomes friends with him, gets trained by Tanaka himself, joins the army then comes back to see the dying Tanaka before heading off to Hong Kong for the kumite. This whole bit feels really weirdly edited – Tanaka’s son dies off screen, for reasons never stated, and did Tanaka win the kumite himself as a young man?

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The film is basically one big fighting competition with a few little scenes dotted around. Forest Whitaker, already a pretty famous actor by this point, must have fancied a few weeks holiday in the Far East, as he plays one of the two CIA agents tasked with taking Dux home – the only reason being is he’s so amazingly awesome a soldier, they can’t afford him dying in this tournament. Bit flimsy, eh? Then there’s a sexy reporter who wants to get the scoop on the kumite; the great Donald Gibb (“Ogre” from the Revenge of the Nerds movies) as another American competitor; a lot of funny little turns from “locals”, and Bolo Yeung, well-known to anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie, as Chong Li, the no.1 fighter in the kumite.

For most of the first 30 minutes, my wife was insisting we’d seen this before, fairly recently, but the problem was it’s just really similar to a lot of other movies. The montage! The insanely strong villain! The wacky best friend! The love interest! This film does manage to separate itself from the pack by having a healthy dose of racism in it – among a few other references, primarily it’s the chief black fighter doing an impression of a monkey (I guess he’s trying to do monkey style kung fu, but it looks nothing like that). Add a little sprinkling of sexism in there – the reporter is absolutely useless – and you’ve got yourself a 1980s martial arts movie.

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This all sounds like I hated it, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s so much fun! JCVD is having the time of his life, most notably in a scene where he evades the CIA agents in a chase through Hong Kong. He’s ripped in this movie like he never was before or since, too, and the camera loves him. The fighting is fun, the styles of the characters does tell sort of a story (when they can be bothered) and the ending is nice and satisfying. I did wonder why Chong Li, a man who’s killed several people in the kumite and cheated in the end, was so popular, but thinking that much about this awesome display of ass-kicking is a fool’s errand.

Rating: thumbs up

Kickboxer (1989)

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Welcome To The Jungle (2013)

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If you wanted to pick the most generic title possible for your film, then “Welcome To The Jungle” could be it – 5 other films and 22 TV episodes of various shows share the name. But none of them have Jean-Claude Van Damme returning to comedy, which makes this the best one.

It seems Chris (Adam Brody) has never seen any films or watched any TV, because he allows his immediate superior Phil (Rob Huebel) to steal his idea for some product packaging and win a big contract with it. Don’t be so dumb, Chris! Anyway, the packaging-design company they work for is full of weird and wonderful types – sleazy scumbag Phil; Jared (Eric Edelstein), Chris’s slobby friend; Brenda (Kristen Schaal), slightly typecast by now as the kooky one; Phil’s pathetic assistant Troy (Aaron Takahashi); and the beautiful but friendly Lisa (Megan Boone). Now, those of you who watch “The Blacklist” on TV might be expecting Ms. Boone to be a bit wooden, but she’s great here – perhaps the wig she’s forced to wear on that show for reasons unknown is putting her off her game.

Boss Dennis Haysbert decides, because businesses in films do stuff like this, to send them on a 2-day retreat to a deserted jungle-covered island, with tour guide / former army guy Storm (JCVD) and that’s where the magic happens. The pilot of the plane dies almost immediately, the radio doesn’t work, Storm gets savaged by a tiger and disappears, and the poisoned meat / hallucinogenic tea that everyone but Chris, Jared, Brenda and Lisa eat and drink turns them from mild-mannered office drones into a Lord Of The Flies sort of group, only one that has orgies. Can our four heroes save the day? How fortunate is it that Chris used to be a scout and Jared was a radio ham?

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The problem with this film isn’t the cast. Huebel and Schaal are both talented comedians so they lift all their scenes, Adam Brody is good too as the sad office guy who needs to discover his backbone, save the day and win the girl, Boone is fine, and JCVD mocks his own film persona very cleverly, and can absolutely do comedy.

The problem is most definitely the script and direction. I like the way that Phil’s group turn into savages so quickly (they build a huge statue of him on a hilltop within a day of them landing there) but they go that far then sort of stop, and if anything turn the craziness down a little. There’s a weirdly scatological bent running through the film, too – Schaal has a monologue about how much she wants to take a shit, a corpse gets accidentally urinated on, and so on. Swearing is used in place of jokes once too often (and I like swearing just fine).

