Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Film Review: KICKBOXER (1989, Mark DiSalle & David Worth)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jean-Claude Van Damme (BLOODSPORT, CYBORG, DOUBLE IMPACT), Dennis Alexio (PICASSO TRIGGER), Dennis Chan (KICKBOXER 2, KICKBOXER 3), Michael Qissi (LIONHEART, BLOODSPORT), Haskell V. Anderson (A CIVIL ACTION, THIS CHRISTMAS), Rochelle Ashana (FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2, BLADE). Music by Paul Herztog (HOLLYWOOD ZAP, BLOODSPORT). Directed by Mark DiSalle (THE PERFECT WEAPON, co-producer of BLOODSPORT) and David Worth (POOR PRETTY EDDIE, SHARK ATTACK 3, CHAIN OF COMMAND). Written by Worth, Van Damme, and Glenn A. Bruce (ASSAULTED NUTS, BAYWATCH, CYBORG COP).
Tagline: "If your enemy refuses to be humbled...Destroy Him!"
Best one-liner: "I want Tong Po! GIVE ME TONG PO!"

Brought to you by many of the luminaries who gave birth to BLOODSPORT (which I have amply discussed HERE) and distributed by those heroes of the 1980s, Cannon Films, KICKBOXER is another seminal film which devotes the majority of its run-time to astounding and delighting its audience with the ecstatic visual poetry of toes being jammed into bloodied faces:

and homoerotic leg stretch exercises courtesy of the Splitmaestro himself:

Perhaps this sounds an awful lot like BLOODSPORT to you. You couldn't be more wrong. KICKBOXER stands on its own. Er, rather, it kneels on its own as it prepares to erupt with a forthcoming low-blow. I mean, let's compare random screengrabs from BLOODSPORT and KICKBOXER, and then I'll contrast them to illustrate my point.



Grab A is clearly from BLOODSPORT. Those blurry background spectators are clearly watching a Kumite, while in Grab B, they're clearly watching a Muay Thai match. I suppose I could see how the uninitiated might find differences to be a bit subtle, but it's all in the levels of crowd enthusiasm, and in BLOODSPORT they're waving around Hong Kong money, and in KICKBOXER it's Thai currency. And then, look at the lighting– BLOODSPORT is photographed like a sporting event you'd see on TV. KICKBOXER is much more influenced by Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts of the Seventeenth Century. Not to mention that the loincloths are completely unalike. I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I'll regale you with my Lucky 13 Favorite Facets of the Gem that is KICKBOXER:

#1. As if it wasn't already unfortunate enough that Thailand is often reductively associated with child prostitution/sex tourism, within the first three minutes of KICKBOXER, Jean-Claude is delightedly taking photographs of naked Thai children.

And wait– is that a sleeveless jeans jacket? And the lyrics to this schweet n' synthy song go "Cruisin' down the streets in Si-am/Every-body loves a winner!" Hold up one sec–

Sorry, I'm always mixing up these DVDs, and I seem to have mislaid the disc for CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC inside the KICKBOXER case.

Er, wait– no, that's KICKBOXER, alright. Try not to strain anything, guys!

#2. The devastating opening match whereupon Van Damme's brother is paralyzed by Tong Po and he must swear revenge. WATCH Van Damme literally throw in the towel, only to have it KICKED back by the completely evil Tong Po who has zero respect for Van Damme's particular brand of Belgian-American sincerity.

The 'ole Back-Breaker is executed as Van Damme screams from the sidelines in abject misery:


And then the weight of it all sinks it: Van Damme is a broken man, and he lets the sensation of loss wash over him. Brando may have trained with Lee Strasberg, but Van Damme trained with Golan and Globus. Each have achieved their own particular emotional heights and depths in the annals of film history, but only Van Damme can do it inside or outside a Muay Thai ring with equal mastery.

Outside the ring emotion:

Eventual inside the ring emotion:

#3. Haskell V. Anderson, and exposition, exposition, exposition.

