Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kickboxer (1989)

Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of those names that everyone just kinda knows. Even if you haven't seen any of his movies, even if you don't know who he is, his name is probably bouncing around in your head somewhere. Until this Friday, I hadn't even seen one of his movies. I guess he falls into that category of '80s and '90s stars that people just know of, even if they're not familiar with their work, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren.
Van Damme has always been in the background of the slice of pop-culture I've had interest in. At different points in time I've been interested in seeing some of his movies, but I never got around to any of them. To be honest, I didn't pick Kickboxer up because it had Van Damme in it, it was because Stan Bush performed three songs on the soundtrack.
For those of you who don't know, Stan Bush is a melodic rock musician. Most of his well-known songs were featured in sound-tracks to movies in the 1980s, although he's done a few soundtrack songs since then. When you think of Stan Bush, you usually think of Transformers, thanks to what might be his most well-known song, The Touch, also known as the theme-song of Optimus Prime. Thanks to the use of The Touch in Transformers: The Movie, we also got another great Stan Bush song, Dare.
I'm a pretty big fan of Stan Bush, and I love to listen to his music during my workouts. They really get the blood pumping, and they serve to inspire me to push myself to my limits.
One of those songs I listen to is the theme-song of this movie, Never Surrender. I think it's safe to say that it's one of my favorite songs. Eventually, under the urging of one of my friends, I decided to watch Kickboxer. I had a little bit of free-time on Friday, I still haven't finished Lord of Magna, and I needed something straight-forward to enjoy.
Kickboxer might not necessarily be one of the greatest movies of all time, but it's well worth a watch if you're in the mood for a good action movie. It clocks in at around ninety-minutes, but unlike a lot of movies of that length, it actually feels like it was made to be as long as it is. I sometimes get the impression that some movies were cut down to reach their hour-and-a-half length, such as the first Men In Black, or The Pacifier, but thanks to a decent pacing, Kickboxer doesn't suffer from those issues. The start is a little rough, but it picks up pretty quickly, and I think it stays pretty good throughout.
For an action movie, Kickboxer is a little slower than you might expect, but I actually like that about the movie. For some reason, action movies these days feel the need to try and be as spectacular as they can be, packing in as much action as they can with nary a stop to take a breath. See The Expendables if you want a good example of a movie that has no idea how pacing works.
The calm moments in this movie serve to do a lot of showing, instead of telling, and what it does have to tell doesn't seem like it's entirely for the benefit of the audience.
Let me give you a quick synopsis of the plot, as spoiler-free as I can make it.
Eric Sloane (Played by actual kickboxing champion, Dannis Alexio) is the United States Kickboxing champion. After a winning-streak, he decides to travel to Thailand to challenge the also undefeated Thai Kickboxing champion, Tong Po. (Played by fellow kickboxer, former amateur Belgian boxing champion and good friend of Van Damme's, Michel Qissi)
Accompanying Eric is his cornerman and little brother, Kurt Sloane. (Played by Van Damme, whose martial-arts accomplishments are too numerous to count here, just check out his Wikipedia page if you want to see them)
Kurt is a decent kickboxer, but he doesn't have the same record as his brother. They get to Thailand and set up a match between Eric and Tong Po. Kurt is a little wary of the situation, but Eric shrugs it off and figures he can just power through the opposing style. You know, as opposed to fighting a few lesser kickboxers until he gets used to the local style and challenging the local champion when he's ready.
From here on, we move into spoiler territory.
Unfortunately for Eric, he gets knocked-out in the second round, and despite Kurt throwing in the towel, Tong Po keeps beating on him until he fractures Eric's spine and damages his spinal-cord.
This sets up the rest of the movie, which is Kurt's quest to take down Tong Po. He travels around Bangkok looking for a muay thai instructor who will help him hone his skills until he can take on Tong Po. He then spends the rest of the movie training to be the best he can be. Along the way we get some character development, (Though not a whole lot that you'd notice) some great action, and a lot of kickass music. Van Damme even gets to show off his dancing skills at one point in the movie.
