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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Kickboxer' Takes a Giant Step Backwards

September 11, 1989|CHRIS WILLMAN

In lieu of John Cusack mastering the art of kickboxing over in England in "Say Anything II," which may not be forthcoming for a while, alas, fans of the brutal sport have to make do for now with Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking some nasty Thailand booty in the egregiously dull "Kickboxer" (citywide, MPAA-rated R).

This may not be the dumbest action picture of the year, but it's not for lack of trying. Insurmountable plot implausibilities, rampant racial stereotyping, superfluous nudity and inhuman amounts of comically exaggerated violence--"Kickboxer" has it all. But the real kicker to all this, so to speak, is the use of jarring shifts in tone, perhaps to suggest the moral rootlessness of its characters, or maybe to suggest that its writers and directors got kicked upside the head themselves by accident during the production.

First it's a vengeance-is-mine-sayeth-the-action-hero flick, as Jean-Claude witnesses his brother (Dennis Alexio) getting his spinal cord cracked in the ring by a Thai champion/bully. To avenge his sibling's paralysis, he trains with a witty 'n' wise martial-arts master (Dennis Chen), and suddenly it's "The Karate Kid" redux. The tone gets lighter, and Van Damme engages in pratfall humor and smooches with his new Thai sweetie in the rain, and brother cheers them on from his wheelchair.

Lest audiences think the training hero is losing the eye o' the tiger amid all that sweetness, though, the evil Thai champ kidnaps the brother, rapes the girlfriend and--get this-- seriously injures Jean-Claude's dog . Thus the stakes are high when the big kickoff comes and the mortal enemies fight "the ancient way," by dipping their bandaged hands in resin and broken cola bottles. (Way back in those days there were no national kickboxing commissioners to spoil all the fun.)

Come picture's end, the bad guy has had his ugly mug wupped halfway to kingdom come--which hardly seems like ample karmic comeuppance for the rape of the love interest, which never would have happened if Van Damme hadn't pursued his grudge. But what's a little female sexual violation when a man's man is busy setting the record straight?

In this cartoon world, Jean-Claude's gal can recover from that rape just as easily as his dog recovers from its critical wound. Somebody here could use a good swift kick in the seat, and it's not the Thai villain.

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