My love of Jean-Claude Van Damme is pretty common knowledge to anyone that knows me, or even anyone that's read my work on this site. 1989's Kickboxer is one of my all time favorites in that regard (second only to Lionheart, don't ask me why). Perhaps it's a mix of that JCVD good will rubbing off on them, or that they were played in heavy rotation on the USA network during my childhood summers, but I also have a deep love for Kickboxer 2-4. In these sequels, Sasha Mitchell (best known as cousin Cody from Step By Step to you, but best known as John Bolen from Class of 1999 II: The Substitute to me) takes over as David Sloan, little brother to Van Damme's Kurt from the original. I've also seen Kickboxer 5: Redemption, with Mark Dacascos taking over as a student of David Sloan after his silhouetted death in the opening credits, but the less said about the film, the better. Look, I'm not trying to kid myself, these films aren't very good. However, they will always hold a special place in my heart and I will watch any of them at any time for little to no reason. So it was a pleasure to rewatch 2 and 4 for this column, as they were both contributions that Albert Pyun made to the franchise (he sat out the third film, which coincidentally is my least favorite of the Mitchell sequels). As Mr. Pyun continues to battle his fading health, I'd like to thank him for these films that have been with me since childhood and try to share my love of this little franchise that could. Pyun directed Kickboxer 2 just two years after wrangling JCVD in the Cannon Films joint Cyborg, and the mix of robots and martial arts seemed to stick to his career like a bio-implant roundhouse kicked into your face, for which I'm forever grateful.
Kickboxer 2: The Road Back is the sanest and objectively best of the sequels. It acts as a straight-forward successor to the original, taking the most obvious route when the money isn't there to bring Van Damme back. Of course there was a third Sloan brother we never heard about and of course he's a white guy with a surfer accent to match the very Belgian Kurt and his very John Oates looking brother Eric. Can't get Van Damme back for your sequel? Well, luckily Tong Po (still Michel Qissi from the original) shot and killed Kurt and Eric in a disgraceful act of vengeance. David Sloan is content being retired from fighting and teaching the local youths at his family gym. This way of living isn't enough to pay the bills though, and David is in constant danger of losing the last testament to his family name. Enter slimy kickboxing promoter Justin Maciah (Peter Boyle, as in, “what the fuck is Peter Boyle doing in this movie?”), who tries to get Sloan to fight for his corrupt, steroid fueled kickboxing league. While Sloan wants no part in this scheme, his star pupil Brian is tempted to the dark side, in a very Rocky 5-ish sort of way. But all of that is just a ruse by Sanga (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the very Japanese business man who for some reason cares about Thai champion Tong Po regaining his honor by defeating the last Sloan brother. Sanga says it's for “their country”, because Asian is Asian, right? I mean, the guy that plays Tong Po is Moroccan, for fuck's sake! So, they pull a little switcheroo and make Brian fight Po, who then kills Brian to coax David into fighting him. Oh yeah, and earlier David fought Maciah's champion to make some cash and then abruptly retired, causing that guy and some other goons (they might have been working for Maciah, or for Sanga, or independently...I'm not really sure) to shoot David in the leg and set his gym on fire, killing a little street urchin that was living there in the process. Then Xian (Dennis Chan, also returning), Kurt's trainer from the original, teaches David how to walk again and regain his strength. Fast forward to David agreeing to fight Muay Thai with Tong Po (complete with broken glass covered gloves) to avenge Brian and his brothers, while Sanga records the whole thing with a VHS camera to bring back to Thailand. David defeats Tong Po (much easier than fucking Van Damme did in the original) and finds the road back to honor and confidence, or some shit.
That might sound like a ridiculous amount of convoluted plot for an 89 minute movie, because it is. While it makes little sense, with most of the secondary plot becoming meaningless as the story progresses, it still has an innocent charm to it. Sasha Mitchell surprisingly works well in the role of David Sloan, despite his clueless Keanu Reeves style of delivery. While this film is nowhere near the level of the original, the fight scenes are really well done and even shine when the focus is taken off of the mulitple plot lines. Are you a fan of montages set to lame rock ballads about brothers and shit? Well you're in luck, because this movie has two of them. Look, this movie is made for one very particular group of fans, those that blindly love the original and want more, by any means necessary. And goddammit, does it deliver in that regard.
