It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
The cast of Kickboxer: Vengeance should send fight film fans into a frenzy. Consider Jean-Claude Van Damme, Darren Shahlavi, Dave Bautista, Gina Carano, Georges St-Pierre, and Cain Velasquez under one roof. Throw stuntman Alain Moussi in the mix and the 2016 reboot of the 1989 original looks damn good on paper.
Unfortunately, the over-plotted Kickboxer: Vengeance doesn’t live up to its billing. That’s not to say there isn’t some entertaining material in John Stockwell’s world, but it’s hard to shake the sense that this martial arts movie is rife with missed opportunities.
The story unfolds with some flashbacking, but the basic thrust finds Kurt Sloane (Moussi) busting into the complex of martial arts master Tong Po (Bautista). Kurt wants to kill the tattooed Tong Po, who is responsible for the death of his brother (Shahlavi).
Kurt’s initial plan fails and he finds himself under the tutelage of Master Durand (Van Damme) so that he can tackle Tong Po in the ring. He trains hard and kicks some coconuts, but the Thai police get involved. This leads Kurt to a romantic relationship with Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) and a crackdown on a gambling ring.
Moussi is at the centre of the action and is a capable martial artist, but he lacks charm and it’s hard to care about his plight. He does look good with his shirt off, which is fitting because he appears with his shirt off a lot. Ditto for the rest of the cast, except for Carano.
Really, so much of Kickboxer: Vengeance is based on topless man candy that it starts to rain directly on Moussi’s Kurt when he steps outside to fight Van Damme’s character. It streams on him like he’s just entered a shower in a soap commercial and is about to break into song.
For all the beef on the screen, the sheer bulk of the characters doesn’t make the fights better. It is hard to traffic in exhilarating martial arts when there are a bunch of greased-up 300-pounders galumphing around, so the confrontations are of the heavyweight variety until someone starts flipping or spin-kicking and Mateo Londono’s lens avoids the impact.
If Moussi and St-Pierre are brawny combatants, Bautista is a goddamn giant with hair plugs. He barely speaks, except when he’s threatening his opponent, and spends most of his time meditating or implying that he can bed many women at once. The former professional wrestler cuts an impressive visage, but his resonance as a villain leaves a lot to be desired.
Kickboxer: Vengeance is at its best when it plays things lean and silly, like when attackers leap from elephants (!!!) to get at Kurt and Liu or when Van Damme takes off his hat to kick the shit out of someone in a neglected bar.
And make no mistake, it is a delight to see Van Damme. He wears sunglasses the whole time because why the hell not. He follows the “less is more” technique and seems keen on picking his spots. And he’s kind of confidently apathetic, even when it seems like Kurt might be about to die at the hands of a sword-wielding satchel of human leather.
It is a shame that Carano isn’t in on the action more. And it is a shame that more wasn’t made of St-Pierre’s affection for booze, as there’s a drunken boxing style in there somewhere that could’ve worked. But Kickboxer: Vengeance isn’t about balance or anything so trivial. It’s about beef. And rain, apparently.