’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. It paved the way for Jean Claude Van Damme being my first real role model. I’ve been a fan of him ever since.

I saw the movie in the summer of what I think was 1990. I fell in love with martial arts movies as a direct result of taking Karate lessons when I was a child. I continued the lessons all the way through to my early teens. Enter the Dragon was the first real fighting movie that made a huge impression on me. After that I would watch and re-watch any movie with elaborate fight scenes in them. Movies like No Retreat, No Surrender and Big Trouble in Little China left me mesmerised.

Images courtesy of IMDB

At that point in time I didn’t know who Jean Claude Van Damme was. And it was in the summer of 1990 that I rented Kickboxer and then Bloodsport back to back without realising he was in them both. After seeing those movies I was an overnight fan of ‘The Muscles from Brussels.’ I watched his movies over and over. His kicks were unlike anything I’d seen before.

I vividly remember my first real introduction to Kickboxer. I had only seen it once after renting it that summer of 1990. It wasn’t released on VHS to purchase until about 1991. Movies back then sometimes took a year or two before you could purchase them on VHS. It’s not like now where Blu-rays and DVD’s and online streaming services release a movie sometimes weeks after it’s been in the cinema. Back then you had to wait. End of.

And it was in the winter of 1991 when I managed to finally—finally!—buy my own copy of Kickboxer. This was a pivotal moment for me and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Hence why you’re reading every intricate detail about the experience!

I had finished school for the holiday season and it was about a week or so before Christmas. I had just done some shopping with my mother in the Livingston mall. When we got outside and headed back home I 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. I had just purchased it with some money I was gifted as a pre-Christmas present from one of my aunts. I’m pretty sure I 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.

I remember looking at my prized VHS copy of Kickboxer as we walked home. I remember the cover and looking at 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 watched the film that afternoon, in the living room. I was sat on the floor next to the radiator, getting toasty, as the snow continued to fall outside. The lights of the Christmas tree behind me twinkled like gemstones. It was bliss; a cosy festive afternoon watching an extremely violent martial arts movie. What more could a teenage boy ask for?

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 are introduced to Tong Po (played by Michael Qissi) is an iconic moment in martial arts movie history in itself. It’s prior to the fight in the locker room when Van Damme 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. 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 naïve 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. Yes, yes, yes. This is all very cliché, I know, I admit it. I’m sure Van Damme knows it too. But it’s done well, that is the point. Sometimes it’s not about how you get to the destination, it’s about the journey itself.

Many things work in Kickboxer. 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. Attributes which take years to learn.

It’s not like now where any Hollywood actor can make themselves look like they can handle themselves by using that close-combat flurry of blows and blocks and grapples that’s been done to death by in every film from Bourne to John Wick to Extraction and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the fight scenes in those movies do look impressive, but a lot of kudos has to go to the people behind the scenes making their actors look good because of the way those scenes are shot and choreographed, not to mention edited. In reality, Cynthia Rothrock could still kick Matt Damon and Keanu Reeves 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. Because it’s part of you and your psyche.

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

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