|This poster doesn't do the movie justice, because it's actually a pretty good poster|
No Retreat, No Surrender is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s graduation to the world of credited roles with his name spelled correctly. Van Damme plays Ivan the Russian in this Karate Kid/Rocky IV knockoff…er amalgamation.
No Retreat, No Surrender is about some evil 80’s businessmen (complete with slicked back hair) and their Russian goon (Mr. Van Damme) attacking the sensei at an LA dojo for not getting with the program. As to what “the program” entails the movie offers absolutely no explanation. The article on Wikipedia claims that the rich guys are scheming to take over every karate dojo in the country. Based on the beaten-up station wagon the sensei drives (and his family’s seeming lack of furniture) karate dojo ownership might not be the lucrative field the evil rich guys think it is.
Anyway, it turns out the sensai that got beaten-up earlier was the father of Jason, the protagonist of the film. After getting in one little fight Jason’s dad got scared and moved the family to Seattle (not Bel-Air.) Jason quickly makes friends with a 1980’s Black Kid and they both immediately run afoul of the local bullies. Things go poorly for Jason until he makes friends with the ghost of Bruce Lee, prompting a series of training scenes and montages that put Rocky IV to shame. In fact, most of the film’s meager 85 minute runtime alternates between Bruce Lee’s ghost offering up some half-baked Eastern philosophy so Jason can punch better, and Jason working out. For reasons which were unnecessarily complicated, not to mention illogical, the film climaxes with Jason fighting Ivan the Russian, not for revenge but to protect the Seattle dojo.(?)
Overall the main fight scene was pretty well choreographed, and with the benefit of hindsight, showed an interesting role reversal. Typically JCVD spends the first half of any fight getting the shit kicked out of him until he gets a second wind, somehow, and goes on the offensive delivering a quick series of blows followed by a knockout flying roundhouse kick to the face of his opponent. This time the situation is reversed with Jason serving as Van Damme’s punching bag, that is of course until 80’s Black Kid shouts the titular line (for the second time)!
At which point Jason naturally gains the upper hand and beats the living shit out of Ivan, which betrays the single flaw of casting Van Damme as a bad guy: it wasn’t believable at all. The idea of Van Damme losing a fight to anyone this side of Stallone or Schwarzenegger strains credulity to its breaking point. I get the whole David and Goliath thing they were going for, but despite the 70% or so of the film’s runtime devoted to training sequences there was nothing established to suggest Jason had the tools to take on a bigger, stronger, Soviet-er, opponent. Usually a hero defeats a larger adversary through cunning, speed, or at the very least sheer willpower. David had a slingshot, Indiana Jones had a Nazi-shredding propeller, Rocky IV was made of iron, and the Karate Kid had the crane kick. Jason had what, the ability to have his double kick someone in the face? Jason’s signature move belies the other side of the problem; although it is now easy to realistically show the likes of Carrie-Anne Moss or Nic Cage somewhat implausibly flying through the air shooting guns and beating people up, not so much in 1986. Whatever the narrative failed to set up the fight scene didn’t quite deliver on screen, and leaves the viewer with the impression that the evil business dudes and their Commie stooge should have triumphed over the forces of good.
I for one would have preferred that ending. Instead of Jason’s dad awkwardly chanting “Ja-son!” (by himself), or about 15 people from the crowd unenthusiastically lifting Jason in the air we would have gotten to find out what the hell the bad guys were trying to do. They win a karate match which means they get what, a trophy and a $25 Red Lobster gift card? Even if it allows them to somehow take over the Seattle dojo, what purpose does it serve? Wasn’t the Hair Club for Men a thing back then? Maybe they were going to turn it into one of those? Even still, having a Soviet karate champ on retainer seems like would probably eat into your profits.
No Retreat, No Surrender was followed by two sequels, neither of which star Van Damme so they are of no interest to this blogger.
Villain: Jean-Claude Van Damme; an even match for Van Damme if there ever was one. Unfortunately, he faced off against some skinny punk and not himself. America has to wait another 5 years to see that amazing spectacle…for the first time.
Fashion: It was also kind of an interesting choice to dress the Soviet fighter in white and the All-American protagonist in Red. I’m sure it symbolized something. There were also lots of dudes in sleeveless shirts. Every time I try to wear a sleeveless shirt out of the house my wife asks if I’m going “cruising.” Whatever. What’s the point of doing all of those curls if I can’t wear a sleeveless shirt? Despite the cool sleeveless shirts I’m going to give the best dressed award to 80’s Black Kid’s Michael Jackson get-up.
Trailers: I watched NR,NS on VHS and beforehand was treated to a trailer for the film Toy Soldiers. “They do what the army won’t.” It seemed to involve partying with bikini babes, which the army doesn’t do but probably would if you asked them. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t show up after the credits to NR,NS to recruit Van Damme to the Avengers. Instead, we are treated to a trailer for the Michael Mann TV series Crime Story, which I’ve never seen and don’t intend to.
Next time: Van Damme becomes an overnight sensation with the success of Bloodsport, his best film to date.