Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Long ago, when the world was new, Belgian karate black belt Jean-Claude Van Damme was more famous for his over-the-top, high-kicking action movies than he was for being a washed-up eccentric spouting impenetrable wisdom McNuggets a la Franglais. In 1989, he was able to parlay his ability to do the splits into a career as a marquee leading man, and starred in an entertainingly ludicrous beat-’em-up called Kickboxer. So bright was his star that he thought himself too good to appear in the movie’s inevitable sequel, opting instead to act opposite the celebrated thespian Jean-Claude Van Damme in the kickboxing twins epic Double Impact. This left the filmmakers—or, rather, an entirely different set of filmmakers who somehow got hold of the rights to the Kickboxer franchise—to find someone else to step into his gusseted trunks. Enter… Sasha Mitchell.
The lunkheaded former soap opera star, previously known as the bastard son of J.R. Ewing on Dallas, took over the leading role and began an epic journey of on-screen foot-flailing that would spawn a mini-dynasty of kickboxing movies. As a cinematic genre, le nouvelle vague du kickbox proved surprisingly reliable at the box office, but the movies tended to be pretty awful, to the degree that people started making fun of them roughly five seconds after they hit the screen—they were a favorite satirical target of the late, lamented Spy magazine—and continue to be the butt of jokes today: A running gag on the NBC sitcom Community involves Troy and Abed’s love-hate relationship with a movie franchise called Kickpuncher.
Curiosity factor: For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, the original Kickboxer made a pile of money, ensuring a sequel. The fact that no one involved in the production of the first movie had anything to do with the second wouldn’t have been such a big deal if JCVD had agreed to reprise his role as former cornerman/vengeance-crazed kickboxer Kurt Sloan; unfortunately, he too turned up his nose at the follow-up, forcing the producers to re-staff. They settled on Mitchell, who pulled off the dubious dual achievement of being both a worse kickboxer and a worse actor than Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Still, when you get down to cases, one high-kicking meatloaf is the same as another. What’s more intriguing is some of the other talent marshaled to bring Kickboxer 2 to life. Brian Austin Green, star of the original Beverly Hills 90210 and the sixth-worst white rapper of the ’90s, has a cameo appearance. Also appearing: dignified and talented character actor Peter Boyle. Who came out of the experience worse for wear is an enigma for the ages. Kickboxer 2’s dismal screenplay was written by David S. Goyer, who, long before he became the respected scribe of The Dark Knight and co-creator of FlashForward, specialized in movies like Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys. (Goyer apparently had enough faith in the potential of Kickboxer 2 to sink his own money into it; he’s one of the film’s two producers.) Best of all, it was directed by none other than the anti-legendary Albert Pyun, a Hollywood ultra-hack best described as Uwe Boll with less ego and about the same amount of talent. Pyun would also eventually direct Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor, thus cementing his reputation as the go-to filmmaker for really bad movies with the word “kickboxer” in the title.
The viewing experience: Kickboxer 2: The Road Back opens up with Sasha Mitchell, as David Sloan, wandering around his gymnasium, which is filled with trophies, newspaper articles, and photos of his two brothers, Kurt and Eric. They were the main characters of the first movie, but here they’ve been relegated to Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film status, aside from a brief cameo for crippled brother Eric, now played by a completely different actor. A song called “My Brother’s Eyes” blares on the soundtrack. It sounds like a horrible amalgam of Creed and Survivor, but it’s really by someone named Eric Barnett, whose only other claim to fame was being the guitarist for Iron Butterfly in the late ’90s.
After pledging to a bunch of badly rendered murals of his brothers that he’s trying, he runs into a couple of neighborhood urchins (one played by Green), who challenge him to do “that thing you do with your eyes closed.” For a second, it seems like the movie is going to head in a very different direction, but it turns out they mean dodging blows with a blindfold on. Mitchell punks an overheated Green, and then drops a nuclear wisdom-bomb on him:
He repeats his Bruce-Lee-via-discount-zoot-weed wisdom for a bunch of other colorful street kids in his gym before we get our first drearily unsatisfying kickboxing match. So, for a minute, it looks like Kickboxer 2 is going to develop into an even honkier version of The Karate Kid. But then, accompanied by someone who appears to be the bass player for Dark Tranquility, comes a slumming Peter Boyle as “sports visionary” Justin Maciah. He’s starting a new kickboxing league, and he wants Mitchell, as the last of the Sloan dynasty, to be part of it. (The bass player for Dark Tranquility—actually, Matthias Hues as champion kickboxer Neil Vargas—isn’t so sure, and calls his leg sweep a “bullshit woman’s move.”) Although Boyle claims that “people have been waiting their whole lives” for a professional kickboxing federation, Mitchell, who thinks of himself as a teacher, gives him the brush-off using his standard delivery, consisting of marginally profound Eastern wisdom delivered in a stoner drawl. It’s hard to watch any of Mitchell’s scenes without being reminded of James Franco’s Daniel Desario, from Freaks And Geeks, playing Carlos the Dwarf.
Still, all these heavy bags, trophy cases, and places to stand while you pontificate don’t pay for themselves, and soon enough, Mitchell’s manager is telling him that if he doesn’t make money fast, he’ll lose the gym. Since he’s too macho to teach aerobics and too sissy to stop giving free lessons to adorably foul-mouthed local brats, his only choice is to get back into competition. While his protégé, the hotheaded but talented Vince Murdocco, champs at the bit to get his own shot at the big time, Mitchell agrees to take on Hues in a match at the L.A. Forum, with Boyle greasing the wheels with a big paycheck.
