’80S REVISITED: Kickboxer (1989)

Opinion by Tony Frame. Warning – contains spoilers.

Kickboxer is one of my comfort movies. It conjures up a lot of memories of my teens, of that innocence, and of the dreams I once had, and it paved the way for Jean Claude Van Damme being my first real role model of whom I became an avid fan of ever since.

I saw it in the summer of what I think was 1990. I loved martial arts movies – I did Karate for a few years and that probably got me into the films as well, films like Enter the Dragon, No Retreat, No Surrender, even Big Trouble in Little China. I’d watch anything that had some decent fight scenes in them.

Images courtesy of IMDB

At that point I didn’t know who Jean Claude Van Damme was and that summer of 1990 I rented Kickboxer and then Bloodsport almost back to back without realising he was in them both – what a coincidence!

From that moment on I was a fan of the muscles from Brussels. Back then I preferred Bloodsport over Kickboxer because Bloodsport had more fight scenes in it.

In the winter of 1991 I had finished school for the holiday season. It was a week or so before Christmas and I had just done some shopping with my mother in the Livingston mall. When we got outside and headed back home I vividly remember walking past the old Livingston Development Corporation building; a six-storey red-bricked monolithic block from the 70’s. It was snowing and the slushy snow on the ground was riddled with sunken footprints left from the other shoppers.

I was holding onto my VHS videocassette of Kickboxer, that I had just purchased with some money I was gifted as a pre-Christmas present from one of my aunts. I’m pretty sure I had bought the video from Rainbow Records in the mall – a small boutique that had a good eclectic mix of movies and music for all tastes.

As I looked at my prized VHS copy of Kickboxer, admiring the stills from the movie on the back of the box, I can still recall that warm feeling of contentment that one gets when life seems good. And the comfort and whimsical magic of the snow seemed to amplify that feeling.

I remember watching the film that afternoon, in the living room, as I was sat on the floor next to the radiator, getting toasty, as the snow continued to fall outside and the lights of the Christmas tree behind me twinkled like gemstones…the bliss of it all.

Kickboxer is a very good martial arts movie in many ways despite the clichés. It has the oldest ingredient one needs in order to become a classic martial arts movie – revenge. Pure and simple.

Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane – ringside trainer to his champion Kickboxer brother, Eric Sloane. When Eric decides to fight Tong Po, a Thai champ, on his own turf, that’s when things go from bad to worse and he ends up in a wheelchair.

The first scene that we see the mesmerising Tong Po (played by Michael Qissi) is when Van Damme is in the locker room, just prior to the fight, and he has to go and find some ice to prep his brother’s warm-up.

As Van Damme walks down the corridors of the fight arena he can hear an incessant banging noise echoing throughout the building.

Wondering what on earth is making this noise he gets closer and closer to it and then stumbles open its origin right in front of his very eyes – it’s Tong Po, in his locker room, practising kicks with his bare legs on one of the stone columns supporting the roof.

Plaster falls from the ceiling and Van Damme’s eyes are wide like saucers and his jaw drops to the floor as he sees the inhumane strength that Tong Po has conditioned himself with.

Images courtesy of IMDB

After his brother’s humiliating and painful loss in the ring, Van Damme then goes on a quest for revenge and seeks out the tuition of an old master (Dennis Chan) who has become a recluse, hiding out in the jungle.

From there the naive Kurt Sloane gets his training, falls in love with a local village girl, and has to face the deadly Tong Po in the ring at the end of the movie – another tradition that is pretty much required in order to be called a classic martial arts movie.

The cinematography is fantastic – a lot of the training scenes are on location, amongst ancient ruins with spectacular Thai sunsets in the background. The script still holds up well, even now, with some good humour in it that isn’t too cheesy nor dated. And the soundtrack adds an aura of ancient mystique to it like echoes of the past whispering in the wind.

Images courtesy of IMDB

The film concludes with one of the most iconic final fight scenes ever to grace the silver screen. Tong Po and Kurt Sloane battle it out in an ancient temple with their hands wrapped in bandages which are dipped into broken glass.

The editing and multiple-angles of Van Damme’s array of elbows and helicopter kicks make it a visual treat and it really shows off his amazing and unique abilities which are still highly impressive even to this day. None of the punches nor kicks are pulled and the blows really feel like they have some bone-crunching weight behind them.

Images courtesy of IMDB

The fighting abilities you had to have back then in the ’80s and ’90s couldn’t be faked if you wanted to be taken seriously. You really had to have skill, flexibility and a good technique – things which take years to learn.

It’s not like now where any Hollywood actor can make themselves look like they can handle themselves, what with the preference of MMA action fight scenes which, I think, is becoming very dated and predictable.

That close-combat flurry of blows and blocks, grapples and pivots is okay for a thirty-second fight scene, but after that it becomes very mundane and it’s been done to death by every film from Bourne to John Wicks to Extraction and so on – move on, guys. Cynthia Rothrock could still kick your asses in real life.

Ultimately, though, for me, Kickboxer is a movie I’ll watch once in a blue moon and I will still thoroughly enjoy it just as much now as I did way back then. I don’t care what other people think about the movie. If it works for me it works for me.

And if you’ve got a comfort movie that works for you—no matter how good or bad, how cheesy—then watch it again and again to your heart’s desire and don’t let anyone ever take that away from you. It’s part of you and your psyche.

Do you have comfort movies? Let me know in the comments!

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