It’s hard to believe that not only is the Kickboxer franchise as large as it is, but that it has taken this long for someone to remake the 1989 original. Coming almost 30 years after the original Kickboxer Muay Thai’d its way into our hearts, Kickboxer: Vengeance is here to bring the tale of Tong Po and the Brothers Sloane to a brand new generation. So how does it measure up?
Pretty well! Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the original film is a masterpiece. As fun as it is as both a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle and a sports-centric ‘80s actioner, it skates by more on charm and nostalgia than it does on tangible quality. I love it, but it isn’t a “great film.” Looking at things objectively, Vengeance is just as good.
Abandoning the style of the original for a more modern take, John Stockwell’s update tosses in a wide assortment of new influences, while also retaining the essence of the original tale. All of the broad strokes are still here. We still have the cocky Eric Sloane (the late Darren Shahlavi, in his final role) accepting an invitation to a fight he is ill-prepared for. We still have the deadly, mysterious, and unforgiving antagonist in Tong Po (Dave Bautista). We still have an in-over-his-head Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) looking for revenge after Po kills Eric in the ring.
It’s in the differences that Vengeance truly becomes its own thing. While Eric Sloane is a legitimate champion and his brother Kurt his trainer, Eric’s fight with Tong Po is not a legal one. In this version, Po is an underground champion, making boatloads of cash off of what are basically underground death matches. Eric’s death may well be attributed to a last minute police raid on the secret arena as much as Po’s bloodlust.
Would Po have spared him if the police hadn’t arrived and Eric potentially been a witness who could testify against him? We’ll never know. While this version of Po, effortlessly brought to life by the ever welcome presence of Bautista, is vicious, he is also far more intelligent and calculating than the iteration previously done by Michel Qissi and Kamel Krifia. This Po is a man of few words, but one prone to espouse philosophy when he actually bothers to open his mouth.
On the heroic side of things, we have Moussi taken on the part of Kurt Sloane, who was played by Van Damme in the original. Moussi’s character probably differs the most from the original. More pragmatic (although still hot-headed), he actually has more in common with David Sloane, Sasha Mitchell’s character from the Kickboxer sequels. Hell, he even owns a gym!
Much like Mitchell, Moussi is also a pretty capable action lead. He has just enough enthusiasm and charm to bring a sense of sincerity to his role that is often missing in lower budget action leads today. Enough that, I find myself eager to see what they could cook up in future installments, providing Moussi sticks with it.
Speaking of Van Damme, while the original four Kickboxer sequels were absent his unique presence, this remake thankfully is not. JCVD essays the role of Master Durand, Kurt’s trainer for his eventual fight with Tong Po. Anyone that has kept up with Van Damme’s career over the years knows that he’s continued to develop his acting chops over time and has become a fairly good actor.
Some might consider his performance a bit auto-pilot-ish, but they’re wrong. Van Damme keeps things fairly subtle at first, as Durand is clearly burnt out on life as a trainer, but slowly reawakens as the film goes on. It’s a good Creed-esque part for him (minus the cancer and loneliness) and one that can blossom into an even better role in future entries.
Van Damme, Bautista, Moussi, and Shahlavi aren’t the only athletes-turned-actors that appear in the film. In addition to an assortment of MMA fighters in small parts, we are also treated to the inclusion of Gina Carano and Georges St-Pierre. The latter has a solid supporting role as a washed up fighter with shaky allegiances and acquits himself well, getting a couple fights in throughout the film. The former gets to have a bit more fun playing a shady fight promoter, although fans might be disappointed to find out that it is an acting-only role for Carano.
Speaking of the fights, while none of them are groundbreaking, they are plentiful. Furthermore, they are mostly non-traditional for what one normally assumes will be in a “fight film.” We do get the Eric vs. Po and the Kurt vs. Po matches in the ring, but neither is an officially sanctioned fight. There are also a couple more one on one fights in the film (including JCVD vs. GSP), as well as plenty of training sequences. We are also treated to a Tony Jaa-esque sequence (including the requisite elephants) as Kurt takes on a couple of street thugs!
Because it wisely eschews traditional sport-fighting film tropes, Vengeance has given this revived franchise a broad enough platform to build on in the future. As a result, it not only functions as a flawed, but satisfying actioner on its own, but also a decent start for the IPs renewed future. And renewed it is. Not only has a follow-up, Kickboxer: Retaliation, already been shot, but a third outing (Kickboxer: Syndicate) is already scheduled to lens early next year. Alain Moussi and (hopefully) Van Damme have a bonafide franchise on their hands and I couldn’t be happier.
Kickboxer: Vengeance isn’t one of the best films I have seen this year, but it is an entertaining one. It’s also my second favorite film in the franchise overall, and, as someone who has seen all but one entry, I feel like I know what I’m talking about. Sure, that might be faint praise to most, but not to the dedicated action fans among you. Is it better than the 1989 original? No, but if you can set aside your nostalgia, it is objectively just as good.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is out now on VOD and in select theaters.