We all complain about remakes and reboots because, for the most part, they never capture whatever it was that made the original great. This is especially true for action movies because they just don't make them now like they used to. And that's not me being an old fogey, it's just the rock hard truth. The CGI-enhanced, Pilates-loving stars of today can't match the legit tough guys of the '80s, who starred in movies about other legit tough guys. Jean-Claude Van Damme jumpkicked his way to stardom during this time and Kickboxer was one of his defining movies. But a modern remake always sounded like a terrible idea, especially to devotees of the "Muscles from Brussels". Fortunately, Kickboxer: Vengeance kicks ass and gives fans exactly what they've been missing, including a sick supporting role for Van Damme himself.
The film isn't perfect, as director John Stockwell, known for mediocre genre flicks and oceanside dramas like Blue Crush, seems to struggle with the tone. What he gets right is the action, and there is plenty of it. From the start this feels like a throwback movie where the fights are rough 'n tumble and the stars aren't protected by fancy editing. Twentyfive years older and Van Damme is back in the familiar Bangkok setting, albeit in a very different role. He plays world-weary mentor Master Durand, who takes under his wing American fighter Kurt Sloane, played by stuntman Alain Moussi in his first lead role. When Kurt's brother is killed in an underground Muay Thai battle against brutal, undefeated champion Tong Po (Dave Bautista), he comes to Durand seeking a chance at vengeance. Good thing the movie is called Kickboxer: Vengeance then.
So the plot is essentially the same; just as much adrenaline and testosterone, just as much oddly-placed humor, and far superior fight choreography. We even get a callback to this amazing unforgettable little number...
That the action is so good largely has to do with the cast who are all experienced fighters or stunt coordinators. Moussi has an impressive arsenal of moves, from backflips to split-legged jumpkicks. I'd go so far to say that from a physical standpoint he's more impressive than Van Damme was in the original. His inexperience as an actor shows, though, and he's overshadowed by...well, everybody in that department. Van Damme is hilarious as the deeply mistrustful trainer, who puts his student through one humiliating exercise after another. At the ripe "old" age of 55 Van Damme is still in damn near perfect shape, and has some of the best fights in the movie, including one against MMA star Georges St-Pierre that is very impressive. Meanwhile, Bautista is a more intimidating version of Tong Po, and as an accomplished actor gets quite a lot of lines to work with. Po is head of a criminal fighting ring, almost like a Thailand mob boss, making Kurt's quest for revenge even more of a challenge.
If there's a major disappointment it's that the awesome Gina Carano is left on the sidelines. While she's solid in her role as a sketchy fight promoter it's a waste of her skills to not give her at least one chance to beat somebody up. Why cast her if you're not going to use her?
What's apparent pretty early on is the people behind Kickboxer: Vengeance have a deep love for the original and celebrate it and all of its macho-ness. There's also a deep appreciation for Van Damme, which is displayed during a hilarious closing credits sequence which serves as an homage. So maybe it's not fair to say they don't make movies like Kickboxer anymore because at least in this case they do. A sequel, Kickboxer: Retaliation, is already shooting and rather than living up to the '80s movie it has to hit the high standard set by Kickboxer: Vengeance.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5