There had been rumours of a remake of 1989’s Kickboxer – an early success for Jean-Claude Van Damme that itself spawned 4 sequels in the early nineties – for some time now. Upon its eventual release now in 2016, the producers are apparently so sure about their reboot of the series that a second film, titled Kickboxer: Retaliation, has already been filmed and is slated for release within the year. But is such confidence in their new series warranted?
Like the original, a lot of Kickboxer: Vengeance takes place in Thailand, it begins as Kurt Sloane (the Van Damme role in the original, now played by Canadian stuntman Alain Moussi) arrives there wanting to train under a martial arts master named Tong Po (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista). Sloane has an ulterior motive for wanting to take on the intimidating Tong Po however; it’s soon revealed (via flashback) that Tong Po had previously killed Kurt’s brother Eric – himself a martial arts champion – in an underground fight.
Despite this appearing to be a straight reboot of the Kickboxer series, it’s fun to see that Van Damme himself has still deemed it worthy of his participation. Here he plays a new character – a trainer named Durand who lives in rural Thailand and had previously trained Eric, it’s not just a cameo too, he plays a key supporting role throughout. He reluctantly agrees to train Kurt as well, who wants to take on Tong Po in a fight, a feat which considering what we’ve seen on Tong Po, seems dangerously naïve. This does allow us to enjoy an entertaining training montage in which Van Damme puts him through all manner of challenges in the rural setting.
I’m not going to pretend that Van Damme’s acting was particularly good back in the day, but it’s much better now, with him bringing a world-weariness to many of his roles that proves to be quite fitting here. Even in his earliest roles though, he at least still had a memorable novelty quality to him. The same unfortunately cannot be said for Alain Moussi. He has the look of countless blandly handsome young leading men that continue to populate Hollywood and proves to be just as completely charisma-free as many of them too. He lacks anything of note to suggest he could be on the way to becoming a new action star. He’s fine in his fight scenes, which goes some way to compensate, but it’s not enough.
There are more complications to the story than a simple martial arts revenge plot – the police are involved, in an investigation headed up by Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) that wants to take down the underground fighting rings – whose spectators and organisers seeming have no problems with competitors killing one another in the ring. She’s unfortunately also positioned as a thoroughly unconvincing love interest for Kurt, and the police related scenes just tend to distract from the primary plot. Gina Carano also appears in a small role adding absolutely nothing of note.
The film gets to the big showdown fight surprisingly quickly, at around the hour mark, clearly intending to make it the centrepiece of the film. The sequence is not all that impressive at first, but soon gets a bit more interesting, providing a convincing underdog dynamic between the two fighters without ever feeling like it’s overindulgent. The huge Bautista doesn’t appear to move quite as fast as the fight would have you believe at times but his intimidating physical presence always makes him an imposing threat.
I don’t know how much credit director John Stockwell should actually receive for this movie, as apparently producer Dimitri Logothesis directed the shoot in Thailand which makes up a large quantity of the film, but it’s much better than Countdown, Stockwell’s other DTV action movie this year. I would say that Kickboxer: Vengeance successfully harkens back to the era of movies its remaking – so you probably already know if you’re going to enjoy it. It fails to make a convincing case for Moussi as a new action star, but just about delivers on its premise.