Kickboxer might be the quintessential Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
He’s got other films that are more outrageous, more action-packed, more filled with ridiculous one-liners and films that are bigger in scope. But few of them seem to encapsulate so fully the things that Van Damme gravitates toward and prioritizes as an actor. It has everything the man is known for, which is odd given how relatively low-key it is in comparison to his overall filmography.
To wit: There are things that Van Damme loves to focus on with his films. You have martial arts, obviously, but a recurring theme for his films is family. The man loves to pick projects in which his character must either avenge or protect his immediate family (or whatever makeshift family he seems to have concocted). It’s a choice that’s always been highly intriguing, as it’s not something you see too many other action stars of his era gravitating toward. Every now and then, sure, but certainly not with sort of emphasis to which Van Damme commits. It’s obvious he wants his movies (by and large) to have an emotional core, some level of attachment beyond just karate kicks and explosions. It may come off as cheesy or unsuccessful in the whole, but the effort is there, to be sure.
Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane, cornerman and younger brother to Eric (Dennis Alexio, a real life kickboxing champ). Kurt doesn’t seem to mind one bit that he plays second fiddle as his bro arrogantly (albeit capably) dominates the American kickboxing circuit. With no opponents left who will fight him in the states, Eric figures it’s time to go worldwide and books a fight in Thailand versus the country’s top fighter, Tong Po (Michel Qissi). Kurt implores his brother not to fight the monster who he spied kicking a support beam in his dressing room, but Eric won’t hear any of it.
Po makes swift, brutal work of Eric, breaking his back and paralyzing him for life. Horrified and enraged, Kurt dedicates himself to learning Muay Thai style kickboxing so he can challenge Tong Po and enact some good old fashioned vengeance. After being laughed out of regular Muay Thai schools, Kurt’s unexpected friend, Winston (Haskell V. Anderson III), a wayward Army vet, takes him to meet an old master, Xian Chow (Dennis Chan).
What follows is your typical “youthful, exuberant-but-blinded-by-his-rage student is taught to channel his inner warrior by the wizened but occasionally comical master” flow of events, including the standard montages set to awful 80s synth ballads.
Neither Van Damme movies nor the genre at large are strangers to such a formulla, but, as stated earlier, this one feels a bit more personal than anything he has thus far made thanks to the added element of family. It also helps that Van Damme is a much more confident screen presence this time around. In Bloodsport he was just a no-name kid who managed to impress his way into a starring role. And while his visible exuberance for simply being in a movie helped propel him through that, he’s much more decisive in the way he wants to project himself here.
If there’s a downside to the movie it’s that there’s relatively little action to be had from Van Damme. There’s a flurry of kicks and various moves while training and he has a descent scuffle versus some drunks, but other than his big showdown against Tong Po, there’s really not much fighting in this one. Thankfully, the final fight is sufficiently entertaining and it doesn’t really tread the precise same ground as the one in Bloodsport, a trap into which it could have easily fallen.
What really makes this one stick, though, is the sincerity of Van Damme’s performance and presence. He wants to make something that feels like it’s got an emotional center to it, where he’s doing more than just split-kicking guys in the face. Yes, it’s cheesy and, yes, he’s better at split-kicking guys in the face than he is at actually emoting and line delivery, but that sincerity carries this (and so many of his other films) a long way. He believes in what he’s doing, more often than not, and that counts for a lot.
Van Dammage Report statistics for Kickboxer:
Number of splits: 3 (assuming you count the times he’s forced to during training)
Number of split kicks: 9 (this may be the most in a single JCVD film)
Reason for being European: His parents divorced and his mother raised him in Paris, while his father raised his older brother in the United States. This separation apparently results in he and his brother look nothing alike, complete with his brother sporting the most gloriously curly mullet ever.
Best line: Delivered by Xian Chow: “I tell them you say they no good fighters … and that their mothers have sex with mules.”