Kickboxer: Vengeance

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Kickboxer: Vengeance
"Simply framed and refreshingly free of gimmicks, John Stockwell's film never gets distracted from the action - and there's plenty of that to enjoy."

It's 27 years since Kickboxer first appeared on the scene, introducing Muay Thai martial arts to the world and forever demolishing the idea that there could be no famous Belgians. After a string of sequels that saw gradually diminishing returns whilst Jean-Claude Van Damme pursued his career ambitions elsewhere, the decision was made to produce what is in many ways a remake of the original, intended to reboot the franchise. Plans to make it in 3D fell through, which is probably a blessing. Simply framed and refreshingly free of gimmicks, John Stockwell's film never gets distracted from the action - and there's plenty of that to enjoy.

The film follows Kurt (Alain Moussi, who is twice the size of a normal human being yet somehow manages to spend much of his screentime looking like a lost child), a young fighter seeking revenge for the death of his brother Eric. he's over-eager, of course, and gets himself in serious trouble before police officer Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) takes him to the private compound of Master Durand (Van Damme) in an attempt to keep him out of trouble. Durand was Eric's trainer and is riddled with guilt over the young man's death, feeling that he went out into the world before he was ready. Eventually, however, Kurt persuades him to become his trainer so that he can develop the skills he needs to challenge Eric's killer, tattooed giant Tong Po.

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The return of Van Damme really breathes live back into the franchise and adds affectionate and humorous dimensions that make the familiar plot charming rather than tedious. It's fun to watch him taking his turn at being the master, randomly attacking his earnest underling or forcing him to drag him around in a cart, something that seems duly earned after so many films in which we've seen him take the opposite role. There are numerous little references to these but they never interfere with the pace or distract from the story. The homoerotic element that's embedded in the genre and also acts as a reminder of Van Damme's other early films is approached with knowing humour, especially in a scene where Durand ties Kurt to a bed and beats him; and there's a cute reference to the advert that helped revive the Belgian's career when he finds Kurt exercising alone, raises an eyebrow and says "Splits?" as if amused that the younger man could even try and compete on that one.

It's tough to follow in the footsteps of a star like that, but Moussi acquits himself well (allowing for the fact that viewers won't be expecting great acting prowess). He's a likeable lead and Van Damme graciously makes room for him, knowing when to let himself fade into the background. The two have some great fights as a team, including a particularly silly one atop elephants which look singularly unimpressed. All the while, Dave Batista broods in the background. He's no Oscar candidate either but he brings a convincing air of menace to Tong Po and really delivers the goods in the ring.

The film is lent a poignant edge by the fact that Darren Shahlavi, who plays Eric, died unexpectedly shortly after filming was completed, suffering a heart attack at the age of just 42. It is dedicated to his memory, a fitting tribute from some of the world's most accomplished Muay Thai fighters. Stockwell really makes the most of the fighting talent available to him throughout and fans will find this thrilling to watch. Inevitably, audience familiarity with their techniques means this won't make the splash that the original film did, but it is nevertheless a great deal of fun, with the dedication of all involved ensuring that it shines.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2016
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A kick boxer is out to avenge his brother.
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Director: John Stockwell

Writer: Dimitri Logothetis, Jim McGrath, Jim McGrath

Starring: Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, TJ Storm, Matthew Ziff, Sam Medina, Dave Bautista, Sue-Lynn Ansari, Darren Shahlavi, Gina Carano, Hawn Tran, Sara Malakul Lane, Tanapol Chuksrida, Daneya Mayid, Joshua Tran, Jean-Claude Van Damme

Year: 2016

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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