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Kickboxer (1989)

By and large, even the best action films will cater more to its star’s well-worn persona than it will to making a really good film. It will forsake narrative and character development vital to the film’s success in order to maintain whatever persona its star perpetuates. If you recall, my chief complaint about Bloodsport was the film’s unwillingness to put Jean-Claude Van Damme’s character in any real jeopardy—because the myth of Van Damme is that of the indestructible Muscles from Brussels, a brooding badass who overcomes his emotional scars by giving his opponents physical scars. That’s a persona not far removed from the majority of action stars, though as I pointed out in my review of Cyborg, Cannon had cultivated a stable of humorless stars who carried serious pain in their eyes and their posture. Even when they unleashed a Schwarzeneggerian quip, it’s tinged with deep sadness.

And then there’s Kickboxer, a film that defies Van Damme’s budding persona and pretty much everything anyone thought they knew about action heroes. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved two things that made me respect Van Damme more than I ever thought I would: He takes risks, and he’s a better actor than his often confused franglais lets on. As Kurt Sloane, he allows himself to start the film as a petrified coward who slowly transforms into a master martial artist. He exhibits a much wider emotional rainbow than Bloodsport and Cyborg suggested he could, up to and including an incredibly silly dance sequence in which his goofy grin and disco splits win him the hearts of local women.

The film opens with Kurt’s estranged brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio), winning a U.S. kickboxing title bout. With his championship belt in tow, Eric drags Kurt to Thailand to fight in an international tournament. Not unlike 1991’s Double Impact, Kurt and Eric lived opposite lives with opposite parents. Raised by his father, Eric was trained in martial arts and general badassery on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Raised by his mother, Kurt grew up in Belgium and learned ballet. He’s not exactly a pacifist, but he does suggest that Eric’s fighting is a waste of time and that he could use his athleticism for something worthier. Eric refuses to listen, and he’s punished for his hubris: Tong Po (Michel Qissi) nearly kills him in his first match.

Kurt spends most of the first act wide-eyed and fearful, desperately warning his brother not to fight, especially after he gets a look at Tong Po in the locker room. He bawls like a baby when Eric ends up in the hospital. Then, he swears revenge, seeking out an old master of Tong Po’s Muay Thai fighting style. Xian Chow (Dennis Chan), who exists more as smartass comic relief than sage old man, reluctantly agrees to train Kurt. The expected montage follows, interrupted occasionally for Kurt to get an eyeful of Mylee (Rochelle Ashana), Xian Chow’s attractive shopkeep niece, and an eyeful of gangster Freddy Li’s (Ka Ting Lee) protection enforcers. He refuses to let them take Mylee’s rightful earnings, which doesn’t win her heart the way he thinks it will, and he spends most of the second act running afoul of the enforcers, until his skills reach the point where they’re actually afraid to collect and risk another ass-kicking. When Xian Chow asks Freddy to let Kurt fight Tong Po, he happily agrees—assuming Kurt will die quickly and solve his collection problem.

It’s not that easy, of course, and although Kickboxer follows mostly predictable action beats, it’s enlivened by Van Damme’s absolute commitment to story and character above image. His reckless abandonment of the stoic, taciturn action hero leads the film to moments verging on surrealism, making what could have been a humdrum martial-arts flick into a very entertaining film for people who don’t necessarily like martial-arts flicks. From his Flashdance-esque training attire to the indescribably weird disco dance/barfight, the film’s odd miscalculations make it all the more endearing and eminently watchable—the hallmark of the best Cannon films.

The film honestly doesn’t have a huge amount going for it beyond Van Damme’s great work. The supporting cast, though likable (even the villains are sort of endearing), isn’t particularly good, Mark DiSalle’s direction is subpar even for Cannon, and the story is pretty familiar. I’m mostly recommending it for the opportunity to see an action star do something a little different, even within the established framework of an action film. I’ve seen most of Van Damme’s classic work, but his Cannon films mostly eluded me until now. He’s at his best in Kickboxer, and his best is pretty damn good.

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