I’m pretty sure the first animated gif I ever saw was Jean-Claude Van Damme dancing in a Thai bar in Kickboxer. The image is the sort of thing that sticks with you: his khakis hiked up to a near-Urkel level, his spaghetti-strap tank top just barely managing to exist, his face contorted into what I guess is supposed to be a drunken leer. He grabs a couple of nearby ladies and proceeds to demonstrate the most complete, theatrical version of the white man’s overbite ever captured on film. He exaggeratedly thrusts his hips. He spins on his heel. He drops into the splits and then does this amazing, absurd shoulder waggle as soon as he comes up. When YouTube was first becoming a thing a decade ago, people with too much spare time realized that you could do things with this scene. Van Damme was pretty much ignoring the music anyway, so you could plug in any music you wanted, and it would still be perfect.
Generally, I hate the whole idea of so-bad-they’re-good movies. The people who make action movies tend to know when they’re making something ridiculous, and they don’t need your laughing-at-nothing Nelson Muntz ass pointing it out. A good action movie is a good action movie, and you should never feel like you’re above watching it. But with a movie like Kickboxer—-a movie so fundamentally bad on so many levels, and yet so utterly watchable—you have to appreciate a certain level of absurdity. The shit is just funny. It’s a movie piled high with melodrama and yet made with basically no professional actors, and so unbelievably 1989 that it’s still chuckling to itself about that photo of Dukakis on a tank. I love it. You should, too.
In a lot of ways, Kickboxer is a straight-up retread of Bloodsport, the no-qualifiers-necessary great movie that had made Van Damme a star the year before. Once again here, he’s a clueless Westerner trying to prove himself by visiting an Asian country and excelling in that country’s combat sport. Once again, he goes up against an unstoppable silent juggernaut of a local champion, someone who fights without honor and who’s hurt at least two of Van Damme’s friends. Once again, the movie climaxes with a big come-from-behind victory, and Van Damme once again signals his comeback by making crazy facial expressions. This time, he’s fighting in Thailand instead of Hong Kong and avenging his paralyzed real brother instead of his dead adopted brother. But the real difference is that in Bloodsport, you at least had a chance of seeing a real actor like Forest Whitaker. But here, you will likely not see a single recognizable face in the supporting cast.
That means Kickboxer offers the beautiful spectacle of a cast full of non-professional actors— most of whom don’t speak English as a first language—attempting to emote their way through a script that’s not trying to do them any favors. It’s stupendous. As Van Damme’s brother is paralyzed, he lets out one of the all-time great nooooo screams. When he vows to fight Tong Po, the Muay Thai master who injured his brother, a guy who just met him barks back, “I’m not signing your death warrant, too!” The American kickboxing champion Dennis Alexio, who has done practically no other acting and who looks like an ultra-jacked John Oates, might give the best performance in the whole movie. But these aren’t bugs; they’re features. Once you see Van Damme maintaining soulful eye contact with an eagle, or a Thai kidnapper taken out with a giant hook to the balls, you’ve pretty much learned to love the ridiculous.
But a plot as deeply silly as this wouldn’t be as much fun if it weren’t attached to some strong action scenes, and Kickboxer has those. Van Damme wasn’t getting cast in movies, especially early on, because he knew how to act. He was cast because he looked amazing throwing jumping roundhouse kicks and doing splits, and because he’d throw himself completely and sincerely into these goofy-as-hell scenarios. (He has a story-by credit on Kickboxer. This is the story he wanted to tell.) And the fight scenes in Kickboxer are a lot of fun.
That dance scene, after all, ends with Van Damme kicking around a bunch of apparently insulted fellow patrons. Even after being paralyzed, Alexio gets to knock a couple of guys out from his wheelchair. Van Damme’s one American friend in Thailand turns out to be an arms dealer, presumably just so we can get the one payoff shot of him coming to the rescue while dramatically silhouetted and toting a massive assault rifle. This movie isn’t fucking around when it comes to the action scenes. And the training scenes, too, are some of the best of their kind—Van Damme kicking down a palm tree or being violently pulled into splits while a cheesily motivational Stan Bush song blares on the soundtrack.
The scenes with Tong Po are the best of all. Tong Po is exactly the sort of villain you want for a movie like this: stoic, menacing, mean as hell. He’s a tower of muscle with a shaved head and a braid all the way down his back, and he’s introduced kicking a column in his locker room over and over, making thunderous boom sounds and sending dust flying. The credits say that Tong Po played “himself,” and it’s impossible not to love the idea of a martial arts champion willing to depict himself as a terrifying psychopath in an American movie. Sadly, it’s not the case.
The person who played Tong Po is actually Michel Qissi, a Belgian-Moroccan actor who grew up with Van Damme. They tried to break into Hollywood together, and Qissi was in Bloodsport, too, playing the fighter who gets his leg so badly broken that the bone juts out of the skin. Actually, his onscreen relationship with Van Damme goes back longer than that. Van Damme was an extra in Breakin’, dancing in the background and, even then, trying to make that shoulder-waggle happen. And the tall shirtless guy with the sort-of Afro standing next to him? That was Tong Po.
If you were born during the late ’70s or early ’80s, there’s a good chance that this movie is written into your DNA, thanks to countless Saturday-afternoon UHF TV viewings. This is the sort of R-rated movie that couldn’t be better suited to capturing a kid’s imagination, and they did not cut a lot out of the TV version, if memory serves. But even if you and Kickboxer don’t have a history, it’s still a deeply fun watch: a charmingly inept time capsule from a more innocent era, with a few well-staged fight scenes.
They’re making a new Kickboxer now, with Van Damme playing the mentor and the Canadian stuntman Alain Moussi playing Van Damme’s role. The pro wrestler Dave Bautista is playing Tong Po (which is some amazing casting), and people like Georges St. Pierre and Gina Carano are in there, too. People on the internet are mad about it, because people on the internet are always mad about something. But that’s a great action-movie cast, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t improve on the original, at least in terms of straight-up filmmaking. But there’s no way it’s going to have anything that’ll top that dance scene.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
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