After a summer notable for many expensive action-movie disappointments in which even concepts traditionally associated with hands-on stuntwork (i.e. “The Legend of Tarzan”) were overwhelmed by CGI, there’s something refreshing about the admittedly dopey but good-natured, straightforward mano a mano of “Kickboxer: Vengeance.” This de facto remake of the 1989 martial arts favorite, with Jean-Claude Van Damme returning a quarter century later (albeit this time as the hero’s wise elder trainer), improves on the boilerplate original without really changing its essentials.
This revamp (which ignores several interim direct-to-video sequels Van Damme did not participate in) is a bit shorter, a tad more stylish, and utilizes the same clichés a little less ponderously. Brainiacs need not apply to this otherwise unreconstructed testosterone-a-thon, but of its type, “Vengeance” is well-crafted good fun — and good proof that you don’t need more than two hours or $100 million to give ticket buyers their money’s worth in popcorn thrills.
A high-water mark for its undistinguished co-directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth, the original film was only JCVD’s third starring vehicle (following some bit parts and a couple fighting villain roles), and despite damning reviews was a considerable box-office success. Viewed today, it’s a slick if generic B-plus-grade endeavor whose script and presentation attain an almost “MacGruber”-esque perfection of 1980s tuff-guy cinema stereotypes. Raising it all a notch was the undeniable athletic appeal of “the Muscles from Brussels,” a handsome and personable natural screen presence, if not one blessed with great acting range.
Representing actor turned director John Stockwell’s most prominent endeavor since the vacation-spot mellers “Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue,” and “Turistas” over a decade ago, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” opens with some gorgeous aerial shots of rural Thailand that herald its technical superiority to the competent but uninspired original. (That extends to the dexterity with which a film largely shot around New Orleans passes for being almost entirely set in Southeast Asia.) The basic narrative is unchanged, although Dimitri Logothetis and Jim McGrath’s script juggles things chronologically so the original’s early progress is framed as a flashback sprung after an opening sequence.
Otherwise, it’s still the same revenge-driven tale: After his “global karate champion” older brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi) foolishly accepts a lucrative offer from shady ex-girlfriend Marcia (Gina Carano) to fight a “no rules” bout in Bangkok, Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) witnesses his sibling killed at the hands of hulking Muay Thai fighter Tong Po (Dave Batista). This is apparently a normal outcome for such illegal underground matches, whose high-stakes gambling spectators expect death or at least grievous bodily harm for their cash. Local police are strangely indifferent to Kurt’s insistence on an investigation; indeed, they try deporting him when he gets too pushy.
Attempting to take justice into his own hands, he infiltrates Po’s countryside lair, posing as yet another foreign fighter eager to be trained by the master. But he’s swiftly found out and saved by Liu (Sara Malakul Lane), a lone non-corrupt Thai Royal Police detective. Valuing him as the only eye witness willing to come forward about his brother’s death, let alone the whole illegal-death-match syndicate, she deposits him for safekeeping with the surly, reluctant Master Durand (Van Damme). Eric soon realizes only the latter can train him sufficiently to challenge Po.
At heart, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” is nothing more sophisticated than one long training montage bookended by big fights, with a few additional action sequences (including one involving elephants and ninjas) thrown in along the way. But the packaging is deft enough to at least partially camouflage that simplicity, with director and screenplay thankfully leaving little room for the kind of on-the-nose dialogue and other factors that made the original’s formulaic nature all too plain. With the film’s support cast inevitably dominated by fighters in various disciplines drawn from the UFC and other arenas, there’s more than enough emphasis on one-on-one combat here to satisfy those who rate such entertainments solely in terms of that content. (Which is also the reason the ’89 “Kickboxer” remains well-loved, despite its shortcomings.)
Needless to say, character complexity and acting finesse are not in high demand here, though everyone acquits themselves well enough, one minor but irritating exception being Sam Medina as a ring MC with the manner of an overbearing carny barker. The handsome Moussi, who’s primarily worked as a stuntman before, makes an affable protagonist with a convenient vague resemblance to his name co-star (though he’s considerably taller).
JCVD himself is allowed to be a little too cool for school, as he rarely doffs shades or pork pie hat — though when he does finally shrug off his shirt, there’s no question who would win the “Lowest Body Fat Ratio” prize amongst 55-year-olds worldwide. Perhaps already-in-production sequel “Kickboxer: Retaliation” (which adds Christopher Lambert and Mike Tyson to the mix) will let him show a little more humor, though there’s a nice in-joke bit where Master Durand is markedly unimpressed by Moussi demonstrating his own one-time specialty, the splits.
Otherwise, “Vengeance” shows a reasonable light touch, though it’s disappointing when a bar scene teases yet does not turn into a reprise of the ’89 edition’s most fondly remembered scene, in which a drunken Van Damme demonstrated his booty-centric “disco dancing” skills. All the more clever, then, that Stockwell springs a closing-credits surprise that is sure to send audiences out smiling.