Kickboxer: Vengeance FILM REVIEW
A remake of the Jean Claude Van Damme video-store classic, Kickboxer: Vengeance sees Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) travel to Thailand to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Tong Po. Kurt is a well-meaning but untested martial artist. Tong Po is a killer. Let the training montage begin.
What Kickboxer: Vengeance does well it does extremely well. There’s some fun structural stuff with the movie opening with Kurt’s first confrontation with Tong Po and then flashing back to before Eric takes his disastrous final match. Likewise the “Tong Po just openly cripples people in publicly sanctioned fights and everyone’s cool with this” element of the first film is stripped away for something much grimier. There’s no pretence of these fights being licensed; it’s an underground ring that owes as much to Van Damme stablemate Bloodsport as it does the original Kickboxer.
More importantly, almost all the fights work very well. There’s none of the over-caffeinated shaky-cam that destroys so many modern fight scenes. Instead, director John Stockwell pretty much locks his camera off and lets the martial artists in the cast show what they can do. The late, great Darren Shahlavi is excellent in his final role as Eric while UFC mansmashers Cain Velasquez, Fabrício Werdum and Georges St-Pierre all cameo and get to show off. St-Pierre officially wins Pleasant Surprise Of The Movie prize too. He’s huge fun as the grumpy, laconic, frequently drunk Kavi who flip-flops between camps and ends up as Kurt’s reluctant sidekick. The film doesn’t do enough with him but what it does is really good fun.
Stockwell knows exactly what movie he’s re-making here and the film takes off every time the bell rings. Plus the closing fight is – one horrifically bum note aside – a vast improvement on the original. There’s much less slow motion and much more up-close and personal danger. Bautista’s Tong Po, finally unleashed after nearly an entire movie of impassively sitting on the sidelines, is a methodical, brutal opponent and you wince every time he lands a strike on Kurt. And he lands a lot of them.
Van Damme himself is also well-served. Moved here from the role of fighter to teacher, his Master Durand is equal parts Zen calm and just straight-up assholery. The jail break, where he’s calmly directing a frantic Sloane to his next target is especially fun and a rare moment of comedy. Van Damme has got progressively more interesting as he’s aged and he fits this sort of role like a glove. With this and the fun – if flawed – Jean Claude Van Johnson doing the rounds on Amazon, his career is surging again. Based on both his turn there and here, it deserves to be.
But for every blow the film lands, one goes wide for the oddest of reasons. Van Damme is frequently overdubbed in a way that’s so intrusive and arbitrary it’s difficult to believe it’s actually him at times. Likewise, the always-fun Bautista is so calm and distanced that he barely registers. Which, given he spends the entire movie wearing nothing other than a pair of shorts and hand wraps, is quite an achievement.
But the film really suffers at its core. Alain Moussi is an extraordinary martial artist but he has some serious work to do as an actor. He has none of the slightly goofy, heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity that Van Damme brought to the role and the film suffers for it. He’s always fun to watch but you rarely care about him. Ironically, his best moment is over the end credits, where he replicates the infamous dance scene from the original. It’s silly and fun and charming and shows he’s capable of much more. Hopefully his next vehicle will help bring that out.
Moussi’s lack of presence damages the movie but ultimately what sinks it is how outdated it is. Not so much in terms of plot – “Seeking vengeance for dead relative” is pretty timeless – but in attitude. There’s a fascinating conversation to be had about whether Kurt has any business competing in Thailand against an (according to the script) Thai opponent that the film completely ignores. Instead we get Kavi leading the deeply uncomfortable chant of “White Warrior” as Kurt kicks face in the closing fight. We’ll admit touching on whether cultural appropriation is something that applies to the martial arts was asking a bit much of a movie with the word “vengeance” in its title, but still.
Worst of all, though, the female characters are functionally non-existent. Tong Po’s bevy of handmaidens look like they’ve wandered out of a ’70s kung fu movie; Kurt’s female sparring partner doesn’t even rate a name; and Sara Malakul is horrifically wasted as a police officer investigating Tong Po who is drawn into a relationship with Kurt. A relationship so arbitrary it’s basically meaningless and the early promise the character shows is destroyed by the incredibly misjudged closing moments of the final duel. She’s even, after being established as a tough police officer, literally kidnapped and dragged away screaming at one point. This is the sort of writing that was outdated when the original came out. Now it plays as fossilised.
Only Gina Carano, a former Thai Boxing world champion and mixed martial artist herself, gets to have a little fun. She’s great as Marcia, the unscrupulous fight promoter who gets the Sloane brothers in trouble and feels like she’s wandered in from a different, better movie. It’s unforgivable that she doesn’t get a fight scene of her own (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, watch Haywire – she’s incredible in it) but she’s still a fun presence in the movie.
For all this, there’s plenty to enjoy in Kickboxer: Vengeance. It’s a lean 90 minutes that’s almost entirely fight sequences and training montage, features some of the best martial artists in the world and never gets in their way. But beyond physical spectacle there’s much less here than there should be. Fun but it could have been so much more.
Review by Alasdair Stuart