Reboots are difficult enough to produce, but when you’re trying to recreate the singular magic of an ‘80s Cannon Films classic like Kickboxer, the task is that much harder to execute. It isn’t that the folks behind Kickboxer: Vengeance don’t try. If nothing else, the valiant effort at recapturing the guilty-pleasure violence of the original is the most admirable element on display. Unfortunately, this new iteration isn’t centered on a figure as charismatic as prime-era Jean-Claude Van Damme, an icon whose shadow looms large over the finished product.

Much of the core premise remains from the first Kickboxer, with martial artist Kurt Sloane (here played by Alain Moussi) seeking revenge for his fallen brother Eric (the late Darren Shahlavi). One major departure here is the nonlinear shape the narrative takes at the outset. Rather than set up Kurt and Eric’s loving relationship and the callous murder that splits them apart, Vengeance begins much closer to the film’s climax. Within three minutes, we’re treated to Kurt fighting a drunken Georges St-Pierre to earn entry into the exclusive training ground ruled over by the mysterious Tong Po (Dave Bautista).

For a few moments, it seems as though we’re in store for a far more interesting piece of cinema than what we ultimately end up with. When Tong Po wakes up to find Kurt aiming a gun at him, it’s like some twisted take on Apocalypse Now, with Batista as Muay Thai Col. Kurtz, his ultimate final-boss look complete with Goro’s haircut from Mortal Kombat. Instead of exploring this fascinating little thread, we flashback to months before, where Gina Carano’s Marcia psyches Eric into a no-holds-barred underground fight with Tong Po. It’s inside this very pit of danger that Kurt’s brother loses his life. Since the cops are in the promoters’ pocket, Kurt has to take matters into his own fists to find justice, which—as the film’s opening shows—doesn’t go well.

To defeat Tong Po, Kurt has to train with his deceased brother’s mentor, Durand (Van Damme himself). This plot development is little more than an excuse to shoehorn JCVD into the reboot, but this creative decision is both Vengeance’s greatest gift and its biggest misfire. Having the legendary star play a kickboxing Yoda is a blast and, honestly, the most fun section of the film by a country mile. There’s nothing more lively than watching Kurt dodge coconuts, ride a bike underwater and (this reviewer’s personal favorite) be tied to a bed and repeatedly hit with sticks to toughen his nerve endings. But as entertaining as the training montages are, they highlight the central issue plaguing the movie.

Moussi, while a very capable physical performer, is a fucking charisma black hole. On his own, he’s a handsome neutral mask for the audience to project some remedial Joseph Campbell mythmaking shit onto. But he lacks any of the idiosyncrasy that JCVD has always possessed, even in his worst roles. Having the original Sloane on screen for so much of the film’s run time only exacerbates this realization. Durand isn’t quite the prime vehicle for the older, more experimental Van Damme’s particular performance tics that The Expendables 2 provided in Jean Vilain, but his chemistry with Kurt is spirited nonetheless.

There’s a moment where the two are trapped in a jail cell and it was hard not to fantasize about these two in a sort of kung-fu version of P.T. Anderson’s The Master, perhaps with Moussi savate-kicking a prison mattress and imploring Van Damme to tell him something that’s true. This sounds ridiculous, but Van Damme is so many leagues above every one of his co-stars, you almost believe he could pull it off.

In fact, most of the cast is populated with actors who, though gifted in combat skill, severely lack the ability to emote convincingly. It doesn’t help that the film’s script is stilted garbage. Sometimes bad dialogue gets compared to pornography screenwriting, but there’s got to be adult films out there with a better grasp of how humans speak to one another than the excruciating banter Vengeance is riddled with.

Obviously, no one is watching a movie with “kickboxer” in the title for witty repartee, but even the action here is disappointing. The fight choreography is fantastic, but director John Stockwell insists on lensing every single scene with so much shaky cam that it’s exhausting to try to keep up with every punch and strike. Why go through the trouble of filling a production with this many legit fighters and then screw the pooch when it comes time to capture that combat for the big screen? It’s borderline offensive at times how anticlimactic every exchange begins to feel as the film progresses, especially given that Kurt’s final showdown with Tong Po takes nearly a third of the run time but forgets to bring any sense of satisfaction along with it.

Having someone as stealthily impressive as Bautista playing your Big Bad and then failing to deliver the payback he so richly deserves is the film’s greatest sin. His interpretation of Tong Po is such a subtly insidious bastard that his villainy is enough to mask Kurt’s obvious failings as a protagonist. In a sharper film with less CGI blood squibs, this might have been an iconic turn for the former WWE superstar. Instead, it’s just a sad instance of “what if?” populated by exactly two watchable performances and more of Gina Carano speaking (and not once punching) than any film ought to have.

There’s little in the film’s climax to warrant spending 90 minutes of your life watching it, but in the event you do, stick around for the credits to see Moussi try to fill Van Damme’s dancing shoes. Maybe in the next one, we can cut out the middle man and watch Van Damme’s Durand train someone with more personality than a cup of tapioca.

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