No Retreat, No Surrender 5 (aka American Shaolin) (1991)

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Not only does this film rip off “The Karate Kid” and “Kickboxer”, but it pulls the rare trick of expecting the viewer to have seen them too, because it doesn’t supply you with any of the backstory or plot beats that these films are traditionally known for.

We’re at the end of the “No Retreat, No Surrender” series, but we might just do one more after this – “Fighting Spirit”, a 1992 Loren Avedon film, had its name changed to “King of the Kickboxers 2” for its DVD release, which would make it the sequel to “King of the Kickboxers”, aka “No Retreat, No Surrender 4”. But this movie’s alternate title is also “King of the Kickboxers 2”. I think we’re expected to be confused as viewers?

Drew is a martial artist, but at a local tournament gets humiliated by evil champion Trevor Gottitall (great name, great character), by having his trousers pulled down. Rather than play it off, he freaks out and moves to China to become a shaolin monk, for reasons which are flimsy at best and non-existent at worst. We’re then treated to a montage which made my (American) wife suggest changing the title of this to “The Ugly American” – he fulfils every negative stereotype about Americans abroad, and in such a short amount of time!

Anyway, the temple refuses to take him in, so he sits outside for…days? weeks?…until he’s accepted with a huge new class of teenagers who want to become monks. I’m going to pause things there for a moment. Drew is a New Yorker, and if he were interested in learning the ways of the shaolin, perhaps a more sensible way would have been to go to their temple in Manhattan? Or the one in San Fransisco, if he fancied a change of scenery? Or, at the very least, to learn anything about the shaolin philosophy?

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He immediately rebels against his stern teachers, because that’s what you’re expected to do in these movies, earning himself a small group of friends and some enemies – most interesting to us, Gao, played by Daniel Dae Kim in his movie debut. If you’re wondering “no-one’s forcing him to be there, if he hates it, why doesn’t he leave?” then you’ve already put more thought into this than the people who made it.

This training goes on forever, but Drew gets the chance to be a dick a whole bunch more times, then introduces the monks to Playboy, dancing badly, pop music and parties with girls. It’s around now that we get “Shaolin Temple Blues”, the movie’s alternate version of “Summertime Blues”. But they don’t do anything stupid like change the lyrics to reflect the movie, they just change the title. Lyrics are hard work, you guys!

“Lazy” is the best way to describe this. It’s way too long, for one thing – trashy fighting movies like this should not go more than 90 minutes; the final fight appears to exist in some world where martial arts tournaments don’t have referees, or rules, or security; and for such a long film, too little time is spent at the beginning establishing the stakes for the movie. Trevor the villain is only on screen for a few minutes, and there’s zero sense of Drew’s life or why he’d want to up and move to China. Plus the fighting’s rubbish, slow and old-fashioned, feeling like a bad 70s Hong Kong movie.

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If I was a believer in the ancient Shaolin faith, I’d probably think this was the year’s best comedy, but it’s really just no good. Yet again, this series was plagued by a “difficult” leading man – scriptwriter Keith Strandberg says this was his most difficult experience in the industry, and Reese Madigan (Drew) has barely worked since – but worst of all, it seems like no-one was really bothered, like they made the minimum effort possible.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – For those of you who like imagining stuff like this, the leading man was nearly Jason Bateman, but he turned down the role due to not wanting to shave his head. That might have been a fun movie.

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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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Youtube Film Club – Dragon From Russia (1990)

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Why is it that being really good at martial arts gives you the ability to pretty much fly? I feel we accept a lot from our old-school wire-fu films, one of those things being people just bounce around, have fights in mid-air, and so on. It’s one of the things that seemed cool as a kid and now seems a bit odd, but enough of my prejudices.

I will now give a recap of this film, both to show the plot doesn’t really matter in kung-fu films, and also to demonstrate how even if it did matter, it makes absolutely no sense. A guy called Joe, a girl called…nope, can’t remember, but she was played by Maggie Cheung, lovely lovely Maggie Cheung…and another girl called Queenie, are orphans, raised by a man whose name is, I believe, Snooker. Snooker! They live in Russia, but for some reason are forced to get on a train to go to Hong Kong; the train is raided by some badass masked killer types who kidnap Joe, take him to a guy’s dojo out in the middle of nowhere and train him to be an assassin. While doing his assassin-y thing, he keeps running into Ms Cheung, his former girlfriend, but as he’s lost his memory he’s got no idea who she is.

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Then the trainer’s other assassins and him get in a fight, I think, and the police are tracking Joe down, and there’s some other people after him as well, and who want the assassin school shut down (understandably). Joe has to go and confront his old trainer, rescue his girlfriend (who seems to get shot in the middle of the film and dies, but that must just be someone who looks a lot like her, who had the same woman dubbing her voice).

Admittedly, I wasn’t paying the closest attention, and it’s a pretty well-regarded film in some circles, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. And the worst thing is, fight scenes have moved on. Back in 1990, this was certainly state-of-the-art, but we’ve had the good fortune of fighting movies becoming big business since then, and martial arts films have come on in leaps and bounds. Nothing really looks like it hurts in this film – every punch and kick is laughed off, and people barely ever have a scratch on them after a huge fight to the death.

I might be misrepresenting the culture of this sort of film, and I’m sure afficionados would look down their nose at the new crop of fighting movies coming out of Eastern Europe. But to a film-literate outsider such as me, this looks like the product of a very different time. There’s stuff like the 20 minutes of weird knockabout comedy as he trains with his new master – an extremely evil man who plans assassinations for a living, lest we forget – and the way that the women in this film all look…and please don’t take this the wrong way, dear reader…very alike, to the point where I could identify Maggie Cheung, just about, and the main villainess, but everyone else might as well have been one character (and may well have been).

The reason you’re likely to have heard of this film is due to it being sold in the UK as a box set with “City Hunter”, the Jackie Chan classic, and “The Story of Ricky”, perhaps the most insanely over-the-top film ever made. Compared to those two, this sadly pales in comparison, and unless you’re in a really good mood, I’d suggest going elsewhere.

Rating: thumbs down