Beware! This review contains spoilers!
Hang on to your seats folks, because The Muscles From Brussels goes full-on Thai in this 1989 martial arts adventure, with the Belgian actor studying the fundamentals of Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand. In its time, Kickboxer surveyed unchartered thematic territory in addressing police corruption, interracial relations, alcoholism and even sexual abuse. It also explored some rather magnificent surroundings, as backdrops for the training scenes including the jaw-dropping temples in Wat Phra Si Sanphet and Wat Ratchaburana, part of the ruins of Ayutthaya city in Thailand. The film was produced and directed by Mark DiSalle, and also directed by David Worth. As an added bonus, we have the 80s training montage dream team of Stan Bush and Paul Hertzog back from Bloodsport to grace us all with their timeless and I must say, shamelessly-catchy inspirational lyrics!
Jean-Claude Van Damme portrays Kurt Sloane with surprising skill in Kickboxer, and would seem to have learned a fair bit since the previous year’s effort in Bloodsport. He expresses a full palette of believable emotions, and truly shines in grieving for his paralyzed brother. Although he is playing more or less the same character as in his preceding roles, he allows tiny morsels of humour to creep into his performance, which is ultimately to the benefit of the project. Dennis Alexio on the other hand was clearly chosen for his real-life martial arts abilities and does an above-average job with his character, Eric Sloane. Dennis Chan plays Xian Chow, the wise old sage who speaks like Charlie Chan and has the dime-store philosophy to match, while Michael Qissi is Tong Po, the savage bent on killing innocent young American boys. Haskell V. Anderson does a fantastic job as Winston Taylor, evoking the generation of Vietnam vets who went into hibernation following the culmination of the war, only to lose their ability to face real-world problems. He portrays a man with a troubled history, who overcomes his demons through a belated coming-of-age and atonement for his past behaviour.
We join the action as Eric Sloane is defending his ISKA Heavyweight Championship against a hapless contender. After closing the deal with a series of spinning heel kicks, an astute observation by a journalist persuades Eric to travel to the home of kickboxing, Thailand. Eric’s brother and sparring partner, Kurt Sloane, joins him for the journey. Eric has it in mind to challenge Tong Po, Thailand’s undefeated champion, in Bangkok. But after witnessing Po’s brutal training regime, Kurt tries to talk his brother out of it, to no avail. Following an incredibly merciless first round, wherein nothing Eric lands seems to have the slightest effect on Po, Kurt again attempts to convince his brother to bow out. Moments into the second round, Kurt throws in the towel. But Po slams his elbow into Eric’s spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
When Eric is abandoned on the street by Thai match officials, Kurt receives help from Winston Taylor, a retired American Special Forces member, who agrees to take the brothers to hospital. Incensed at his brother’s shellacking, Kurt resolves to pay Po back in kind. After being guffawed out of a local Muay Thai gym, Winston takes Kurt to a strip club, wherein he proceeds to drink heavily. He warns Kurt of Freddy Li, Po’s boss, and tells him about Xian Chow, a locally famous Muay Thai trainer living in a remote area of Thailand. Following his arrival at Chow’s jungle abode, Kurt is sent away for groceries by his would-be master. Upon meeting Chow’s niece, Mylee, Kurt observes some of Freddy Li’s goons stealing her money. After swiftly foiling their operations, he retrieves his groceries and returns to Chow.
Chow lays out a rigorous training regime for Kurt, subjecting him to falling coconuts, dog chases, stick collecting and tree kicking. Kurt’s instruction soon gets serious however, as the pair travel to the spectacular Stone City, the ancient training ground for great Thai warriors. A while later, Kurt follows Chow down to the local bar to shot a few Kisses of Death, when the former is set upon by Freddy Li’s thugs in the middle of a rather amusing drunken dance routine. After Kurt makes short work of the villains in a remarkable bar fight, Chow is able to arrange a match with Po on Kurt’s behalf. It is determined that, in the setting of an underground tomb, they will fight in the “ancient way”, wherein both fighters wrap their hands in hemp rope, which is then coated in resin and dipped in broken glass to make them deadly weapons.