JCVD always needs some sidekicks, and a pretty damned notable one here is Haskell V. Anderson, photographed here relaxing against a wood-beaded seat cover. (Whatever happened to those, anyway?) Haskell plays a sleazy ex-Special Forces 'Nam vet who just might have a heart of gold under that mercenary, strip-club frequenting, heavy boozing, toothpick-gnawing exterior. The screenplay of KICKBOXER wastes no time with subtlety, and within moments of meeting him, he's saying things like "By the way, my name's Taylor, Special Forces." And shortly after that, things like "I had a buddy in 'Nam. He needed me once, and I could have saved him, but I froze." Instant character! It just flows forth from their mouths. I like that. It's like those pill-shaped "Instant Animals" I had as a kid; you stuck 'em in a glass of water, and they grew into miniature foam creatures overnight. That's what the supporting characters are like in a JCVD flick– just add water, and all of a sudden they're growin'– spouting exposition and character development and deep-seated secrets! I love it.

Also of note: it's revealed later that Taylor is well-known for his specialty quiches.

#4. Underwater Kung Fu or Tai Chi or Muay Thai, or whatever he's supposed to be doing.

Because you're just not going to see this sort of thing anywhere else.

#5. This particular training montage, which involves dropping gourds from great heights onto JCVD's abs. Note the impeccable comic timing.

#6. The training method which involves tying raw meat to JCVD's leg as he attempts to outrun a dog.

The close-up reveals that he's wearing community theater "urchin" shorts, carefully scissored immediately prior to this take for that authentic, "well-worn" look.

Also, he becomes friends with the dog later, and they speak at length.

#7. Paul Hertzog's soundtrack, which echoes, but does not copy, his masterful work on BLOODSPORT. "Fight for Love" is excellent, as is the aforementioned "Cruisin' in Siam."

#8. The fact that they actually filmed on location in Thailand. It lends the film an actual touch of class. Today they'd just green-screen it, but here they're actually training at ancient temples.

It's described by a character as "like Shangri-La meets Alice in Wonderland," and ya know what, they're right.

#9. This eagle.

This eagle ends up being a main character, and delivers one of the most stoic, nuanced performances in the film. Let me repeat that: this eagle becomes a main character.

#10. This scene of pure brilliance which is probably the artistic centerpiece of the film. JCVD, who plays a tee-totaler throughout, is told by his master to drink a beverage entitled the "Kiss of Death" and then hit the dance floor to groove with some local ladies. A brawl ensues, splits are involved, and, well, just watch the damn thing:

Now here's my hypothetical question: why did the men attack? Your hypothetical answer is probably "because they were put up to it by the local Muay Thai-organizing crime syndicate." But allow me to float a different, bolder answer: perhaps is it because he was ignoring the local croozin' dudes and dancing with the hags at the village gay bar? Ah, but who can say.

#11. The stakes, which are raised hilariously and exponentially throughout. JCVD isn't just fighting to avenge his paraplegic brother. He's fighting to keep him alive, after he's been kidnapped by the local Muay Thai syndicate who say they'll kill him if he doesn't A., Throw the fight, and B., Go the distance! And he's also fighting to avenge his girlfriend's honor after she's been raped and beaten by Tong Po! You're left wondering if perhaps Tong Po is about to fly to Belgium to push Jean-Claude's grandmother down some stairs before the big fight, too. Alas, it doesn't pan out.

#12. Ass-kickin' paraplegia.

On a related note, Taylor, JCVD's mentor Xian Chow, and his paralyzed bro Eric team up to kill the syndicate captors in a fight which runs concurrently with the final kickboxing match.

A henchman takes a meat-hook to the balls, which merits a thumbs-up:

And only now does it occur to me that Van Damme bro Eric (Dennis Alexio) bears an incredible resemblance to SAVED BY THE BELL's A.C. Slater! How 'bout that?

