The original Kickboxer is one of the two movies who put Jean-Claude Van Damme on the road to stardom (the other one being Bloodsport). The idea of a remake directed by John Stockwell (actor, a long time ago, in John Carpenter’s Christine and later turned B-movie director with on location adventure thrillers such as Blue Crush, Into the Blue, Turistas or the more recent In the Blood) could have at least sounded interesting, if only for the efficiency of Stockwell’s direction and the exotic Thailand locations. Furthermore, with Van Damme returning, this time as Kurt’s master, Kickboxer: Vengeance had the potential to be a good surprise. What a disappointment…
The remake uses more or less the premise of the original movie, with some variable modifications; the movie still revolves around Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi, stuntman in big studio movie such as X-Men: Days of Future Past or Suicide Squad), little brother of Eric Sloane (Darren Shahlavi, Ip Man 2), world martial arts champion who is invited to Thailand to face the local legend, Tong Po (Dave Bautista, Spectre). Except that this time, Eric doesn’t end up in a wheelchair but is killed on the ring by Tong Po. Obviously, Kurt is angry and seeks revenge. After a failed assassination attempt he decides to ask help from his brother’s master, Durand (Van Damme).
As all recent remakes, Kickboxer: Vengeance had to broaden its story to bring it up to date for current audiences and that’s probably its biggest mistake! Whereas the original movie used a very basic, but effective screenplay, basis to display Van Damme’s physical prowess and the beauty of Thailand, the remake decides to tell a “true story” and in doing so stumbles right from the first sequence. As a result, the “scenario” makes no sense at all, delivering information in an uncontrolled manner and introducing characters which are not even able to exist as mere archetypes, and by the end of the movie, one still wonders what the team involved in this project was actually trying to say. If bringing more depth into the movie was not a bad idea in itself, the final product severely struggles to make the elements cohabit in a coherent manner. Between a police investigation that leads nowhere, a romance that is so clumsily introduced that one wonders if the editor has not made a mistake in arranging the sequences, the disappointment is huge (and I’m not dwelling on the superfluous sub-story involving dirty fight promoter Gina Carano, already in Stockwell’s previous In the Blood, which doesn’t really fit in the story and, worst, doesn’t display any of Carano’s talents (which are obviously not acting…)).
Everything that made the interest of the original Kickboxer, i.e. its touching naïveté, is gone and every shot of the movie shows the opportunism of the remake. Between a never really scary Tong Po, because too much on screen, and a Master Durand clearly able to take down Tong Po himself, the hero of the film never exists (not really helped by Moussi’s disastrous acting quality).
The movie is barely rescued by its fight scenes which, although sometimes manage to meet expectations with some impressively choreographed moves, are unfortunately most of the time poorly illustrated (e.g. too many cuts, handheld camera) and never really convey the feeling of brutality Kurt’s quest for vengeance desperately needs. The result is a complete lack of emotional implication for what is happening to him.
Only Van Damme and Bautista managed to emerge relatively unscathed from this disaster. Despite being severely handicapped by ridiculous dialogues (and being dubbed throughout most of the movie!), the former still manages to bring charisma to each sequence he’s in, and the latter, although too present, still brings a reasonable amount of gravitas to his Tong Po.
In short, this remake will struggle to be appreciated by either fans of the original, which will most certainly take this as an offence, or fans of action films (as the ridiculous fight scene on elephants perfectly illustrates…).
Knowing that a sequel is currently being shot under the direction of Dimitri Logothetis (writer of this remake and director of a string of cheap TV movies) all this now actually sounds like a bad joke…
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