King of the Kickboxers (1991)

There are two main types of family dramas in cinema -- those with tearjerking human conflict and those with kickboxing. You should be able to guess which camp 1990's King of the Kickboxers falls into. If you said “both,” give yourself a silver star for being half right.

Director: Lucas Lowe
Screenwriter: Keith W. Strandberg
Cast: Loren Avedon, Billy Blanks, Keith Cooke, Sherrie Rose, Richard Jaeckel, Jerry Trimble

Two American brothers leave an arena following the elder’s victory in a championship kickboxing match in Thailand. While the younger Jake is worried that the locals are pissed about a foreigner winning, the older and wiser Sean is all “STFU Jake, they just wanted a good fight. You’ll learn these things when you’re older and you understand the cost of razors and free markets and the warm caress of a woman.” During the ride home, they come under attack from a gang of thugs led by the villainous Khan, played by future fitness guru Billy Blanks. Why? Because apparently, the locals are pissed that the American won. After a thorough beatdown, both brothers are left for dead, but only one actually dies.

A decade later, Jake is an undercover New York City cop with a penchant for purposely blowing his own cover to force confrontations with criminals. In the aftermath of the most recent incident involving an impressively mulleted dealer played by Jerry Trimble, the lieutenant gives Jake a harsh reprimand. But Jake knows that the means are secondary as long as the bad guys get put away and we get that sweet delicious oil. To get the loose cannon out of his hair, the lieutenant wants to send him to Thailand to infiltrate the martial-arts snuff film underground. Because of the traumatic events of his youth, Jake balks at the proposition. He takes the case file home anyway, perhaps hoping for a misplaced episode of the Arsenio Hall Show on one of the videotapes.

As Jake and his dog watch a film from the file that night, he laments the waste of time that is straight to video martial arts films. This made me question how I choose to use my free time. But an actor in the film catches his eye and he pauses on a close-up of a menacing and familiar face. He reflects deeply, like Michael Keaton in the first Batman film when a televised statement from the Joker triggers the traumatic memory of a young Jack Napier fatally killing Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him and we all feel the boyhood tragedy of future Batman. But Jake’s epiphany isn’t so much dramatic or heartfelt as it is an insert of the first ten minutes of the film. A phone call from the lieutenant snaps him out of this trance and Jake angrily reneges; he’s taking the assignment and he’s going to Thailand. With his master out of the country for the next several weeks, the dog makes plans to hump every piece of furniture in the apartment.

It doesn’t take long for Jake to impress his brash arrogance upon everyone he meets after arriving in Bangkok. He makes contact with a grizzled vet from Interpol but scoffs at any suggestion that he’ll follow a pre-heated plan from some covert stooges. Later, a neighborhood kickboxing academy accommodates his unwelcome visit and he repays their hospitality by pummeling several students. He even has the gall to interject when a gang of thugs has a whimpering American girl cornered in an alley. He gains their trust by feigning interest in a gangbang then wins the confidence of the distraught victim by beating up the miscreants. We learn that that the woman, Molly, is not unlike so many other American girls who dream of fashion shoots, Paris runways, and fame but end up in Thailand as sex slaves in high-waisted pants.

Why was she fleeing in the first place? Because an evil snuff film production company forced her into a hotel room rendezvous with Khan, their biggest star. Rather than subject herself to poorly acted martial artist sex, she smashed through a bathroom window and fled. This was apparently not an anomaly. It's widely-known that Khan has had a long streak of bad luck closing the deal. Even with sex slaves.

So the film bosses try to keep Khan as happy as they can by duping talented fighters into thinking they’re starring in exciting films when they’re really just chum for a vicious Great White shark of a man who is actually black … or Afro-American, if you prefer. I’ll give you a few seconds to have your mind blown by the mixed metaphor of kickboxing sharks with afros.

The constant need to replace dead talent with new talent leads the film bosses to notice Jake’s tussles around town. But they’re not the only nipples who have perked up as a result of his brawling ways; an advanced fighter from the kickboxing academy has been trailing Jake and confronts him about Khan. In a gesture of goodwill, he kicks Jake’s ass to show him that his fighting sucks and then directs him to get training from an alcoholic master named Prang who lives in a remote hide-out with a chimp. It’s a weird relationship, but it’s the 90s – who are we to judge?

Prang (Keith Cooke) is your classic martial arts film archetype who has infinite fighting wisdom but is content to get shitfaced all the time. Like any drunkard, he is prone to rambling incoherently and tries to convince Jake to “hear the sound of one hand clapping.” But what he lacks in communication, he makes up for in physical training. He prepares Jake for Khan’s trademark kicking combo using a swinging set of logs (y’know – because they’re just like a person’s legs.) And requisite Groinalyzer: check.

