in The Vault

Kickboxer (1989)

Kickboxer was my first experience watching “The Muscles from Brussels.” If you don’t remember the 90s, Jean-Claude Vane Damme was a second-tier action star famously known for his ability to do extreme splits and speak almost unintelligible dialogue. He was No Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but I’m sure he’d of had no problem kicking Steven Seagal in his many chins without even breaking a sweat. Van Damme’s strength as an action star was that he actually had a background in professional martial arts and kickboxing. Meaning Kickboxer must have come from a personal place. Van Damme even co-developed the story. The only problem is that the story is basically Karate Kid in Thailand.

Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane, the younger brother/cornerman of American kickboxing champion Eric Sloane (Real life kickboxer/bad actor Dennis Alexio). After another easy victory from the champ, a reporter suggests he go to Thailand for a real challenge. Apparently, that’s all the motivation the Champ needed as he has already arrived in Thailand with his brother in the next scene. It’s strange that the Belgian-born Van Damme is the younger brother of a macho, red meat-eating American. The movie suggests that they were raised apart but it unnecessarily complicates things. Would it really have been that hard to make Van Damme’s brother Belgian? Of course, because Americans need to see other Americans on screen. If there were two Belgian guys it wouldn’t be American enough.

In no time the Champ lines up his first match with Thailand’s undefeated champion Tong Po (Michel Qissi) but does he win? Nope, he’s immediately paralyzed in the ring and Van Damme’s pretty bummed. Fortunately, Van Damme meets a stereotypical black guy (Haskell V. Anderson III) who introduces Van Damme to the Mr. Miyagi of Thailand, Xian Chow (Dennis Chan). What follows is the typical master/apprentice bullshit, except here it makes up the majority of the film. There’s little to enjoy in this sixtysomething block of kicking poles, stretching and an incredibly weak romance with a villager named Mylee (Rochella Ashana).

Kickboxer picks up, or should I say “kicks up”? When Van Damme’s training crosses paths with a group of stock Thai mobsters. At this point, Van Damme has become well-versed in the ways of Muay-Thai. He makes a mockery of the mobsters even after getting drunk and doing a sexy dance. The gangsters retaliate by raping Mylee, kidnapping Van Damme’s wheelchair-bound brother, and demand that Van Damme purposefully loses in his fight against Tong Po. Holy shit.

But any conflict is short-lived as Xian and the stereotypical black guy rescues the Champ during Van Damme’s big fight. The final fight is entertaining enough and gets a boost with the addition of both fighter’s hands being wrapped in rags filled with glass. You can probably guess the ending so I’ll leave it at that.

Sadly, Kickboxer is as generic as it gets. I say sadly because I hoped it would be something more in the vein of a Road House with cheesy one-liners and extreme violence. Instead, Kickboxer is fairly tame and incredibly uninspired. As for Van Damme’s acting, he’s not nearly as bad as I thought he’d be. The accent is a definite hurdle but Van Damme gives it the old college try. He even has a scene where he cries and it’s not embarrassingly terrible! Overall, I like watching Van Damme do the splits just give me some laughs. Kickboxer plays it too safe and results in a cheap knockoff of The Karate Kid and Rocky. Though I’d like to see Schwarzenegger or Stallone try and do the splits.