Kickboxer: Vengeance, 2016.
Directed by John Stockwell.
Starring Jean Claude Van-Damme, Alain Moussi, Dave Bautista, Gina Carano, Georges St-Pierre, Sara Malakul Lane, Darren Shahlavi and Matthew Ziff.
When his brother is killed during a Muay Thai tournament, a martial artist heads to Thailand to seek revenge.
Jean-Claude Van Damme made a name for himself in the late 80’s with his star-making role in Bloodsport. The cult classic fight fest launched The Muscles from Brussels as one of the most popular action stars, particularly during his peak in the late 80’s and 90’s where he followed on the coat tails of Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. What followed Bloodsport was a slew of films following a similar path. Van Damme himself did Kickboxer, and then Lionheart (also known as AWOL). Essentially the same film again. Likewise Bloodsport and Kickboxer both spawned numerous sequels and innumerable cheap knock-offs, perhaps most notably Roger Corman’s Bloodfist series.
Given the cult following of Van Damme and a particular fondness for his tournament fighting films and the modern penchant for the remake, it comes as no surprise that Kickboxer is being rebooted. One might have expected a toss up between Bloodsport or Kickboxer to be given the reboot treatment. As it is, Kickboxer is the first and what’s more, Van Damme is back, this time taking on the role of teacher.
So Kickboxer: Vengeance essentially covers more or less the exact ground of the Van Damme-led original. Eric Sloane is killed in a battle with Muay Thai beast, Tong Po (played in Vengeance by Dave Bautista). Kurt Sloane sets about training in the ancient Thai martial art in order to avenge his brother and defeat Tong Po in battle. The original was a cheesy slice of highly entertaining trash. Van Damme had screen presence to burn and looked great on screen. He was a graceful and unique physical performer doing something that hadn’t been done before in quite his unique way (and hasn’t particularly been since). No one has ever quite managed to deliver a helicopter kick with quite the panache as Van Damme did in his prime.
What of the remake? Well…it would seem from some sources that the production and post production were rife with problems. Rumours of unpaid crew, directorial changes and producer interference have circulated. How true many of these rumours are could well be judged on the final product, and what shows up on screen certainly suggests all manner of problems. Firstly the most major problem is something one would have assumed was created before production and that is the script. It’s utterly abysmal. The story isn’t a problem as such. It’s easy. We’ve seen it before. Just copy, paste and repeat. Job done. However the structure of this film, the dialogue, the pacing, the characterisations and just about everything are wretched. The script is woeful.
Secondly there’s a major problem with direction. There is none. Is this due to directorial changes (John Stockwell is credited) or clashes with producers? Perhaps. But there’s no cohesion here. Then this is compounded in the editing. This is one of the most appallingly edited films you’ll see. Not merely the overall structuring but the cutting too. It’s haphazard, and that’s putting it very mildly.
Now lets not pretend that the original was a masterpiece. It wasn’t high art. It was a film made to cash in on the booming VHS market. However it was fun and it has stood the test of time. It had charm (along with a vast amount of cheese). It also had style, from the gorgeous cinematography, Van Damme’s balletic moves, to the great soundtrack (particularly Paul Hertzog’s awesome score which I’m listening to as I type). Everything that makes Kickboxer an iconic Van Damme film is absent this time around and the biggest most glaring absence is a lead with the star power and magnetic appeal of Van Damme. Stunt-man turn actor Alain Moussi just doesn’t have any presence at all. He’s the sort of guy who’d be best as a quarter-finalist in a Bloodsport remake. Whilst he’s clearly got the physique and the martial arts training, he just doesn’t have charisma and isn’t as impressive an on-screen fighter as Van Damme by any stretch. There is a big difference between real martial arts and on-screen fighting, the latter of which (as well as former) Van Damme mastered.
Van Damme, and I’m a fan (in case you couldn’t tell), is someone who has matured as an actor since the millennium. Much maligned in his early days due to garbled and sometimes stiff delivery and blank expressions, he injected many post millennium films with more maturity, depth and intensity. Many times unnoticed given the loss of wider appeal he enjoyed in his peak years, but notably he received critical acclaim in the darkly comedic, loosely biographical heist film JCVD. He didn’t really capitalise on that and move away from generic action films but still injected a bit more pathos and intensity in his follow up straight to video films (whilst also having fun playing the villain in The Expendables 2). So fans might have expected him to be inspired in his part in the remake. Unfortunately Van Damme seems completely bored and to add insult to injury is dubbed for much of his role by an almost comically bad voice over artist who sounds like he’s doing a cross between a Van Damme depiction on SpongeBob Squarepants, and Speedy Gonzales. The dubbing is atrocious.
The only real bright spot in the film, and this is faint praise, is Dave Bautista. He’s got presence to burn. He’s actually really good as Tong Po. In fact the film almost threatens to make the character somewhat interesting. Almost… Unfortunately no seedlings of promise are allowed to bloom and ultimately all it does is take away any mystique that Po had in the original film. Bautista is sadly wasted. He steals the film with absolute ease. He’s a beast and he’s menacing. You just wish this would have been more Tong-Po-centric. Perhaps they could have gone a Dark Knight route. That film was almost as much a Joker movie as it was a Batman one. Certainly more screentime from Bautista would have benefited the film no end. As well as Bautista, Gina Carano appears to round of the “names” in the film. She’s completely wasted and never gets to showcase her fighting ability. The film would have been far better served being a female lead reboot with Carano leading. Whilst she’s not exactly Meryl Streep she’s got more presence than Moussi and it just would have made the film a little more interesting. Plus she’s a fantastic on screen fighter. The late and vastly under-appreciated Darren Shahlavi also appears as Eric Sloane in what was ultimately his last role.
There’s very little about Kickboxer: Vengeance to recommend. It’s sloppily made with no charm and nothing memorable about it. Inexplicably a sequel is already in the works and one can only hope there’s a lot more care taken in that one. This will undoubtedly get viewers, but satisfied ones? Not too many. Kickboxer: Vengeance makes even Bloodfist look like a Kurosawa film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★