Tuesday, 3 November 2009

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Yes Van Damme, we all know how proud
you are of your ability to do the splits

It's No Retreat, No Surrender, No Vember here at Crustacean Hate and I'm going to be reviewing all five movies in the No Retreat, No Surrender series. The first is directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Corey Yuen and it's pretty interesting in that it had a lot of Hong Kong crew behind the cameras but mostly American actors. Don't be fooled by the DVD cover, though. Although Jean-Claude Van Damme is featured prominently on the box art (in fact he's the only thing featured on the box art) he's in the film for all of two scenes, which means he gets about as much screen time as the boom mike. He plays Ivan Kraschinsky, the most celebrated karate champion in Eastern Europe, now hired goon for some New York mafia types.

For some reason these mobsters are traveling around America and buying up lame strip mall Karate dojos. Tom Stillwell (Timothy D. Baker) refuses their offer to buy his crappy dojo and gets a Van Damme induced broken leg for his troubles. His son Jason (Kurt McKinney), a karate student obsessed with Bruce Lee, attempts to intervene but gets his ass handed to him. Following their humiliating defeat, the family pack up their stuff and head to Seattle to start life anew. We know it's Seattle because the movie holds on a shot of the Space Needle for about 30 seconds, then a subtitle pops up reading "Seattle". Just ignore the palm trees that appear in the background for the rest of the movie. It's definitely Seattle.

Jason soon befriends R.J. (J.W. Fails), a black kid who spends most of the movie doing black guy stuff like rapping, break-dancing, carrying a boom box, playing basketball, skateboarding, dressing up like Michael Jackson etc. Both he and Jason run afoul of this fat guy named Scott, who usually has food all over his face but for some reason is also one of the cool kids. He makes fun of Jason for practicing kung fu and idolising Bruce Lee and for some reason he really hates R.J. I don't know if he's supposed to be a racist but when Scott's friends ask him why he hates R.J. so much cryptically replies "I have my reasons".

Jason's attempt to join the local karate dojo also goes spectacularly wrong when Scott (who is also a karate student despite his physique and hatred of martial arts) convinces the instructor Dean that Jason has been trash-talking Seattle karate. After getting his ass kicked up and down the dojo, he heads to the birthday party of the girl he's sweet on (I assume they met at school but neither school nor the girl are mentioned before this) only to discover that Dean has his eye on her too. Jason gets his ass kicked yet again and heads home in shame, his fancy party duds in tatters, but not before stopping by Bruce Lee's grave and asking for some spiritual guidance.

His dad isn't happy about all this fighting. In fact, all it took was a broken leg to turn his dad from a lethal fighting machine into a sissy-pants pacifist. The two of them get into a hilarious fight that has Jason throwing himself onto his bed in a teary-eyed tantrum and his dad wrecking his makeshift gym, even tearing down his poster of Bruce Lee! R.J. helps him set up a new gym in an abandoned house and this is where things get weird: Jason's prayers are answered when the ghost of Bruce Lee (Tai Chung Kim) appears and offers to train him using the combined powers of cheesy rock music and the montage! Even his dad has to admit that fighting is pretty awesome after Jason saves his ass from some rednecks in a parking lot.

Jason also learns not to seek revenge, so in the end the bullies aren't really the bad guys of the film. In fact he teams up with them against the mobsters that hurt his dad. The epic final battle, despite being a heavily-advertised exhibition match featuring international karate champs, is held in a crappy high school gym with fold-out chairs. Jean-Claude Van Damme wipes the floor with all the Seattle karate champs and starts beating up the referee, so Jason has to leap into the ring and save the day. Things look bad for Jason at first, but R.J. inspires him by calling out the name of the movie and Jason defeats him by employing his secret technique: Bruce Lee's back-flip kick from Enter the Dragon.

No Retreat, No Surrender a pretty amazing in the way it manages to encapsulate everything that's terrible about these kinds of films. Huge hair, terrible fashion, cheesy rock music and a 2:1 ratio of training montages to fight scenes. It shares a lot in common with Karate Kid, which pretty much set the template, but unlike that film it actually has some entertaining fights. Corey Yuen is a skilled fight choreographer and Van Damme stands out in particular. It's incompetent in nearly every other way though, riddled with bizarre continuity errors and editing mistakes. These days a film as badly made as No Retreat, No Surrender would be dumped direct-to-DVD but back then you could buy your ticket and experience the disappointment with dozens of other moviegoers at your local multiplex. Truly the 1980s were a magical time.

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