Wednesday, July 27, 2011


This whole thing is mottled by an unnecessarily convoluted script, but within this mess the compressed lungs of a good sequel sputter and wheeze. Albert Pyun’s “Kickboxer 2: The Road Back” gets a few things right despite the odds against it. For starters, Jean-Claude Van Damme apparently had no interest in returning to one of his most popular roles. For fans of the original film the absence of JCVD is an immediate red flag, but nevertheless they make creative way around that gap by killing off Kurt Sloan to make way for a third Sloan brother. While no mention was ever made of David Sloan during the first film, this character's invention was a welcome alternative to simply passing off some other actor as Kurt. Van Damme’s surprising successor in this film comes in the form of Sasha Mitchell, best known at that point for his role as the doltish Cody Lambert on ABC’s “Step By Step.” Physically Mitchell could pass for one of Van Damme's relatives, which helps quite a bit. Beyond that, Mitchell does a surprisingly strong job of emulating some of Van Damme’s mannerisms in spite of the difference in their accents. While some will still consider Mitchell a marked trade down, one cannot help but respect the makers’ attempts to somehow keep this as closely relevant to the original movie as possible without insulting its audience. Sure, JCVD is gone, but fans of the original film will be happy to see Dennis Chan back in the role of Xian Chow. Better yet, Michel Qissi returns as one of the action cinema’s most memorable villains, Tong Po.

A cast of faces that could serve as a “who’s who” primer for bad 90s action flicks also keep this a comfortably familiar affair. Matthias Hues, whom most will fondly remember as the towering alien bootlegger from the classic “I Come In Peace,” shows up early on. Vincent Klyn, who played Fender in “Cyborg,” also turns up in a minor part as a thug staking out David Sloan. Prolific Japanese veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is another welcome face despite being woefully miscast as a Thai politician. I’m pretty sure all of these guys went onto work on several more productions together. Remarkable veteran actor, John Diehl (“Angel,” “Joysticks,” “Stripes”) is sort of underused in the bullshit role of Sloan’s accountant. Legit kickboxing champion Vince Murdocco plays Sloan’s protégé Brian Wagner. Murdocco, who got his start in the sequel to the soft core Flesh Gordon comedy, went on to appear in a handful of other action B-flicks, including the phenomenal “Private Wars.” For some reason, Brian Austin Green pops up in the opening as a street tough punk in a King Diamond shirt who wants to put Sloan’s martial arts skills to the test.

The real shocker here, though, is Peter Boyle in the strangely likable role of fight promoter Justin Maciah. Here, Boyle once again proves that he is an exceptional, high caliber talent who can extract pure gold from whatever material he is given to work with, no matter how lame it might have been. A lot of great actors fall on hard times and turn up in some less than respectable movies, all in the name of the mighty paycheck, and they’ll simply go through the motions without much zeal. Boyle on the other hand is one of those rare guys who will nail a role, no matter how small scale the project is. Sadly, no one else in this film is on his level, so he routinely runs away with whatever scene he’s in and makes his co-stars look bush league by comparison.

As mentioned before, the story is a little more complex than it needs to be. They quickly establish David Sloan as a bleeding heart who’s running a gym that’s hemorrhaging money. The charitable Sloan spends most of his time teaching the neighborhood delinquents martial arts (good idea!), which isn’t paying the bills. Also under his tutelage is promising young kickboxer, Brian Wagner, whose aspirations of going pro seem to clash with Sloan’s ideals. Enter Justin Maciah, eager to cash in on the Sloan name by signing him to a lucrative contract under his upstart kickboxing promotion. But Sloan is not interested. To be honest, Sloan actually comes off like a pretentious asshole throughout the beginning of the movie. Not only is Boyle likable in the role of Maciah, but the character isn’t exactly written like a swaggering blowhard Dong King type. He seems pretty reasonable. So, Sloan seems like he’s overreacting when he tells Maciah to fuck off.

However, the writing is on the wall. The bank is about to foreclose on the gym, and Sloan has no money, which eventually drives him to compete against Maciah’s champion, Neil Vargas (Mattias Hues). Sloan wipes the matt with the guy and cuts a post match interview where he rips the promotion and all of its competition before retiring. Now this is where shit gets kind of stupid and tangled: Vargas wants satisfaction after being disgraced, so he breaks into Sloan’s gym, shoots him in the leg, sets the place on fire, and the little Mexican kid who asks for Chevy Chase’s watch in “The Three Amigos” dies in the process. Sloan winds up in the hospital, despondent over the events. For some inexplicable reason, Kurt’s trainer from Thailand, Xian, is brought to the US to train David. It doesn’t really make much sense, but whatever, Dennis Chan is back.

Meanwhile, the sinister Sanga, Maciah’s business partner in the fight promotion, is hatching a plot. Sanga arranges for Maciah to arrange to get David Sloan’s student Brian Wagner to fight for their promotion. Eventually, Sanga reveals that he is an associate of Tong Po’s, the villain from the first film. Apparently, Kurt Sloan’s victory over Po brought great shame to the fighter. They tried to arrange a rematch so that Po could regain his honor, but for some stupid reason Po tracked down Sloan and shot him to death, therefore making the rematch an impossibility. It looked as if Tong Po would never regain his honor until Sanga discovered David Sloan. Sanga hopes to goad Sloan into a rematch with Tong Po to avenge his loss and restore prestige to the former champion. There’s a lot of stupid shit going on here.

Maciah quickly starts grooming Wagner for a championship bout. During this whole period we’re treated to a crappy montage which parallels Sloan’s recovery with Wagner’s training and in-ring career.

Wagner catches up with Sloan at some point and invites him to his upcoming championship match. He even gives him an extra ticket and asks him to bring mama Wagner along so she can share in the jubilation of his victory. Right off the bat, you know something bad is going to happen. So, Sloan, Xian, and Wagner’s mom show up for the big fight. Sanga has Maciah’s champion replaced last minute with Tong Po, who proceeds to kick the living shit out of Wagner. Wagner winds up dying in the ring and Sanga’s men issue a challenge to Sloan to face Tong Po later that night. Really, David S Goyer? Was all of this bullshit really necessary? Did they really need to lure Brian Wagner into the ring so that Tong Po could kill him so that David Sloan would have a reason to fight the guy that SHOT HIS BROTHERS TO DEATH? Give me a fucking break.

Anyway, Sloan and Po break out the glue and broken glass hours later in the empty arena and face off in a rather unspectacular duel. Sloan gets his ass pounded into raw hamburger until words of inspiration from Xian compel a Hulk Hogan comeback out of nowhere, which leads to Sloan knocking Po out of the ring. Whatever.

While Sasha certainly bares resemblance to JCVD, and he demonstrates an interesting interpretation of his predecessor’s mannerisms, he is certainly lacking in martial arts skill, which is a tremendous detriment to the film. Story-wise, his training sequences make little sense. Xian’s main focus seems to be physical recuperation rather than martial arts training. Kurt’s training in the first film is somewhat shallow, but at least logical. Xian essentially tortures Kurt into becoming like steel. Here, David has virtually no preparation against Tong Po. There is no character arch. Stranger still, David seems to have NO IDEA who this man who killed his brothers is. Like I said, considering the history of the characters in this film, there are a lot of unnecessary twists and turns along the way. The plot with Wagner simply wastes time that should have been dedicated to Tong Po. And what the fuck is up with Vargas? Couldn’t Tong Po have burnt down the gym and killed the kid? In fact, Sloan never avenges the loss of his gym or the death of the boy against Vargas, so this is just sloppy story telling.

This film has several blessings however, the first of which is Boyle’s presence. The second is the phenomenal Qissi’s return as the larger-than-life Tong Po, who is perhaps the film’s most interesting character. It’s honestly a shame we never got a movie that focused on Tong Po alone. The villain is often more important than the protagonist he faces. In fact, the greatness of a hero is often defined by their adversary. Qissi’s Po is so powerful that it sort of eclipses the absence of JCVD’s Kurt Sloan for me.

One last commendable thing about this film is something that it does NOT have, which was a romantic subplot. How often does a subplot with some dumb bitch impede the ass kicking? You won’t find that here. Yes, dudes like tits, but you don’t always need to use romance as a means to justify nudity. Can’t bros just be at a strip club and in the background, BAM, titties? I know I’m fine with that.

The production value seems surprisingly high, too. The arena scenes in particular feel big. Unfortunately, the horribly cheap synthesizer score completely craps all over that. In fact, no score is always preferable to a cheap one. Shitty, cheap synth is cinematic AIDS. It can virtually tamper with an audience’s perceptions and make something that cost a lot of money to make seem low budget.

Reviewing this recently from the HBO VIDEO copy, I noticed that there seems to be some stuff that’s trimmed out of this version, in particular Kurt Sloan’s death scene. In fact, I have vivid recollections of seeing this in the theater, and I remember them alluding to the fact that Eric Sloan had been killed along with Kurt, and I also seem to remember Mylee – Kurt’s love interest and Xian’s niece – being shot by Tong Po as well. Not sure what happened to this footage or if it’s available anywhere else.
In case you’re wondering, Van Damme actually turned this film down to work on “Double Impact.” I often wonder what might have been had JCVD reprised either the Kurt Sloan or Frank Dux roles at some point. Historically, every great action film star had a franchise under their belt. Bronson had Kersey, Norris had Braddock and McCoy, Eastwood had Callahan, and Stallone had both Rocky and Rambo. Van Damme is perhaps the only real action heavyweight to break that pattern of attaching himself to a franchise, and that may have perhaps diminished his value in the long term. Sloan and Dux were potentially Van Damme’s Rambo and Rocky, but he left them behind for one reason or other. I have often wondered if his eventual decline might have been postponed or averted entirely had he embraced the characters that made him famous.

Chan and Mitchell returned to reprise the Xian and Sloan characters a year later in the surprisingly strong “Kickboxer 3: The Art of War” – perhaps the second strongest film in the Kickboxer series. A few years after that, Mitchell returned as Sloan in the bizarre, comic bookish “Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor,” where he once again faces Tong Po, this time fantastically played by another JCVD alumni, Kamel Krifa.

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