Nah, you’re not interested in “Kickboxer,” the Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts movie set in the exotic and mysterious Thailand and focuses in on the brutal sport of Muay Thai, are you? You’re not going to miss Van Damme’s hammy acting, his trademark splits, or his harsh (although according to some sources, inaccurate) training and portrayal in and of the Thai sport of Muay Thai, are you?
Of course you do. The Muscles From Brussels goes Thai in this 1989 adventure, with the Belgian actor exploring the martial arts fundamentals of Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, which has gained wider recognition in the West because it’s the de facto fighting style for mixed martial arts and Thai-native newcomer Tony Jaa seeks to promote his tiny country’s greatest commodity for a worldwide audience. But this is a Van Damme movie, first and foremost. True he’s no great actor, but there’s something about his work here that makes me want to watch “Kickboxer” again and again.
First things first, what is Muay Thai? As already stated, it’s the national sport of Thailand, where the fighter will condition his body so that his arms and legs become weapons capable of delivering blows, kicks in particular, that are three times as powerful as that of any ordinary martial artist. He’ll also use his feet, fists, shins, and elbows too. If one wants to go all out, two guys will get in a ring and have themselves a rope-fist fight, where the fighters’ wrists are bound in rope and covered with broken glass. Isn’t that mean and nasty?
To begin “Kickboxer,” Van Damme is Kurt Sloane, brother of Eric (Dennis Alexio), the top kickboxer in the United States. Tiring of the generic competition of his native soil, he travels with brother Kurt to Bangkok, where he hopes to dethrone the current champ Tong Po (Michel Qissi), who has a reputation for fighting dirty. Kurt first sees this towering mountain of flesh and muscle kicking the hell out of a support beam in the locker room; that’s the first clue to Kurt that Eric shouldn’t get in the ring, but he’s not listening.
And Eric fights anyway, against baby brother’s warnings.
To make long stories short, Eric takes quite a beating in the ring but a series of illegal blows delivered after Kurt throws in the towel cripple Eric for life. So what went wrong? According to some sources, American Kickboxing is a watered-down form of Muay Thai, so it’s no wonder Tong Po got the upper hand so quickly on Eric, who despite his excellent training and peak physical condition, only landed a few lucky punches on the towering fighter. Apparently, Muay Thai is strictly for street fighting, not something for refined martial artists like Kurt and Eric.
To teach Tong Po a lesson in humility, Kurt contacts American Winston Taylor (Haskell V. Anderson III) to seek out a venerated Thai master, Xian Chow (Dennis Chan), to learn the art of Muay Thai, and so the training begins. Kurt first puts aside his already-planted Karate training and strengthens his body, kicks tree stumps until the scar tissue prevents any kind of feeling aside from invincibility, learns a little about Asian spirituality, and even flirts with Chow’s niece Mylee (Rochelle Ashana). What it all culminates in, of course, is a no-holds-barred “Rocky IV”-style showdown using the ancient rope-fists between Kurt and Tong Po.
As someone who knows next to nothing about Muay Thai (in fact, much of what I know comes from Wikipedia and the special features section of the “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” DVD), I found “Kickboxer” to still be quite entertaining. It’s brutal stuff, really, so it’s no wonder Muay Thai is gaining such greater notoriety in the United States. As Kurt Sloane, Van Damme is good (despite his acting limitations in showing emotions), his performance notwithstanding, and none of the other performers are really worth speaking of either, but Tong Po is a nasty villain and his one speaking line “You bleed like Mylee; Mylee good f**k” sends chills down the spine.
The fights are another thing and are what this feature co-directed by Mark DiSalle and David Worth seems to specialize in. The fights are spectacular (as with any martial arts movie that features Van Damme doing his trademark splits and 360-degree flying spin-kick), which does include one sequence where Kurt gets drunk, starts dancing, and takes on the patrons at a bar.
This “Kickboxer” – it’s a kick, just don’t let it “kick” you in the head too much with its lackadaisical script and lame-brain plotting.