Review: Kickboxer: Vengeance

Alain Moussi is Kurt Sloane, whose brother Eric (the late Darren Shahlavi) is killed in a Muay Thai fight by the fearsome, god-like Tong Po (David ‘Batista’ Bautista), champion of underground fights held at the latter’s temple/training compound in Thailand. Enraged, Kurt attempts to kill Tong Po in his sleep, but his assassination attempt is thwarted and he is kicked off the premises. Trying a different tact, Kurt decides to approach his brother’s trainer, Master Durand (Jean-Claude Van Damme) in the hopes of getting him to train him so that he can defeat Tong Po in a fight to the death. Durand reasons that he doesn’t want to train another person to get killed by Tong Po, but eventually reluctantly agrees when he sees the kid is adamant. Meanwhile, Kurt develops a relationship with a local cop (Sara Malakul Lane) investigating the underground fight scene. Georges St. Pierre plays a fighter/doorman at the compound who may or may not be trustworthy, Gina Carano is a shonky fight promoter, a too highly billed Cain Velasquez plays a random fighter, and Sam Medina is Crawford, the emcee/Tong Po’s spokesman and all-round right-hand man.

Essentially a remake, I’m giving this 2016 John Stockwell (the very scenic “Into the Blue”) martial arts film a lesser score than the 1989 original, but make no mistake: They’re both pretty much of the same technical quality. It’s just that what one could accept from a martial arts film from 1989 (and let’s face it, “Kickboxer” always lagged behind “Bloodsport” and “Wrong Bet” anyway) is far less acceptable now. Also, the original had Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead role, which is more important than you might think.

Scripted by the duo of Dimitri Logothetis (EP of “Sleepwalkers” way back in 1992) and Jim McGrath (his screenwriting debut), this is pretty much your standard late 80s/early 90s martial arts movie and not only is it obviously not a good movie in the legit sense of the term, it’s also not as enjoyable as more recent fight movies like the “Undisputed” franchise, or some of JCVD’s more recent output. I was a little disappointed as I was expecting something a little slicker and with more charismatic actors in the lead roles. Instead it’s pretty rough around the edges, and only two or three supporting actors really stand out.

The scenery is stunning, but the editing is pretty horrendous, especially early on making the narrative somewhat wonky. The pacing is also a lot slower than it needed to be, with the running time being less than 90 minutes it really ought to have hurried up a bit more. It really amazes me that someone with big-screen directorial experience like Stockwell would come up with something so very direct-to-DVD, and that may be a bit insulting to direct-to-DVD action films if anything. He definitely needs to hire a more competent editor in future.

It’s a shame they didn’t get Scott Adkins for the lead role because Alain Moussi simply doesn’t cut it in the acting or charisma department (Apparently Adkins was offered and rightly declined the role of the brother, which I think is a pretty insulting offer). A real-life kickboxer, he can certainly spin-kick like a motherfucker, but Moussi is nowhere near a thespian. He’s dull, which is a real shame given it’s his shoulders the film must be carried on. Even worse is Sara Malakul Lane as his leading lady. The Guam-born English/Thai actress and model is truly awful. This was the late Darren Shahlavi’s final film if I’m not mistaken, and sadly he looks rather unwell and isn’t at his best. Gina Carano is getting better as an actress, but not enough for her to work in such a role as she has here, unfortunately. Fellow fighter Georges St. Pierre probably won’t have the most fruitful acting career on evidence here, he’s decidedly amateurish and his character incredibly irritating.

On the plus side, the performances by former wrestler Batista (AKA Dave Bautista), Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sam Medina work. Batista isn’t as bulked-up as he was in his wrestling days where he looked like his shoulders had muscles upon muscles, but I still found it a little hard at first to accept him as a kickboxer given how top-heavy he still is. Once you get past that and the fact that he’s clearly not Thai, he’s his usual bad arse self. Given his size and huge muscles, I have no problem believing he could beat the shit out of most people, so it’s not hard to get past. This time around Tong Po is no mere single-minded thug, but has his own training school/tournament, which is interesting. He’s not in the film nearly enough, but when he is you stand up and take notice. He certainly doesn’t need much dialogue, you know from looking at him that this Tong Po is a scary fucker. As for JCVD, this isn’t his best performance of late and it’s abundantly clear that his voice is looped in the final match, presumably because the Muscles from Brussels had exited stage left once the cameras stopped rolling (Weird given that he an Batista are EPs here). Still, playing the mentor role to the successor of his role in the original, he certainly looks to be in damn good condition. I mean, take a look at him here and then Sly Stallone of late and tell me Sly isn’t on HGH and/or something else. JCVD by contrast has a legit, muscular physique for someone now aged in his mid-50s. The dude clearly works out regularly and he makes for a tough bastard of a trainer not afraid to kick the shit out of his pupil. As for Sam Medina, he doesn’t have a lot of scenes either, but he steals every one of them as Tong Po’s chief associate. I liked that there’s lots of action in this, even if I think they wait too long to implement the ‘dipping wrapped hands in resin’ scene and could’ve done without the brief swordplay for fuck knows what reason it was there. The final fight was going really well up until that point, it’s so silly. Speaking of silly, by far the best thing in the entire film is the closing credits split-screen of Moussi re-creating JCVD’s infamously awful dance scene from the original. JCVD did it better, or at least much funnier. It’s hysterical.

Although it’s far from the worst martial arts movie out there, this film isn’t anywhere near the hype. It’s sloppily done, and some of the performances are terrible. Lively action, though. 

Rating: C+


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