I picture Huebel, Schaal and Brody getting together every night after filming and wishing they could rewrite the script, because they’re ill-served by it all. It could do with being a lot weirder or a lot less weird, I think (I had an idea about how the main cast members crash-land on an island, and the rest of the cast is another office team, that got stranded there a year ago and have turned native, which would solve some of the problems…but no-one likes an armchair quarterback, sorry).

It’s almost great. There are plenty of laughs in it, a decent cast and an interesting, if fairly predictable, premise. JCVD is underused, but when he’s there he’s brilliant. If he ever gets bored of kicking ass in low-budget films made in Eastern Europe, I predict a decent sitcom role for him…I just wish the film overall was that little bit better. If your heart is set on a film about office workers trapped in a wilderness environment, then “Severance” is the film for you.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Ninja (2009)

Before we get started, you might like to read this article. While some of it, from the excellent Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, is slightly OTT clickbait-style journalism (of course, I would never CHRISTINA HENDRICKS NUDE PICS do that) there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the modern world of direct-to-video action films.

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Sofia in Bulgaria is the central city to this new world, and it’s one where people like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to make the same sort of films they used to back in the 80s and early 90s, and where action films are treated as serious business, not as a faintly embarrassing joke of the recent past, “Expendables” style. It even has its big names – directors like Isaac Florentine, and stars like Scott Adkins, who went from martial artist to bit part player in British soaps to “bad guy 3” in some fairly big films (he was in The Expendables 2, as JCVD’s sidekick) to starring in his own films. We reviewed his surprisingly good Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning some time ago.

Adkins and Florentine have worked together on six films now, “Ninja” being the fourth. It must make certain things easier, knowing your leading man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it shows here. Adkins is Casey Bowman, an orphan who was raised in a dojo in Japan. He becomes one of the best martial artists there, even if according to my wife it looks like he spent a bit too much time on his muscles, with his main rival for the soon-to-retire Sensei’s position is Masazuka. The two of them are strong, but in different areas, and in classic kung-fu film style, the ultimate victor will be the one who learns most from the other.

There’s a huge MacGuffin in this film, the Yoroi Bitsu, a big case containing all the best martial arts kit. Or something. It’s really not important. Masazuka is thrown out of the dojo for losing his temper, goes away and trains as a ninja, becoming a hired assassin for a group of shadowy businessmen at Temple Industries. They hire him to steal the Yoroi Bitsu, but the sensei sends it with Casey and his daughter Namiko to New York to hide, and that’s where the majority of the film takes place. Temple’s thugs, known as “The Ring”, pursue Casey, and after Masazuka kills the sensei he joins in too.

First and foremost, this film is exciting. If you’re a fan of action movies at all, you’ll remember that moment, whether it was “Commando”, “Kickboxer”, “Cobra” or “Die Hard”, where some sequence had you completely fixated, where the artistry of the fighting and the staging of it had you cheering at the end (even if you were only cheering in your head). “Ninja” has tons of those moments, including the increasingly-famous subway fight scene and a few other set pieces that are just brilliant. Considering the extremely low budget (the New York city street is very obviously a set, and the subway trains are old Russian ones), the quality of the fight scenes is even more impressive.

A lot is made in reviews of action cinema about a sense of place, knowing where people are in relation to each other and how that affects the way the scene unfolds. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until it’s done well, as Florentine has undoubtedly done here – there’s no shaky cam, no people suddenly beaming across large rooms to get involved in fights they were nowhere near. With a lead guy like Adkins, who can do pretty much everything asked of him in terms of stunts and fighting, it makes it a lot easier too. Heck, he can even act! He’s unlikely to win any Oscars, but so what? He does what is needed.

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The plot is pretty paper-thin though, if we’re being honest. From the reason Adkins was left in a Japanese dojo, to the evil plan of the Temple Corporation, to the rather crowbarred-in nature of some of the fight scenes; it exists mostly to hang the action on. The romantic subplot, while necessary to give Casey something to worry about in the amazing final fight, is a bit underdeveloped, and Masazuka’s expression is pure evil from the start, leaving his betrayal as less than a surprise. But if you watch a film called “Ninja”, starring a guy like Scott Adkins, and are worried about the romance element, then I suggest you’re doing it wrong. There’s an argument to be made that low-budget martial arts films are more highlight reel than actual movie; I choose to look at it a different way. Hollywood action movies are about marvelling at the amount of money spent on a scene, or getting a headache at the shaky-cam usage – the action has become secondary. A simple plot isn’t necessarily a bad plot.

“Ninja” is great, dramatic, exciting in a way few films are these days, and if you’ve got love for old-school action films at all, you’ll enjoy this one.