Following his training, Jake gets in on the local underground fighting action and finally makes contact with one of the snuff film representatives. He agrees to appear in the company’s pending production but is unaware that Khan’s recent suggestion that their films should involve more “tension” and “people” means that the classical acting motivation methods of “kidnapping” and “murder” are going to be utilized.

On the day of the film shoot, Jake shows up to a set inspired in equal parts by Beyond Thunderdome and not having enough money left in the budget for metal and settling for bamboo. He makes quick work of a few scrubs before being confronted by Khan. The final showdown unfolds much like one would expect: there’s a lot of grunting, one-liners, Billy Blanks shirtlessness, and both guys drooling uncontrollably while getting hit in the face.

Following No Retreat, No Surrender 3, King of the Kickboxers was the last film in what could have been a long and rewarding marriage between Loren Avedon and Seasonal Film Corporation. Avedon was one of the most talented American screen martial artists of that time and his quickness was a good fit for the Hong Kong-style fight choreography which marked that subset of films. While he’s done many films since, Avedon never looked better from a fighting perspective; the final blowoff between he and Blanks is arguably the best fight scene of either actor’s career and while no one will confuse it for the climax of Drunken Master II, it’s an eminently watchable showdown. This also marked a rare villain role for Billy Blanks and the film does a good job of portraying him as a legitimately cold-hearted bad ass, wooden dialog delivery aside. It’s got kicking, ‘splosions, drunk gurus, comedic chimps, and glorious late 80s hair and fashion and is a must-own entry in any B-action movie collection.

7 / 7


No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (1987)

American kickboxer Scott Wylde travels to Thailand to visit an old friend and his college sweetheart. When she gets kidnapped, his vacation sorta goes downhill. With the help of friend Mac Jarvis and a kickboxing helicopter pilot named Terry, he must save his woman from an evil Soviet force based in Cambodia.

Director: Corey Yuen
Screenwriter: Keith W. Strandberg
Cast: Loren Avedon, Max Thayer, Cynthia Rothrock, Matthias Hues, Hwang Jang Lee

Romantic love can make you do strange things. It can make you drive eight hours to spend four hours with someone. It can make you cook an elaborate meal, or write thoughtful notes and leave them around the house as surprises. For Scott Wylde (Avedon), love means busting out of police custody, killing 40 people with arrows and bullets, and climbing up a fucking waterfall. As much as you may love your spouse or partner, you will never love anyone as much as Scott Wylde does.

Shortly after arriving in Thailand, he makes a visit to a Muay Thai kickboxing school frequented by his old friend Mac (Thayer). He instead finds a bunch of guys who don’t speak English and a sassy American named Terry (Rothrock), who rocks an Esprit workout shirt almost as hard as she busts heads in the ring. On his way out, Scott drops a snide “your mother” joke which pisses off a Thai fighter and leads to a quick kickboxing scrum. After all, mom jokes are universal and kickboxing is the only logical resolution to such differences of opinion.

After a sweaty day of backpacking, Scott checks into a hotel haunted by the constant moaning of either whores or ghosts. He phones his Asian fiance, Sulin, to arrange the night’s plans and they end up going out for a dinner of fried bugs and tiger balls, dishes she insists he try in order to impress her father.

If the mustachioed man leering at them from afar during dinner wasn’t a bad enough omen, Scott brings Sulin back to room #13 at the hotel. After sex that we can only assume followed the slow-motion removal of their clothing, the couple is attacked in their room by a group of thugs. They carefully wrap Sulin in blankets to prevent damage during transport and two others stay behind to kill loverboy. He counters their blades and poisonous syringes with asskickery and jets over to Sulin’s family’s house to break the news that their daughter has been kidnapped. They have bigger things to worry about though -- they’ve been murdered! The police are suspicious of Scott’s presence at the house and take him into custody. Missing from the crime scene is Sulin’s wealthy father, who watches from behind closed doors as Scott undergoes a very sweaty interrogation back at the station. Roy Horan, who co-wrote the script, makes a cameo here as the American consular who mandates that Scott be deported to Singapore. As you might have guessed, Horan does not fight Bruce Lee in this film.

