Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dimitri Logothetis's Kickboxer: Retaliation

Cody reviews Kickboxer: Retaliation, which Well Go USA will be releasing in theatres and on demand on January 26th.

Kickboxer: Vengeance, a remake of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts classic Kickboxer, was released on home video around sixteen months ago, and it wasn't a movie that really blew me away. It's a decent film that I find more enjoyable the more times I watch it, it's just not as entertaining as the original film.

Directed by John Stockwell from a screenplay by Dimitri Logothetisis and James McGrath, Vengeance told the same basic story as Kickboxer '89, introducing stuntman Alain Moussi in the role of Kurt Sloane, a young man who seeks to avenge his brother, who was killed during an underground fighting match by criminal champion Tong Po. To be able to take on Tong Po himself, Kurt needed to do some serious training - and this is where Van Damme was brought into the picture. In the original he was the student, and this time he was the master who trained Kurt to defeat Tong Po.

With the original story retold and Tong Po having been defeated more decisively than he ever was in the original continuity, the sequel to the remake, Kickboxer: Retaliation, is able to go into an all-new direction rather than just copy the story of the original Kickboxer 2. Logothetisis and McGrath returned to craft the new story, with Logothetisis also directing the film this time in addition to co-writing the screenplay.

Picking up eighteen months after its predecessor, Retaliation begins in quite an unexpected way, with a dance sequence. Kurt and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane), who he met in the previous film when she was working on the Bangkok police force, are dancing in a passenger train, then the romance is interrupted when a group of villains attack, leading into a fight sequence that ends on top of the train... Then Kurt falls from the train, over the side of a bridge, and plunges into a body of water below. It's all very Skyfall, and becomes even more so when the "James Bond with a lower budget" title sequence starts to play out, complete with images from the original Kickboxer - as if it were in this film's continuity.

Typically an opening sequence like this would be a "flash forward" that the movie would eventually catch back up with, but this one was something of a premonition. Kurt will meet the villain characters later in the film, but in a different context, and he'll be riding on that train, but there will be no dancing.

Kurt has had success as a legit professional fighter since we last saw him, but Thailand-based fight promoter Thomas Tang Moore (Christopher Lambert, playing a character named after co-executive producer Tommy Tang) has different plans for him and will do whatever it takes to bring those plans to fruition. With Tong Po dead, Moore needs a new star attraction in the underground fights he makes his money off of, and he needs Tong Po's killer to be the replacement. So he has Kurt abducted and locked up in a Thailand prison, where he'll remain until he agrees to fight for Moore.

While holding firm on his refusal to go back into that illegal and deadly world, Kurt has plenty of people to fight in prison. There is one rather incredible fight sequence in the prison, presented as being one interrupted 3 minute take (it's hard to tell whether or not a shot really is an uninterrupted take in this age of digital trickery), during which Kurt makes his way up and down a couple levels of the prison while knocking around multiple attackers. It's a very impressive display of stuntwork and fight choreography.

One of Kurt's prison fights disrupts fellow inmate Briggs, played by Mike Tyson. Kurt is only briefly on Briggs's bad side, but that's long enough for a quick fight in which Tyson swings some devastating punches.

Another fellow inmate is Van Damme's character Master Durand, who has also had a bad run-in with Moore. Van Damme kept his sunglasses on while playing Durand in the previous movie, and now the character has a reason to keep those sunglasses on. Moore has blinded him. But that doesn't stop Durand from giving Kurt some more training, or from participating in a couple fights of his own. Including a tussle with Briggs. Van Damme and Tyson sparring would have been one of the most amazing events ever if it had been put on film in 1989, but it's still pretty cool to see now. What I liked even better was the sight of Van Damme having a swordfight with Lambert - the Highlander himself! There are definitely some things in this film that press the '80s nostalgia buttons.

The fights in the film are impressive, but my main problem with Kickboxer: Retaliation is how these fights were shot. There is way too much speed ramping in this movie for my taste. Slow motion can be good when showing off an especially cool or important moment in a fight, like a finishing move, but it's much less effective, and in my opinion irritating, when most of the hits in a fight are shown in slow motion. This doesn't just hinder the moment, but the overall flow of the movie as well. These extra seconds add up and help Retaliation reach an overly long running time of 110 minutes, way too far beyond Vengeance's more reasonable 90 minutes.

A lot of Retaliation deals with Kurt's refusal to fight for Moore and his attempts to avoid having to defend his title, which puts Kurt at odds with the audience - how can we root for him to avoid the fight when we're watching the movie to see fights? We want to see this life and death battle for the championship take place, so just get on with it already.

It takes 76 minutes to get there, but of course the fight happens, with Kurt taking on a 6'10", 400 pound mountain-sized beast of a man called Mongkut and played by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Somewhat reminiscent of Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago in Rocky IV... but bigger... Mongkut is considered to be the strongest human being on the planet. He comes from generations of fighters and those genes get a boost from injections of an adrenaline cocktail. He puts up one hell of a fight against Kurt, and it frequently looks like it's going to have a very bad outcome - this may be the most down-and-out I've ever seen an action movie hero get during a physical confrontation.

Kickboxer: Retaliation has some issues and would have benefited from being 20 minutes shorter, but in general I found it to be a step up from Vengeance and really enjoyed watching it. It's a solid entry in the Kickboxer franchise with some excellent fights. When fists and feet start flying, it delivers exactly what you're hoping to see from it, so I can overlook any issues to appreciate the spectacle.

Vengeance was always intended to be the first chapter in a new Kickboxer trilogy, and after Retaliation I'm hyped to see how things are going to wrap up.

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