While I've never seen Van Damme act in anything else, I think he did a decent job in this film. His character starts out as a nervous young man and ends up a confident martial-artist. There's a pretty massive change in Kurt Sloane's attitude over the course of the film, and there's no small amount of acting that goes into making that convincing. Van Damme's lawyer once said that he didn't get his roles based on acting ability, which may be true to a certain extent. But if you compare Van Damme to, say, pretty much the entire cast of Sharknado, he's freaking golden. What I'm saying is that you can do a hell of a lot worse, and at least Van Damme tries.
Even though you could make the argument that this is just a more hardcore version of The Karate Kid, I like Kickboxer a little more than I liked Karate Kid. Maybe it's the aesthetic, maybe it's the Stan Bush soundtrack. However it goes, Kickboxer has a significantly higher appeal to me than Karate Kid, and in the end, I think it's a good film. They don't make action-movies like they used to, I suppose.
You know what? It's nice to watch a nice straight-forward movie every now and again. It's a story I have a reason to care about, I can sympathize with the motivations of the main character, the love interest is actually a human-being, and do you know what the best part was? The villains were an actual threat. Not only is Tong Po a threatening villain, his associates are as well.
However, this brings me to the one small issue I had with the film. While the overall story and flow of the movie is pretty good, there's one thing that just sorta stuck out to me.
Towards the end of the movie, Tong Po rapes Mylee, Kurt's girlfriend. I don't have any direct criticism of the rape, personally. If they want to put that in there, they can. All I ask is that it do something. I'm not a direct follower of the Chekov's Gun school of storytelling, since I appreciate the idea of having red-herrings and little things that never get resolved, just like in real life.
However, I'd say that if the main villain of your movie is going to rape your protagonist's girlfriend, maybe you should have that do something. It barely affects Kurt, since he doesn't find out about it until the very end of the film, Mylee barely talks about it, and nobody really mentions it after it happens. You could cut it out entirely, change a couple lines of dialogue, and the movie wouldn't be changed in the slightest.
The only time it affects anything related to the story is when Tong Po brings it up during his final showdown with Kurt, who then asks his Mylee if it was true.
As it is, the rape-scene just goes to remind the audience that Tong Po is the villain. He's mobbed-up, he works for a warlord who regularly extorts money from the local townsfolk, and need I remind you, he paralyzed Kurt's brother. You didn't have to remind us why we hate him, he's pretty damn easy to hate.
Also, I thought that Never Surrender should have been playing during the end of Kurt's showdown with Tong Po, as opposed to after the fight was over. The music they play during the fight isn't bad, but I really would have preferred it if they had used Never Surrender when the fight turns in Kurt's favor.
Personally, I would have changed the ending slightly. Not a whole lot, just a little bit.
See, Tong Po's mob-connections kidnap Eric and hold him to ransom, telling Kurt that he needs to go the distance and throw the fight. Fortunately, Kurt's martial-arts instructor, and his friend Winston Taylor rescue Eric, and arrive at the fight to show Kurt that they've rescued his brother. That's the moment when Kurt knows he doesn't have to throw the fight to save his brother. After that, Kurt cuts off his arm-wrappings and beats down Tong Po. I'd have preferred it if the fight went on for all twelve (Or five, depending on the rules-set they're using) rounds, running right up to the end of the match. Let Kurt pull off a few good hits of his own and avoid some of the more grievous hits until the eleventh round, then in the beginning of the final round have Kurt get beaten almost to death. After that, have him see his brother in the crowd, cue Never Surrender, and then just have him wail on Tong Po. Maybe give Tong Po a little bit of a comeback before the end of the song kicks in, and then have Kurt knock him out. But hey, the ending was fine either way.
Even if you didn't completely change the ending like that, all you have to do to iron out the one real issue I had with the movie is cut out the rape-scene and change Tong Po's dialogue to him threatening to kill all of Kurt's friends and rape Mylee, and bam, you've just improved an already good movie.
All in all, I really liked Kickboxer. It's a straight-forward movie with a decent premise and some characters I actually have a reason to care about. In the end, I give it a 9.6* rating.
I was planning on going over the legacy of Kickboxer, but I'm running late on this article as it is, so I'm just going to finish up the review, and maybe cover the films legacy when it comes time to review the upcoming remake. I'll suffice to say that while I'm cautiously optimistic for Kickboxer: Vengeance, Kickboxer was already a good film, and it doesn't really need a remake. Also, if the remake doesn't have a significant number of Stan Bush songs on the soundtrack, I'll be most disappointed.

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