I know this was just supposed to be about Kickboxer 2 and 4, but I also watched Kickboxer 3: The Art of War in preparation for this (because of course I did) and have a couple of things to say about it. Although I still enjoy it, something never sat right with me about this sequel. In it, Sloan and Xian go to South America for an exhibition match (at some point Sloan became the kickboxing champion), meet a couple of nice street kids, and take down a child sex slave ring over the course of a weekend. Mitchell fundamentally changes the character of David Sloan for this movie. What was once a peaceful teacher focused on the discipline of martial arts, only fighting as a last resort, becomes a gun wielding action hero that will kick the shit out of a stranger for looking at him funny. Not only is the surfer dialect ramped up to 11 (surely a byproduct of his then current stint on Step By Step), but he's now a quipping bully who doesn't think twice about shooting people to death. I commend the film for doing something different with the series, but there's barely even any kickboxing on display and even calm master Xian is blowing away bad guys with a Dirty Harry magnum and cracking jokes about it. It's a weird entry in the series that shows an obvious lack of that Pyun charm.
Which brings us to the barely a movie insanity that is Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor. Several years down the road (not the one back), David Sloan is in prison, explained in voice-over as being framed by Tong Po and explained in the film as killing a drug dealer he was bringing in for the DEA (he's a DEA agent now, I guess). Sloan explains what happened in the first two films in a series of flashbacks, trying to show off how much they had the rights to use the original film in this sequel and how much they wanted to pretend like 3 never happened. It also makes this 85 minute movie closer to 80 minutes minus credits and flashbacks (probably for the best). This time, Tong Po is played by Kamel Krifa in bad prosthetics/stunt men in even worse prosthetics to make them look like Michel Qissi. In fact, given Krifa's odd IMDb bio that's a little too similar to Qissi's, his vague involvement in some of Van Damme's work, and a certain unsettling quality he has in this film, I'm not entirely convinced he isn't really Van Damme secretly playing Tong Po in this film for the fuck of it. It may be the weirdest of fanboy fan fiction, but it makes me happy and I dare you to prove me wrong.
So anyways, Tong Po kidnaps and abuses Sloan's wife in his absence, until Sloan gets a chance to get out in exchange for bringing down Tong Po. You see, this random Thai kickboxing champion has somehow become the biggest drug lord in Mexico, and every year he holds his own Kumite competition at his compound (I know that's a different Van Damme film, but just follow me on this one). Sloan goes undercover to get invited (rather easily) to this super secret fighting match. Along the way he meets up with Lando Smith, little brother to one of his former students, and Megan Laurence, a little firecracker of a badass/poor defenseless woman the boys take under their wing. Throw in a group of henchmen, including kidnap victim turned hostess Darcy Cove and all around bag of douche Bill, and we have ourselves a late night sexy Cinemax soap opera of a Kickboxer movie. Seriously, there's an unsettling amount of nudity and sex in this film, for no reason other than the kids like boobage.
As Sloan searches for his wife while hiding from Tong Po by wearing sunglasses and getting his buddies to distract Po during his matches, a lot of quick montage fighting occurs. The fight choreography is all pretty entertaining for being so low budget (like Bloodsport, to a lesser degree), with the usual batch of fighting styles and honorable/dishonorable fighters joining in. Instead of building tension all the way to the end of the tournament, Sloan gets found out towards the end of the second act. He then gets put up against all the other fighters in a free for all/fighters rising against their suppressor sequence. We then get treated to the weakest of all the Tong Po fights, where he can barely hold his own against a wounded Sloan, only to run away like a little crab, never to be heard from again. Our heroes limp away into the sunset, closing this chapter of the Kickboxer series, but leaving the Tong Po angle open for the chance of another DTV masterpiece.
Fast forward to the present and a Kickboxer remake/reboot is due out soon with Dave Bautista playing Tong Po and Van Damme himself as the wise old martial arts master that trains Kurt Sloan to avenge his brother. So it all seems to come full circle, but IMDb throws a mysterious wrench into the equation. It shows Sasha Mitchell as being in the upcoming Albert Pyun directed City of Blood, as fucking David Sloan, as well as in a movie called To Be The Best: The Road Back, which made my brain explode. This series may not be good as a whole, but it is infinitely watchable and still going strong 27 years later. Albert Pyun played a big part in keeping this franchise going, making sure no face would go unkicked and no butt would go unboxed, and giving me an unreasonable love to cling onto. Join me next time as I cover a film that's a bit more obscure in an already obscure filmography with 2010's Bulletface, a film I bought blindly several years ago and have yet to revisit, but will do so for you, dear reader.