So, after endless scenes of various muscle-bound morons pontificating, we finally get to see some actual kickboxing! Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much to improve the movie. For some reason—possibly because every distance shot reveals that there are only about 200 people in a venue meant to seat 15,000—Pyun chooses to shoot the fight from in close and tight, using odd low angles that render the action pretty boring. It’s difficult to see or even follow a lot of the action that’s meant to be the film’s raison d’etre. It’s a pretty boring fight with an utterly predictable outcome (Hues shows the depths of his evil by tossing around the aged referee), but at least there’s something happening.
The real hoot comes when the fight is over: A victorious Mitchell is interviewed in the ring, and announces that Boyle’s kickboxing league is “corrupt and drug-riddled,” two charges unsubstantiated by the plot since we never see anyone taking bribes or drugs. And anyway, how would he know? He announces his retirement from the sport, and Boyle, with the help of his conniving Asian partner (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), vows vengeance. He should probably be blaming himself: If your whole organization can be brought down by a single unproven rumor delivered by one jackass who’s been in it for exactly a day, you can’t be much of a businessman.
But hey, anything to get the ball rolling. And boy, does it get rolling! Hues and some other goons burn down Mitchell’s gym, shoot him in the leg, beat him up, and cause the death of his foul-mouthed little urchin buddy. Mitchell ends up in the hospital where he is visited by his brothers’ trainer, Xian (Dennis Chan), who has even more annoying parables than Mitchell. In a flashback as confusing as it is hokey, it’s revealed that Tong Po (Michel Qissi), the villain of the first movie, murdered at least one and possibly two of Mitchell’s brothers, and Chan insists that Mitchell must fight Tong Po in order to defend Thailand’s national honor, or something.
This revenge scheme involves way too much exposition for a movie that is supposed to be primarily about kicking and secondarily about punching. Star pupil Murducco gets drawn into the savage world of professional kickboxing by the conniving Boyle in order to give Mitchell a reason to give a shit about re-entering competitive ass-whipping. But before that happens, he spends a lot of time pouting in seedy L.A. location footage. This leads to what could be the most embarrassing moment in a movie full of them: the would-be music video sequence where an unlistenable song called “A Man Alone” (by Savoy Brown!) plays on the soundtrack and Mitchell limps around on crutches feeling sorry for himself. He’s tailed by Chan, who wants him to get better and return to fighting for noble reasons, and a nameless thug in the employ of Tagawa, who wants him to get better and return to fighting for evil reasons.
Murducco, whose training regimen under Boyle was previously restricted to using weight machines and having helpful advice like, “You can do better in your fights!” shouted at him, has now graduated to taking steroids. They don’t seem to make him any bigger or stronger than he was at the beginning of the movie, but the important thing is that it justifies Mitchell’s low opinion of the kickboxing league. As Murducco slowly transforms into a creep, as illustrated by his fancy red sports car and Miami Vice wardrobe, Mitchell stays on the straight and narrow while Chan puts him through simple and wholesome training techniques like running with him on the beach and pushing him off the top of a building.
Still, there remains an unspoken bond of not-at-all-homoerotic friendship between the two sweaty, shirtless, no-girlfriend-having men, and Murducco invites Mitchell to his big championship bout. You can tell what’s going to happen when Murducco claims he’s been waiting for the shot all his life, and asks Mitchell to bring his mother to the fight. He might as well transform into an adorable puppy right then and there, because a big semi truck is rolling into the movie to run him over: a truck named Tong Po.
Tong Po, a hulking Muay Thai fighter who can only move in slow motion (and who is played—why not?—by a Moroccan), beats poor Murdocco to death, thus presenting us with the first exciting moments of the movie. It’s only a matter of time before he finally faces Mitchell in the ring, but before the extremely predictable ending, there’s still time for Chan to tell another boring parable, after which he claims to have been manipulated by “Morrison,” a character we have never heard of before in the movie and will never hear of again.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? One of the reasons media smart-asses made such sport of these movies is because it’s fun to say (or type) the word “kickboxer” a bunch of times. But kickboxing—or, to be general, the application of foot to face—is also the key to the genre’s appeal, and that’s something that Goyer and Pyun seemingly don’t seem to grasp in Kickboxer 2. The first movie ended with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michel Qissi tying their hands together with a piece of rope embedded with glass shards and beating the almighty living fuck out of one another; the second has Sasha Mitchell moping around.
The filmmakers seemed to think that Mitchell dispensing fortune-cookie insights to a bunch of Southern California ragamuffins is inherently interesting, but boy, were they wrong about that. While I’m all for emotional complexity, character development, and unconventional dramatic choices, it’s pretty unconscionable for a movie with “kickboxer” in the title to take until the 26th minute of its 89-minute run time to feature a fight of any consequence.
Although it appeared at the crest of a wave of surprisingly successful kickboxing movies (Sasha Mitchell would hang on through Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor but bailed out before Kickboxer 5: The Redemption), Kickboxer 2 features precious little action and way too much talk. Maybe 15 percent of the movie, the parts where people were actually booting each other in the soft-and-tenders, isn’t a waste of time; but that leaves a good hour and change where Goyer failed to understand what Hong Kong directors have known for half a century: Nobody watches these movies for the dialogue.