#13. The final duel, which is as full of broken-glass-licking, sweaty, asscheek-revealing, low-blow action as you'd expect.

And I like this snake sculpture, possibly papier-mâchéd by interns ten minutes ago.

And this guy, who, upon being splashed in the face with JCVD's blood, savors and licks it in a display of masculinity and subtle homoeroticism.

And when Van Damme starts winning, the crowd begins to chant something approximating "NUK SU COW! NUK SU COW! NUK SU COW!" This reminded me of "KUMI-TE! KUMI-TE! KUMI-TE!" and subsequently warmed my heart.

Well, JCVD, you've done it again. I can't say that KICKBOXER can equal the incredible majesty of BLOODSPORT (I'm not sure ANYTHING can), but it certainly fits my definition of "a grand old time." See you on the dancefloor.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Ah, KICKBOXER - it's all about crotches, isn't it? Yet another gem from Cannon Films. I have fond memories of watching this as a kid on VHS with friends and plenty of junk food. High on sugar is perhaps the only way to watch this film. Or maybe high on something else?

I sure hope you keep the JCVD love fest going with a review of CYBORG in the future.

Sean Gill said...


Indeed! And Junk food and Cannon Films truly are a match to be reckoned with. As for more JCVD, I have a whole host of his films that I (actually) intend to tackle in the near future. KUMI-TE!

PrimitiveScrewhead said...

First of all, let's put JCVD's dancing up there with Ed Harris' from CREEPSHOW and, of course, Crispin Glover's in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER.

Secondly, let's just call this BLOODSPORT 2 (even though there was actually a BLOODSPORT 2, with Daniel Bernhardt, Pat Morita and James Hong). This and BLOODSPORT make a good double feature.

Thirdly, what the hell is it with Cannon Films and scary racially-caricatured villains? I remember this film and BLOODSPORT made a few xenophobes out of a bunch of young white kids. Tong Po isn't even played by an Asian (he's actually Van Damme's good friend Michel Qissi, who's as far from Asian as it gets). Thank you Cannon Group for your hilariously racist villains and for making xenophobes out of young white kids.

Four: another soundtrack by Paul Hertzog and Stan Bush. Of course, it will never be as memorable as "Fight to Survive" (KUMITE KUMITE KUMITE), but there's more lovable typical '80s rock for your ears to bleed to. DON'T STOP. NEVER SURRENDER. Fuck. It's stuck in my head now.

Five. This film also has a trademark Van Damme poster. You know a Van Damme film is going to kick major ass when he's in that fighting stance and his right arm is toward you, flexed. Also check out posters for LIONHEART and DEATH WARRANT, where they decided to really push the envelope and showed his flexed left arm instead. Push the fucking boundaries!

This really is another classic in the Van Damme canon from... Cannon. You have to love it, from the scary-ass Asian villain (played by a Moroccan/Belgian) to the trademark Van Damme splits to Van Damme dancing to the soundtrack.

I'm sure I've forgotten to mention something. But you know what they say: DON'T STOP. NEVER SURRENDER. NEVER SAY DIE.

PrimitiveScrewhead said...

And now, because I have nothing better to do (actually I just copy/pasted), the inspirational lyrics to Stan Bush's "Never Surrender":

You Were Born A Fighter
In The Blood A Mighty Warrior
Driven By Desire
Glory Calls, It's Waitn' For Ya

When They Try To Break You Down
You Can Take It, That Don't Shake You
When Your Back's Against The Wall
The Thrill Of The Fight's Got Ya Standin' Tall

Never Surrender
Never Say Die
You Got The Heart Of A Hero
Never Surrender
The Will To Survive
You're Standin' Strong In The Eye Of A Storm
Something Keeps Pushing You On
Never Surrender
Never Surrender

There's A Burnin' Passion
Deep Inside, A Silent Power
With A Quick Reaction
Lightening Strikes Your Fight For Honour

