While Sylvester Stallone has Rocky & Rambo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has Terminator, Jean-Claude Van Damme does not have an iconic franchise to his name. The closest thing he has to this is Universal Soldier, but that series is too minor and scattershot. Thus, rather than being renowned for a sole character, Van Damme just has a number of cheesy action movies (of varying quality) to his name, and his most iconic character is up for debate. 1989’s Kickboxer is one such Van Damme action movie that many will argue is his best. The very definition of unpretentious, cheesy ’80s filmmaking, Kickboxer can best be summarised as Rocky IV with kickboxing, or The Karate Kid for the testosterone crowd (The Karate Rocky?). Never mind that the film is predictable, clichéd and often unintentionally funny in its sheer ludicrousness, because it has raw, exciting action and Van Damme in his prime kicking ass, which is what counts in the long run.
After defeating all of America’s best fighters, World Champion Kickboxer Eric Sloane (Alexio) and his brother Kurt (Van Damme) look to expand their horizons, and fly to the home of kickboxing: Thailand. Eric promptly challenges the local champion, “Tiger” Tong Po (Qissi), but the match goes horribly wrong. Kurt looks to save his brother by throwing in the towel during the humiliating fight, but Tony Po takes one last cheap shot which leaves Eric paralysed. Angered, Kurt vows revenge, but is not a good enough fighter to challenge the champion…yet. Hearing of Kurt’s vendetta, sympathetic ex-soldier Taylor (Anderson) offers to take the eager young man to Xian Chow (Chan), a local master of the Muay Thai fighting style.
Kickboxer is, essentially, nothing more than your standard “out for vengeance” B-movie. It has all the ’80s clichés, too: revenge motives, underdog heroics, training montages, and tournament-style fighting. As perhaps to be expected, Tony Po is not depicted as a moral man, but instead a cheap stock villain, triggering memories of Rocky IV‘s Ivan Drago. Also mixed into the plot is a narrative thread concerning organised crime (of sorts), with shady bad guys who want to make sure that Kurt will lose. And did I mention theres a romance, too? In other words, you’ll be ecstatic if cheese is your thing, because you’ll have gleeful fun with all the constituents that everyone else will abhor. The only unfortunate thing about Kickboxer from an entertainment-seeking perspective is that it’s admittedly too talky, and it does have more exposition than a movie of this nature should have. C’mon, we want more action… And we want some tits on the side…
The good news is that once the film gets down to business, it satisfies. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a wooden thespian, but he’s an awesome fighter. The martial arts set-pieces are competently choreographed (Van Damme himself directed them) and entertaining. Directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth realised that the fights required no unnecessary visual flourishes, so their filmmaking techniques are welcomely basic, letting the choreography speak for itself. It’s great to watch such material in an age where action scenes are so often incomprehensibly shot and edited. Kickboxer entertains in terms of unintentional hilarity, as well – Van Damme even dances to a jukebox at one stage, and in another scene he kicks down a goddamn tree. Classic stuff. Cheesy ’80s music also features prominently, such as the song Fight for Love which is coated in more cheese than a pizza. And just to sweeten the deal, Taylor even goes Rambo on a bunch of goons while smoking a cigar. Awesome.
From top to bottom, Kickboxer is a predictable actioner, but it delivers exactly what it promises on the tin. This is not a critically fertile feature, so there’s not much more to analyse here. It’s an entertaining popcorn film and an enjoyable time-waster if you can lighten up and turn off your brain for 90 minutes. If that sounds appealing, have at it. If not, then you need not apply.