Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Kickboxer: Vengeance—Van Damme Reboots His Own Franchise

Evidently, underground cage fighting is the national sport of Thailand. That makes Tong Po, the reigning cage champion a national hero. Kurt Sloane cannot let it stand when the brutal wall of muscle kills his Olympic Champion brother Eric in the [illegal] ring, but the corrupt cops will never bring Tong Po to justice. Sloane will have to take it to him instead in John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If this set-up sounds familiar, you most likely remember the original fan-favorite Kickboxer from 1989. However, Jean-Claude Van Damme no longer plays the vengeance seeking Kurt Sloane. He is now Durand, the expat Muay Thai master, who trained Eric for his tragic bout. Admittedly, that should not inspire a heck of a lot of confidence, but the surviving Sloane sibling still turns to Durand as he prepares to take on Tong Po. Sloane also develops a romantic relationship with Liu, the only honest cop in Bangkok, who saves his bacon on a number of occasions.

Based on previous Kickboxer films, we would expect everything will eventually be settled in a climatic cage match. Stockwell runs true to form in that respect, but he still keeps things snappy. The big fight is a dozy, but there are also winking hat-tips for fans of the original to pick up on sprinkled throughout.

Fifty-five-year-old JCVD still looks massively cut, but he sort of acts his age this time around. In fact, Durand the snarky Zen master is a perfect fit for his quirky persona. Canadian stunt performer Alain Moussi has the appropriate physicality for Sloane, but his screen presence is somewhat pedestrian. In contrast, Dave Bautista has the presence of King Kong as Tong Po.

Among the who’s-who-of-MMA supporting cast, Georges St-Pierre scores the biggest laughs and flashes his chops in a few appealingly energetic fight scenes. Bafflingly, Gina Carano is completely wasted as Eric Sloane’s crooked fight promoter. However, the Thai-fluent Sara Malakul Lane continues to show tremendous poise and movie star potential as Liu. Yet, many martial arts fans will most remember the late Darren Shahlavi’s appearances as the ill-fated Eric Sloane. Probably best known as Twister in Ip Man 2, he had the skills and the intensity to be the next Scott Adkins, but sadly fate would not allow it.

It is not called Kickboxer: Vengeance for nothing. Even if you are unfamiliar with the previous films, the title really ought to tell you everything you need to know. Stockwell’s unfussy, adrenaline and testosterone-charged approach delivers some highly cinematic beatdowns. Highly recommended for martial arts fans (but somewhat less so for discerning cineastes), Kickboxer: Vengeance opens this Friday (9/2) in select theaters and on VOD platforms.