A reboot, rather than a sequel, of the 1989 Van Damme camp classic Kickboxer, John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance manages to wear its irony lightly and its aspirations even lighter.
Clearly seeking to do little more than break the ground on a new franchise, it lacks the wide-eyed dedication with which the best of this genre surfs the treacherous waves of the viewer’s derision.
Ezra Pound’s 1913 poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is widely considered the pinnacle of the Imagist movement. Only fourteen words long, it reads in its entirety:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
A popular analysis has the true meaning of the poem resting not in either line or in a particular image, but in that semicolon; it is there that the viewer’s interpretation is poised, where understanding weighs its material in each hand and seeks balance.
In Kickboxer: Vengeance, any criticism or interpretation must likewise run through the middle, straight through that colon. Van Damme’s original – titled with the brutally simple Kickboxer – didn’t invite this sort of judgement. But we expect more now, and so Stockwell’s 2016 reboot must hold in the one hand the kickboxer – simple, powerful violence personified – and on the other vengeance, something much more difficult to kick.
The vengeance in this case is held in the heart of Kurt Sloane (played by Alain Moussi), who has travelled to Thailand to avenge the death of his brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi, in his final role before his tragic death at the age of 42) at the hands of the mysterious underground fighter Tong Po (Dave Batista). Eric was the world karate champion, lured to South East Asia by the promise of big money if he can bring down Po. Kurt, too, is irresistibly drawn into conflict with Po against the advice of those closest to him.
Is Stockwell sketching parallels between vengeance and money – equally insatiable, equally noble? Is he encouraging us to consider the crude cash-grabbing nature of this film in the context of modern culture’s relentless ransacking of the past? The much-noted tendency of contemporary populist cinematic endeavours to explicitly shackle themselves to past cultural glories – is that a facet of vengeance? Killing Po won’t bring back Eric, and remaking Ghostbusters won’t absolve the original of its disquieting undertones. But we do it anyway, because it makes us feel better. Because it makes us feel like we’re part of the story.
It’s not the overreaching it sounds like. Stockwell has a long history of engaging with cultural flashpoints in films designed to appeal to the largest amount of people with least amount of intellectual engagement: his directorial debut, Under Cover, concerned teenage drug use and police death, with no small amount of pubescent sexuality for good measure. Like any movie-maker decades into their career, eventually everything he makes starts to be about film itself.
But while the Pound had the delicacy of touch required to balance the aspects which he introduced into his work, those involved in Kickboxer: Vengeance don’t. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the physical aspects of the film weren’t so disappointing.
There is a significant difference between actors who know how to fight and fighters who (kind of) know how to act. The oeuvre of Jet Li, for example, or more recent productions like The Raid, demonstrates an almost instinctive understanding of how the balletic energy required to make on-screen fights engaging is so radically different from actual fighting as to hardly be related at all. In Kickboxer: Vengeance, however, the movements are heavy and deliberate and as unambiguously physical as the film itself. It never moves past the idea that this is basically two guys punching each other in the face.
Van Damme, the main draw of the piece, does very little actual fighting – fair enough, considering he’s almost 60 years old. But that means that he has to spend more time acting, which is not his forté. Stockwell seems to recognise this and keeps Van Damme at least 20 feet back from the camera whenever he’s on screen, like a magician keeping an arm’s length from the audience so they don’t notice he’s not actually levitating. As in both cases, however, significant suspension is disbelief is required to keep the show running.
In a post-credits sequence a clip of Van Damme dancing in the original Kickboxer is played while Moussi performs the same dance alongside it. It’s the cleverest and funniest moment of the film, and while Moussi is decidedly more limber and rhythmic than his ‘80s counterpart, there’s a sweetness of soul in Van Damme’s white man jive that’s resoundingly absent in Moussi.
Maybe it’s not the film’s fault. We’re post-truth; are we post-irony? That would be nice. But whatever worked then, for them, doesn’t work for us now. Kickboxer: Vengeance goes through the motions, but it’s dancing to an old tune and all it does is remind us that they don’t make music like that any more. 1/5