There are smarter and more original action films to watch in the world, but few, trashy or earnest, are this consistently entertaining or brute force in their own honesty.
When we reviewed Kickboxer: Vengeance, 2016’s modern remake of the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, our chief criticism was that Alain Moussi was a bland replacement as JCVD’s titular fighter Kurt Sloane and that the film’s best parts were its training sequences. In Kickboxer: Retaliation, Moussi is still a bore, but that film’s writer and producer Dimitri Logothetis returns, this time in the director’s chair, and he seems to have taken the critiques to heart. This sequel to the remake that no one asked for is 97% training sequence, and it’s the best goddamn thing they could have done.
No, seriously, Logothetis has really put his nose to the grindstone to make this as pulpy and ridiculous as possible and it couldn’t be a smarter decision. Set one year after the last outing, Kurt Sloane has left the deadly world of underground fighting in Thailand for the safe and sanctioned MMA life, but a new villain played by Christopher Lambert (!) lures him back to Bangkok in order to make him fight The Mountain from “Game of Thrones” (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson). There’s a subplot with Sloane’s wife being captured and the whole thing opens with what looks like a really misguided Bond sequence, but the main thrust of the film is just Sloane stuck in a Thai prison training to fight a gigantic monster man for no reason other than that Lambert’s character thinks it’d be really dope.
He’s right, of course. If someone beats Batista in the first film, the stakes have to be raised, so why not have Sloan train for the film’s entire running time to battle the closest thing real life has to The Incredible Hulk? Why not have multiple sequences ripping off The Raid with Moussi fighting a bunch of dudes in hallways? Hell, bring back Van Damme as Master Durand, only now he’s blind. One teacher isn’t enough? Have Sloane train with Mike Fucking Tyson, who appears as mysterious pugilist Briggs, who is basically just Mike Tyson, but in a Thai prison. It’s a totally absurd framework for an action thriller, but it feels so right that it’s hard to question the audacity on display.
Usually, an action picture with a modest budget will try to maximize its production design to mask a diminutive bottom line, but Logothetis has crafted a sequel that’s made to look cheaper than it is. From the trial version fonts of the title sequence to the ugly chyrons used in the early MMA event sequence, this is a movie that looks like they ran out of money and had someone’s nephew edit the whole thing on pirated software. But that somehow just makes it all better. By deconstructing the usual DTV aesthetic to the point of abstraction, the only thing left to focus on is all the punching and kicking. Logothetis proves a more coherent arranger of on screen combat than Vengeance’s John Stockwell, perhaps owing to his background in martial arts, but more likely the result of his knowing how to have a good time.
There are smarter and more original action films to watch in the world, but few, trashy or earnest, are this consistently entertaining or brute force in their own honesty. There’s no beating around the bush here. Even when characters are delivering exposition in the scant few moments where someone isn’t getting beaten to a pulp, they hurry through their lines like a pizza delivery man in the opening scene of a porno. They know what this is. The only thing that would make this film better, other than, say, a good script or a real story, is if they had the good grace to shave twenty minutes off the runtime. A little trimmed fat and this would be an all killer, no filler ode to hand to hand carnage.
As it stands, it’s a proven guilty pleasure with strong fight choreography and enough artfully framed body blows to distract from how vacuous and irritating Moussi is as a leading man. Also, there’s an 87% chance Mike Tyson’s dialogue is all improvised. Hell, maybe everything outside of the fights is. Kickboxer: Retaliation is the kind of film where it’s hard to truly tell, or for that matter, even care.