Directed by: John Stockwell
Starring: Alain Moussi, Dave Batista, Jean Claude Van Damme, Gina Carano, Darren Shahlavi
Eric Sloane has just won an international karate championship and finds himself offered a huge payout if he travels to Thailand to take part in an underground fight against an opponent called Tong Po. Eric's manager and younger brother, Kurt, is dead set against him taking part but he goes anyway. Against his better judgement, Kurt travels to Thailand to watch his brother fight, only to witness his death as the hands of his formidable opponent. Kurt wants revenge, and tries to infiltrate Tong Po's camp but is caught. Instead, he convinces Eric's trainer, a westerner called Durand, to help him get ready to take on Tong Po in a match.
I personally didn't get into Van Damme's movies straight away. I'd rented Cyborg but thought it was a complete bore of a film (it later transpired it was cut to hell by the censors) and that turned me off his myriad other films of the time - Kickboxer, Death Warrant, Bloodsport, etc. So, I don't have any real feelings for the original Kickboxer movie and have no real problem with a remake. I do however have a problem with a martial arts film with an unconvincing hero.
The film starts with Kurt (Moussi) in Thailand, bribing his way into Tong Po's training camp. In order to stay, Kurt has to fight a couple of the other guys there - Kavi (Georges St-Pierre) and Storm (T J Storm). These are okay fights, nothing serious, neither opponent really out to hurt the other. But its enough for them to allow Kurt to stay and witness a small exhibition of Tong Po's ability.
I have to admit, I was really surprised that Dave Bautista took on this role. Since leaving WWE, Bautista has been carving out a very respectable acting career - nothing flashy, but developing as a very solid character actor in films such as Heist and Marauders, not forgetting his henchman role in SPECTRE. The badguy role in a kickboxing movie, no matter what its pedigree, is the sort of thing you EXPECT a former wrestler to take on, whereas up til now, Bautista has zigged when you expect him to zag. However to dismiss the role out of hand is to do it a great disservice. In the original film, Tong Po was played by Michel Qissi, who turned the character into a cartoon villain. There's not a lot of villain in the new version of Tong Po. In fact he seems the most honorable person in the film. He had respect for Eric for entering the ring. Kurt on the other hand sneaks into his house and tries to shoot him. Bautista gives Tong Po gravitas, poise and reverence, turning him into almost a mythical person, larger than life. Durand points out that he's "just a man" but is he? Up until the final minutes of the film you'd be hard pressed to argue in Durand's favour.
Shortly after Kurt and Durand meet, they have a sort-of-fight where Kurt tries to attack but is constantly blocked and knocked down by Durand. The purpose of the exercise is to see whether Kurt will quit or keep trying - its this inner spirit that Kurt has which convinces Durand to train him. However on the face of it, it just looks like Durand is a much better fighter than Kurt. This follows through to a scene mirroring the original film where Durand takes Kurt to a bar where he's challenged to a fight. In this version, once again Kurt gets his ass handed to him and Durand steps in to finish off the opponent.
I'm reminded of the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a boxer and must fight Drederick Tatum - his whole boxing strategy is to just soak up his opponents punches until he wears himself out. This seems to be Durand's strategy for Kurt.
When the final fight starts, Kurt is just so clearly outmatched by Tong Po, it's almost embarrassing to watch. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be some really dark, nihilistic ending where even after all of his training and hard work, Kurt is still nowhere near good enough and the film was going to end with his corpse left in the dust. Of course the film doesn't go down that route or anywhere near it. Instead we're given an ending in which Tong Po betrays his own principles of honour and respect through combat and pulls out a sucker move just in order to justify his demise.
John Stockwell is a pretty good director. In fact he made two really surprisingly good action comedies, Cat Run parts 1 and 2. However he's working with a script and ideas which haven't evolved in the same way the martial arts genre has over the past twenty five years. Its also frustrating that Van Damme hasn't brought his A-game to this film. Take a look at the excellent pilot for the Amazon tv series, Jean Claude Van Johnson, to see how he can really lift a production when he's firing on all cylinders. For me, Bautista is the draw for this film, and its clear from the DVD cover that the marketing department feel the same way.
Believe it or not folks, Martial Arts movies have evolved quite a bit since the likes of Bloodsport and Kickboxer. We've had the likes of Tony Jaa, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins and Iko Uwais outperforming everything in this film. This is a throwback to the 80's, and although its pretty polished there are issues all over. Watch it for Bautista and the late Darren Shahlavi, who's few scenes at the beginning show what we're missing.
6 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)