1989 vs. 2016
I don’t know what I was expecting from Kickboxer: Vengeance when I saw the DVD cover in Sainsbury’s, boasting, “JCVD is spectacular,” and “Kickboxer is reborn.” Something magical, perhaps. Something worthy of the legacy of Jean Claude Van Damme’s nostalgic 1989 classic.
The original Kickboxer was huge. Part of that memorable, golden era of Hollywood action flicks. I remember Van Damme dipping his roped hands in resin and glass like it was yesterday – an iconic scene later parodied in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Then I remember the bitter disappointment of low-budget 1991 sequel Kickboxer 2: The Road Back. My first taste of the exploitative, straight-to-DVD sequel.
I always felt cheated by the way the second film explained Van Damme’s absence. The way his character Kurt Sloane and his brother Eric were killed off and replaced by vengeful younger brother David, played by Step By Step’s Sasha Mitchell. I mean, Kurt and Eric were basically unkillable in the first movie, and now here they are, killed off in a weak, faceless, five-minute opening flashback – only to be replaced by Step By Step’s token stoner dude Cody Lambert.
Needless to say, I didn’t bother with the next three films (David made it as far as Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor). But for some reason, somehow, I got the impression that Kickboxer: Vengeance was the redemption-spawning real deal sequel. The film they should have made in 1991. The Creed to Van Damme’s Sloane.
My heart sank when I found out it was a reboot. A modern remake of the original with Jean Claude Van Damme in the Mr. Miyagi trainer role and stuntman and martial artist Alain Moussi taking over the Kurt Sloane reins. At least Creed added something to the Rocky mythology. It didn’t just pointlessly retell the same story with none of the personality and character of the original film.
1989 vs. 2016
First of all, this Tong Po, played by former WWE star Dave Bautista, speaks too much English. He’s way too articulate. Too slick and refined. Too sane. The original Tong Po, played by seemingly voiceless Moroccan-Belgian actor Michel Qissi, was an unhinged animal. A killer. He was terrifying. I still remember that scene where Kurt walks in on him warming up, kicking a concrete pillar like some kind of mute monster.
The next issue is Moussi lacks the personality Van Damme brought to the role. Love him or hate him, Van Damme had a roguish charm that was infectious. He was larger than life. Likable. Charismatic. A hero. Albeit a cheesy one. And thanks to an endless string of training montages, agonizing setbacks and bizarre, emotional facial expressions – all set to kick-ass late ’80s power tunes – it was impossible not to get caught up in Kurt Sloane’s quest for revenge. This time I didn’t really care how things worked out for him.
Also, this Kurt’s relationship with sexy Thai police officer Liu, played by low-budget movie queen Sara Malakul Lane, makes daytime soap opera romances look like Shakespeare. He meets her. Beds her. Then, all of a sudden, they’re an old couple looking out for each others’ best interests. And Jean Claude is no Mr. Miyagi. His uninspiring “come on,” “get up” speeches certainly don’t grab you like Rocky Balboa’s Mickey Goldmill, and his sunglasses and fedora combination is just plain weird. However, the worst thing is his voice. I thought he sounded different, odd, more like Christian Bale’s Batman, and it turns out that, due to scheduling conflicts, a lot of his lines were dubbed. Can you believe it. Dubbing Van Damme in a Kickboxer movie.
Lastly *spoiler alert*, the beating this Kurt takes in his final fight with Tong Po is unreal. I know that’s the classic formula: the hero gets beaten until his skin’s about to fall off, followed by a deep and meaningful flashback to a particularly epic moment of his training and then the big, Hulk Hogan comeback with theme music. But this time Tong Po’s glass-covered hands cut Kurt to ribbons. And the way Dave Bautista beats the shit out of our hero is just plain ridiculous. This Kurt should look like Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead long before his rousing comeback kicks in. And when it finally does, it’s more like cold blooded murder than righteous, heroic revenge.
It was a different time, I guess. Those inventive, enigmatic ’80s and ’90s action flicks had character. Personality. Charm. They were romantic, in a tacky, ridiculous and over-the-top kind of way. But sadly, you just can’t get away with the same kind of cheesy, emotional hero quests today. The world’s a much colder, more cynical place. Viewers demand urgency and gritty, fast-paced blood and violence. Disappointingly, Kickboxer: Vengeance swaps heart, passion and soul for buckets of fake blood, and it’s the most pointless reboot since Total Recall.