Kickboxer: Vengeance

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<i>Kickboxer: Vengeance</i>

There are two key moments in 1989’s Kickboxer, two moments which would prove indelible to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career, and maybe, in some part, iconic as far as late ’80s Western martial arts films go. One is the climax of the film, when Kurt Sloane (Van Damme) delivers a standing high kick that becomes a V8 engine of standing high kicks to the gurning face of homicidal monster-rapist Tong Po (Michel Qissi). By that point in the film, Tong Po has become such an incomprehensibly abhorrent character that the only satisfying whooping he could receive would be one of inhuman proportion, a foot jackhammered into his mouth unto Infinity, past the point of terrestrial judgment and penal punishment.

The other moment is the part where Van Damme dances with two Thai women at a bar and then has to start fighting a bunch of guys, which is another climax of the film, because once he’s done fighting and dancing, it seems there’s nowhere else for this film to go but steeply down.

Kickboxer has had three sequels, none of which included Jean-Claude Van Damme, but what makes this year’s Kickboxer: Vengeance such a successful remake is more than just Van Damme’s return to the franchise, it’s that John Stockwell (heralded director of Blue Crush; Schwimmer-approved writer of Breast Men) understands that most of the movie before, between, and after those two key moments in the first Kickboxer weren’t much more than a lot of very incremental, very slow training sequences. Stockwell is keen on the kernel at the core of Kickboxer: This is a film about endurance.

Kickboxer came out on the tail end of a four-movie run for Van Damme, from 1988 through 1989, so by that point the man was an impeccably honed machine—and he looked like one. The appeal of watching Kurt Sloane train and then fight, and then get beat to shit, and then train harder, and then fight, and then get beat to shit again—all of it a relentlessly hardening video game of a passive entertainment experience—the appeal is in understanding where such endurance comes from. Because most of Kickboxer, but even more of Kickboxer: Vengeance, amounts to watching a well-trained fighter relentlessly get the ever-living shit beat out of him. Which means that Alain Moussi is at the very least a competent choice for the new Kurt Sloane, because he can believably endure the head-punching of a lifetime.

Otherwise, Moussi’s Sloane is a dopey cipher, a character who is apparently traveling to Thailand to avenge his brother’s (Darren Shalavi) death at the fatally efficient Yeti-mitts of Tong Po (Dave Bautista), a character who strikes up—somehow, given the fact that the only meet-cute they have is a legitimate meeting, the only attraction implied that he’s a white dude and she doesn’t look all that Thai thanks to excessive plastic surgery—a relationship with a local police officer, Liu (Sara Malakul Lane), an expensively constructed pretty face committed to eradicating the deadly underground kickboxing rings in her city facilitated by Tong Po and his cadre of n’er-do-wells. While Lane’s purpose in this film is little more than to expose her breasts and allow the film a subplot’s worth of depth the first film never bothered in developing, Vengeance’s true stroke of genius is in casting Bautista as the arch villain. Bautista is the best thing to ever happen to this franchise—he’s equally menacing and thoughtful, so much more than just a figurehead of bottomless evil. As Tong Po, Bautista represents a physically unconquerable presence, moreso because, as opposed to Qissi’s Neanderthal, Bautista’s Master Po is just that: He’s a master, a man who when he sits quietly in a robe with tiny teacup nestled carefully in massive hands, exudes a supernatural air of terror, a combination of imposing physical presence and the ineffable foresight of a person aware of exactly how to win within any ordeal. The film must brutally kill him in the end—because of course—but the satisfaction inherent in pulling off such a gruesome final boss battle is carried purely on the mountainous shoulders of Bautista, who perfectly encapsulates the mania of a psychotic brute realizing he’s about to meet his end. This movie belongs to him.

Meanwhile, it’s fun to hang out with Van Damme again—the man looks unimpeachable as ever—even if he still has trouble delivering lines in a manner that conveys the appropriate amount of emotion for his Master Durand character. Disappointment, self-loathing, exhaustion, self-deprecating humor, honor, loyalty, fatherliness—all of this Van Damme seems to understand are required of the mentor and trainer of Sloane, the man meant to finally defeat Tong Po and the brother of Durand’s former star pupil. Still, Van Damme is basically just a snickering Van Damme in Vengeance, able to easily engage in the action sequences required of him, but no more suited at 55 than he was 27 years ago in bringing anything to the franchise other than a kind of determined, hard-bodied innocence.

Which is also why Van Damme is a better Sloane than Moussi will ever be. Corporeally, Moussi is on point, so much so that his already beefy chest and abs actually seem to stiffen and grow and become more defined the longer he trains throughout the film. What Moussi’s missing is Van Damme’s inherent fish-out-of-water charisma—probably, unfortunately, because Moussi is about as bland as white martial artists come. By the time Kickboxer premiered in 1989, Van Damme had a lucrative career based around proving himself as a viable North American box office draw. Moussi is the best we can ever hope to get from the VOD trenches, which is as depressing as that sounds.

What Vengeance attempts to add to the original Kickboxer equation is a series of elaborate action setpieces, most of which are stupid and numbly staged—the fight on top of the backs of elephants is an especially offensive display of dipshittery—but do little to distract from the relentlessly workmanlike nature of the film’s bread-and-butter man-on-man tests of endurance. When Kickboxer: Vengeance devotes its heart and spirit to scenes of Durand hurting Sloane to the point of obsession, readying his pupil to defeat Tong Po through sustaining his opponent’s ruthlessness, then it’s tapping into the purity of something so rare, and so welcome, in action cinema: The film is a testament to the power of pain.

Director: John Stockwell
Writer: Dmitri Logothetis, Jim McGrath
Starring: Alain Moussi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dave Bautista, Sara Malakul Lane, Gina Carano
Release Date: September 2, 2016

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.