I noticed some very early ‘mainstream’ reviews of this movie, some weren’t positive. I didn’t read them, but I wasn’t surprised, because I had low expectations going into this one myself. One of the better things that can happen when you watch a movie is going in with low expectations and coming out surprised and refreshed, which is how I felt about Kickboxer: Vengeance, an often beautiful movie that likes nothing more than fighting and relentless maschismo. It’s also a strong contender for Jean Claude Van Damme’s best movie since The Quest.
You should already know the plot of the original movie. Kurt Sloane, (Alain Moussi) a wet behind the ears martial artist, seeks revenge against the deadly Tong Po (Dave Bautista), after he brutalizes the older brother whom he idolizes, Eric Sloane (Darren Shahlavi). It’s the same affair here, but this movie shakes things up a little with the order. For example, in this movie the opening sees Kurt march right into Tong Po’s den with a view to killing him. It doesn’t go well, although here he meets a further influence on his adventure in Kiu, an outcast fighter played by Georges St-Pierre. Sloane leaves with his tail between his legs. Humiliated, he eventually finds his way to the eccentric Master Duran (Jean Claude Van Damme)…
This is a beat ’em up movie and what matters is choreography, agility, camerawork and editing. So let’s get that out of the way first, for the most part, this movie hits quite a few high notes. The actual fighting and stunt work is sublime… make no mistake, this is not some cheap and cheesy fighting you might see in Walker: Texas Ranger. It’s heavy and bone crunching but also with a lot of throwback to older beat ’em up movies with elegant high kicks, Hollywood style karate, the type that made us all want to become martial artists back in the day.
HESC syndrome is here (Hyper edited shaking cam), but in this movie it’s a mild affliction, actually only now and again did the editing frustrate me. It’s odd, in most fights the editing is unobtrusive, letting the viewer savour the blows and connections. In some though, that bizarre and quite frankly annoying editing decision to cut away at key points is here. When Van Damme and Moussi are fighting a mob in the middle of the movie, there are a few scenes where Moussi’s fighting ability are denied justice with frustrating filming, I want to see them crack down on this in the sequel. However the fighting is enjoyable overall.
I need to point out that once again, I cannot stand Gina Carano. She is in the movie, playing a character I don’t really recall from the original movie… I guess she’s filling in for Hakell Anderson’s role, remember, he played Van Damme’s wisecracking black sidekick. But really, Carano is a fucking horrible actress and an awkward screen presence. He ‘performance’ is like it is in her other movies, simple dialogue for her is a struggle and delivered almost with contempt – as in this acting stuff is so stupid, when am I getting paid?. Luckily though, her time on screen is minimal, a small mercy. Contrast her appearance with Dave Bautista’s, however…
Although he’s in the movie somewhat scantly too, but a lot more, he plays a fearsome Tong Po. I like Bautista, he’s a good actor. His nemesis for Sloane is more than a 8 bit video game-like villain (although to be honest, I would’ve been happy with that). Tong Po in this movie is a bad buy with a lot going on behind the eyes, subtle and mendacious, too badass to scream much, but deadly and imposing. Almost, it’s a throwback to the old bosses you’d see in Bruce Lee movies. Short of a super villain, but well beyond a gangster, an almost mythical figure with a cult following of aspiring fighters.
Kickboxer: Vengeance does a solid for the South East Asian tourism industry. What a nice looking movie this is, director John Stockwell has put every dime of his $17 million budget on screen. The golden sun is used effectively to bathe and cast shadows over the set (for example, Master Durand’s property), there are first-rate filming locations used to show us an often stunningly beautiful movie. Thinking about it, in the second Bourne movie when Paul Greengrass had a budget six times larger, he put Bourne in a similar climate (different country though) yet managed to make it look ugly, dank and miserable. So good on Stockwell for giving us an eye-holiday.
Finally, people are going to be wondering about Van Damme, how he is in the movie about maybe more than anything, how much he’s in the movie. You see in movies like this these days, you have former big name 1990’s action stars who appear on the cover but, y’know, aren’t really in the damn movie all that much. Don’t worry, Van Damme is in this movie a lot. It’s not even a case of thinking about the percentage, he’s just there, in a full role and at the very least co-leading with Moussi, it’s almost like Van Damme is competing with Moussi to be the bigger thing in the film – which wouldn’t surprise me. Even better, Van Damme fights a lot in this movie. He beats up Moussi, he fights St-Pierre, he beats up goons… and he looks cool as hell while doing it, thanks to Stockwell’s good eye for an old school Van Damme kick. I was also impressed by Van Damme’s character, his is not a sympathetic mentor. You’ll be surprised at how indifferent he is to Sloane’s plight.
So Kickboxer: Vengeance is not a sullied reboot. While Moussi is a decent actor (and a better on-screen fighter) and I’m not sure whether I’m 100% behind him yet, as a package with good fighting, Van Damme’s presence and Baustita’s villain, I quite enjoyed this movie.