Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Last May, I devoted nineteen days to reviewing the cinema of Jean-Claude Van Damme. I called this event the JCVD-A-THON. In the months since then, I've appeared on a podcast devoted to this same topic twice and seen a few of Van Damme's other films. Despite this, I only scratched the surface of Van Damme's kicking-and-splitting filled filmography. Consider JCVD-A-THON: THE RETURN the advance class in Van Dammage.

This marathon will focus on the more obscure corners of Van Damme's career. I'll be watching and reviewing his early films as well as some odds and ends from his years on top. Otherwise, The Return will mostly be a journey through the Muscles from Brussel's years in Direct-To-Video Purgatory. This is either the best idea I've ever had or worst idea I've ever had. The checklist will be returning as well. Let's get kicking!

In 1984, “The Karate Kid” was released. The film would become a big hit, John G. Avildsen successfully updating his “Rocky” formula and creating one of the most iconic films of the decade in the process. Sometime after that, Corey Yuen – a Hong Kong stuntman and actor who was getting into directing – saw the film. Legend has it, Yuen liked “The Karate Kid” but thought the fight scenes could be better. Afterwards, Yuen would direct “No Retreat, No Surrender.” Yuen's film would curb generously from Avildsen's film. It would also be the second credited screen appearance of a young, hungry, and extremely talented Belgian martial artist named Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Our story begins in California and follows teenager Jason Stillwell. Jason's dad owns a dojo. This is a good thing because Jason is fucking obsessed with martial arts. Specifically, he idolizes Bruce Lee with an almost religious awe. One night, a group of thugs from a crime syndicate enter the dojo and threaten Stillwell's dad for protection money. After he refuses to pay up, dad's leg is snapped. The family moves to Seattle. There, Jason finds friends and enemies. He also struggles with his father's new-found pacifist ways. Despite his dad's wishes, Jason continues to train in secret. This comes in handy when the same crime syndicate thugs appear at a local fight.

“No Retreat, No Surrender” is pure eighties cheese. We're talking a big, stinky slice here. The fashion is heavy on the pastels, headbands, hair spray, and short-shorts. The soundtrack is composed entirely of synth. Jason's training montage is scored to an inspiration rock song. “Hold On to the Vision” is no “You're the Best” but it's still pretty catchy. There's some casual anti-Soviet content, as Van Damme's villain is Russian for no reason. There's a girl Jason likes, an asshole who wants to sleep with her, and a slovenly bully. The movie isn't content just being a cheesy, eighties karate movie. It's also a cheesy eighties break dancing movie! Jason's black best friend – of course! – is super into dancing. He competes in a dance contest where everyone is dressed up as Michael Jackson. Sadly, as hilarious as this campy stuff is, it doesn't distract from “No Retreat, No Surrender's” far too laid back pacing.

Being an eighties action movie, “No Retreat, No Surrender” is also dripping with gay subtext. Jason and R.J. are close. Really close. While visiting a dojo, the two enter a changing room. Jason leaves wearing his gi, suggesting his best buddy watched him changed. One of Jason's exercise involves elevated crunches. With R.J. sitting on his crotch. While he thrusts up. As gay as Jason is for R.J., his sweatiest man crush is on someone else. Jason decorates his training space with pictures of Bruce Lee's glistening pectorals. He visits Lee's grave, especially during moments of stress. After his father is enraged by Jason continuing to study martial arts, his dad tears down his Bruce Lee posters, enraging the boy. Jason feels so connected to Lee that, in the film's weirdest twist, the ghost of Bruce Lee appears to him, training him. The film leaves its ambiguous over whether Jason is imagining the whole thing or if Lee's spirit really has returned from the grave. Either scenario suggests that the boy's Lee fixation is a bit too intense.

The performances are pretty obnoxious. Kurt McKinney plays Jason as a moody asshole. J.W. Fails is hilariously campy as R.J. Kent Lipham is irritating as tubby bully Scott. But who cares about those guys? What about Van Damme? Jean-Claude is only in a handful of scenes but he makes them count. Within the first ten minutes, he's already deployed a spinning roundhouse kick. By the final fight, he's effortlessly drop kicking people out of the ring, screaming, taking his shirt off, and doing totally unnecessary splits. In other words, even this early on, Van Damme's trademarks were in place. He doesn't have much dialogue, leading to a primarily physical performance. This perfectly suits Van Damme's skills at the time, as his acting was still green but his ass-kicking, and physical presence, was very strong. (I do have to give JCVD some credit for attempting a Russian accent, even if it frequently slips.)

Aside from the goofy eighties nonsense, the fight scenes are easily the highlight of “No Retreat, No Surrender.” Each one is incredibly quick, the blows hitting with a clear ferocity. There's lots of elaborate blocking, striking, and kicking. The film really finds any excuse to throw in a fight scene. After renouncing his karate ways, Jason's dad ends up in a bar fight, throwing a guy against the wall. The next day, the thugs retaliate, forcing him to team up with his son for a random parking lot battle. Obviously, Van Damme's fights are the best. A clever gag has him flipping his opponents through the ropes. His brutality is established when he strangles a fighter with a loose strap. Say what you will about the writing, acting, and general presentation but “No Retreat, No Surrender” knows which side of its bread to butter.

“No Retreat, No Surrender” would only gross four million dollars in 1986 but that was clearly enough to qualify it as a success. The film would spawn two unrelated sequels, both starring Loren Avedon. (The second of which is actually a “Rambo” rip-off.) Corey Yuen would go on to a hugely successful career, directing a long string of movies, including some of Jet Li's best films. He was still working as an action coordinator, in both America and Hong Kong, as recently as last year. And Van Damme, of course, would go on to bigger and better things. I don't know what Kurt McKinney is up to now. The film is a fairly forgettable eighties artifact but the legacies it would launch are more notable. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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