Friday, September 2, 2016


(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by John Stockwell. Written by Dimitri Logothetis and James McGrath. Cast: David Bautista, Alain Moussi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Georges St-Pierre, Gina Carano, Sara Malakul Lane, Darren Shahlavi, Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, T.J. Storm, Matthew Ziff, Sam Medina, Hawn Tran, Daneya Mayid, Steven Swadling. (Unrated, 88 mins)

A remake/reboot of KICKBOXER the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme favorite, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE is passable action fare that's tailor-made for a long life on cable and streaming, even if it doesn't quite match up to its inspiration. Taking part in the illegal underground fight scene in Thailand, Eric Sloane (the late Darren Shahlavi) is mercilessly killed via neck-snap in the ring by unstoppable Muay Thai master Tong Po (Dave Bautista). Of course, as the title of the film already indicates, vengeance is nigh as Eric's little brother Kurt (veteran stuntman Alain Moussi) vows revenge on the ruthless Tong Po. After infiltrating Tong Po's training stronghold and getting his ass handed to him, Kurt seeks the guidance of legendary, fedora-sporting trainer Master Durand (Van Damme). Endless training sequences ensue as Kurt grows stronger and more agile under the tutelage of the wise and outwardly laid-back Durand. As has been the case in every other kickboxing and martial arts fight movie ever made, the sworn enemies meet for the final, fatal showdown in the ring.

It doesn't get much more formulaic than KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE, a film that may set some kind of record with 43 credited producers. The story offers zilch in the way of surprises and character development is kept to the most shallow minimum. A romance between Kurt and local cop Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) comes out of nowhere. She's obsessed with nailing Tong Po's balls to the wall over his illegal fight operation, but she's thwarted at every turn by her own corrupt police force. She ultimately arrests Kurt and Durand for their own safety, and after they improbably escape from jail and go to the fight, she shows up and is right there to cheer Kurt on as he and Tong Po beat one another into a pulp. The fight scenes are mostly well-done and effectively brutal, if a bit too reliant on the shaky shots and quick-cut editing (one sequence involving Kurt and some bad guys parkouring and fighting atop two elephants in a parade had some bizarre potential, but is ruined by some far-from-seamless editing between fake elephants and cuts to close-ups of real ones). Moussi has some credible action star potential, though he's about as expressive as Van Damme was at that age, and Bautista, despite not being the first person who comes to mind when one hears the term "Muay Thai," makes a formidable, imposing villain. Thai model Lane is stunningly beautiful, UFC champ Georges St-Pierre doesn't have much to do as a hapless, drunken Tong Po stooge who joins Kurt and Durand, and MMA legend Gina Carano (HAYWIRE, DEADPOOL) is wasted in a nothing supporting role as Eric's unscrupulous manager and scheming fight promoter. Why hire Carano for a movie called KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE and not have her fight? She's not about to advance her movie career based on her acting skills.

The real selling point here is the presence of Van Damme. He didn't appear in any of KICKBOXER's four forgotten sequels, where Sasha Mitchell played another kickboxing Sloane brother. It's always nice to see the iconic Muscles from Brussels in action and his turnaround into a beloved pop culture figure who has a sense of humor about himself is a look he wears well. As he was quietly putting together a strong DTV resume over the last decade and a half when no one was looking, I've often said he would make a terrific Bond villain if anyone gave him the chance. He seems to be opting for the self-deprecating, self-aware William Shatner career approach, which is fine, too. When the closing credits play over a split-screen comparison of JCVD's goofy bar dance from the original KICKBOXER and Moussi recreating it in the present day, you know it's done out of genuine affection. But KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE doesn't take full advantage of having JCVD around. It's a great idea to have him graduate to the wise mentor role a la Stallone in CREED, but wouldn't having him play an older Kurt Sloane, instead of an all-new character, make more sense? There's also some hiccups throughout the film involving JCVD, like some scattered shots where he's clearly doubled (back turned, face not seen in shots with Moussi) and the second half of the film has some extensive relooping of his dialogue by a bad impersonator as Jean-Claude Van Dubbed comes perilously close to Steven Seagal territory. Much of this is indicative of a troubled shoot that saw the New Orleans crew revolting during production in December 2014 when they weren't paid, followed closely in January 2015 by the unexpected death of 42-year-old Shahlavi from an undiagnosed heart condition (preliminary tabloid reports indicated a prescription drug overdose). These incidents cast a dark cloud over the proceedings and may have led to the departure of director John Stockwell (a specialist in lush travelogues in the guise of action thrillers like BLUE CRUSH, INTO THE BLUE, and TURISTAS) after the US portion of the shoot. According to Impact's Mike Leeder, Stockwell bailed before the production headed to Thailand, where directing duties were assumed by co-writer/co-producer Dimitri Logothetis (SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK). Only Stockwell receives credit, but perhaps the whole thing would've turned out better with a guy like Isaac Florentine at the helm (and while we're at it, why isn't Scott Adkins starring in this?). There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE is a case study of "It is what it is." It's diverting and entertaining, even if its flaws and Band-Aids are plainly visible. Moussi, Van Damme, and Logothetis already have the sequel KICKBOXER: RETALIATION in the can for 2017, with new cast additions Christopher Lambert and Mike Tyson.

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