A couple of months ago, I got a bug up my ass to do a podcast about the films of the mighty Jean-Claude Van Damme. I seemed to have picked the perfect time for this, because the Muscles From Brussels is having one hell of a resurgence lately. What started with some good-natured ribbing at his own image in films like Welcome to the Jungle and Expendables 2, coupled with some very well received commercials for the likes of Coors Light and Volvo, has become a full on comeback of sorts. He now has his own Amazon pilot (seriously, go watch that shit and vote for it) and a reboot of one of the films that started it all, 1989's Kickboxer. In consuming so many Van Damme films over the last few months, I've come to expect a few things from these types of movies. They should be action packed with great fight scenes, have a sense of humor whether intended or not, and above all they should be fun. In this regard, the new Kickboxer: Vengeance certainly delivers. Hell, it got me to drive about 45 minutes away to go catch it in a theater.
Being a reboot, the story is pretty much the same as the original, with a few minor and mostly unnecessary differences. Kurt Sloan (Alain Moussi) is out for revenge against Thailand's Muay Thai champion Tong Po (Dave Bautista) after Po kills his brother Eric (the late Darren Shahlavi) in the ring. To do this, Sloan enlists the help of his brother's trainer Master Durand (Jean-Claude Van Damme, taking over the mentor role) and has some romance thingie with police officer Liu (Sara Malakul Lane), who is trying to keep him from fighting and bust corrupt fight promoter Marcia (Gina Carano). Whew, got all that? Sloan trains, gets the shit kicked out of him by Po, and comes back in the end to defeat Po and restore his family's honor...or whatever. It's the same simple story from the original, just a bit more complicated for the sake of...I don't know, being different? Tong Po kills Eric instead of paralyzing him...because it makes Kurt more vengeful? And because we don't have to wheel around the brother character for the rest of the movie. Durand was Eric's trainer after Kurt refused to follow him to Thailand, instead of Kurt being Eric's trainer and being recommended to Master Xian sort of randomly in the original...because it gives Durand more investment in the training? And because Van Damme needs to emote, Damme it! Kurt falls for a cop that's supposed to be keeping him out of the country instead of Xian's niece...because we need more action scenes in this movie? And boobs...definitely because of boobs. Kurt has a lot more interaction with Tong Po, going so far as to not so covertly join Po's fighting school and make an attempt on his life...because you have Dave Bautista in your movie? Yes, because you have Dave Bautista in your movie.
The plot in movies like these is kind of superfluous beyond the basic revenge narrative, which makes it kind of annoying that so much time is dedicated to the romantic and investigative cop side plots. They're both completely unnecessary and leave the much more interesting training and fighting scenes neglected to montages and all too brief stints in the ring. I really like the addition of more Tong Po and having Kurt infiltrate his group of fighters to get revenge, only to freeze up and decide to settle the matter in the ring. Sadly, this is mostly used as a brief opener before flashing back to the events of Eric's death that led us here. For every sex scene, cop shoot out, or fight atop of elephants (not as cool as it seems), we're missing out on the heart of the story and the more engaging material. So his love interest does everything in her power to keep him from fighting Tong Po, including arresting him, but when she gets to the end fight and see Po practically killing Kurt, she holds her men back to let them fight? Grow up, movie.
Director John Stockwell (star of Crushed Celluloid favorite Radioactive Dreams) does a really good job with the action and fight choreography, getting up close and dirty for the fight scenes, but also showing some lovely shots of the Thai landscape. The film looks sharp and know how to get you riled up for a fight, but Stockwell just can't seem to stay focused enough of the main story to keep you interested and make this anything better than average. Alain Moussi is one hell of a fighter and does fine enough in the lead, but he's kind of a blank slate and is severely lacking the charisma Van Damme showed in the original, turning that film into a cult favorite. But luckily, Van Damme is still here and is easily the best part of the movie. Forever dressed like he was spending the day at the beach before being called to set, complete with ultra-cool fedora and shades, Van Damme seems to know exactly what kind of movie this is and has the most fun with the material. He gives the film some much needed humor and levity, while also showing compassion and being a threatening presence. Finally we have Dave Bautista, a bear of a man decked out with tattoos and a head/facial hair combo you would laugh at, if you weren't afraid he'd rip your head off. He is excellent as Tong Po (though the turn-around at the end of the fight is completely unbelievable), though not nearly as unlikable a villain as the original (big props for the Michel Qissi cameo, it got a big laugh out of me), which makes it a little hard to completely root against him. Dude seems to have some semblance of honor and is just kind of doing what he knows best and what is expected of him as this almost mythological figure. I will watch anything Bautista does, even if his stylist is playing a joke on him.
Kickboxer: Vengeance certainly doesn't live up to or surpass the original, but that was a whole different beast from another era of action films. It is entirely watchable though, and even a lot of fun, despite a few slogs and wasted plot lines along the way. A sequel has already been greenlit for 2017, Kickboxer: Retaliation, which is sure to see Kurt Sloan fighting an even bigger dude, surely also covered in tats and perhaps with even sillier hair...only time will tell on that one. But I will sure as shit be there to watch it. In a world filled with unwanted generic remakes, it's nice to see one for a film that could actually use it and done with some passion and finesse, even if it can't entirely get past the generic part.
6 out of 10 confused and irritated elephants