Winners Have A Price To Pay
You Can Taste It
That Don't Change It
You're Not There To Take The Fall
You'll Fight To The End And You'll Take It All

Never Surrender
Never Say Die
You Got The Heart Of A Hero
Never Surrender
Keep It Alive
You're Standin' Strong In The Eye Of A Storm
Something Keeps Pushing You On
Never Surrender
Never Surrender

You'll Never Stop 'Til You're Number One
It's Only A Matter Of Time
You'll Never Give Up
You'll Never Run
You're Layin' Your Life On The Line

Never Surrender (Never Surrender)
Never Say Die (Don't Stop)
(Never Surrender) Got The Will to Survive
Never Surrender (Don't Stop)
(Never Surrender) Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah
(Don't Stop) (Never Surrender)
(Don't Stop) (Never Surrender)
(Don't Stop) (Never Surrender)
(Don't Stop) (Never Surrender)


God bless Van Damme, Tong Po, Golan and Globus, and Stan Bush.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

While I have not seen enough JCVD to have a strong feeling one way or another about him or his films, I still love reading unabashed adorations for his work.

Your was excellent Sean.

Honestly, I too hope you continue to look at his work. I enjoyed this immensely.

I think the one that interests me most by the man is his self-titled film JCVD. I remember reading good things about that one and would love to see your take on that one.

Anyway, well done. Regards. sff

PrimitiveScrewhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PrimitiveScrewhead said...

"I think the one that interests me most by the man is his self-titled film JCVD. I remember reading good things about that one and would love to see your take on that one."

JCVD (2008) is actually a legitimately good film, starring the man himself as a fictionalized version of the man himself. It is also NOT an action film. Yep, it's legitimately good, but the most shocking thing to most people is that Van Damme proves to the world he can actually act (though he's been showing off his acting skills in a few DTV flicks prior; nothing major, but WAKE OF DEATH (2004) comes to mind). It's got comedic moments, as well as drama. SPOILERS? I love the part when he's being hauled out and he does the roundhouse kick on the guy and everyone cheers (in a fantasy). END SPOILERS. I know Mickey Rourke was getting a lot of praise that year (and rightly so) but if the Academy wanted to award someone from completely out of left fucking field, Van Damme should have been it. I almost shed a single manly tear during his heartfelt monologue.

Van Damme still doesn't get enough props for his accomplishments. He's like a poor man's Schwarzenegger (and I mean that in the best way possible). Foreign-born. Some athletic achievements, even a minor bodybuilding title. Van Damme's films have always been consistently entertaining, even his DTV shit is pretty good and despite his age he is still in great shape and kicking ass. JCVD (2008) has an incredible long take at the beginning of that movie; UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009) also has a long take involving Van Damme, a knife, and a bunch of bad guys in a building. He's made as many entertaining-bad-movies as underrated gems. Anyone else like SUDDEN DEATH as much as I do? Great DIE HARD clone, with Powers Boothe as villain, and bad guys that include sports mascots. I think the only film that I truly, TRULY despise of his is UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN (1999).

Surprisingly, the third movie in that series, REGENERATION, I consider to be one of the greatest American action films of the new millennium. It was pretty funny when after JCVD he said he was going to take his career in a different direction. Then he turns down Stallone's personal offer for THE EXPENDABLES and does UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION, a sequel nobody wanted, instead. Shockingly enough, he made the right choice, since Stallone's pic turned out to be an epic mess of disastrous fucking proportion. Van Damme's movie, on the other hand, was well-made, well-edited, but also fun, action-packed and sufficiently violent.

Of course, he's now slated to star in a sequel to both of those movies.

Mike B. said...

