Film Review: ‘Kickboxer: Vengeance’

The Muscles From Brussels now mentors a young fighter in this remake of the 1989 action fave.

David Baustista, Gina Carano, Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, Sara Malakul Lane, Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, Jean-Claude Van Damme, T.J. Storm, Sam Medina, Hawn Tran, Matthew Ziff. (English, Thai dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3082898/

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'Kickboxer: Vengeance'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Aug. 8, 2016. (In Fantasia Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: An RLJ Entertainment release of a Radar Pictures, Acme Rocket Fuel production, in association with Headmon Productions, The Exchange. Producers: Dimitri Logothetis, Rob Hickman, Allen Knudson, Samuel Cory Timpson, Nicholas Celozzi, Ted Field. Executive producers: Larry Nealy, Steven Michael Swadling, Peter Meyer, Lee Williams, Benjamin Friedberg, Mike Weber, Lisette Ross, Thomas Van Dell, Rick Morse, Brian O’Shea, Nat McCormick, Jeff Bowler, David Bautista, Jonathan Meisner, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Alastair Burlingham, Anders Erden, Tim Smith, Ken Nutley, Stephen Cagnazzi, Scott Rudmann, Benjamin Friedberg, Jim Finkl, Alexander Tabrizi.

Crew: Director: John Stockwell. Screenplay: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath. Camera (color, widescreeen, HD): Mateo Londono. Editors: Chris A. Peterson, Carsten Kurpanek.

With: David Baustista, Gina Carano, Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, Sara Malakul Lane, Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, Jean-Claude Van Damme, T.J. Storm, Sam Medina, Hawn Tran, Matthew Ziff. (English, Thai dialogue)

More Film

  • Herself

    Amazon Studios Buys Phyllida Lloyd's 'Herself' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has nabbed North American rights to Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” an Irish drama about a woman who builds her dream house after escaping an abusive marriage, Variety has learned.  The streaming service is planning a theatrical release for later this year. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it enjoyed a warm [...]

  • Blast Beat

    'Blast Beat': Film Review

    Back home in Bogota, teen brothers Carly and Mateo — played by siblings (and Disney Channel veterans) Mateo and Moisés Arias — are metal-blasting, skateboard-riding punks, and reluctant partners in crime. Carly, the sensible one, can’t prevent Mateo from dynamiting a dollhouse. But he’ll swoop in, hair flapping like a vampire’s cape, to rescue his [...]

  • Rebecca Hall appears in The Night

    Rebecca Hall's 'The Night House' Sells to Searchlight Out of Sundance

    Searchlight Pictures is closing in on the worldwide distribution rights to “The Night House,” a supernatural thriller that premiered to strong reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, insiders close to the deal said. Directed by David Bruckner and starring Rebecca Hall, the deal is reportedly valued at roughly $12 million. It marks the first [...]

  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in

    'Downhill': Film Review

    Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a prosperous American couple who’ve taken their two sons on a ski vacation to the Alps. Are they having fun yet? That’s a question that hovers over the movie, as the family members hit the slopes and make pilgrimages to the alpine-lodge restaurant, or retire to their [...]

  • Joe Keery appears in Spree by

    'Spree': Film Review

    It didn’t seem like there was a large portion of the movie-going population who felt that Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was too subtle, in either its commentary on the modern era of those who are involuntarily celibate, or its homage-like appropriation of classic Martin Scorsese movies. But maybe writer-director-producer Eugene Kotlyarenko has other information, since that’s [...]

  • Dream Horse Review

    'Dream Horse': Film Review

    Louise Osmond’s 2015 Sundance audience winner “Dark Horse” was one of those documentaries that played like a crowdpleasing fiction, its real-life tale of underdog triumph had such a conventionally satisfying narrative arc. And indeed, the new “Dream Horse” proves that same material is indeed ready-made for dramatization. Euros Lyn’s feature springs few true surprises within [...]

  • Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein appear

    'The Nowhere Inn': Film Review

    Bill Benz’s high-concept rock mockumentary opens with a white limo speeding through the desert. The driver (Ezra Buzzington) has never heard of his passenger, the cult sensation Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent. “I’m not for everybody,” she shrugs. The driver is unsatisfied. “Don’t worry,” he glowers. “We’ll find out who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content