As protagonists tend to do, Scott escapes police custody the next day (thanks a fucking lot, Roy Horan). He tracks down Mac at a go-go dancing/arm-wrestling bar and to escape the heat of cops and bounty hunters, they head to a low-key restaurant outside the city. For an extra layer of cover, Scott wears a hat with a big floppy brim, perfect for a day of laying by the pool if you’re a girl. A group of bounty hunters are unswayed by this clever disguise and demand that the two come with them or die. Scott schools the baddies with acrobatic strikes and Mac utilizes his bad habits to great effect. He burns one guy’s face with a lit cigar, and wastes precious food by smashing eggs and melons into enemy heads. For his final act, he tosses a cobra at a gunman who Scott recognizes as one of the kidnappers from the night before. During a brief interrogation, they learn Sulin is being held in Cambodia at place called Death Mountain. It’s quite majestic between September and February but the weather’s a bit on the mild side.

At Mac’s warehouse of weaponry (he’s a black-market arms dealer) our heroes load up on enough firepower to fight an army and expel enough exposition to kill a horse. Mac posits that the Soviet-North Vietnamese forces have kidnapped Sulin to exploit her father, who is funding an anti-Khmer Rouge resistance movement. The two embark on their trip early the next day, but not early enough to evade the Thai authorities camped outside. A helicopter arrives just in time to fly them to safety, but the pilot turns out to be Terry, the wise-cracking kickboxer. Apparently, she and Mac have an intense history of sexy feelings and constant bickering. Mac is annoyed by her presence, Terry is frustrated by the assignment, and Scott is again very sweaty from the oppressive Thai humidity.

Shortly after their arrival in Cambodia, they make contact with a local resistance force to whom Mac has sold arms in the past. The colonel agrees to help them locate the Soviet camp, but only after Mac agrees to trade a battle tank for opium. To put this in perspective, it looks a lot like an F-16 worth of psychedelic mushrooms. Without warning, the camp is bombarded with explosives from above. The crew evades certain death by diving into a pond but their prospective guides have been blown to bits. With Plan A firmly in the shitter, they turn to Plan B -- wandering the jungles of Cambodia without the benefit of maps or a compass.

The Soviet camp where Sulin is held captive is run by a brutal general named Yuri, played by Matthias Hues. In a display of cruelty, he challenges an injured prisoner to a fight and dangles the promise of freedom as incentive. After inflicting punishment in the form of internal bleeding, Yuri lets him limp towards the exit for about ten feet before shooting him in the leg and ass. He then throws him into a pit full of crocodiles. While laughing hysterically. Following this comical turn of events, he turns to Sulin and assures her that he won’t harm her. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, our heroic trio is trudging through the jungle without the benefit of sunscreen, insect repellent, or moisture-wicking clothing, because it hadn’t been invented yet. They come upon a riverside camp of Buddhist monks, which reveals their deeply ingrained prejudices about non-Western religions. Mac doesn’t “trust people who don’t eat meat” (true, they don’t). Scott thinks they “sing and shake beads all day” (not entirely true). Terry states that “they’re harmless” (demonstrably false). The “monks” attack them and what follows is a legitimately great fight scene involving some slick rope work and gruesome kills. Though it must be said that for a guy purporting to frequent a Muay Thai gym, Mac doesn’t do an awful lot of kickboxing. After the scrum, Terry tries to start up a motorboat for a getaway but gets captured by a group of Yuri’s rogue military men and is whisked away upriver.

Back at the Ruskie Ranch, Terry is forced to fight Yuri’s second in command, an officer played by the legendary Hwang Jang Lee. After a brief show of skill by both fighters, Yuri steps in and asserts his authority. For reasons I’ll leave undisclosed, he decides that both she and Sulin will be executed by overly elaborate means the next morning. However, Mac and Scott have discovered the camp and set a number of overly elaborate traps, bombs, and self-firing machine guns under the cover of night.

Yuri decides to kick off the morning with an crocodile feeding, with both hostages suspended over the pit with nothing to counterweight them but a pair of sandbags. Terry remains defiant, remarking that Yuri would be a “big hit at the circus” (oddly prescient since Hues played “Oscar the Liontamer” in Big Top Pee-Wee just a year later). Scott and Mac awake to Sulin’s screams as both women are lowered into the pit. Before unleashing their bag of goodies, Scott and Mac share the first on-screen fist bump I can recall and the chaos commences. Bombs send soldiers flying, gunfire splatters the camera lens with blood (in 1987!), and arrows pierce flesh with pinpoint accuracy. And the girls are saved! Sort of.