Yes! I've been hoping to see this classic reviewed here for a while, and only a recent long workday streak has kept me from noticing it until now. As usual, you nailed it! I love how the evil Muay Thai gang has a reach that apparently extends through every aspect of the county's society, despite the fact that they're merely controlling a sports organization whose most prestigious exhibition match at the beginning of the film is obviously taking place in some kind of rundown old high school gym. It's so Cannon! I can't wait for more Van Damage here on the site, and I'd like to retroactively nominate Jean Claude simultaneously for Best Fight Dance, Best Dance of Seduction, and Best Spazzified Solo Dance!

Sean Gill said...

Primitive Screwhead,

Thank you for the thorough comments- one should never take JCVD lightly.

Re: Cannon racism– I'll say this, though. For every racially caricatured villain, they strove for balance by then including a totally, hilariously integrated street gang, like in DEATH WISH 3 and REVENGE OF THE NINJA, the latter of which has white guys, a Samoan, a Native American with a Tomahawk, Japanese, and Italian mobsters all sort of working together on the same page. What a wondrous post-racial utopia! Then, you have something like RAPPIN', whose surreal finale involves a multi-ethnic rap medley that must be seen to be believed.

Re: Stan Bush– all I have to do is merely see his name in print, like right now, and all of a sudden "I STEALLLL THE NI-HIGHT" jumps into my head, or maybe "I'LL FIIIGHT TO SURVIVE! (KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, etc.)" "Never Surrender" has now entered the pantheon. And I appreciate your inclusion of the lyrics, as well.

Sci-Fi Fanatic,

I'm glad you enjoyed, my friend! There will definitely be some more Van Damme on the way. I actually haven't seen JCVD yet, but it's been on the list for a while.

Primitive Screwhead 2,

Definitely need to check out JCVD soon. And good God, the mere idea of Van Damme Oscar gold sets my heart aflutter. And, hell, what about Stan Bush Oscar gold?! The Best Song category is usually a total shit show–it could use some Never Surrendering.

Mike B.,

Good to hear from ya, and thanks for the compliments! You're spot-on re: the high school gym. Truly movie magic. I want to believe that some high school kid in the late 80's was taking a "Forms of Government" test and filled in "England– constitutional monarchy, USSR- communist state, Thailand... Muay Thai gangs."

And who knew that JCVD could simultaneously embody THREE categories of Giant Oscar Mess in just one snazzy scene!

Anonymous said...

The song "Fight For Love" from the movie Kickboxer was written by Barry Keenan, leader of the band Invisible Poet Kings
Barry Is currently recording a version of the tune which may be included in the re-make of the film.

Sean Gill said...


That's awesome––thanks for stopping by!

Yeahh Yeahh said...

BEAUTIFUL FILM !!! ... HIGH. For as has been shot at the time.

Thay are a fan of kick boxing, ela practical to two years. I can write that it is a beautiful sport.
What struck me about this film is when his brother Kurt unexpectedly remains paralyzed; and even when Xian while Kurt trains that loosen the muscles of his legs opens your hips like that, kind of "torture", it seems, but it is very effective. He had in mind when he did it to me when I was doing gymnastics, she heard a loud creaking in the hips, and then I opened it immediately. Practically the same way, in substance. It helped me a lot at the time, however, because there I gained a lot of elasticity, and now today, in the gym thay boxing, I have absolutely no need divaricatre mechanical legs and I can kick really high, just like Van Damme, unlike my comrades.
According to the plot of the film, if I was Kurt, because he was looking much the revenge of the brother, to the end of the fight against Tong Poo, having killed, I would have broken the backbone, just like his brother did, to paralyze himself on a wheelchair for the rest of his days.

"Every offense... is always made"

Sean Gill said...

Yeahh Yeahh,

Congrats on the ability to do JCVD kicks, and I appreciate your KICKBOXER enthusiasm!

Simon Wilkin said...

Just watched this a few days before my genuine Muay Thai training in Thailand! I think I can win now. (Can I even win!?)

Sean Gill said...


Amazing--good luck, and watch out for gourds dropped on you from a great height!