Kickboxer: Vengeance, 2016.
Directed by John Stockwell.
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dave Bautista, Alain Moussi, Sara Malakul Lane, T.J. Storm, Gina Carano, George St-Pierre, Matthew Ziff and Sam Medina.
A martial arts fighter seeks revenge after his brother is killed in the ring.
It’s been a long time coming and now it is finally here, as Jean-Claude Van Damme (Kickboxer/Bloodsport) returns to the franchise that initially made him a star back in the late 1980s. However, this time JCVD is playing the master instead of the pupil as Kickboxer: Vengeance is a straight-up remake of the 1989 VHS hit, with newcomer Alain Moussi in Van Damme’s original role of Kurt Sloane, a man who witnesses his kickboxing brother Eric (the late Darren Shehlavi) getting killed in the ring by the fearsome underground fighting champion Tong Po (Spectre’s Dave Bautista). Fuelled by revenge, Kurt is forced into hiding at the house of Eric’s former trainer Durand (Van Damme) by police officer Liu (Sara Malakul Lane), who is investigating the underground fighting circuit, and although initially hesitant, Durand agrees to train Kurt to take on Tong Po in a fight to the death.
Right then, where to begin with this one. The obvious point to make is that the original Kickboxer, although a hugely enjoyable action adventure, was hardly Rocky when it came to cinematic quality (more like a B-movie version of Rocky IV) but it did have a strong yet simple story of a man getting revenge for his brother, although in the original movie Eric Sloane is only paralysed by Tong Po and very much a part of Kurt’s training, adding a bit more of an emotional pull to the story. Aside from the change of Eric’s fate, Kickboxer: Vengeance thankfully keeps things nice and simple, which is probably the best thing that could really be said about it.
And here’s why. Kickboxer: Vengeance has two major weaknesses that stop it from becoming, at the very least, enjoyably naff and the first, and most obvious, of those is the non-performance of Alain Moussi, who is so wooden he probably had to be coated with lacquer so Dave Bautista didn’t get any splinters when they fought. The role of Kurt Sloane is the most important one in the whole story as he is the ‘hero’, and while the obvious thing to say is that Jean-Claude Van Damme was hardly award-winning in the role, at least he had – and still has – charisma and an on-screen presence that made him likeable even if his line delivery was a bit stilted at times. Alain Moussi may as well not have been there and they could have thrown a cardboard cut-out backwards and forwards and it would have had the same effect, and although he is clearly an athletic man with some tremendous skill when it comes to flipping around like a breakdancer, he is no… well, he is no Jean-Claude Van Damme, either at his peak or as he is now, and at no point in the film do you really get behind Kurt’s cause.
The other major problem with this movie is with the writing. Apart from the paper-thin characters – who can only really be called characters in view of the fact that they have been given names – there are too many things that don’t make sense, like why is Kurt Sloane being threatened with arrest in Thailand when he hasn’t actually committed a crime? And why is nobody arrested when the cops break up the illegal fights? They just walk in, fire their guns into the air and everyone runs away so there’s not much of an actual investigation going on. In fact, the cops’ reaction to what is going on at the climax of the Kurt/Tong Po fight beggars belief and is just not believable in any given context.
The characters, with the exception of Tong Po (but only just), are so badly written that they may as well have been called by what they do; Master Durand is quite often referred to as ‘the trainer’ and that’s really all you get from him. No fault of Van Damme’s but Durand is given no motivation, no reason for being there, no details or backstory whatsoever and is just a man with a badly dubbed voice (again, why?) who lives in a house in the hills and is called ‘the trainer’. Much the same could be said about Liu, who is just there and doing her job with no real depth, substance or reason given, and as for the treatment that Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano gets as crooked fight organiser Marcia, who is allowed to freely walk around the police mortuary and kiss the dead bodies in front of the cops without a word, then somebody in the casting department should be hanging their head in shame as she doesn’t get to throw one punch. What a waste.
But is there anything to enjoy about Kickboxer: Vengeance or is it all bad? Well, Dave Bautista doesn’t come off too badly as Tong Po in as much as he looks the part and has the moves to back it up. In the original movie Tong Po (then played by Michel Quissi, who makes a very brief cameo in this film) was very shadowy and barely said a word, adding to his mystique, and thankfully he is given similar treatment here, although this Tong Po does run a training school, his spokesman being the incredibly annoying Crawford (Sam Medina – From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) who is so clichéd it is almost comical. Bautista does get a little more to do than Quissi and he is pretty damn good in the role, as is Jean-Claude Van Damme who, like Bautista, gets by on his screen presence and not due to any character depth or any scripted direction. Quite why his voice is dubbed by what sounds like a French melodic death metal singer is anyone’s guess but the fact that he is here, still looks hard-as-nails and gets to show off a few moves (because it isn’t like the producer’s would hire a martial arts expert and not have them fight… oh yeah, Gina Carano) is the only reason to pay attention in the non-fighting scenes. Now had it been Jean-Claude fighting Dave Bautista then that would have been worth sitting through the rest of the drivel for, but hey ho…
So as you’ve probably guessed by now, Kickboxer: Vengeance is really quite disappointing, especially when you consider that it didn’t really need to do much to get it right. Nobody is expecting an arthouse showcase or Shakespeare when it comes to a martial arts revenge movie but the parts that the filmmakers got so very wrong were the parts that they needed to get right, those being a likeable lead and a script that wasn’t so full of holes it should have been sponsored by Polyfilla. In the original movie, cheesy as it was, there was a sense of purpose for Kurt Sloane, that he was overcoming obstacles to become the fighter that his brother could be proud of and that he was learning not just fighting skills but also things about himself and the bigger world; there is no journey or sense of achievement with Alain Moussi’s Kurt Sloane as he lumbers around being reasonably capable one minute and hopeless the next. His interactions with Durand offer nothing more than cryptic comebacks rather than any wisdom that a master would pass down to his student and the film as a whole lacks any emotional content (as Bruce Lee may have put it), and although the fight scenes are well-staged (but not written that well as Tong Po conveniently becomes a bit flaky after getting slapped about half a dozen times after having just gone to town on Kurt), just having Dave Bautista and JCVD putting in worthy performances doesn’t cut it. The sequel, Kickboxer: Retaliation, is currently in post-production and features a returning JCVD and Alain Moussi plus appearances from Christopher Lambert (Highlander/Mortal Kombat) and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson (Ip Man 3) so it could go either way on the ludicrousness front but the writers need to get their mojo working and scrap the police investigation/unconvincing love story nonsense in favour of writing believable and interesting characters because Kickboxer: Vengeance doesn’t put up much of challenge against Kickboxer 1989 when it comes to deciding which JCVD kickboxing movie to watch. And if you do decide to see it then keep watching into the closing credits as Alain Moussi does his best bit of acting in the whole film re-enacting a classic JCVD scene from the original Kickboxer.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★