Scott and Yuri battle hand-to-hand all over the compound in a climax filled with screaming and flag desecration and crocodiles. The fight is gloriously over the top and might be the best of Hues’ career. After the bloodshed and multiple ‘splosions, Scott cryptically speaks, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Intentional or not, I’d like to think this 1980s martial-arts actioner was dropping some subversive commentary on the military presence of the United States in Southeast Asia with this last bit of dialogue. But I also cracked up at the “Thanks To” credit to Mike Miller at the end of the film, because I pictured the Miami Heat shooting guard:

While a sequel in name only, there’s something for everyone in No Retreat, No Surrender 2 and it’s probably the best in the series. The kills are plentiful, the action is well-choreographed and well-shot, and there are reasonably good performances from all the principals. What really held it together for me was Thayer’s screen presence; as a real-life military vet and star of several Filipino action/war films of the 1980s, he’s a natural fit and seems very comfortable as the grizzled arms dealer. I’ve seen him comparatively positioned in other reviews as a Han Solo type and I’ll echo that sentiment here as well. In the first of his three-picture run with Seasonal Films, Loren Avedon is damn good; his acting, while raw, still has personality, and his fighting is excellent. Rothrock plays cocky reasonably well despite some grating dialogue, and Hues is good as the heartless Russian monster despite a fairly obvious German accent. You may be able to find this on Youtube in its entirety but action aficionados will want to acquire the readily available import for their collections. Followed by No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers.

7 / 7


No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Ostracized by his peers and estranged from his father, a teenaged Bruce Lee fanatic struggles to fit in after moving to Seattle. Following a series of misfortunes, his idol crosses into the living world to teach him how to harness his chi and stir shit up. With this newfound wisdom and a burgeoning friendship, Jason confronts a looming threat and learns the true meaning of “No retreat, no surrender.”

Director: Corey Yuen
Writer: Keith W. Strandberg
Cast: Kurt McKinney, Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails, Tim Baker, Kent Lipham, Dale Jacoby, Ron Pohnel, Pete Cunningham, Tai Chung Kim

Throughout their time in Los Angeles, life was good for the Stillwells. Tom Stillwell, played by Timothy D. Baker, owned and operated a karate school in Sherman Oaks. His son, Jason (McKinney), was an overeager martial-arts trainee with an unhealthy obsession with Bruce Lee.

Their lives are forever changed when the senior Stillwell is paid a hostile visit by well-dressed goons following a karate class. After refusing to join their evil syndicate comprised of three people, Tom attempts to defuse the tension, stating, “karate is not to be used aggressively.” The baddies reject this moralist plea and come out swinging. Ivan the Russian, naturally played by the Belgian-born Van-Damme, breaks Tom’s leg then pie-faces our young hero with all the force of someone pushing an actual pie into an actual face. Jason has designs on revenge, but the attack reduces his father to a quivering bag of cowardice. Fearing for the safety of his loved ones, he abandons his dojo and moves the family to Seattle.

While unpacking during the move, Jason befriends the charismatic R.J. Madison. The chronic multi-tasker can dribble a basketball while riding a bike and skateboard while listening to rap music. But only moments into one of R.J.’s freestyle raps/break-dance routines, Jason learns of his horrible affliction—anytime he performs advanced dance moves or falls from a shelving unit, he turns Caucasian.

In each other, R.J. and Jason find a reflection of their common awkwardness; while one uses jokes and rapping to cope, the other uses a karate style looser than MC Hammer pants. And so the credo, “no retreat, no surrender!” becomes their battle cry. They use it before having rumbles outside of burger joints and after late-night talks about the fleeting nature of curfews. Does such liberal application of the slogan render it meaningless? Probably.

Outside this bio-dome of good vibes, a pack of snarling Johnny Lawrence wannabes awaits. There’s Dean “Shooting Star” Ramsey [Dale Jacoby], Seattle’s most underappreciated assistant karate instructor and total jerk. The crew's resident obnoxious oaf, Scott [Kent Lipham], has beef with Jason because of his Bruce Lee freakdom and with R.J. because of ... I'm actually not sure. When he’s not eating cake off the hood of a car, he’s eating chips while window-washing and buying friendship with burgers. The running theme: Scott makes poor nutritional choices. Both of these scrubs play second fiddle to the pack’s alpha dog, Ian “Whirlwind” Reilly. He would seem to have it all: abundant chest hair, his own karate school, championship glory, and the admiration of the entire Pacific Northwest. While his plastic trophy marks him as a champion, his oft-furrowed brow says, “as a child I was forced to participate in Satanic rituals.”

