Two years ago, action fans were given a polarizing reboot of a 1989 Van Damme vehicle in the form of Kickboxer Vengeance. Regardless of expectations, this reboot turned out to be the same kind of entertaining yet disposable action-fest that the original was. Sadly it was released in the far more saturated media landscape of 2016, which amplified the DISPOSABLE part of the equation. Vengeance was a far cry from the Undisputed movies (which it was inevitably compared to), but when approached on its own terms it was actually quite entertaining. Now, the second part of a planned trilogy is upon us and it begs to question: Can this franchise carve out its own part of the market, or will it perpetually be in Undisputed’s shadow?
After surviving a fight to the death with human jack hammer, Tong Po (Dave Bautista), Kurt Sloan (Alain Moussi) returns to the US and becomes an MMA sensation. But old debts still need to be paid. Sloan is kidnapped and dragged back to Thailand by the evil Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert) and forced to defend his title in another fight to the death. His new opponent is a souped up mountain of a man named Mongkut (Hafpor Julius Bjornsson). After refusing, he is promptly thrown into a Thai prison where he meets new ally Briggs (Mike Tyson) and old friend Master Durand (JCVD), who is now blind but with Daredevil-esque super powers. Strap in folks, this is gonna be a weird one.
Any pretense of what this movie is gets thrown out the window in the first five minutes. We quickly go from a tango dance number to a 2 on 1 fight on the top of a train. But the whole thing turns out to be a dream that Kurt has when he’s in the middle of an MMA match. The film just seems to get weirder from here. Any attempts the first film might have made to ground the action in reality are abandoned as the filmmakers lean hard into its more daffy elements. Rarely a scene goes by that doesn’t have an eccentric touch added to it, but the film wisely plays it all with sincerity and lets the audience be in on the fun instead of smugly winking at them (this isn’t Sharknado). Stranger still, all these bonkers elements are wrapped in a surprisingly strong production with enviable cinematography and production design. Movies this unabashedly weird are rarely this well made.
Returning for his second round as leading man is veteran stuntman Alain Moussi. It’s hard to gauge whether or not Moussi has grown much as an actor since the previous film. The material he has to work with is just as weak as the first go around and his unnatural delivery of such unnatural dialogue doesn’t do the film any favors. Thankfully he still has enough likability to carry most scenes and the physical dexterity to keep up with the demanding fight work. Moussi also steps in as the film’s fight coordinator, taking over from Larnell Stovall from the first film (more on that later).
Also returning is the original Kurt Sloan, Jean Claude Van Damme, reprising his role as Master Durand. Much like the film itself, Durand has gotten extremely weird in the last two years. In addition to his newly discovered super powers, he’s also become less cantankerous and more eccentric; often joking about the fact that Kurt can probably never hope to defeat Mongkut and looking on the brighter side of inevitable death. He also has a son named Travis, who just shows up halfway through the film because reasons. It should come as no surprise that Travis is played by Van Damme’s youngest son Nicolas Van Varenberg, who holds the distinct honor of being the least charismatic of the Van Damme children. He has zero presence and all of his scenes seem like the editors are trying to cut him out of the movie as much as possible without angering his father (who was also an executive producer).
Newcomers to the franchise include boxing legend Mike Tyson, veteran actor Christopher Lambert, and Game of Thrones alum Hafpor Julius Bjornsson. Tyson is proving to be quite adaptable in action movies and clearly possesses the aptitude and rhythm of a budding action star. His fight work here isn’t as impressive as Ip Man 3, but his considerable skills are displayed well. Unfortunately, he’s still getting up to speed as an actor; something that rears its ugly head from time to time and can take you out of a scene. Lambert seems to be revelling in his role as lead villain; with his raspy voice and bright white hair, he seems to be channeling his villainous character from Mean Guns. Unfortunately, it’s Bjornsson who gets the short end of the stick. Compared to Dave Bautista’s Tong Po, Mongkut is just a giant slab of meat with little personality or menace. Where Tong Po carried a great deal of respect and reverence, Mongkut is just a lab experiment who happens to beat people into a hamburger.
The original film’s action scenes are often compared unfavorably to the Undisputed series, but it’s not exactly a fair comparison; both franchises have vastly different outlooks on action. Undisputed is out to give hardcore action fans everything they dreamed of by bringing in some of the most gifted screenfighters in the biz and having them do what they do best. Kickboxer on the other hand is more focused on the marquee value of its fights. It’s a different kind of spectacle in the form of dream matches we never thought we’d see such as Mike Tyson vs JCVD, Christopher Lambert fighting Moussi and Van Damme with a machete, and a parade of MMA cameos. The quality of the actual fighting is quite good for what it wants to be, though in some ways it falls short of Vengeance. Moussi clearly gives it his all as fight coordinator, but Larnell Stovall is a tough act to follow. No matter how hard it tries, this franchise will probably always be viewed as Adkins-lite.
If you are a fan of Kickboxer Vengeance, then you’ll probably enjoy Retaliation immensely (all others need not apply). It shaves off any pretense the first film may have had and lets it freak flag fly. For most people, this is a great rainy day film; the kind of movie that is perpetually available on some streaming service. You’ll watch it, remark at how entertaining it is without actually being a GOOD movie, and then forget it until the next rainy day. Kickboxer Retaliation carries on the legacy of its namesake; it’s entertaining, breezy and ultimately disposable fun.