Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 22, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

Two of Van Damme's most iconic films, “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer,” both launched franchises. The “Bloodsport” series totaled four films while “Kickboxer” made it all the way to five. Being a soon-to-be superstar at the time, Jean-Claude was not interested in appearing in these sequels. These continuations had to make do with Faux Van Dammes, like Daniel Bernhardt or Sasha Mitchell. Things were a little difference in 2016. When “Kickboxer” was randomly chosen as the next long-dormant franchise to be rebooted, Van Damme was eager to appear. This worked out well for both parties. “Kickboxer: Vengeance” gave the star a chance to reprise one of his best known films. Meanwhile, Van Damme's presence lent the remake more credibility. This tactic seemed to work, as “Kickboxer: Vengeance” was about as well received as a film like this could be.

The subtitle may give you the impression that “Kickboxer: Vengeance” is more reboot than remake. In actuality, the film directly follows the beats of the original with a few modern updates. Eric Sloan is a champion kickboxer, trained and watched over by his younger brother, Kurt. A shady fight promoter extends a deal to Eric to fight in Thailand. Soon enough, Kurt faces off against Tong Po, the local champion. Po's fighting style is brutal. So brutal that he beats Eric to death on the mat. Eric tracks down Tong Po, eager to seek revenge, but gets arrested by the cops. Released, he seeks out Durand, Eric's trainer, and begins to prepare for a duel to the death with Tong Po.

As I said, “Vengeance” is a direct remake of the original “Kickboxer.” The film takes the story into dark and gritty territories. Instead of just beating Eric into a wheelchair, Tong Po outright murders him. The villain's role gets a general expansion, as he's now the cult-like leader of a Muay Tai training retreat.  Kurt doesn't merely seek to best his rival in the ring but expects to kill him. Similarly, the trainer is given a bigger role, participating more in the action sequences. In some ways, “Vengeance” is much grimmer than the film it's remaking. The drunken dance sequence is replaced with an extended bar room brawl. Yet 2017's “Kickboxer” is funnier than you'd expect. The training scenes are still played for laughs. The film pays off on many of the campy expectations you might have. There's even a halfway decent romance, which is a big improvement over the original.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” fills its cast with both familiar and new faces. Perhaps hoping to replicate Van Damme's career, the film stars a martial artist attempting to break into acting. Alain Moussi has worked on a number of high-profile projects as a stuntman, including the last two “X-Men” movies. He apparently operates a dojo in his native Ottawa. As an actor, Moussi does okay. He's occasionally a bit stiff but, as the film goes on, he displays a decent sense of humor about himself. As a fighter, he's more than capable. I'm not saying the guy is the next Van Damme but he does alright. He also has surprisingly decent chemistry with Sara Malakul Lane, who is fairly capable in a slightly more complex than usual love interest role. Also appearing in the film is Georges St-Pierre, a Canadian MMA fighter of some renown. St-Pierre's acting is pretty broad but he has a goofy, affable presence that works well in his few scenes.

However, the familiar faces ultimately make more of an impression. Obviously looking to capitalize on Van Damme's presence, the trainer character is elevated to secondary protagonist. Jean-Claude is having a good time, smiling a lot, joking around with his young pupil. At the same time, he brings a renewed physicality to his action scenes, never letting you forget he's a legendary performer. (Though his voice appears to be dubbed by another actor in several scenes, which is a baffling decision.) Dave Batista is also excellent as Tong Po. Batista has successfully expanded beyond his pro-wrestling past, with his unexpectedly strong performances in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. As Tong Po, Batista is physically intimidating. Yet he also brings an odd sense of honor to the part, making him a little more than your standard movie bad guy. Gina Carano also appears but, disappointingly, she doesn't participate in the fighting.

Most importantly, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” features some pretty great action sequences. The fights are more acrobatic than the original. Kurt and one of Tong Po's followers frequently performing spinning leg-locks on their opponents, leaping around the other fighters in an impressively visual way.  The fights tend to alternate between brutal and playful. The bar room brawl involves Kurt getting his ass kicked, smashed across tables and slammed, face-first, into a jukebox. A cool scene involves a tracking shot, Kurt rushing into Tong Po's temple and beating his opponents away. Naturally, the final fight between the hero and villain features lots of bloodshed and savage beatings. On the playful sight, a hilarious scene has Kurt and Durand escaping from a jail. It ends with Van Damme kicking two different guys through two separate sheets of glass. That got a big cheer from me. Director John Stockwell – yes, the dude from “Christine” – has a solid grasp on action direction.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” functions solidly as a modern day action-fest. Yet it's self-aware enough to conclude with a reprisal of the original's dance sequence. Honestly, I might have liked the remake as much as I did strictly because it gave Van Damme so much to do. Usually, you'd expect the original's star to have a small role in a remake. Instead, he's kicking butt alongside the hero! It's a good thing that the remake turned out so well, because a sequel has already been announced. “Kickboxer: Retaliation” is already in the can, with a planned release date later in the year. A third film is expected to appear after that. Van Damme is on-board for both of those, which gives me hope they'll be equally strong. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] 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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