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.