Film Review: Kickboxer (1989)

Also known as: Karate Tiger 3 – Der Kickboxer (Germany)
Release Date: April 20th, 1989 (West Germany)
Directed by: Mark DiSalle, David Worth
Written by: Glenn A. Bruce, Mark DiSalle, Jean-Claude Van Damme
Music by: Paul Hertzog, Stan Bush
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Alexio, Dennis Chan, Michel Qissi

Kings Road Entertainment, Cannon Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

“[to Kurt during final fight] You bleed like Mylee. Mylee… good fuck!” – Tong Po

Way back in 1989, it was Kickboxer that turned me into a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan. I loved Bloodsport too but that’s just about all I had to go on. This film proved that Van Damme wasn’t a one-off success and had something that gave him an edge over the other martial arts action stars at the time.

Kickboxer follows two brothers. One is an American kickboxing champion, the other is essentially his water boy. When the champion gets paralyzed in a fight with the sadistic and evil Thai champion, Tong Po, the younger brother, Kurt, swears revenge. Kurt seeks out a Muay Thai master to teach him the art. In what seems like two weeks, he is suddenly a master himself and he crushes some chump in the local arena and calls out Tong Po.

What I remembered most about this film from my youth was that Tong Po was legitimately a scary ass MFer. I remember the rumor that floated around with middle school aged males that Tong Po was real. It didn’t matter that an actor was listed as playing him, every eleven to thirteen year-old boy was convinced that this guy existed as he did on screen, that’s how convincing he was.

Another thing that I remembered were the sweet training montages. It feels like half of this movie is training montages accented by Stan Bush songs. When I was young, like every boy, I wanted to be as badass as Van Damme. It was never about seeing what you could do in a real fight because let’s face it, no one wants to actually get kicked in the face, it was about whether or not you could train your body to emulate what Van Damme did in his training montages. Because if you could do a split or drop coconuts on your abs or kick up straight in the air at 180 degrees without tearing your groin or falling over, you were pretty sure you could conquer some 8th grade bully.

I know I am going on some tangents here but I think it is important to understand the context of what early Van Damme films were to a culture of prepubescent boys that rented these movies weekly circa 1990 or so.

Kickboxer is one of the absolute best things Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever done. It isn’t an acting clinic by any means but its masculine and goofy spirit is something special. It hasn’t particularly aged well but it is still a really fun film to revisit and it is better than most films like it. Hell, I’d take any Van Damme picture over a Steven Seagal movie. Seagal is the guy our out of shape dads watched and lived vicariously through. Van Damme was the guy we lived through because he had an amazing physique and could do some impressive, athletic shit. We didn’t care that he was into ballet before fighting. It kind of made him even more badass, actually.

This, along with Bloodsport, spoke to a generation of boys needing an icon. Sure, we had Schwarzenegger and Stallone but those guys couldn’t do martial arts for shit and Van Damme came on the scene when martial arts films were dominating the action genre, at least at video stores. The early to mid-’80s gave us stellar ninja movies and after that we got Van Damme, who was like a ninja that finally took his mask off and said, “Let’s do this!” before kicking some douchebag in the teeth.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other early Van Damme films: BloodsportLionheartDouble Impact, etc.

5 thoughts on “Film Review: Kickboxer (1989)

    • That was my favorite waaay back in the day too. It was always called Lionheart when I rented it. I just loved that it felt like an actual Street Fighter movie before Van Damme gave us an actual and much worse Street Fighter movie.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Very true. I love the music in AWOL (Lionheart). It’s very evocative to me. Jean Claude being a foreigner in the USA works – he’s straight off the ship and fighting to make his name. Harrison Page is excellent as the sidekick. I never get bored of it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I could talk AWOL with you all day. I love the way he’s fighting for his brother, and then takes on the responsibility of looking after the kid. It’s such a sweet message for a b-level action movie. Quite rare in that sense, which maybe explains why it’s stuck with audiences all these years.

        Liked by 1 person

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