In 1989, Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in arguably one of the most well-loved American martial arts movies of the modern era, Kickboxer. While it spawned many sequels it was never bettered and is arguably one of the very highest of high points in JCVD’s career. As such, with the Hollywood remake machine intent on gobbling up and spitting back out every conceivable concept that has ever been successful I walked into the screening of Kickboxer: Vengeance with a strong sense of trepidation. A feeling that did not immediately abate once the lights went down, but a feeling that certainly passed by the half-way mark and one that was a distant memory by the film’s conclusion. In a rare occurrence, the remake is actually bloody excellent, pun intended.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is the story of Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi), an American martial artist who travels to Thailand to kill Muay Thai legend Tong Po (Dave Bautista), the man who killed his brother, and world champion Kickboxer, Eric Sloane, months earlier in an underground Muay Thai fight. Kurt is unsuccessful, and finds himself a fugitive in Thailand. After saving the life of police investigator Liu who is trying to stop the underground fights, she takes pity on him and takes him to Master Durand, the former coach of his brother Eric, who takes him in. However, he eventually agrees to train Kurt to fight Tong Po, and attempt to get out alive.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is fairly faithful to the key plot points of the original, and clearly holds that original film in great reverence. However, this remake has clearly been made by people fully aware that the revenge plot of the original is perhaps somewhat outdated and a little far-fetched for 2016, so they vey subtly begin to layer in very knowing nods and jokes mocking the silliness of the film’s plot, and giving the film a very tongue-in-cheek feel but without ever drifting into full-on comedy. The film knows that it is a silly action film, but plays it straight with just enough nods and winks to clue the audience in on the joke. If you hadn’t quite got it, by the end the sequence that plays out over the end credits hits you over the head with it, just in case. In many respects it is an absolute masterstroke that it manages to walk the tightrope between serious and subtle comedy, while still remaining faithful to the original.
It goes without saying that the martial arts sequences are excellent. Within the cast there are a number of MMA fighters including former UFC Heavyweight champions Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum, as well as former UFC Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (who has a particular line of dialogue which is a major Easter egg for long-time UFC fans) in a larger role. The martial arts proficiency of these fighters is great, but obviously these are not professional actors, which is where the likes of Moussi and Bautista come in – as trained actors who also have a martial arts background. It allows them to carry a bit more of the acting load and let the martial artists do the heavy leg work. Speaking of Bautista, he is again a revelation here as Tong Po; giving just enough venom and aggression to balance out the cheesy one-dimensional nature of his character. He is utterly believable, which is quite the achievement. However, of course the star of the show is Jean Claude Van Damme as Master Durand. He effortlessly transitions into the role of grizzled mentor to Kurt and brings so much to this film, oozing charisma every second he is on screen. It really is fantastic performance and where some of his contemporaries often take themselves far too seriously JCVD is frequently happy to lampoon himself.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is a pleasant surprise with a fun twist on the 80s action film but set in modern day Thailand, and a knowing self-reflexive quality that actually makes it a really enjoyable twist. It’s not going to win any awards, and it is certainly not an intellectually challenging movie, but if you enjoy martial arts, action, a bit of tongue-in-cheek comedy or if you just enjoyed the original Kickboxer, you could do far worse than check out Kickboxer: Vengeance.