Of the second tier action stars of the late 80s and 90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was perhaps the best. Dolph Lundgren may have been a better actor but he could not match Van Damme’s athleticism. Steven Seagal, in the years of before the weight gain, was rumored to be a more authentic martial artist but everyone knew he was also an asshole and couldn’t act worth shit. Van Damme was always fun to watch, especially if you were a kid at the time his movies were in the theaters or showing up on a cable. Everyone wanted to be Jean-Claude Van Damme after watching one of his best movies. So what if he was a stiff actor with a thick accent? That hadn’t hurt Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Kickboxer was the film that introduced most people to Van Damme. Kurt Sloane (Van Damme!) is the cornerman for his brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio), America’s kickboxing champion. Eric is lured to Thailand to fight the viscous Tong Po (Michel Qissi, a childhood friend of Van Damme’s). How evil is Tong Po? He is so evil that, when Kurt tries to throw the towel and end the fight, Tong kicks the towel out of the ring. That’s evil!
After the fight leaves Eric crippled, Kurt gets revenge the only way he can. He enters the ring and takes on Tong Po, himself! They fight the ancient way, with both of their hands covered with broken glass. When you’re 12 years old and watching an R-rated film on HBO, that is really cool. Of course, before Kurt can enter the ring, he has to go through a training montage with Xian Chan (Dennis Chan) and fight off Tong Po’s sponsor, local gangster Freddy Li (Ka Ting Lee).
Rewatching Kickboxer, I saw it was even more predictable than I remembered. At the same time, it was impossible not to, once again, get caught up in that final fight between Kurt and Tong Po. The montages may have been silly. The soundtrack may have been cheesy. Van Damme may have been even more uncertain of an actor than I remembered but it did not matter. Kickboxer may be dumb but it’s still really cool. Within a few minutes of watching Kickboxer, I was a kid again and I was having the time of my life.
As for Jean-Claude Van Damme, he went through some well-publicized troubles but he emerged from it all as a far better actor. Just check out JCVD if you get the chance.