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