Director: Eric Sherman
Writers: Roxanne Reaver, Theresa Woo
Cast: Ken McLeod, Mark Williams, Tang Tak Wing, Matthew Ray Cohen, Harry Mok, Kendra Tucker, James Langton
For a lot of people, college is a non-stop party where the sex is casual, the beer pours down like cheap flavorless rain, and the weed practically grows on trees. Yet, for some, college can be one of the most challenging life experiences they’ll ever have. Cultures clash. Beliefs are shaken. Hearts and minds can be changed as often as bad jam band concert t-shirts. In 1992’s College Kickboxers, a group of young minds is engaged in a conflict that can only be resolved in one of two ways: punches or kicks.
James, played by Ken McLeod (credited here as Ken Rendall Johnson), is starting his first semester at Millbrook State University, a fictional college which rejected my fictional application about a decade ago. Ever so cocky about his martial-arts prowess, James is surprised to find that his roommate, Mark (Williams), is an equally decorated martial-arts instructor. This is initially a minor point of competitive conflict, but is quickly set aside when a faction called the White Tigers interjects during the roommates’ friendly sparring session on the campus green one morning. Sadly, Sherman manages to botch the authenticity of this scene; there were no hacky sack circles whatsoever within view.
Led by obnoxious leather fashion-plate Craig Tanner (Cohen), the Tigers are sort of like a racist Cobra Kai without a John Kreese. Neither Tanner nor his gang really articulate the philosophical underpinnings of their bigoted worldview, but they’re pretty adamant that races shouldn’t mix. (I’m pretty sure one of their members is either Asian or Hispanic, though). More offensive than their reliance on racial slurs in casual conversation is their collective dependence on using cheap tactics and weapons during fights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their beat-down of James following his night-shift busing tables at the local Chinese restaurant.
Outmanned and overpowered, James is unable to gain an upper hand despite his obvious advantage in actual fighting skills (in a previous confrontation, he easily handled Tanner one-on-one). He gets hammered with bats and pipes and only escapes serious injury thanks to the assistance of the restaurant’s cook, Mr. Wing (Tang Tak Wing). In an impressive show of speed and technique, he sends the wounded Tigers scurrying before pressure-pointing the fuck out of James’s various injuries. The student is astounded at Wing’s healing abilities and fighting skill and repeatedly asks him for training. Citing the huge cash prize in the upcoming Millbrook martial arts tournament, James is hoping that either he or Mark can win and open a karate school for disadvantaged children. Despite the good intentions, Wing insists that “money makes people crazy” before driving off in his expensive sportscar.
After James assures Wing he’ll abstain from the tournament, the cook eventually caves and soon enough, his new student is learning techniques through a combination of pain and perseverance. When he’s not translating these lessons for Mark and his karate class, James is trying to put his romantic moves on Kimberly (Tucker), the earthy activist from his ecology class. While the typical health-conscious environmental nutjob might reek of patchouli and have braidable armpit hair, it’s important to note that College Kickboxers is all about smashing negative stereotypes; Kimberly is a cute blond with the kind of huge 80s hair we all know and love. While initially disgusted at what she perceives as James’s meatheaded jockdom, she softens her stance upon learning of his interest in acupuncture. After an amazing first date montage consisting of petting zoo footage and beach frolicking, they bone in a hot tub and become inseparable.
The good vibes don’t last for long though; members of the White Tigers continue to make life miserable for James, Mark, and now Kimberly, and the douchebags declare their intentions to enter the fight tournament too. Things obviously don’t go as planned -- they never do -- but more important is the bond James and Mark forge despite the turmoil. Their dynamic reminded me a bit of the Jason Stillwell-RJ Madison pairing in No Retreat, No Surrender, but with reasonably good fighters and actors 10 years older than the characters they're portraying, instead of crappy fighters only five years older.
Generally speaking, the fight sequences are nicely choreographed and one would be right to attribute this to the involvement of a seasoned Hong Kong film veteran and martial artist like Wing. With credits including Supercop and Drunken Master 2 in his portfolio, he’s an obvious craftsman and it shows in the way strikes are both thrown and sold. His work is occasionally let down by clunky editing but the proficiency and fluidity of the fighters and stunt men on-screen overcome these technical missteps more often than not.
The film also contains some of the more interesting training sequences you’ll find in an American-made martial-arts film. The highlight finds Wing showing James how practicing forms while barefoot in the middle of an ice skating rink at 6 a.m. can help with balance. We do get a parade of ever-conventional beach jogging scenes but thankfully there’s no manual labor posing as practical fighting wisdom or flimsy philosophy about the inner self (well, not too much).
Played by Hong Kong stunt performer Tang Tak Wing, the character of Sifu Wing joins a cinematic laundry list of older, wiser, Asian fighting mentors. However, Wing also injects his character with light touches of humor, referring to James almost exclusively as “macho man,” and he has an engaging screen presence both dramatically and in action. Aside from his crisp fight scenes, he walks James through an interesting pressure point lesson and later does an impromptu form demonstration that leaves a massive Yin-Yang symbol carved into the dirt; it made for a genuinely cool visual.
While the mentor and lead characters are indeed likable, I found the film’s most memorable character to be Craig Tanner, who cements his spot in the pantheon of weirdly great American martial-arts villains. Despite a serious lack of fighting skills, Cohen owns the screen and proves that you don’t need to be a dumb skinhead to be a racist prick. His long, flowing mullet is among the most intense we’ve ever seen on film and were it not for his incredible overacting, it would easily be his best trait. While the White Tigers logo on his coat flaunts his gang affiliation, his fingerless leather gloves and leather pants with dangling chains scream “I just robbed the wardrobe rack on the set of Deadbeat at Dawn.” Pairing such a unique look with an unforgettable performance is a huge factor for why this film ultimately works.
Overall, I really dug College Kickboxers but I’ll be the first to admit that tonally, it has a bit of an identity crisis. At times, it attempts to be a fairly serious student-mentor martial-arts film with good fights, akin to The Karate Kid. During other stretches, it’s classic DTV American martial-arts cheese with timely (and regrettable) wardrobe attire, a despicable but hilarious lead villain, and enough bad acting and editing to kill a small pachyderm. All of that adds up to a very enjoyable romp of a martial-arts b-movie.
Amazon or EBay. Only available as a standalone copy on VHS, which may be hard to track down. You may be better off going with the very affordable ($3!) Lethal Vengeance 4-disc set put out by BCI.
5.5 / 7