Monday, August 22, 2016
REVIEW: 'Kickboxer' Returns With A 'VENGEANCE'
Remakes are a dime a dozen in 2016. Oftentimes, a studio will grave-rob a long dorment franchise and forcibly modernize it so that they can sell the name recognition while also trying to appeal to modern audiences. Oftentimes, this means reducing the goofy/dated charm of the original and injecting an unhealthy dose of gritty realism to make it feel more “modern”; results may vary. Somehow, John Stockwell's Kickboxer: Vengeance dodges this pitfall and spin kicks it in its cynical face. It somehow manages to be the 2016 equivalent of the 1991 original. Its level of grittiness is comparable to Kickboxer's early-90s “grittiness” while maintaining the lighter tone that helped make the original so entertaining.
The film opens in unfamiliar territory, with Kurt Sloan (Alain Moussi) seeking to learn Muay Thai from the dangerously stoic Tong Po (Dave Bautista). It hits the ground running when Sloan is forced to fight for his right to join the school. This leads to an exciting brawl between him and former MMA champion George St. Pierre. After winning his right to stay, Sloan sneaks into Tong Po's room under cover of darkness with the intention of putting a bullet in his head; a plan that ultimately ends in brutal defeat. Only then does the film flash back to give us context for his actions. Needless to say, this ain't your daddy's Kickboxer.
In a lot of ways, the story for this remake deviates a lot from its original; but it never sacrifices its sense of escapist fun. Everything from the fight scenes, to the writing, to the camerawork all feel like the natural evolution from the entertaining yet disposable actioners that made Jean Claude Van Damme a star over 20 years ago. Speaking of JCVD, he returns to the franchise (after skipping three sequels) to take the role of wise old master Durand. This is the kind of character-actor role that Van Damme has excelled at in recent years and he brings a combination of wry humor and solid fight-work that helps elevate the film. His training montages (that's right, I said MONTAGES) with Kurt are a great callback to the original, except now with roles reversed.
The cast is rounded out by Gina Carano (Stockwell's In The Blood) as a shady fight promoter and the late Darren Shahlavi as Kurt's doomed brother, Eric Sloan. Both have relatively limited roles but acquit themselves well. Ultimately, this is a launch vehicle for stuntman-turned-actor Alain Moussi. Moussi is a likeable screen presence and is easy to root for, even if his acting is a bit shaky in some scenes. The script really doesn't demand much from him dramatically, but he holds his own as an action star quite well. His fight performance falls somewhere between the incredible acrobatics of Scott Adkins and the form/pose-heavy nature of Van Damme.
The fight scenes themselves, coordinated by Larnell Stovall, are a great showcase for all the talent with clean cinematography showing off the fighters' abilities. Moussi obviously gets the lion's share of the action, which eschews the kind of down to earth realism of recent Hollywood action and embraces a more actiony style with lots of great kicks and falls. Even Van Damme himself gets in a few good fight scenes, including a battle against St. Pierre; easily the best fight-work JC has done in over a decade. Though Bautista doesn't bring as much Muay Thai to the table as one would hope, he brings such a physically imposing presence to the film that he could be slap fighting and still be intimidating. It's also the most ripped we've ever seen him.
Kickboxer: Vengeance feels like the product of a bygone era. Those halcyon days when action movies could just be fun without feeling the need to be taken seriously. It does what few other remakes even attempt to; it respects and captures the spirit of the original and carries on its legacy. It's a gorgeously shot, frequently exciting film that will satisfy the action fans who miss the simple pleasures of early 90s B-action movies.