Saturday, June 5, 2010
Let's get the plot framework out of the way first. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane, who is the little brother to the US kickboxing champion, Eric Sloane (Dennis Alexio), and sits in his brother's corner during matches. Eric decides that he should become world champion in kickboxing and goes to Bangkok to fight the Thailand champion, the undefeated Tong Po (Micel Qissi). Eric is clearly out of his depth in Bangkok and Tong Po beats him mercilessly; after Eric is obviously defeated, Tong Po breaks his back for fun. Clearly, this movie is going to be about Kurt nursing his brother to health in the hospitals of Bangkok, showing him the value of inner strength in a city that is alien to them both. Hold on...what's this? Kurt bucks the obvious Oscar-baiting plot and decides to train himself in kickboxing to avenge his brother? I did not see that coming. Kurt meets an American (Haskell V. Anderson III), who introduces him to a martial arts master (Dennis Chan), who trains Kurt to be a kickboxing bad-ass, but will Bangkok allow him to fight Tong Po?
This movie suffers from the same thing that a lot of martial arts movies do: training scenes. Dear Hollywood, I don't give a crap about movie characters training to be tough if the actors can obviously deliver roundhouse kicks to the face from day one. If you cast Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a karate role, then sure, I want to see how he ramps up his skills. Jean-Claude Van Damme, though? Come on! They even spend time pretending that he can't do the splits. I'm sorry, but I've seen several Van Damme movies and the young Van Damme proudly shows off his splits in every film. At least introduce something new to his repertoire. Is a death punch too much to ask? Maybe a move that rips the skin off someone's face? But no, we have to pretend that Van Damme is waaay out of his depth here, but through the power of the movie montage, he will quickly become world class.
This is one of the early acting attempts for Van Damme. Now, I have no problem with Van Damme's kinda-sorta karate, but his acting has always left something to be desired. No matter how successful his films were, I just can never get past his voice (click the "Singing Chinese" link in the bottom right for a great example). That is pro-bab-ally unfair of me to pick on his accent, but that's life. The weird thing is that Dennis Alexio is actually a worse actor than Van Damme. To be fair to Alexio, he was actually a champion kickboxer, and not a professional actor. So...what's Van Damme's excuse? Haskell V. Anderson III's performance is on par with Van Damme's;you can tell that he memorized his lines, at least, but that's about where my compliments stop for him. The rest of the primary cast actually isn't half bad, but that may be because they treat Van Damme like a moron. Both Dennis Chan and Micel Qissi turn in solid performances as a wise Asian dude and a meanie pants, respectively.
There are two directors listed for the movie (David Worth and Mark DiSalle, who shares a story credit for the film with Van Damme), presumably one for the action and one for the drama. I might be wrong, though. Perhaps this example of true cinema required the efforts of two full-time directors to get all the subtext and symbolism they could squeeze into this 97 minute slice of pure movie gold. Or, maybe they decided who would direct what by rock-paper-scissors. Whatever works, right?
Not everything in this movie is bad. It gives us the semi-iconic image of Van Damme dipping his fists in wax (or something) and then dipping them in broken glass for the final fight. The final fight is okay, I guess, following in the Rocky school of fighting (get beat up until you decide to win). More importantly, though, this film gives us Van Damme dancing:
I know what you're thinking and, yes, he is wearing a break-away tank top with suspender clips built in.
I try to judge movies based on their individual merits and how well they accomplished their goals. This movie is clearly all about the fight scenes, with some boring story in between. Unfortunately, the fighting isn't all that great, aside from the awesomeness with Van Damncing. I'm no professional fighter, but I'm pretty sure that the fighting in this movie is not muay thai, as they mention so often. It looks to me like it is traditional kickboxing with a teenie bit of muay thai added for spice. To give you an idea of how hard they tried to make this movie good, Tong Po is credited as "himself" in the credits, even though he was just the character name for Micel Qissi in this movie; they couldn't even tell if their characters were real people or not! I'm sure Van Damme walked around the set saying "I just learned karate...wanna see?" all day long. I guess they got confused because they are all method actors and the story was so enveloping. And unpredictable! Do you think Van Damme will get to fight Tong Po by the end of the film? I don't want to spoil the ending for you, so you'll just have to watch and see for yourself. At least Van Damme showed enough sense to not star in any of the four (FOUR!) sequels.