You never know what you’re going to get when you decide to watch a series of sequels that lack the star of the original. When it comes to more fantastical fare, it’s easy to shrug off a new lead. For instance, yeah, Predator 2 doesn’t have Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it still has the titular fiend. The Fly II lacks Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, but it still has a big man-fly in it. And so on and so on. Mind you there are other reasons to love those two examples, but such discussions are for another time.
The point is that some concepts can live beyond their stars, providing there’s still enough territory to mine beyond what the initial film covered. Things get a bit tougher when the property is more realistic in nature and the original star’s persona was an important ingredient. In this case, there was nothing all that remarkable about Kickboxer’s story. It was your standard sports fighter flick, complete with the requisite underdog protagonist. It was well shot and had a capable supporting cast, but much of the goofy charm came from Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. Without him, you are potentially left with, at best, a B-grade Rocky III rip-off.
The logical move, if you can’t get Van Damme back, is to either make a clean break and only use the basic concept or lean into the first one with some other sort of connective tissue. On the surface, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back chose to do the latter. Our new lead, David Sloane (Sasha Mitchell), is the younger brother of the first film’s sibling duo: Kurt (Van Damme) and Eric (Dennis Alexio) Sloane. There’s no mention of this third brother in the original, but we can overlook that.
The smart thing to do is to simply make David another fighter, put him in the ring with something to prove, and you’re off to the races, right? That’s the logical thing to do. No one ever accused director Albert Pyun (Cyborg, Nemesis) or screenwriter David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Man of Steel) of being logical, however. You wouldn’t think a Kickboxer sequel, or any fight film of this kind, would have an overstuffed plot. You’d be wrong. Thanks a lot, Goyer!
Where do I even begin?
Kickboxer 2, which apparently actually saw a limited theatrical release, opens simply enough. David is introduced to us as the owner of a kickboxing gym that primarily caters to inner city kids. There are a few young adults running about the joint, including his protégé Brian (Vince Murdocco), but the majority of those who frequent it are pre-teens. The gym is struggling financially, but David doesn’t seem too worried at first. In fact, despite the fact the bills are piling up, he’s so carefree about things that he shoots down a lucrative deal that a fight promoter named Justin Maciah (Peter Boyle) tosses his way. And the guy isn’t even wanting him to fight. All he literally wants him to do is endorse and help run his upstart kickboxing league! Easy money arrogantly turned away!
After a sobering discussion with his friend/financial advisor, Jack (John Diehl), David decides to do at least one exhibition match to help pull his business out of debt. He ends up being pitted against one of Maciah’s fighters, a brute by the named of Vargas (Mattias Hues*) who was previously beaten in the ring by both Eric and Kurt. David wins and then immediately announces his retirement from fighting, much to the chagrin of Maciah and his new business partner, Sanga (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
Our shady business duo decide to goad David into fighting again by sending Vargas and some goons (one of which is Vincent Klyn) to burn down his gym. They light the place aflame and kick David around for a bit, then split when the building is engulfed in fire. David makes it out, albeit all banged up, but an orphan who he’d taken in and was letting sleep at the gym is burned alive. That’s some sick shit, Goyer!
Next comes David rehabilitating and then gearing up for a revenge fight, right? Yes and no. Master Xian (Dennis Chan), Kurt’s trainer from the first film, inexplicably shows up to help nurse him back to help. Cue rehab and training montage. That’s not all, however. In the interim, David’s protégé Brian has signed with Maciah.
The second fight we are treated to is Brian’s first professional match. David and Xian are there to cheer him on, along with Brian’s mother. At the last minute, Sanga has the fighter changed, however. Instead of fighting some random white guy, Brian is pitted against Tong Po (Michel Qissi). This naturally sends David into a rage, right? Nope. While Xian is visibly angered and worried, David very clearly has no clue who Po is, which I find super odd, considering that Po is the dude who paralyzed his brother, Eric, in the first film. It would also be odd because there’s no way he shouldn’t be aware of the fact that, in retaliation, Kurt beat the ever-living snot out of Po at the end of that movie. You would think all of this and more would have been communicated to David at some point by Eric and Kurt, especially considering he was fully aware of who Xian was when the Muay Thai master arrived earlier.
Here’s the real kicker though: at one point we are treated to the story of what happened between the films involving the older Sloane brothers and Po. Sanga relays the story of how Po demanded a rematch with Kurt and when his requested was refused, he resorted to gunning down Kurt, Eric and Mai Li in cold blood. How in the hell does David know who Xian is, but hasn’t heard of Tong Po? Especially since the latter murdered his brothers?!?
You know where this is going though. As if burning down the gym and roasted a street urchin weren’t enough, David is given extra incentive to fight again when Tong Po kills Brian in the ring. Afterwards, Maciah’s kickboxing venture is left in ruins and he exits the pictures. That’s right, folks. Boyle might be in a good chunk of the film, but his role is utterly pointless in the scheme of things. The true villain is Sanga, who is hellbent on reclaiming Thailand’s honor by having Tong Po defeat David in the ring. Why Sanga cares is beyond me, since he seemingly has no actual connection to the events of the first film.
Of course, David wins and serves up righteous ass-kickage to both Po and Sanga. There was never any doubt of what the ending would be, but I remain utterly baffled as to why the plot is so overstuffed. We joke a lot these days about Goyer’s scripts being a mess, but I had always recalled his early work being enjoyable. By early work, I’m not just talking the first two Blade films**. I’m also talking the likes of Death Warrant (Van Damme!), Arcade and Demonic Toys.
Say what you will about those films (I think they’re all fun), but none of them have overwritten screenplays. I guess we can truly, once and for all, put Kickboxer 2: The Road Back down in the books as ground zero for Goyer’s worst tendencies as a screenwriter. Even before the likes of Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, Blade: Trinity and his DC Comics adaptations, it all began here. What a mess.
What’s truly sad, aside from the fact that most of the more admirable supporting actors look bored (especially Boyle), is that Mitchell actually makes for a decent lead. I’d never been one for watching Step by Step (or similar shows), so I wasn’t really familiar with his work before this. While there’s nothing award worthy going on here, Mitchell is decently charm and can actually emote, which automatically puts him leagues above most C-grade action stars. He also reminds me more than a little of Jensen Ackles, and not just in the looks department.
It also means that I move forward in this series with little trepidation, despite the fact that this film was mostly a snooze. At 89 minutes, it is 14 minutes shorter than the original but feels about an hour longer. Part of that can be blamed on the fights, all three of which lack any oomph and drag on for far too long. The next film carries over neither Pyun nor Goyer, which means that I might have a decent shot at a watchable movie. At the very least, it seems like I won’t have to worry about Mitchell turning in a good performance. It certainly has to be better than Kickboxer 2. Please let it be better than Kickboxer 2!
Next Time: Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992)
* – Probably best known for his turn as the alien villain in Dolph Lundgren’s I Come In Peace (aka Dark Angel), Hues actually got his start in No Retreat, No Surrender 2. I guess for a short time he had a thing for Van Damme-less sequels to Van Damme films.
** – I think we can stop praising Goyer for his work on the first two Blade films. It’s common knowledge that their respective directors, Stephen Norrington and Guillermo Del Toro, rewrote his scripts. Given that (the great) Dark City also had other writers on board, it’s clear that Goyer should never be left alone to pen something if you want it to turn out well.