Thursday, May 12, 2016
JCVD-A-THON: Kickboxer (1980)
Kickboxer.” I would hope that would be an easily forgiven mistake. In both, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a kickboxer, competing in an exotic Asian country. In both, someone close to the hero is injured by an intimidating villain, causing Van Damme to seek revenge. Both movies even have Stan Bush singing the theme song! The big difference is that Van Damme co-wrote the story for “Kickboxer.” Thus “Kickboxer” gives us insight into JCVD’s mind, giving us his version of the hit film he starred in only a year earlier.
Eric Sloane is a cocky, successful American kickboxer. His younger (and inexplicably Belgium) brother Kurt is his trainer. The two travel to Taiwan to challenge the kickboxing champion, Tong Po. Eric is unprepared for Tong Po’s brute strength. Po beats Eric so badly it paralyzes him. Kurt feels responsible for Eric’s injury. He stays in Taiwan, training with a local Muay Tai master named Xian Chow, even romancing the man’s niece. Soon, Kurt is in the ring with Tong Po, seeking to avenge his brother and defeat the villain.
Speaking of dancing! “Kickboxer” didn’t immediately win me over, with its slower pace and blatant reliance on what came before. That quickly changed. About a half-hour in, “Kickboxer” features a scene of giddy, ridiculous hilarity. For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Chow takes Kurt to a bar. He gets the guy drunk and makes him dance. Van Damme performs a shamelessly goofy dance number with two women. Quickly, a fight scene explodes that has the intoxicated Kurt performing splits, roundhouse kicks, jump-kicks, slamming people into tables and walls. “Kickboxer” hardly lacks in humor. Dennis Alexio plays Eric Sloane as a cocky asshole, which his greasy mustache emphasizes. Though he’s wheelchair bound for most of the film, that doesn’t stop Alexio from beating up a few guys. During fight scenes, Kurt gets pumped up by imagining falcons and ancient Thai warriors. The jokes, both the intentional and accidental types, keep “Kickboxer” goofy and fun.
Fight for Love.” Van Damme’s wardrobe mostly consists of skin-tight muscle shirts, denim vests worn over his bare chest, and loincloths. Not to mention about sixty gallons of generously applied baby oil. Yeah, Kurt has a female love interest but their relationship is chaste and innocent, never going further then kissing. His love for his brother is what truly motivates the plot.
I don’t know if “Kickboxer” was consciously designed to one-up “Bloodsport,” by adding bigger action beats. Considering how closely the two were produced, it seems unlikely. Yet certain elements suggest as much. “Kickboxer” isn’t just devoted to kickboxing. Tong Po’s boxing career is managed by the local mafia. Late in the film, Chow and the black cabdriver Kurt befriends take the fight to the mob. The cabdriver bursts in with a machine gun and a grenade launcher. Chow, meanwhile, eviscerates a guy with a meat hook. Tong Po seems designed to be even more evil then Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li. He’s not just a massive Asian guy who beats the crap out of his opponents and will do anything to win. He’s also a mobster and a rapist, the latter of which he inflicts on Kurt’s girlfriend. The film takes an already over-the-top concept and pushes it even further into the realms of eighties camp.
Another aspect “Kickboxer” has in common with “Bloodsport” is a long line of direct-to-video sequels. While Daniel Bernhardt – the superior Van Damme rip-off – headlined the three “Bloodsport” sequels, “Kickboxer” two through four had to settle for Sasha “The Guy Who Lived in the Van on “Step By Step”” Mitchell. (Even he opted out of part five.) Now a remake, with Van Damme perfectly cast as the secluded master, is set for release later this year. Comparisons to “Bloodsport” are unavoidable. While the later film doesn’t quite reach the campy ecstasy of that JCVD masterpiece, “Kickboxer” comes awfully damn close. [8/10]
[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 5 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick