Film Review: Kickboxer (1989)

Also known as: Karate Tiger 3 – Der Kickboxer (Germany)
Release Date: April 20th, 1989 (West Germany)
Directed by: Mark DiSalle, David Worth
Written by: Glenn A. Bruce, Mark DiSalle, Jean-Claude Van Damme
Music by: Paul Hertzog, Stan Bush
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio, Dennis Chan, Michel Qissi

Kings Road Entertainment, Cannon Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

“[to Kurt during final fight] You bleed like Mylee. Mylee… good fuck!” – Tong Po

Way back in 1989, it was Kickboxer that turned me into a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan. I loved Bloodsport too but that’s just about all I had to go on. This film proved that Van Damme wasn’t a one-off success and had something that gave him an edge over the other martial arts action stars at the time.

Kickboxer follows two brothers. One is an American kickboxing champion, the other is essentially his water boy. When the champion gets paralyzed in a fight with the sadistic and evil Thai champion, Tong Po, the younger brother, Kurt, swears revenge. Kurt seeks out a Muay Thai master to teach him the art. In what seems like two weeks, he is suddenly a master himself and he crushes some chump in the local arena and calls out Tong Po.

What I remembered most about this film from my youth was that Tong Po was legitimately a scary ass MFer. I remember the rumor that floated around with middle school aged males that Tong Po was real. It didn’t matter that an actor was listed as playing him, every eleven to thirteen year-old boy was convinced that this guy existed as he did on screen, that’s how convincing he was.

Another thing that I remembered were the sweet training montages. It feels like half of this movie is training montages accented by Stan Bush songs. When I was young, like every boy, I wanted to be as badass as Van Damme. It was never about seeing what you could do in a real fight because let’s face it, no one wants to actually get kicked in the face, it was about whether or not you could train your body to emulate what Van Damme did in his training montages. Because if you could do a split or drop coconuts on your abs or kick up straight in the air at 180 degrees without tearing your groin or falling over, you were pretty sure you could conquer some 8th grade bully.

I know I am going on some tangents here but I think it is important to understand the context of what early Van Damme films were to a culture of prepubescent boys that rented these movies weekly circa 1990 or so.

Kickboxer is one of the absolute best things Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever done. It isn’t an acting clinic by any means but its masculine and goofy spirit is something special. It hasn’t particularly aged well but it is still a really fun film to revisit and it is better than most films like it. Hell, I’d take any Van Damme picture over a Steven Seagal movie. Seagal is the guy our out of shape dads watched and lived vicariously through. Van Damme was the guy we lived through because he had an amazing physique and could do some impressive, athletic shit. We didn’t care that he was into ballet before fighting. It kind of made him even more badass, actually.

This, along with Bloodsport, spoke to a generation of boys needing an icon. Sure, we had Schwarzenegger and Stallone but those guys couldn’t do martial arts for shit and Van Damme came on the scene when martial arts films were dominating the action genre, at least at video stores. The early to mid-’80s gave us stellar ninja movies and after that we got Van Damme, who was like a ninja that finally took his mask off and said, “Let’s do this!” before kicking some douchebag in the teeth.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other early Van Damme films: BloodsportLionheartDouble Impact, etc.

Film Review: Double Team (1997)

Also known as: The Colony
Release Date: April 4th, 1997
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Written by: Don Jakoby, Paul Mones
Music by: Gary Chang
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Paul Freeman, Mickey Rourke

Mandalay Entertainment, Film Workshop, Columbia Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Offense gets the glory.” – Jack Quinn, “But defense wins the game.” – Yaz

This film came out just as Jean-Claude Van Damme was spiraling down into the lowest part of his career. His vehicles kept getting worse thanks to atrocious scripts and low box office turnouts. He’d soon be downgraded to having his films come out as “straight to video” releases where he’d remain until resurrecting his career with JCVD. This probably isn’t the worst film he’s done but it’s certainly pretty well down in the murky barrel.

This was also a starring vehicle for Dennis Rodman, who was a part of the Chicago Bulls second threepeat team when this was made and released. Rodman was a sports celebrity superstar but even his involvement couldn’t elevate this film into anything worthwhile. Granted, two decades later, it has become some weird novelty movie that happens to have Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude Van Damme in it.

The film also stars Mickey Rourke and Paul Freeman. I feel bad for them being subjected to this massive turd but it’s directed by Tsui Hark, which on paper, makes this lineup of talent seem pretty damn good. Hark, a massive director in Hong Kong, just couldn’t cut the mustard in the United States but that’s probably because he aligned himself with the sinking ship that was Van Damme, as his two American films, both featured the actor. But maybe he was trying to follow John Woo’s lead, as that approach worked for him.

Double Team is a really hard movie to sit through, even at 90 minutes or so. It’s got deplorable editing, a script that would be better used as lining in a chicken coop, a nervous and awkward Dennis Rodman, Van Damme looking bored, Mickey Rourke looking depressed and Paul Freeman just looking around with a face that says, “WTF am I doing here?!”

Dennis Rodman’s acting career never took off and he followed this up with an even worse movie called Simon Sez. Switch out Jean-Claude Van Damme for Dane Cook and you can see how bad that film was.

Double Team is a pretty big offender and should be thrown into movie jail, if such a place exists. As is customary with pictures this bad, it must be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely Liquid.”

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: Not much, really… but I’d recommend watching it with Rodman’s other “classic” Simon Sez, if you want to torture yourself.

Film Review: Last Action Hero (1993)

Also known as: Extremely Violent (working title)
Release Date: June 13th, 1993 (Westwood premiere)
Directed by: John McTiernan
Written by: Shane Black, David Arnott, William Goldman (uncredited), Zak Penn, Adam Leff
Music by: Michael Kamen
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Frank McRae, Tom Noonan, Robert Prosky, Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Austin O’Brien, Bridgette Wilson, Ian McKellen, Tina Turner, Rick Ducommun, Angie Everhart, Al Leong, Colleen Camp, Sharon Stone (cameo), Robert Patrick (cameo), Joan Plowright (cameo), Danny DeVito (voice), MC Hammer (cameo), Karen Duffy (cameo), Maria Shriver (cameo), Little Richard (cameo), Leeza Gibbons (cameo), Chris Connelly (cameo), James Belushi (cameo), Damon Wayans (cameo), Chevy Chase (cameo), Timothy Dalton (cameo), Jean-Claude Van Damme (cameo), Melvin Van Peebles (cameo), Wilson Phillips (cameo)

Columbia Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“Well I’m sorry to disappoint you but you’re gonna live to enjoy all the glorious fruits life has got to offer – acne, shaving, premature ejaculation… and your first divorce.” – Jack Slater

Man, this was a film I really loved when it came out. It was imaginative, fun and truly balls to the wall, even for not being an R-rated movie.

While it is still pretty fun, it isn’t a movie that has aged very well. At its heart, it is still a great homage to over the top, high octane action films from the ’80s, much like the ones that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. It features lots of explosions and a ton of gun action and great vehicle chases but it is pretty toned down for a PG-13 audience unlike the hard R-rating that these movies typically get. Overall, it is more like a tongue in cheek parody of the genre. Schwarzenegger and the director, John McTiernan, poke a lot of fun at themselves and the films that they were instrumental in creating.

One cool thing about this movie is the over abundance of cameos it has. Since it takes place in a fantasy world and also goes into the “real world”, we get to see a lot of stars playing themselves, as well as some of their most famous characters within the fantasy movie world.

The story sees a young boy get a magic golden ticket that was supposedly passed down from Houdini. The ticket whisks the boy away into the movie he is watching, a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a character named Jack Slater. The boy gets caught up in Slater’s in-movie adventure and gets to experience the fantasy fiction world of action films, which just so happens to overlap with other genres. Eventually, the big bad guy discovers the power of the ticket and uses it to go from world to world in an attempt to pull off heists and to gather other villains to stand against Slater.

The movie is full of late ’80s/early ’90s cheese but it is the best kind. Sure, the kid can get a bit grating at times but he’s not as bad as a lot of the kid actors from the time. This was also the young Austin O’Brien’s first movie. But ultimately, he is the eyes and ears of the audience, swept into this world and it was effective. Plus, I was the right age for this movie when it came out and he really just seemed like one of my peers from school.

Last Action Hero wasn’t a hit when it came out and critics weren’t kind to it. It’s a better picture than the experts would have you believe though, especially if the subject matter is something you’re a fan of. I grew up loving ’80s and ’90s action movies, so this is my cup of tea. Besides, Schwarzenegger is always great when he’s hamming it up. He really hams it up here.

Film Review: Lionheart (1990)

Also known as: León (alternate title), Wrong Bet (Australia), Lion – the Streetfighter (Denmark), Full Contact (France), A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave (UK)
Release Date: March 1st, 1990 (Argentina)
Directed by: Sheldon Lettich
Written by: S.N. Warren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: John Scott
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Page, Deborah Rennard, Lisa Pelikan, Brian Thompson, Ashley Johnson, Michel Qissi, Voyo Goric

Imperial Entertainment Corporation, Guild, Sunil, Wong Bet Productions, Universal Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“Sometimes life is… is… ugly. And stupid. And mean.” – Lyon

Something about this film just melts my heart. Yeah, I know it’s just some ass kicking Van Damme movie from early in his career but out of all those early pictures, this one really has a comforting charm and is a real feel good movie.

Maybe Bloodsport and Kickboxer win out in badass points but Lionheart isn’t far behind, as the action and the fights are aplenty and they’re all interesting and unique.

Where Bloodsport featured a variety of gimmicky fighters in one arena, Lionheart gives us a variety of gimmicky fighters in a variety of arenas: under a bridge, a parking garage, a swimming pool, surrounded by a ring of cars with headlights on, a rich dude’s tent, a racquetball court and maybe a few others that don’t immediately come to mind. Lionheart truly felt like a fighting video game come to life, which to my twelve year-old mind in 1991 was pretty friggin’ incredible. Oddly, Van Damme would go on to make a movie based on the Street Fighter video game and it wasn’t anywhere near as good as this.

One interesting thing about this picture is that Van Damme helped to write the story. He also teamed up with director Sheldon Lettich, who he would continue to work with over the years. In fact, Van Damme and Lettich are currently trying to get a sequel made to Double Impact.

Lionheart is an action film with a decent story where you actually care about the people in it. While that’s a rare thing, Van Damme pulls you in even if he wasn’t a master of acting in 1990. He’s proven that he actually has acting chops later in life with JCVD and his current project for Amazon. But really, no one watched these kind of movies for superb acting prowess. Needless to say, Van Damme is a tough but sweet character here and it is still one of my favorite performances that he ever gave.

The only real disappointment for me, was seeing Brian Thompson in this but not getting to see him actually square off with Van Damme. He was absolutely terrifying and intimidating in Cobra and in several episodes of The X-Files. He’s one of my favorite heavies from the era and he is pretty much just the sidekick to an evil rich bitch in this movie.

I like Lionheart, a whole friggin’ lot. If you are an old school JCVD fan, you probably do too.

Film Review: Bloodsport (1988)

Release Date: February 26th, 1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Written by: Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: Paul Hertzog
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Norman Burton, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.” – Chong Li

After making notable and entertaining appearances in No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle, it was a no brainer to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own starring vehicle. It was also a good fit, putting him into a loose biopic about the life of martial artist Frank Dux. Granted, this just covers the first Kumite tournament that Dux fought in. However, it’s a more compelling story than what was typical of the late 80s martial arts genre.

In reality, Dux’s claims about his fighting history have been disputed and proven to be false. Regardless, the tale evolved into this movie.

This film was also the first time that Van Damme and Bolo Yeung appeared together. They would also duke it out in Double Impact and have talked about making a sequel to that film.

Alongside Van Damme and Yeung is Donald Gibb, who is probably most known for playing Ogre in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies. Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker play the men sent to Hong Kong to bring in the AWOL Frank Dux.

In Bloodsport, we follow Dux as he leaves the Army and heads to Hong Kong to fight in the secret underground fighting tournament Kumite. He breaks fighting legend Chong Li’s (Yeung) “world record” and thus, paints a target on his back. Li, who is infamous for murdering his opponents, sends a message to Dux when he severely injures his friend Jackson (Gibb). Dux, while evading the military men sent to retrieve him, must step back into the Kumite ring and avenge his friend against the psychotic Chong Li.

Bloodsport is interesting in that it puts a lot of focus on the tournament itself and the fighters in it. It showcases the varying martial arts styles from different regions of the world and when I saw this as a kid, it was the closest thing we had to a live action version of a tournament fighting game. It was like Street Fighter II coming alive on the screen. Well, until Jean-Claude Van Damme made that Street Fighter movie that is nowhere near as awesome as Bloodsport.

The film has solid action but unfortunately, it takes a half hour or so to get to it. Cannon Films usually kicked off their movies with a big early action sequence. Bloodsport differs from that formula but the action it contains makes up for that lack of instant gratification.

Bloodsport is also one of the best films Cannon ever produced. It is also, still to this day, one of Van Damme’s best pictures. This, alongside Kickboxer, are the two movies I use as the measuring stick for Van Damme’s filmography.

Film Review: Cyborg (1989)

Release Date: April 7th, 1989
Directed by: Albert Pyun
Written by: Kitty Chalmers, Daniel Hubbard-Smith
Music by: Lalo Schifrin, Kevin Bassinson
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon

Cannon Film Distributors, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take you to Atlanta, and you’ll give me the cure. And if you don’t, I’ll give you the horror show.” – Fender Tremolo

In the late 1980s, I was a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan like every red blooded American boy. However, I really hated Cyborg when I saw it and I was endlessly reminded of my dislike for it once it started appearing on cable almost weekly for a span of several years. Out of Van Damme’s early stuff, it just completely missed the mark, even if it did have several cool things that could have made it good.

However, seeing it now, a few decades later, I no longer hate it. In fact, I found most of it to be fairly enjoyable, even if it is incredibly cheesy, full of atrocious acting and looks very dated.

To start, it was put out by Cannon Films, who were responsible for dozens of exciting balls-to-the-wall 80s action flicks. It also starred their new up and coming star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. It had a sci-fi setting and was like an American East Coast Mad Max minus the cool vehicles. This would have been much better with cool vehicles. However, this was a good mixture of good elements to make something great. The film lacks in most regards though and it obviously didn’t have cool cars because it was made for the same cost as a case of discount domestic beer, a couple Koozies and a bag of Ruffles.

Most of the fight choreography is pretty good for what this is. Van Damme has the uncanny ability to throw kicks that don’t just look elegant but seem to look powerful as well. He’s always had a grace with his movements that most likely comes from his dancing background but because of this, he just always looks fantastic when he has to pull off that big roundhouse kick to the face.

Cyborg doesn’t have great cinematography. However, there are a few shots that do look amazing and hold up well today. Most notably, the scene where a thug walks into a dark sewer corridor, looks up, and there is Van Damme, above his head, doing the splits while holding a nasty looking dagger. The lighting, the panning and the overall shot was just beautifully done and certainly stands out among the rather drab cinematography.

One thing that significantly hurts this picture is the music. The score sounds like some toddler slamming away on a small Casio keyboard with his sippy cup. The score is so bad that you never get used to it and it sticks out like a sore thumb through every major action sequence.

Cyborg could have been a much better movie, it had some things that worked, but ultimately it was like it was out to sabotage itself. For some reason, there are two sequels to this, neither of which star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maybe I will watch them someday if I really want to torture myself.

Film Review: No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Release Date: May 2nd, 1986
Directed by: Corey Yuen
Written by: Keith W. Strandberg
Music by: Paul Gilreath
Cast: Kurt McKinney, J.W. Fails, Ron Pohnel, Kathie Sileno, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Kent Lipham, Jean-Claude Van Damme

Balcor Film Investors, Seasonal Films, New World Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“L.A. karate… I’m impressed.” – Dean Ramsay

For some reason, I liked this as a kid. I mean, I had a pretty strong cinematic palate, even as a child, but I must have been cracked out on Jolt Cola and Smarties candies because this thing stinks to holy hell.

Sure, Jean-Claude Van Damme is in it but this is a few years before the classics Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Also, he is barely in it. He is in the opening brawl and then doesn’t reappear again until the very end where he takes on all the top fighters in Seattle because Manhattan karate is better even though he is a commie Soviet hired by evil Manhattan businessmen trying to conquer America’s dojos for some bizarre ass reason.

That was a run-on sentence but this is a run-on movie where a bunch of concepts get thrown around for no apparent reason and are supposed to be some sort of coherent story. But let’s talk about that.

Essentially, this film is a mashup of The Karate KidRocky IV and The Last Dragon. All good movies on their own but not when you stuff them into an 84 minute package with even more shit thrown on top of it.

In regards to The Karate Kid portion of the film, we follow a teenage boy, who gets beat up a lot, mostly by bullies of a martial arts school. He has to train and get tough to show those guys, especially the one who has his eyes on the same girl the hero has his eyes on. Except the jerk in this movie isn’t as cool as William Zabka’s Johnny. The bullies also aren’t as cool as the Cobra Kai. One of them is this fat guy that smears food all over himself every time he is on screen. It’s pretty gross, actually.

From Rocky IV it steals the evil commie Soviet bad guy. While Jean-Claude Van Damme would prove his superiority over Dolph Lundgren years later in Universal Soldier, it is pretty clear that Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a much better villain than Van Damme’s Ivan Kraschinsky. But at least they are both jacked up and oiled up Soviet monsters named Ivan.

What it takes from The Last Dragon is the most blasphemous thing I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. They take the hero’s love of Bruce Lee and give it to the audience in the most disrespectful way possible. Not only do they film scenes at the legendary martial arts superstar’s grave, they also have some actor appear as Bruce Lee’s ghost to train our hero. So we basically have an American Brucesploitation film of the worst kind.

Also, the hero kid claims he knows everything there is to know about Lee yet he calls him “sensei”. Lee was a “sifu”. “Sensei” is Japanese, “sifu” is Chinese. But then again, the hero is a karate master that is being taught by the ghost of the creator of Jeet Kune Do. Anyone who actually knows anything about martial arts will probably find this confusing. Also, from a competitive standpoint, everyone is doing kickboxing. Granted, karate moves are used in kickboxing but the style allows for a broader range of attacks.

The film also has a lot of homoerotic moments. In fact, this may have more gay innuendo than A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. That is a hard movie to top in that regard but just watch the relationship between our hero and his bestie R.J., especially the workout montage. To be clear, I don’t see this as a negative, I think it’s awesome in the same way I think the gayness of Freddy’s Revenge is awesome.

Other than the fabulous gay innuendo, No Retreat, No Surrender is really a pile of crap. I should definitely run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. Aha! The results state that No Retreat, No Surrender is a Type 5 stool, which is defined as “Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).” Well, if you say so, machine! It didn’t pass that easily but maybe it did have a clearer path due to being worn down by the movie’s gayness.