No Retreat No Surrender (1986)

The film that brought Bruce Lee back to life (in spirit anyway) and introduced Jean-Claude Van Damme as the new face and form of martial arts cinema.



Aside from a cameo involving some questionable dancing in “Breakdance the Movie”, “No Retreat No Surrender” was Van Damme’s feature debut, here as Ivan the Russian. His powerful physique and energy, coupled with a deadpan demeanour made him the ideal, unstoppable villain for the genre.

Kurt McKinney is well cast as the bullied teenager trained in the martial arts from a spectral Bruce Lee. McKinney boasts impressive martial skills though lacking in the thespian department, yet provides viewers with a likeable underdog.

Tai Chung Kim (who played Bruce in “Game of Death”) as the spirit of Bruce Lee bears some physical resemblance to him, emulating Lee’s mannerisms and gestures as well as his fighting style.

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On the run from a crime syndicate looking to take over his father’s Karate dojo, young Jason Stillwell (Mckinney) and his family move to Seattle to start afresh. Having fallen foul of the local bullies and unable to defend himself, he implores Bruce Lee’s guidance and is soon visited by the spirit of Bruce Lee (Kim) who shows him the martial way  and how to resolve the conflict issues in his life.


Former Shaw Brothers’ executive See-Yeun Ng (“Snake in The Eagle’s Shadow“, “Drunken Master“) and director Corey Yuen (“Righting Wrongs”, “Yes Madam”) collaborated to bring Hong Kong movie style action to an American production.  Yuen’s choreography is a very much a focus on form, a trademark of old school Hong Kong action films of the 70s and early 80s -as in the scene where Tom Stillwell (Tim Baker) fights a henchman in his dojo -all the intricate footwork and movements of classic Karate and Taekwondo are shown.

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Much of the film after the initial opening involves McKinney as Jason Stillwell being bullied by local bad boy Dean (Dale Jacoby) and then training with the spectral Sensei Lee.  The series of training montages show off McKinney’s physical abilities, featuring an impressive abdominal exercise that makes good use of a park bench and a climbing frame. Alongside Tai Chung Kim, McKinney displays a graceful and effective blend of Karate and kickboxing which all come together for the finale. In turn, Kim brings Bruce Lee’s fighting style to life, from his cat-like stance and movements, to the speed and elegance of his kicks convincingly enough that he, for a split moment or two, could be mistaken for Lee himself!

The in-ring finale boasts plenty of crowd pleasing moments especially when Van Damme enters the contest. After being treated to a sample of his abilities at the start, of the movie, viewers finally get to see Van Damme in full swing. His heavy-set muscular frame belies a fast, flexible ability as he punches, aerial kicks, elbows and knees his opponents with impressive power and accuracy. It is also the first time viewers get to see those classic trademark splits!  Wonder if he can still do them today?


Some noticeable errors aside relating to some editing and audio/visual points, (which could have been easily remedied with extended production time) “No Retreat No Surrender” is an enjoyable martial arts film. The plot borrowed from “Karate Kid” and “Rocky IV”, paved the way for some inspiring, feel good training montages and exciting fight scenes with a final fight that will have viewers no doubt cheering and punching the air.

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  • Ron Pohnel, who plays Ian ‘Whirlwind’ Riley, studied Tang Soo Do under Chuck Norris.
  • Peter ‘Sugarfoot’ Cunningham was later cast as an assassin in Golden Harvest’s “Above the Law”, also directed by Corey Yuen.


Ramon Youseph

Ever since he first saw the great Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon on the big screen whilst living in Iran, Ramon has been fascinated with martial arts, and at age 6 attended classes in Kan Zen Ryu Karate under Sensei Reza Pirasteh. When he moved to the UK, martial arts came calling in his early teens in the shape of the mysterious art of Ki Aikido which he studied for five years. Since then he has practiced Feng Shou Kung Fu, Lee Style Tai Chi, Taekwondo, Kickboxing before returning to Aikido, studying under Sensei Michael Narey. As well as Bruce Lee, Ramon is a big fan of martial arts actors Jackie Chan, Cynthia Rothrock, Jeff Wincott, Richard Norton and Tadashi Yamashita to name a few. Ramon is an aspiring writer and when he is not honing his craft he likes to go out running, hiking and is still trying to count to ten in Japanese.

1 Comment
  1. Reply
    Anthony P. Robinson January 19, 2015 at 1:14 am

    I have quite a collection of martial arts and Hong Kong action films, but this film is a stand out for many reasons. I wonder how many kids got hurt trying that back flip kick back in the late 80s. At the mere mention of Bruce Lee’s name on the VHS jacket, “No Retreat No Surrender” was one of the first martial arts films I purchased and owned. This review paints the perfect picture of probably what I consider to be the definition of the early days of MA cinema. Kung – Fu Kingdom gets it right again!

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