Release Date: September 8th, 1989 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mark DiSalle, David Worth Actors: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio, Dennis Chan, Tong Po, Haskell Anderson, Rochelle Ashana, Ka Ting Lee, Richard Foo
t the ISKA Heavyweight Championship, favorite kickboxer Eric “The Eliminator” Sloane (Dennis Alexio) wins yet another match, retaining his title as the world’s best. And he has his kid brother Kurt (Jean Claude Van Damme) in his corner, in lieu of a professional trainer. When a reporter inquires about the state of the sport in Thailand, where kickboxing was invented, Eric immediately plans a trip, intent on proving his skills to anyone who might question them.
Once in the Asian kingdom, the brothers start practicing for a duel in the Bangkok Stadium, where reigning champ “Tiger” Tong Po (as himself) trains harder than anyone else. Kickboxing in Thailand isn’t the same as in the U.S.; the fighters appear as otherworldly monsters, capable of giving and taking far more punishment than other humans. But Eric’s not concerned; it’s just another chance for him to prove he’s the best. A few punches into the first round, however, confirms that American kickboxing must be like riding a tricycle compared to Thailand’s bicycles. They’re practically incomparable, particularly in the rules – or the lack thereof. When Po soundly defeats Eric, thanks to some sketchy elbow maneuvers, the bruised and bloodied loser is literally thrown out onto the streets in a stretcher. Luckily, retired Army Special Forces bystander Taylor (Haskell Anderson) offers the Sloanes a ride to the nearest hospital. Unluckily, Eric sustained severe spinal cord damage during the bout, leaving him paralyzed and confined to the hospital for at least three months.
“He’s going to pay for this!” Thanks to some simplistic corruption, Po is untouchable on the streets, which means that, conveniently, Kurt’s only hope for revenge is inside the ring. With a few ’80s soft rock montages, the amateur is inspired to learn Muay Thai from an elderly master (Dennis Chan as Xian). But before that, time is allotted for some booze at a strip club, as if to stuff the script with uninspired, generic action movie staples. Taylor reminisces about his Vietnam buddies; Xian cracks jokes about Kurt’s arrogance and sends him on menial chores; and phrases like “Revenge is a dangerous motive” and “Tong Po very mean man” are uttered with stupefying regularity. Strangely, the majority of the film is comprised of montages – from sparring, to ruminating, to playing with children. Plus, there’s even a love interest tossed into the mix (Rochelle Ashana as Mylee).
While the picture feels pieced together from the flimsy plots of every Bruce Lee movie (and “The Karate Kid,” notably with the laughable instruction of “Kick the tree”), the story isn’t really intended to win over critics. It’s the fight scenes, choreographed and directed by Van Damme himself, that are designed to demonstrate not only engaging kickboxing contests but also the speed and physique of the combatants. Sadly, most of the training sequences are unable to show much beyond Van Damme’s muscles – particularly since there’s a comical preoccupation with birds observing the proceedings, lighthearted humiliation, and Van Damme doing the splits. Camera tricks obscure actual martial arts maneuvers, while flat complementary humor fills in the gaps, as if to avoid sincere melees or the comic stunts of someone like Jackie Chan.
All of this leads to a series of trials in the ring, until Kurt can finally have his showdown with Po. But the physical battles are spread thin, in favor of extra drama to make the villains seem more villainous (they rape Kurt’s girlfriend, kidnap his brother, and even stab his dog!), along with so many redundant training montages that “Kickboxer” crawls along as if a three-hour epic. At least the final moments of the match are so poorly edited and ludicrous in structure that they contribute to unintentionally laugh-out-loud hilarity.
– Mike Massie