If you aren’t watching the new Kickboxer movies, you’re doing it wrong. As ’80s action reboots go, the Kickboxer remake films–Vengeance, and now Retaliation–nail the ’80s action vibe better than The Expendables movies ever did, and without necessarily pandering to nostalgia, either.
That said, I’m not sure how they keep getting made. Kickboxer: Vengeance had a budget reported by some outlets as $17 million (feasible, but a bad investment if true). But a total theatrical and home entertainment gross of just over $1 million. How that translates into “make a sequel,” I have no idea, but make one they did.
And it’s great. This is a movie that not only justifies action sequels better than most, but also amps up the fun factor in every way. If you like movies where the ultimate goal is to watch two shirtless dudes beating each other to death. And in the right frame of mind, I do–Retaliation is an absolute must-see.
First, let’s be clear. This is a kickboxing movie like Dirty Dancing is a dance movie.
In other words, kickboxing rules are pretty much ignored in the film’s world of no-holds-barred battles to the death. Or at least severe unconsciousness (this might be a spoiler. But it isn’t 100% clear into which one of these categories the final result falls). However, it has just about the best justification to continue the franchise that I’ve ever seen.
Having killed villain Tong Po in the last movie, Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) must now answer for the blowback to that. And engage in other fights which will create more blowback even if he prevails, and analogizing the cycle. That of violent revenge to action franchises is maybe the most profound thing this movie series will ever say. Even if (as I suspect) it’s accidental subtext.
But hey, they’ve just established an entirely believable reason for this saga to go on forever… Even if Sloane is killed at some point, there’s nothing that will stop the cycle until someone finally forgives. And in an action franchise, are you kidding?
While most of the plot follows a familiar formula, the opening is perhaps intentionally disorienting.
It feels, in fact, like a weird perfume commercial. On a luxury train, Kurt and his new girlfriend Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) dance, get interrupted by mysterious baddies, and take things to the roof in a battle that ends with everyone getting spin-kicked off the train and into the nearby sea. It’s a James Bondian bit of fun that peripherally ties into what we will see later, but not in a huge way.
Before too long, Kurt is whisked back to Thailand and thrown into a dubious jail for the crime of having killed Tong Po. Even though “to the death” was essentially a stipulation of their fight. The man responsible for all the battles, pointedly and ironically named Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert) wanted Kurt to be Po’s successor. Now that that hasn’t happened, he at least wants him to fight the new guy, steroid monster Mongkut (Game of Thrones’ Mountain, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson).
The odds are against anyone taking on such a large man in a contest where performance-enhancing drugs are completely legal, and Kurt is disinclined. However, when the bad guys kidnap Liu, and Kurt finds that both Mike Tyson’s “Briggs” (who knows of a pain-deadening herb) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Master Durand are also in the prison. There is both hope and a reason to fight.
In some ways, this feels like a Street Fighter movie that never was.
Tyson is obviously Balrog, Moussi is Ken, Van Damme could be an older Guile, Mongkut is E. Honda, etc. At other times, it feels like Fatal Fury or Double Dragon. When Kurt is kicking butt on multiple levels of the prison as different inmates come at him. Either way, it’s a safe bet director Dimitri Logothetis grew up on ’80s fighting games.
Lambert, who also notably played Rayden in the Mortal Kombat movie, may be old and nearly blind in real life. But he gets a brief sword-fighting scene with Van Damme. That just to prove Logotheis knows why you like the guy and what you want from him. He’s in fine form, too, with the intense stare and signature “HEH-heh” chuckle adding just the right amount of seasoning to this cheesy stew.
Van Damme, meanwhile, seems to have decided that his character should be blind. Which in practice just means wearing sunglasses all the time and behaving like a super-psychic. Who can predict every move thanks to being newly disabled. It’s awesome that he wants to stretch like that. Even if he’s not necessarily a master-thespian.
Most importantly, Moussi has improved since the last time.
Like most ’80s stars, he seems to have been originally cast based on his fighting skills with the hope his acting would catch up, and it has…sort of. Here, he strikes the right balance of wooden and occasionally dramatic that ’80s Van Damme did. Come for the kicks and the screaming; stay for the occasional line-reading. That’ll make you cheer like when your four year-old just figured out how to spell “cat.”.
There’s even an old-school effect in play: Van Damme movies are famous for triple-takes of the same kick. While Moussi hasn’t earned that yet, he does get a few double-takes. Martial arts are the primary special effect here, as the biggest action setpiece not involving a one-on-one fight features a bicycle chasing a boat. You can do this cheap if you cast correctly (budget figures are not as of now available, but they can’t be high).
Moussi’s Sloane spends the entire movie trying to avoid fighting Mongkut, but it wouldn’t be much fun if he succeeded. Inevitably they will fight, drugs will be abused. The Thai witnesses will cheer Sloane as “White Warrior,” even though it’s not like anyone played by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is in any way a person of color.
And if you sought this movie out, chances are you will cheer. It’s just the right kind of nonsensical heroic butt-kicking fest we used to get in theaters regularly. This week, you’re more likely to find it on-demand but don’t let that stop you; two movies in, the new Kickboxer series has already bested the old. And here’s to many more installments.
Rating: R (for sequences of violence)
Genre: Action & Adventure, Drama
Directed By: Dimitri Logothetis
Stars: Alain Moussi, Sara Malakul Lane, Maxime Savaria
Written By: Dimitri Logothetis
In Theaters: Jan 26, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 13, 2018
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR KICKBOXER: RETALIATION
A stylish and enjoyable fight flick with just enough tongue-in-cheek content to keep us smiling.
A very dumb, and very satisfying throwback to a simpler time when American action films were as predictable as they were formulaic.
Unlike the last movie, which stumbled when outside the ring, [the director] doesn’t bog things down with too much plot about fraternal bonding, love interests, or anything that requires an emotion more complicated than punching someone’s lights outs.
There are smarter and more original action films to watch in the world, but few, trashy or earnest, are this consistently entertaining or brute force in their own honesty.