12.14.2010

American Kickboxer 1 (1991)

PLOT:
A disgraced former kickboxing champion must rebuild his life after going to prison. In his absence, his arch-rival rises the ranks and taunts him from his perch atop the middleweight kickboxing world, where he has a nice view of the ocean, a brand-new dog park, and his own house.

Director: Frans Nel
Writers: John Barrett, Emil Kolbe
Cast: John Barrett, Keith Vitali, Brad Morris, Terry Norton, Ted Le Plat, Len Sparrowhawk, Roger Yuan


PLOT THICKENER:
If you watched nothing but Gary Daniels or Cynthia Rothrock movies, you might be lulled into thinking that kickboxing exists only as a tool of violence and retribution within the world of drug runners, serial killers, terrorists, Communists, and crooked authority figures. I actually do watch nothing but Daniels and Rothrock movies, so I was surprised to learn that kickboxing is an actual sport too.

BJ Quinn, played by Chuck Norris acolyte and b-movie veteran John Barrett, is an aged champion kickboxer at the back-end of elite status in his career. After a hard-fought victory over middleweight contender Chad Hunter (Vitali) he and other figures from the kickboxing universe attend an after-party hosted by his promoter (Sparrowhawk). Unfortunately, young punk upstart Jacques Denard (Morris) hits on Quinn’s lady, Carol (Norton) during the festivities and roughs her up when she rejects his advances. Quinn responds with shit-faced aggression but before things reach a boiling point, he lashes out at a bystander trying to break up the scuffle. The clumsy oaf flails his way through a shoddily constructed glass table and later dies in a hospital. You might say: “how can someone die from falling through a glass table?” But you need to remember this was the early 90s. The medical community was almost entirely focused on combating AIDS and probably had no one on staff qualified to treat his cuts and scrapes.


The fallout from this accident is devastating for Quinn. While Hunter vouches for his character at the trial, Denard offers deceptive testimony to muddy the waters. The judge hands down a stiff 12-month prison sentence and bans him from all title fights for the next five years, which effectively ends Quinn’s prime. No more electrifying kicks. No more girlish screams to pump up the crowd between rounds. No more Roger Yuan and the guy with puffy mullet as his corner men.

Upon Quinn’s release from prison, Carol picks him up from the clink in his old sportscar, but despite the show of loyalty it’s obvious Quinn is a changed man. He stands in silence in front of his fish tank wearing nothing but tighty whities. He drinks constantly, sometimes by himself. His relationship with Carol is rocky at best, and his newly formed friendship with former opponent Hunter is tenuous and marked by bickering. Quinn further isolates himself in an effort to reconstruct his identity as a person, not a fighter, but he continues to struggle with the absence of kickboxing glory.

Monitoring most of this and other kickboxing happenings is a newspaper reporter named Willard (Le Plat). He wants nothing more than to get a headline about middleweight kickboxing on his newspaper’s front page and will do just about anything to get it. Well, he doesn’t blow or blackmail anyone. But he’s pretty much a stalker who harasses every fighter he can find for quotes or backstage dirt. Because of this, he has a contentious relationship with virtually everyone, and Denard in particular has it in for him. As a character, Willard wasn’t entirely necessary but it allowed Nel to integrate a lot of modified newspaper headlines.


Despite his status as new champion, Denard doesn’t have a desire to be the best so much as he wants to be better than Quinn. He goes out of his way to antagonize him and his arrogant sense of entitlement is on full display throughout the film. He turns up to formal soirees in tank tops and ill-fitting pants, wears dark sunglasses during a court testimony, threatens kids seeking autographs, and even headbutts an innocent locker door. While all of this sufficiently characterizes Denard’s dickishness, Morris so thoroughly embraces the character’s traits that we can’t help but be entranced. Much of an audience’s hatred for a villain is set in motion by a single event but Denard is such a complete and utter asshole in everything he says and does that you legitimately want to see him beaten to death. And he has horizontal lines shaved into his head, which is OK if it’s 1991 and you’re nine years-old. But give Denard a pair of Ray Bans and some skinny jeans and he’s pretty much every hipster douche you’ve wanted to see step in dog shit and into oncoming traffic.


