If Bloodsport was the film that made Jean-Claude Van Damme, then the original Kickboxer established him. His charisma on camera, his legit martial arts skills and his iconic ability to split his legs at an 180° angle made him one of the iconic action stars of the golden age of action.
But time hasn’t been kind to those men who could glide a knife along their skin so they could spread testosterone on their toast. Properties make action films now, not the people who star in them. So Arnie is making a comeback in a prison escape drama and Sly’s along for the ride. Who cares? If they ain’t playing Namor the Sub-Mariner and Animal Man nobody gives a shit.
They can’t even return to their previous franchises with reliable success. Rambo’s MIA and Terminator Genisys proved there was much more to making box office gold than fan service and dragon mammas.
The 80s/90s action flick is a thing of the past. It’s almost become quaint to think that a man punching his way to moral righteousness in an underground martial arts tournament could become a million dollar franchise. That’s why Kickboxer: Vengeance becomes a modest success not by brute-forcing the issue like his fellow former stars have done in films like Sabotage and How I Spent My Summer Vacation, but by fighting smarter.
It has the sense of self-awareness to know that, as it belongs to an often parodied and dated genre, not to take itself too seriously and have fun with its concept. The idea that things happen in an action film with less motivation than a laid off office worker running down his time on the clock, is something the film embraces. Having a fight on top of an elephant doesn’t make sense in a street fight. But sense doesn’t interest Kickboxer. Its only concern is entertainment.
Alain Moussi plays Kurt Sloane, one-half of a pair of kickboxing brothers whose sibling loses in a fight with Dave Bautista. Dave has clearly played too much Mortal Kombat when he was a child because upon being declared the victor he must have heard the voice of God whisper the word ‘Fatality’ in his ear causing him to break Kurt’s brother’s neck and incentivise Kurt to train and take him down.
He is trained by the franchise star, Jean-Claude himself. And while he may not take centre stage from a narrative point of view, he is the sole focus of the camera whenever he’s in a scene. His charm and charisma has an unapologetically European slant that makes him unique amongst his peers. He and the camera are having a torrid love affair behind the protagonist’s back, because whenever he is in the vicinity, it cannot resist but linger on the effortless sway and swagger of Van-Damme.
So you came to a Kickboxer film and your appetite is sated for the man we all know you came to see. But you still want to see someone get kicked like a ball in a primary school soccer match. Vengeance has you covered. Not only is the action slick and hard-hitting, focussing more on the swift strikes of a fight than the acrobatics, it also finds time to add humour and laughs. It is genuinely one of the funniest action films I’ve seen years, and plays it so straight at times you almost believe the laughs are unintentional. But they hit with such consistency that the humour cannot be an accident.
It isn’t all knockout blows though. There are some air balls in there as well. Gina Carano is the rare in a booster pack of UFC supporting roles, but even though she is given the perfect excuse to break the moves out, the opportunity and her presence there is wasted. As will not be a surprise to anyone who saw his WWE comeback in 2014, Dave needs some heavy protection to maintain his considerable presence. He’s filmed so differently to any other fighter – the camera closes in on his face when he strikes so you can’t see anything connect and anything he does that requires more effort that rotating his shoulder blades is filmed from the back hiding his face – that the legitimacy the film relies on for its characters is robbed in his sequences.
But worst of all though, is Alain Moussi’s casting as the lead. This is the worst example of a replacement being chosen so not to overshadow a predecessor since Alex Ferguson chose David Moyes to take over as Man United manager. He is a charisma vacuum. You’d think that Van Damme, artist that he is, could work wonders with such a blank slate, but he’s more concerned with reminding the audience how charming he is.
Kickboxer: Vengeance presents a smart way to reboot a franchise. If you’re going to get mocked, do it yourself and own it. If you’re going to be the subject of a hundred internet memes, make sure you give 4chan plenty of material to work with. It might not get everything right but this Kickboxer had me laughing in a way that even most comedies these days fail at achieving, and entertained in a way that had me buzzing on my way back home.
Dir: Vincent O’Connell
Scr: Dimitri Logothetis, Jim McGrath
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dave Bautista, Alain Moussi, Gina Carano
Prd: Nicholas Celozzi
DOP: Mateo Londono
Music: Adam Dorn
Run Time: 90 mins
Kickboxer: Vengeance is out at cinemas now.