In the days leading up to the match, Mylee – with whom Kurt is now in love – is badly beaten and raped by Po, whilst Eric is kidnapped by Freddy Li’s henchmen for the purpose of blackmailing Kurt into losing the fight. To save his brother’s life, Kurt is instructed to go the distance with Po before losing the match. He endures a torturous beating in what is frankly an epic battle of attrition, but fortunately, Xian and Winston are able to locate and rescue Eric before the fight concludes. With his brother free from danger, the “Nuk Soo Kow”(“White Warrior, in English)” miraculously manages to find a second wind and ultimately defeat Po. He celebrates his victory with a hilarious kick to the jaw of Freddy Li.
Choreographed by JCVD himself, the fight scenes in Kickboxer are spectacular (as with any martial arts movie that features Van Damme doing his trademark splits and 360-degree flying spin-kicks), but don’t really compare to any of the fights in Bloodsport. Much of the film is spent in the lush jungles and unforgettable temples of Thailand, where we follow Kurt on a single-minded mission to condition his body so that his arms and legs become weapons capable of delivering blows, kicks in particular, that are three times as powerful as that of any ordinary martial artist. Along with having his legs pulled apart by ropes, having large melons dropped at height onto his abdomen and being forced to perform katas while submerged underwater, Van Damme’s character experiences spiritualism with the suggestion that he learns to channel the spirits of long-dead Thai warriors. The training scenes were really the best scenes in the film to me, as I enjoyed all the torture Xian puts Kurt through, but also in seeing Kurt learning and getting better, scaffolding a triumphant willpower, as the film goes on.
Now, by today’s standards the Muay Thai fights are a bit simple, and yes, pretty cheesy, but the fights are pretty good for what they are, particularly the fight inside the bar (but gee, whoever choreographed that dance scene needed to have retired a long time ago!). JCVD knows what he does well, and choreographs the fights to accentuate what he can do, which is that beautiful spinning helicopter kick. However, the final fight with Tong Po does feature the requisite JCVD slow motion kicks, and his kiai (yell) which lasts forever. While the climactic battle isn’t very fast by Asian film standards, it does have a certain charm and is an absorbing watch, which is more than many Hollywood 80s martial arts films could claim!
Given the fact that both fighters’ fists are covered in broken glass, and the number of uncomfortable crotch shots in this sequence, the fight veers slightly into the realm of sadism and exhibitionism. The glass fragments are a particularly effective and a well played addition to the end fight as most viewers would more readily identify with a cut by glass than getting pummelled by high kicks or chopped with a sword. I’ve seen a lot of gruesome martial arts action but seeing Van Damme get his face and abdomen raked by glass shards is truly painful to watch even though I’d say the make-up effects seriously underrate the amount of damage sustained. For one thing, there isn’t enough blood given the number of facial cuts. The face of Van Damme’s character should have looked like a hamburger after the beating he received, but hey, realism wasn’t a primary concern here!
If you’re looking for a “Damme” good time (meaning those apathetic towards JCVD flicks be advised), Kickboxer is the kind of movie you want to watch. It proves an ideal setting in which to observe the Belgian action star showcasing more of the strengths, which include his Shokotan karate training, ability to perform the splits and powerful spinning jump kicks, that we thought he’d run out of after Bloodsport!
- The scene in which Kurt has meat tied to his leg and is chased by Xian Chow’s dog was inspired by a real-life event in which a young JCVD was ordered by his karate teacher to wear a protective suit and withstand the attempts of a trained dog to pull him to the ground.
- Dennis Alexio, who plays Eric Sloane, was a heavyweight kickboxing champion who held several titles.
- The title held by Dennis Alexio’s character in the movie – the International Sport Karate Association (ISKA) Heavyweight Championship – is a real championship and has been held by Alexio during his fighting career. The belt in the movie, however, is not modelled after the actual belt.
- Michel Qissi was a technical advisor/choreographer when he overheard the production crew say they were looking for a tall oriental-looking guy with a background in Muay Thai. He volunteered, and got the part of Tong Po.
Film Rating: 7/10
Winston Taylor: “They just can’t get enough of my stuff”
Kurt Sloane: “I want you to teach me Muay Thai”
Xian Chow: “Really? But you are American”
Kurt Sloane: “So?”
Xian Chow: “American’s have swelled heads, especially when hanging upside down for too long”
Xian Chow: “Catching people in rope made me hungry”
Xian Chow: “Kick the tree”
What! Do you want me to break my leg?!”