30 years ago, Jean-Claude Van Damme was yet to ride his prime on a motorbike in Hard Target, and live in the world of direct-to-video, where he has mostly resided for over twenty years. In 1989, fresh from the now-cult Bloodsport, JCVD collaborated again with Cannon in both Cyborg and Kickboxer – the latter launching the Muscles from Brussels to an increased stardom.
Kickboxer, a lethal mix of the sports film and revenge action film, depicted JCVD and former champion Dennis Alexio as chalk and cheese brothers, Kurt and Eric Sloane respectively. An arrogant champion, Eric ignorantly champions himself above the best and deadliest kickboxer from Thailand, Tong Po (Alain Moussi). Severely injured by Tong Po, Kurt – a kickboxing novice – seeks out revenge for his brother, but in doing so, he must be trained the old way by semi-recluse, Xian Chow (Dennis Chan), and fight the criminal underworld surrounding Tong Po.
Admittedly, Kickboxer does pose a somewhat serious premise – almost Rocky IV-esque too. Now you have to remember how wacky and outrageous many of Cannon’s films were. From the same rabble who released Death Wish 3, how serious of a film are you expecting in Kickboxer? Despite the serious nature of the main character’s motivation, the execution is just way too comedic throughout – from excessive acting to cheesy music, Kickboxer does not take itself too seriously until the final act or so.
Some things to take seriously, however, are the majority of the training sequences in the lead up to Kurt Sloane’s fight with Tong Po. Van Damme being a legit performer adds an exceptional amount of authenticity to Kickboxer’s action. In an era surrounded by a third Missing in Action (also Cannon) with Chuck Norris, Cynthia Rothrock’s China O’Brien, and Above the Law/Nico debuting Steven Seagal, there was a clear element of authenticity in late high-end action B-movies in the late 1980s. But it is without doubt that both Bloodsport and Kickboxer were much more excessive than the films elsewhere in this action market.
In defining the excessiveness present within Kickboxer, a good amount of content is intended to be funny, as other moments are just unfortunate in being misread. The phrase, “so bad, it’s good” is most certainly applicable to multiple occurences. Furthermore, there is the possibility that select elements and actions in Kickboxer may be read as hilarious, yet are read by others as genuinely awful – if bad acting is your thing, then the likely outcome is that you’ll love Kickboxer more than others.
Kickboxer’s legacy currently exists as both a VHS classic and gif – yes, the one of Van Damme dancing. In living its best life in these contrasting ways, the Van Damme classic remains somewhat popular, but is it a fair reflection or is it a Van Damage of the star’s legacy? In his more mainstream years Van Damme’s biggest film would most likely be agreed to be Hard Target, but like Kickboxer, that too is used for comedic purpose in the contemporary – the Coors Light ads, remember? Either these films just aren’t taken seriously anymore or maybe Van Damme is just really funny – the latter is, of course, the preference.
Here’s the genuinely funny part: there are FOUR sequels to the original Kickboxer. With subtitles ranging from The Road Back to The Redemption, the Kickboxer sequels lacked the star power of Van Damme, yet retained Alain Moussi as the villainous Tong Po. The sequels not only lacked Van Damme’s presence, but lacked his character too, as the first three sequels followed the path of another Sloane brother: David Sloane, played by Sasha Mitchell. Van Damme and the character Kurt Sloane did return in 2016’s reboot of the Kickboxer franchise, however.
Ultimately, Kickboxer is probably Van Damme’s greatest film of his early-ish period, if not the greatest film of all-time. Bloodsport will often take the plaudits for this era of Van Damme, probably for its epic fighting conclusion between Van Damme and Bolo Yueng, though it is Kickboxer which exists as the perfect mix of revenge, so-bad-it’s-good comedy, and exquisite display of martial arts training and combat, launching Van Damme further into stardom than Bloodsport did..