No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Corey Yuen is a Hong Kong action director, film director, producer and action choreographer known for doing the fight scenes for movies like Lethal Weapon 4, X-Men and plenty of Jet Li’s American films like Romeo Must Die, The One and The Expendables. He’s also directed Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan in Dragons Forever and helped start the careers of Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh.

For his first movie in the United States, he worked with Ng See-yuen as a producer (he was behind the Once Upon a Time In the West series and Drunken Master) and story writer.

Scriptwriter Keith W. Strandberg became interested in martial arts films when he lived in Taiwan. After taking a job in China as a tour director, he would visit Hong Kong and try to get into the movies. After being turned down by nearly everyone, he met with the Seasonal Film Corporation and studio head Ng See-yuen. Ng wanted to make an American film and asked if Strandberg knew anything about screenplays. Despite never even seeing a screenplay before, he said yes.

Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) is a young karate student at his father Tom’s dojo in Sherman Oaks. One night after a training session, the mob visits. They’re shaking down all of the independent dojos in the country and taking them over. Tom refuses and gets his leg broken quick by Ivan Kraschinsky (Jean-Claude Van Damme, making his American debut).

The Stillwell family runs and hides — I mean, relocates — to Seattle. There, he becomes the friend and protector of R.J. Madison and reunites with an old girlfriend, Kelly, whose brother Ian is also a martial arts fan.

After getting beaten up and humiliated by a fat kid named Scott and a karate kid named Dean at Kelly’s birthday party, Jason visits the grave of Bruce Lee and begs him for help. His father has given up on martial arts completely and destroys most of his son’s Bruce Lee memorabilia. What Jason can save, he moves to an abandoned house.

That night, Bruce Lee (Kim Tai-chung, who played Lee’s character Bobby Lo in Snuff Bottle Connection and Game of Death II) appears to Jason and begins transforming him into a real martial artist. He even saves his father from another beating by the mob.

It all ends up with Jason, Tom and R.J. attending the annual full-contact kickboxing tournament with teams from both Seattle and New York. The mob bosses show up in force and make a bet that none of Seattle’s fighters can defeat Ivan. Van Damme becomes the greatest heel in the history of forever here, just annihilating everyone in his path. It’s actually shocking what a great good guy he became in movies after seeing the way he decimates everyone in his path, including Kelly’s brother Ian. He even shrugs off her attempts to hit him with a stool and bumps her off the apron. I lost my mind in sheer glee, seeing JCVD brutalize young kids who just love martial arts.

Jason ends up defeating Ivan and no one thinks, “Perhaps we should call the police on all these mob bosses. Didn’t this Russian guy potentially kill three people, attack a referee and grab the hair of an innocent young girl? Oh well — time to go to the ring and celebrate!”

Supposedly, Van Damme was either method acting or really was a bully, because he kicked Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham — Canadian 7-time World ChampionHall of Famekickboxer — so hard that he knocked him out. There have been several stories that Van Damme had to be continually warned to not make full contact with other actors and stuntmen, but he did so anyway. That’s been disputed by others on the set and could just be sour grapes.

This movie came up in court when two members of the cast appeared as character witnesses in the court case brought against Van Damme by Jackson “Rock” Pinckney, who claimed that the Muscles from Brussels partially blinded him in the left eye and caused him to get discharged from the Army after filming Cyborg. Timothy D. Baker — who played the dad —  claimed that Van Damme was “dangerous to work with and possessed inadequate control of his movements for a martial artist”, whereas Ron Pohnel — who played Ian and really had a long fight sequence with Van Damme claimed that the actor “did in fact possess adequate control and could perform a fight scene without complaint.”

Maybe Timothy was still upset that when Van Damme’s kicks were supposed to hit his upper chest region, he kept repeatedly nailing him in the face, knee and throat.

This is one of the wackier American kung fu movies I’ve seen and one of the few that embraces that wackiness of Hong Kong films in an organic way. I laughed out loud several times and the final fights are so good, you’ll be doing spin kicks all over your living room. Just watch the television set with that kung fu!

3 thoughts on “No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)”

  1. In a sea of Sidekicks and The Little Dragons, this really is the best of the Karate Kid knockoffs–it’s just so damn entertaining. Laughing out loud, as you pointed out, and wanting to go kick ass afterwards, is a sure sign of classic.

    Like

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