Every time I do an in-depth film week, there comes a moment when I go from “most of these movies aren’t very good” and “they just have the same tropes over and over again” to “I love this movie!” It’s digital Stockholm Syndrome and it happens almost every time. It happened at some point during Chained Heat during my Linda Blair week. And now, at some point during Kickboxer, I fell in absolute head over heels love with Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.
This reminds me of a moment in my childhood. It was probably 1979 and local TV independent station WPTT-22 was advertising the heck out of kickboxing, proclaiming it as the most violent new sport around. I became nearly manic with intensity, needing to see this kickboxing for myself and Saturday night at 10 PM, when it would air, felt like months, not days, away. Every single TV and radio commerical stoked the flames of my nine-year-old demand to see these fights. The reality? Just white dudes kicking one another slowly in matches that were no more intense than an average boxing battle. The fight that was inside my head? Well, that would be this movie.
This is but the first of seven Kickboxer films, but it’s a doozy. The good guys are as good as it gets, while the bad guys are the absolute worst people to ever walk the face of the Earth.
Kurt Sloane (Van Damme) is the younger brother of Eric Sloane, the United States kickboxing world champion. Eric is played by Dennis Alexio, who only appeared in two other acting jobs: the TV series Super Force and as Toshi Lum in Picasso Trigger.
His life story should be a movie, as he started his professional kickboxing career by winning seventeen consecutive fights with only a single fight lasting more than one round. He then battled Don “The Dragon” Wilson to a loss for the WKA World Super Light Heavyweight title on NBC before continuing to move up in weight divisions and even boxing professionally for a year.
After slowing down his career — if you can call it that, he won eight different titles — by fighting lower level K-1 fighters and gaining a rep for avoiding top level fighters, Alexio retired after winning the WAKO Pro World Heavyweight Full Contact Championship. But his crazy life wasn’t over yet.
In 2003, he was first convicted of bank fraud. Charges like that would come back to haunt him, including failing to pay past child support. A decade later, Alexio and his wife were charged with thirty-six counts, such as filing false tax claims, wire fraud and money laundering, as well as charges of sending false documents with the goal of obtaining gold bars and coins worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars. He was finally convicted of twenty-eight of those counts and now resides at FCI Safford, a low-security federal prison in Arizona.
Let’s get back to Kickboxer.
After yet another successful title win, Eric decides to go to Thailand and build on his legend. After all, that’s where the sport was born. Eric doesn’t even train, thinking that he can defeat anyone. But his brother discovers that his opponent, Tong Po (Van Damme’s childhood friend Michel Qissi, who is absolutely the greatest villain of all time) is a maniac. The dude kicks concrete pillars with his bare legs and has a stare that confirms that he is a murderer.
Kurt begs his brother not to fight, but Eric laughs it off. Po murks him round after round, beating him into the ground with ease as the crowd basically laughs at the two gaijin infiltrating their world. Even after Kurt throws in the towel, Tong Po kicks it out of the ring and elbows Eric in the back, turning him into a quadriplegic before tearing his title belt to shreds. And get this — there are two more matches to go. This wasn’t even the main event!
Kurt is now stuck as a stranger in a strange land, with a brother near death, unable to speak the language. Winston Taylor, a retired US Army special forces member, helps them get to the hospital where they learn that Eric will never walk, much less kickbox, again.
Kurt vows to get revenge and is introduced to Xian Chow, a trainer of Muay Thai. Basically, this training involves him torturing our hero, so if you’d like to see a muscular young boy from Brussels get trussed up by an older Asian daddy that wants to teach him the ropes, you can watch this and still feel pretty manly about it. I kid — although that sequence at the beginning where the shirtless brothers cavort about Thailand seems a little romantic.
Somehow during all this Kurt falls from Xian’s niece Mylee and helps her battle the crime lord Freddy Li. Xian then convinces Freddy to book a match between Tong Po and Kurt in the ancient tradition. That tradition? Hemp ropes all over the fists, coated in resin and dipped in broken glass while the ring has metal chains instead of ropes and fire is everywhere. This is the exact moment I lost my mind and began screaming at the screen as if this were a real fight that I was watching live and no longer a multipack DVD that I bought for $4.
Freddy Li arranges to have the fight fixed and gets $1 million from syndicate bosses to bet on the outcome. To stack the odds, Eric is kidnapped so that Kurt will do the job. Think that’s bad? Tong Po also assaults Mylee. Remember how I said these guys were the worst humans in almost any movie not starring David Hess?
Xian tells Kurt to go the distance in the fight before losing, which gives him and Taylor time to save Eric, who appears just in time to chant “Nuk Soo Kow,” or white warrior, along with the fickle crowd who turns on Tong Po. Kurt goes buck wild and easily bests the maniac who started the match out by eating broken glass and bloodying up his own tongue.
While Tong Po is listed as playing himself, please know that that is really Michael Qissi. This isn’t a Zeus/Tiny Lister deal. His voice, however, was dubbed by Jim Cummings, who is also the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Darkwing Duck. However, don’t celebrate just yet, as the actor was accused earlier this year of animal abuse, drug addiction and physical, mental and sexual abuse by his ex-wife. After knowing that, it adds some real cringe to the line that Tong Po yells during the fight: “You bleed like Mylee! Mylee… good fuck!”
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