Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 12, 2016

JCVD-A-THON: Kickboxer (1980)

For years, I would confuse “Bloodsport” and “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.

To Van Damme devotees, “Kickboxer” is most sought for the action star’s developing eccentricities. Since the man himself partially wrote the script, it seems likely that parts of “Kickboxer” were designed to show off Van Damme’s range. Kurt Sloane experiences quite a lot of loss throughout the story. He watches his brother get paralyzed, he goes through a violent training regiment, he falls in love, his girlfriend gets raped, and he’s brutally beaten by his archenemy. However, Van Damme’s skill as an actor still had a long way to go. His blank stares and overwrought screams of emotion often produce chuckles. Despite its dark story, “Kickboxer” has more (intentional) humor then Jean-Claude’s previous flicks, in scenes involving dogs and coconuts. The script also, smartly, introduces more supporting characters for the star to play off of. This draws more attention to his unique qualities: His European sensibility, odd humanity, and dancer’s physicality.

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.

And those on the look-out for gay subtext won’t be disappointed either. Kurt and Eric act less like brothers and more like lovers. They’re constantly touching and hugging each other. Upon arriving in Bangkok, they spot a trio of naked boys playing in a river, which Kurt takes a picture of. After Eric’s injury, Kurt’s guilt is backed-up by a Stan Bush song called “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.

As silly as “Kickboxer” is, those fight scenes are still brutal. The film opens in the ring, Eric delivering swift punches to the head and chest of his opponent. His fight with Tong Po is brief, as the bad guy quickly reduces Eric to jelly with vicious punches and punishing kicks. The film builds up to Kurt’s showdown with Po. When the final showdown comes, both fighters dip their fists in shattered glass. Moreover, the gangsters inform Sloane to take a dive in the fight. What follows is quite a lot of punches and kicks to the face, bloody slashes, and uncompromising beatings. That is until Kurt’s girlfriend and mentor start to cheer for him, given the needed power-up to conquer his opponent. All that violence slips away into eighties action bliss as the hero celebrates his victory to the synth strings of “Never Surrender.” Truly, he has the heart of a hero.

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 threeBloodsportsequels, “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] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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