1989 - 93m.
Over the years I've decided on my personal ranking of 90's action movie stars. At the bottom is Steven Seagal's tough guy bone breaking, the top is Dolph Lundgren's steady ass-kicking, and firmly planted in the middle is Jean-Claude Van Damme's compelling (yet wooden) presence. Given the early career one-two punch of Bloodsport and, our topic here, Kickboxer it was easy for a teenager like myself to dig the "Muscles from Brussels" who took his ability to do the splits between two objects to new heights. Sure, Van Damme wasn't a good actor and his actual martial arts skills have been questioned over time, but at least he usually looked convincing pretending to be a bad-ass.
For Kickboxer, Van Damme gets credit for choreographing and directing the fight scenes as well as co-writing the story, but it's almost like he took the premise for almost all martial arts flicks at the time and wedged himself into it. The basic plot has him playing Kurt Sloane, the brother to kickboxing champion Eric (Dennis Alexio), who head off to Thailand together so he can defend his title. This gives the makers a chance to play a funky (and horribly dated) credits song over top of a montage of our siblings touring the city.
The opponent for this epic match is Tong Po (Michel Qissi, but billed "as himself") who has a reputation of being merciless in the ring. This is, of course, proven when he paralyzes Eric kicking the revenge plot into gear as Kurt decides he wants to learn Muay Thai and confront Tong Po in a no holds barred showdown.
Along the way to our pleasing finale, and a memorable moment where they agree to fight with their wrapped fists dipped into glass shards that was spoofed in 1993's Hot Shots! Part Deux, Kurt pairs up with fellow American, and ex-soldier, Taylor (Haskell Anderson) who helps him get a trainer in the form of mentor Xian (Dennis Chan). Suffice it to say, if you've seen any martial arts flicks from this era, you know there's a cheesy training sequence, a few random fights (including an awesome drunken dance sequence that begets a bar fight), Kurt's brother being kidnapped, and Van Damme's suspect acting.
Let's be honest, though, we're not watching Kickboxer for Jean-Claude's acting prowess. What's surprising, then, is that the supporting cast is actually quite able in their roles with Van Damme's childhood friend Qissi quite menacing as the villain, Anderson adding in mild comic relief, and Chan bringing a good authority to almost every scene he's in. Alexio was an actual heavyweight kickboxing champion and this marked his second (and last) film appearance after the Andy Sidaris goofiness that is Picasso Trigger. Both Qissi and Chan would return for the sequel - and Chan the one after that.
The similarities between Kickboxer and Van Damme's previous flick, Bloodsport, can't be denied. I wouldn't be stunned to learn that it was intentional. It follows the same, by-the-book, script structure as well as containing a baddie who leaves a good impression (of course, Qissi isn't quite Bolo Yeung, but who is?) and, while it's entertaining in its own right, I much prefer the Kumite spiced action of the earlier movie.
This isn't to say that if you like B-level martial arts fare, or you're a fan of Jean-Claude, that you won't find anything here worthwhile. It's a fun enough little flick while it lasts and certainly much better than Van Damme's late 90's fare like Double Team or Street Fighter, but it can't quite reach the level of his best efforts like Universal Soldier, Death Warrant, or Lionheart. There'd be four sequels to follow this one and while they would lose Van Damme they'd gain unsung, and quite busy, b-movie director Albert Pyun - if that's a plus or minus you'll have to decide. (Chris Hartley, 9/17/12)
Directed By: Mark DiSalle, David Worth.
Written By: Glenn Bruce.
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio, Dennis Chan, Haskell Anderson.