Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s - Kickboxer

Unlike say Bloodsport and its all-American superman Frank Dux, Kickboxer revolves around a character that will be visibly grow before our eyes. Jean-Claude Van Damme's Kurt Sloane has the basics in terms of an ability to hurl his leg out and, thanks to his brother's career ending injury at the hands (and elbows) of Muay Thai legend Tong Po, the drive to push himself beyond his limits. This is the hook that keeps the film ticking over. Bloodsport had to invent and repeat personal stakes to drum up interest in Dux. Kickboxer casts that kind of prefab character aside to laser in on the underachiever boiling by his side.

While Kickboxer does throw in a tasteless, late-in-the-day sexual assault to remind dimmer bulbs that bad guy Po is a real piece of shit, they needn't have bothered. The entire film has kept teenage boys of all ages invested by always tracking towards a clear, aspirational goal. The taste in Kickboxer is how Kurt's transformation is handled, it's The Karate Kid with some queasy hang-ups about Thailand and a firm nod towards deliberate bodily destruction folded in. With the latter in mind, the key moment in Kickboxer occurs early on. Backstage, prepping for his brother's disastrous fight, Sloane stumbles upon Po drilling his legs, silently kicking an enormous concrete beam over and over again. Sloane reacts with horror. He's seen something massive and terrifying - a man so completely numb and mechanical that he can make himself less yielding than support architecture.

Kickboxer charts Sloane's progress from a glorified whipping boy to someone who can perform similar feats. The film misses a trick by failing to tie Van Damme's eventual success to these moments of tibia calcification though - ideally Sloane should prove his dominance by shattering Tong Po's invincible leg or, at the very least, withstanding a greater degree of punishment than his opponent. A mid-film fight between Sloane and an underling in which the two of them trade and withstand each other's kicks is a more satisfying application of the bloody-mindedness Van Damme has immersed himself in than some smoke-filled temple fight designed to evoke a savage otherness the filmmakers have decided to apply to Thailand.

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