As a fighter, Denard is talented but his strategies in the ring are unconventional. At the start of matches, he allows his opponents to land a few strikes in order to get pumped up. Following that, he typically drives them into the ropes or the corner and hammers away until they’re knocked out or the ref gets between them. That said, he’s not above including cheap shots in his arsenal either. All the while, he plays to the crowd while decked out in teal tights under a colorfully patterned banana hammock and flowy tassles. The result is one of the more colorful martial arts villains of the era, and it’s a shame Morris’s skills as both actor and fighter weren’t put to better use in additional films. This was his last film role and he hasn’t been heard from since. It’s unlikely that you’d see Bolo Yeung or Michel Qissi giving this nuanced of a performance (especially in thongs with tassles) so Morris deserves to be lauded for his efforts.


The fights in the film are light on creative choreography and heavy on dodging, bobbing, and weaving. While certainly realistic in the context of a kickboxing match, it isn’t all that interesting to watch unfold on the screen, though all of these guys are good fighters. However, Hunter and Quinn deserve special recognition for some intense training montages. While they don't reach quite the same sweaty and rippling heights, the film contains the most homoerotic jogging scenes since Balboa and Creed in Rocky III.

VERDICT:

Because of the bad hair, bad fashion, and goofy montages, there was great potential here for the film to flail about in a vast pool of piping hot Gruyere … and it still does, at times. But the story and strong performances from Morris and Barrett elevate it above the trappings of its place and era to exist as an average-to-solid redemptive sports story. Audiences have seen this Rocky-style arc done bigger and better elsewhere -- like in, uh.... Rocky -- but Nel is somehow able to forge cohesion with the film’s elements and it results in a fairly entertaining watch.

AVAILABILITY:
Freely available via Amazon and Netflix. Tassles and thong not included.

5 / 7

7 comments:

  1. I had to go back to my archives to see what I thought, and it turns out I had a similar "so-bad-it's-good" mentality. The mullets, the music, and the John Barrett. I did have a problem though with Barrett's character, because as far as I could tell he needed to do a few more years in the can for that guy's death, and I can't root for a hero who circumvents the system like that.

    Thank you too for putting my blog in your "Films Blogs That Kick My Face" section. I returned the favor by placing your site in my links section.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think what puts it over the top is that in addition to the odd jail sentence, the judge takes it upon himself to suspend Quinn from championship matches for five years. Why is he suspending him and not the kickboxing commission? And where the hell did he get that number? There's a lot of odd touches in the movie that I really dig and I think this might even be Keith Vitali's best dramatic performance, if that means anything at all.

    As for the plug, I'm happy to mention it and thanks for the reciprocation! We seem to have a lot of content overlap, though you definitely go the distance on b-movies in general whereas I'm more or less flailing in the punchfighting sandbox.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I remember renting this one with Lady Dragon back in the day; didn't like Lady Dragon but I kinda dug this one. The video store never did get American Kickboxer 2 in -- it wasn't until 2009 that I came across it on Showtime.

    I'd like to echo Connoisseur's last comment; I'm also very grateful that you linked my blog to yours and I've done the same in return.

    I get a big kick out of these films -- "punchfighters" or not, a lot of these DTV flicks were a big part of my childhood and it's cool to find others who share the same enthusiasm for them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah, for some reason AKB1 just works. Between the Barrett and Morris performances, the dramatic story arc, and the ridiculous fashion throughout, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The film is definitely the Jacques Denard show, but Vitali is a decent supporting character and Barrett also rocks some ridiculous moose knuckle while training in way-too-tight shorts.

    I also loved the cheesy martial arts genre growing up and I really think they gave me the critical sensibility to enjoy poorly made films that are still entertaining. The worst film crime is not to be bad, but to be boring, IMO.

    And thank you kindly for the linkage. I dug your write-up on Nutcracker 3D!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jacques Denard is one our greatest treasures of American Cinema. Just got a copy of To The Death: The offical sequel to American Kickboxer 1.

    But American Kickboxer 2 is one of the funniest movies ever.

    Also thanks for linking our site. We will happily do the same. We are following you via blogger.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think Brad Morris could have been a lot bigger than a one-off performance in a DTV martial-arts flick. He had some very genuine charisma in this one and appears to be a good fighter as well.

    I have a copy of AKB2 that I haven't watched yet but am REALLY looking forward to. I got stoked the minute I saw Ted Markland (Live by the Fist) and his luxurious skullet listed in the cast. Hopefully will have that review up next month.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This film popped up on cable frequently in the 1990s. It's not bad as a martial arts film - you could do much worse than this. I didn't get how that judge had the authority to ban Quinn from any martial arts related events. And why didn't we see any of Quinn's time behind bars? Think about that; this pro kickboxer probably would have had a number of inmates who wanted to see how tough he really was. They wasted a perfectly good plot.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...