To paraphrase Sam Elliott, sometimes you choose the franchise and sometimes the franchise chooses you. Last year I tackled two cult franchises in this column, pontificating about the Scanners and Ghoulies sagas from start to finish. It was a fun ride, even when it was occasionally painful. And now, after a LONG hiatus, I’m back with another one. This time the Bloody Beat is taking a so-wrong-it’s-right turn at Albuquerque into action territory!
Whether you are aware of this or not, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fight flick classic, Kickboxer, actually spawned a franchise of its own. The 1989 martial arts actioner was a nice hit for all involved, so it makes sense that they would want to replicate that success. Van Damme did not return for a follow-up, but that didn’t stop them from making four more films.
Additionally, this Sept. 2 will see the release of a remake of the original 1989 film. Kickboxer: Vengeance has a nice amount of talent involved for action fans to get excited about (Bautista, Carano, Shahlavi, etc.). The cherry on top, however, is that Van Damme has returned to the franchise, this time as the master instead of the pupil. Furthermore, since Vengeance has taken its sweet time to get released, a sequel to it (Kickboxer: Retaliation) actually began production last month. It’s looking like we’ll soon have a new Kickboxer saga faster than you can scream “EYEWANTTONGPO!!!”.
As a lead up to the release of Vengeance, I decided it might be fun to take a journey through the Kickboxer franchise. Full disclosure: I have only seen the original Van Damme film. For better or worse, I will be experiencing the kickboxing shenanigans of Sasha Mitchell and Marc Dacascos for the very first time. I’ll be seeing Vengeance early, and this is how I have chosen to spend my time as a result. Other people might begin to reevaluate their lives after making such a decision. I think there might be something wrong with me.
Why would I do that to myself? Beyond clearly just not knowing any better, I kind of outright love the original film. I’d never go to the mat for it as a great piece of cinema or even as just a good film, but it’s hard to deny how entertaining it is. Stewart Smith has already written about it at length in his glorious Van Dammage Report column, and I think he’s right on the money. In addition to being an incredibly sincere film, it’s a great encapsulation of everything intriguing about Van Damme’s work as an actor.
Van Damme might not have “chops” in a traditional sense, but he’s always had an offbeat charisma that, when paired with his quirky tastes, make even the worst of his films watchable. Kickboxer isn’t one of his best, but it’s a pretty dependable slice of JCVD cinema when you get down to it. All of the characters are at least somewhat interesting, and the film is cast well enough that no one is really a weak link.
That is, unless we’re counting Freddy Li’s voice actor. It’s very clearly the same fella who used to voice Winnie the Pooh villains on one of the older animated series. Every time he opened his mouth, I was practically guffawing on this latest viewing.
Kickboxer, along with Lionheart and The Quest, often gets lumped in with Bloodsport. Sure, they all involve tournament fighting, but they are also pretty different from one another. Bloodsport, which came only a few years before this, is fun actioner, but has a rather flat palette to it. In contrast, Kickboxer is more visually enticing. It won’t be seeing any essays about its cinematography published in any academic film magazines, but the warmer hues are welcome. There’s also some lighting going on during the sweaty fight scenes, which only further ramps up their homoerotic nature as Kurt Sloane (Van Damme) and Tong Po (Michel Qissi) make animalistic noises as they eyeball and assault one another. Well, that and the unforgettable dance fight earlier in the film.
Speaking of Tong Po, talk about a cesspool of a human being. I’m going to tackle this head-on now, because from what I understand, he appears a few more times in later films. Let’s look at the evidence of his fucked up nature…
- He intentionally breaks the back of Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio), Kurt’s brother, in the first fight. This is despite the fact that Kurt had already thrown in the towel, ending the match.
- He helps local gangster Freddy Li run the area province with an iron first. I guess beating on fighters isn’t enough, so pummeling the poor financially is a hobby for him.
- He kidnaps, beats and rapes Kurt’s girlfriend, who also happens to be the niece of Kurt’s trainer, Master Xian.
- Freddy Li kidnaps the now wheelchair-bound Eric to entice Kurt to intentionally lose the match to Tong Po. There’s no way Po didn’t know about this.
- They insist that the final match be an “old school” one, where the fighters wrap their fights, dip the cloth in resin, and then basically glue broken glass to their resin-coated fists. Given that Kurt was supposed to be blackmailed into doing nothing but taking a beating from Tong Po, that’s some messed up shit right there.
- Tong Po is a peacocker. Nothing makes me want to see a villain get their ass handed to them in a fight film more than peacocking.
All in all, even if I don’t personally count it as one of Van Damme’s best films, Tong Po certainly ranks up there as one of his better adversaries. While I’ve avoided the plots of the upcoming sequels, I am happy to see that Qissi returns and the role wasn’t simply recast. I’d hope that he gets a chance to flesh out his character more, but we’re talking DTV ‘90s action sequels here. All I’m really hoping for is that I won’t want to drown myself in a tub of resin and broken glass after watching them all.
This is going to be painful, isn’t it?
Next Time: Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991)