Scott and Dean are constantly harshing Jason’s mellow, starting with the latter's failed attempt to join Reilly's karate school. While Ian is away on a championship kickboxing tour, Dean is performing his duty as assistant instructor. While initially amenable to this newest applicant, he becomes enraged by Scott's news that Jason has been talking shit about Seattle-brand karate. So he employs Frank, his most advanced student, to fight the outsider during an exhibition in front of the whole class. Racial differences not withstanding, what follows looks a lot like the Globetrotters versus the Generals; after a thorough schooling, Jason runs out the school with R.J. in tow. Some might say that they surrendered, then retreated.

However, the worst example of Dean's treachery occurs at a birthday pool party for Ian’s sister Kelly, who just so happens to be Jason’s main squeeze. This relationship proves the latest thorn in Dean’s half-shirted side. When he discovers the two kissing after Jason presents her with a birthday rabbit (?), he and Scott scheme to humiliate him. It should be noted that Jason's the only weirdo in a shirt and tie at a pool party, which is humiliating enough. And he's wearing cowboy boots. To add to the misery, Scott throws fabric-staining punch on Jason’s shirt and flings frosted cake at him. When our hero tries to retaliate, Dean beats the crap out of him. Thoroughly emasculated, Jason storms out as an angered Kelly slaps Dean and chases after her knight in shining cowboy boots. Infuriated by what he perceives as a set-up, he peels away in his wood-paneled station wagon and leaves Kelly in tears.

Instead of abusing drugs or writing bad poetry like a normal teenager in turmoil, Jason deals with this latest trauma by going to Bruce Lee’s grave and crying for help. When he returns home, his father denounces his son’s brawling ways and lack of punctuality. Jason challenges him on his lack of manhood and Old-Man Stillwell gesticulates repeatedly at the ground, his house, the garage, the station wagon, and even himself while shouting parental decrees. (When preparing for the level of rage required in this scene, Baker, no doubt, thought of his measly paycheck).

The conflict culminates with Tom tearing Jason’s Bruce Lee poster cleanly in half. Instead of fighting back against his tyrannical father, he whimpers like a child on his way to the doctor's office for an afternoon of inoculations and blood work, and runs off into the night.

After jogging for about three miles to R.J.’s house for help (still in cowboy boots), he sets up what remains of his training equipment in an abandoned house and falls asleep. During his slumber, the ghost of a guy that vaguely looks like Bruce Lee to those who can’t tell the difference between Asian people crosses over into the material world and offers his services. In a promotional placement Diet Coke would probably rather forget, Lee favorably compares his knowledge of the martial-arts to the superior flavor of the popular cola. Over the coming weeks, Jason learns many techniques useful for both fighting and training montages.

The first test of Jason's freshly buffed skills comes against a band of alcoholic thugs who've been harassing his father at the local watering hole, where he works as a bartender. (Bartending and karate licenses are interchangeable in most states.) The booze-hounds quietly lurk in the parking lot as Tom leaves after his day shift, and commence the beat-down just as Jason arrives to pick his father up from work. He easily dispatches the uncoordinated winos and sends them scurrying into the streets, where their search for hooch resumes. The display of self-sacrifice helps Tom finally understand that fighting is a necessary life skill, like personal finance. With their relationship upgraded from angry and cold to emotional and awkward, father and son walk off in pursuit of the challenges that lay ahead.

And wouldn't you know it. The same syndicate that attacked the Stillwells in L.A. now threatens to take over Reilly’s Seattle karate school. The criminals agree to a team fight to decide the fate of the Evergreen State’s karate legacy. Team Reilly includes Dean and Frank, with Scott on strangely homoerotic massage duty. The opposition relies upon just one man: Ivan the Evil Russian. He makes short work of Frank and beats the living daylights out of Dean. Reilly manages to put up a fight, but in a stunning reversal of the Deep Blue computer vs. Kasparov chess match, this time it's the Russian who cheats.

As Ivan chokes Reilly with a chain, Kelly attempts to save her brother by clubbing his attacker with a wooden stool. The Russian grabs her by the hair, prompting a furious Jason to burst from the packed crowd and enter the ring to fulfill all of our teenage martial-arts film dreams. I would hate to spoil such an obvious ending, but you know where it goes from here.

No Retreat No Surrender will be remembered as an artifact of pure 1980s cinematic cheese. It's also Jean Claude Van Damme's American film debut, and this is significant; his very next role in 1988's Bloodsport launched him to stardom. It's packed with poor editing, glorious 80s clothing, and some bad line delivery, but it also marked the first genuine attempt by a Hong Kong action director to translate that style in a Western production for American audiences. Followed by No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder.

6.5 / 7

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