Thursday, April 6, 2017

Retro Review: NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER (1986)

(Hong Kong/US - 1986)

Directed by Corey Yuen. Written by Keith W. Strandberg. Cast: Kurt McKinney, Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails, Kathie Sileno, Kim Tai Chong, Kent Lipham, Ron Pohnel, Dale Jacoby, Peter "Sugarfoot" Cunningham, Tim Baker, Joe Vance, John Andes, Dennis Park. Ruckins McKinley, Roz McKinley. (PG, 84 mins/99 mins)

A minor cult classic for 12-year-old boys who saw it in the 1980s, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER is an ingratiatingly goofy KARATE KID ripoff produced by Hong Kong's Seasonal Films and helmed by veteran martial arts coordinator and future Jet Li collaborator and TRANSPORTER director Corey Yuen. NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER was significantly retooled by New World for its US release over the spring and summer of 1986. The running time was chopped from 99 minutes to 84, a few scenes were juggled around, and a major character was redubbed. In addition, Frank Harris' score was tossed and a new one was composed by Paul Gilreath, who also penned a new theme song, "Stand On Your Own," performed by Joe Torono, that was commissioned to replace "Hold On to the Vision," performed by ex-707 and future The Storm frontman Kevin Chalfant and a then-little-known Joe Satriani on guitar. Filled with enough WTF? elements and bad acting that I'm surprised it never became a fixture on the midnight movie circuit with movies like TROLL 2, THE ROOM, and MIAMI CONNECTION, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER was a modest success in theaters, grossing a then-OK $4 million (it had the second highest per-screen average the week of its release, bested only by Richard Pryor's autobiographical JO JO DANCER: YOUR LIFE IS CALLING), and was a big hit in video stores and in heavy rotation on cable. It also spawned two in-name-only Loren Avedon-starring sequels--1989's NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER II and 1991's NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER 3: BLOOD BROTHERS--the only common thread being that all three were written by Keith W. Strandberg. But 30-plus years later, the original, recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber with both the US theatrical cut and the original international version, is an enjoyably dated '80s museum piece (caution: gratuitous breakdancing) usually remembered today thanks to the presence of a pre-BLOODSPORT Jean-Claude Van Damme as "Ivan, the Russian," a character in no way modeled on Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago in ROCKY IV. "Ivan, the Russian" is a maniacal henchman for a crew of dojo-acquiring New York mobsters who's repeatedly referred to throughout as either "Ivan," "the Russian," or "Ivan Kruschinsky," but the closing credits show JCVD playing a character named "Karl Brezdin." Yeah, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER is that kind of movie.

Karate-obsessed Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) trains at a Sherman Oaks dojo owned by his father Tom (Tim Baker). After Tom's leg is broken in a throwdown with Ivan after he refuses to sell out to the NYC gangsters who are trying to take over the apparently lucrative Sherman Oaks dojo market, Tom caves and the Stillwell family relocates to Seattle (yeah, this is also the kind of movie that features an establishing shot of the Space Needle yet still feels the need to include the caption "Seattle"). Tom takes a menial job as a bartender, while Jason tries to join a local dojo owned by karate champ Ian Reilly (Ron Pohnel), but is picked on by the douchebags Reilly's hired to run the place in his absence. That includes acting sensai and William Zabka stand-in Dean (Dale Jacoby) and the dojo's most unlikely student, Scott (Kent Lipham), an obnoxious Bluto Blutarsky-type who eats cheeseburgers by the fistful and makes it his mission to ensure the lives of Jason and his new best friend, breakdancing and moonwalking R.J. (J.W. Fails), are miserable. There's also some conflict between Jason and Dean over Kelly (Kathie Sileno), a girl Jason dated a year ago, even though the Stillwells just moved to Seattle and she's Ian's sister. First, how could they have known each other a year ago? And second, if they've been dating for a year, how does he not know that she's Ian's sister?  Yeah, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER is that kind of movie.

If you think that set-up is improbable, then wait until Jason, at his wit's end and ready to quit karate, is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee, who decides to spend some of his infinite free time in the afterlife to inspire Jason and become his ghostly sensai. The "Bruce Lee" seen here is played by a dubbed Kim Tai Chong, who doesn't look any more like Lee here than he did several years earlier when he doubled the martial arts legend in new scenes shot for 1979's GAME OF DEATH, a film haphazardly constructed around roughly 30 minutes of footage Lee had in the can at the time of his death in 1973. In true KARATE KID fashion, "Sensai Lee" is the Mr. Miyagi to Jason's Daniel LaRusso, with some added help from the wisecracking R.J., who looks like he just wandered in off the set of BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO. All of this leads to a showdown at a high-profile martial arts tournament taking place in what looks like a high school gym, where the same New York mob outfit is trying to strongarm Reilly into giving up his dojo and selling out to them, which begs the question: what exactly is the endgame for these powerful NYC gangsters establishing a monopoly on the strip-mall martial-arts education industry by incessantly hoarding small, privately-owned dojos on the west coast? Ivan ends up beating the shit out of everyone in Reilly's dojo at the tournament, prompting spectator Jason to leap into the ring and take down "Ivan, the Russian" (or, if you go by the closing credits, "Karl Brezdin") himself, using all the karate skills taught to him by the spectral Sensai Lee. Van Damme doesn't get a lot of screen time, but you can already see in his moves and his confident screen presence that he was a star in the making. Indeed, he was the only cast member who went on to any significant success afterwards, though McKinney did enjoy a long run on GUIDING LIGHT starting in the late '90s. NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER is so dumb that's impossible to dislike. Nothing makes sense (why are 1980s karate kids constantly being picked on by everyone? And is everyone in Seattle taking karate classes?), and some of the more head-scratching elements--no doubt brought about by a cultural disconnect between the American setting and the Asian filmmakers--were cut by New World, including a YouTube favorite that shows an extended Jason/R.J. workout montage (seen in full in the 99-minute international version) that gets way more unintentionally homoerotic than anyone was looking for in a cheaply-made KARATE KID ripoff. Yeah, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER is that kind of movie.

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