Thursday, 26 November 2009

No Retreat, No Surrender 4: The King of the Kickboxers (1990)

Let's see your angry faces! Grrrr!

Although it sports the same creative team and the same lead actor, The King of the Kickboxers was intended to be a spinoff rather than part of the No Retreat, No Surrender franchise. It might as well have been part of the series, it's not like it has any continuing story, so they decided to distribute it as No Retreat, No Surrender 4 anyway. I guess they figured that somebody, somewhere must be thinking "Sure, I loved the first three No Retreat, No Surrender films but I really don't think they said everything that needed to be said about refraining from retreating and/or surrendering."

The fourth film starts with a place familiar to No Retreat, No Surrender fans (or NoRNSies as we like to be called): Thailand. Sean Donahue and his spotty kid brother Jake are heading home after winning the national Thai kickboxing championship when a bunch of armed Thai leap out of the bushes and hold them at gunpoint. The leader of these armed men is Khan, played by 7-time world karate champion Billy Blanks, who says "An American can never be champion." and blows up their tuk-tuk. I believe Blanks is supposed to be Thai, which is pretty hilarious because he's an enormous 6-foot black guy with an American accent. He then starts whipping Sean's ass so thoroughly you have to wonder why Khan wasn't fighting in the champsionship if they wanted a Thai to win so bad. Anyway, Khan flat-out murders Sean with a succession of brutal kicks and gives Jake a few kicks in the skull for good measure.

Ten years later Jake Donahue has become an undercover cop played by Loren Avedon. I thought after Jessie Roby, tough guy for hire, we'd seen the last of Avedon's attempts at undercover work, but here we get another peek as Donahue goes undercover as a drug dealer, complete with huge shades, leathers and what I assume is a gravelly biker voice. Donahue is a Tough Cop Who Plays by his Own Rules (tm) so he gives his backup the wrong address and flat out tells the bad guys he's a cop just so he's got an excuse to whip some ass. This leads to an Angry Chief Moment (tm) where Jake is ordered to go to Thailand and investigate some illegal black market tapes. No, not those kind of illegal tapes.

Jake refuses to go back to Thailand at first but later that everning he decides to take a look at the tapes anyway. At first they only seem to show clips of No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers (Jake remarks "Looks like a Bruce Lee movie without Bruce", cue wah-wah trumpet) so I was hoping the film would be turn into a Charlie-Kaufman-esque meta-comedy about Avedon tracking down the makers of the No Retreat, No Surrender franchise. However, it seems that the tapes also show people getting beaten and murdered IRL by his old nemesis Khan, who has used the intervening ten years to accessorise his crew cut with a couple of braided rat-tails. Yes, it seems that before he was hawking Tae Bo tapes to the masses, Billy Blanks was making kickboxing snuff films. Unfortunately Jake doesn't shout "Khaaaaan!" but he does have a flashback to his brother's murder followed by a ridonkulous anguished scream, which is almost as good.

Upon arriving in Thailand, Jake has his big travelogue moment, posing in front of various Bangkok landmarks in a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt. He then meets up with his local contact and tells him that he's going to conduct the investigation his way, which involves heading to Bangkok Kickboxing Academy in a hilarious denim vest, dissing the fighting skills of everyone there, whipping the asses of a few of the students, insulting everybody and leaving. It's basically the same as America's foreign policy for the last few decades, but unlike America's foreign policy it yields some positive results and his impressive fighting chops attract the attention of the snuff film producers.

While this is going on we get to see Khan making one his famous martial arts snuff films. They are produced by a sleazy fat guy who is constantly surrounded by some Thai babes and they are directed by a goofball in a flowery shirt. They lure in a martial arts champion with the promise of a starring role in an action vehicle, but by the time he figures things out (the complete lack of fight choreography was a major clue) Khan leaps onto the set and beats him to death. As a reward Khan gets his pick of a bunch of blonde girls (I'd say foxy babes, but some of them... aren't). He picks the most attractive one, Molly (Sherrie Rose), but she manages to escape onto the mean streets of Patpong where Jake saves her from Khan's goons.

After charming the pants off her, Jake is stalked by one of the academy's top students who, when Jake reveals his true motives for being in Bangkok, takes him to see Prang, the only man who has come close to defeating Khan in the ring. Prang (played by the awesome Keith Cooke) appears to be nothing more than a reclusive alcoholic, but when some of Khan's men show up he snaps out of his drunken stupor and starts kicking ass. This is actually a pretty awesome sequence; Cooke's kicking skills are, as always, top notch. After one of those master/student "Teach me!" "No!" "Teach me!" "No!" "Teach me!" "Okay." arguments, it's time for a training montage! Oh yes, I do love a good training montage, especially one involving weights suspended from intricate pulley systems. Of course, true martial arts training isn't just about honing the body, it's also about honing the mind. Prang tests Jake with koan riddles and drops pearls of wisdom like "There is no pain" and "Success comes through pain". Well, which is it, smartass?

When Jake hops in a canoe and paddles to the remote shooting location, I was impressed. For a snuff film they have some pretty good production values. There are dozens of extras in costumes and facepaint and a massive bamboo cage reminiscent of the Thunderdome. They've got decent lighting, a full camera crew... a real professional set-up. Jake feigns ignorance and dons a traditional Thai dancing costume, beating up on a few extras before Khan steps into the ring holding Molly in one hand and Prang's corpse in the other. Molly is tossed into a net and suspended from the top of the cage while Jake dons his best anguished/constipated face and throws a burnt up photograph of his brother at Khan. Oh it's on, now.

The fighting was choreographed by Corey Yuen so the final battle is really good. There are few moments where it looks like Avedon is a little out of his depth and there are some obvious stunt doubles, but it's a fun, Hong Kong style battle utilising a few different weapons and fighting styles. It also incorporates another of my favourite kung fu cliches: the training montage flashback, where Jake uses his newly acquired skills to defend against Khan's deadly triple flying kick attack. Khan uses his final breath to try and kill Molly, who is so scared she can't decide whether the hero's name is Jake or Jack, before Jake saves her and puts Khan down for good. The army bust in (led by his Shouty Chief) but from the looks of things the snuff director and the producer manage to escape. Jake may have completely botched his mission, but at least he avenged his brother's death and won the affection of a hot blonde babe, and isn't that what's really important?

I'm not sure whether this one is better than the third film in the series, but it was pretty awesome. The rubbish script is by Keith W. Strandberg, who wrote the script for every film in the series. It features a lot of grimacing, shouting and many endlessly quotable lines thanks mainly to the bizarre stylised acting of all involved, particularly Avedon, who makes lines like "Ive been there... for ten years WAAAH!!" into comedy gold. As such it's impossible to take seriously despite the grim subject matter. Never has Billy Blanks repeatedly kicking a child in the head been so funny. The only thing that's important in a film like this are the fights, which are frequent and well choreographed. It's a worthy non-entry in this non-series.

No comments: