I saw the original Kickboxer decades ago, and probably rewatched it once or twice since. I remember it as a fun martial arts movie, and one of Van Damme's more memorable roles. Normally it's not the kind of movie that I would expect too much out of a sequel for, but... Van Damme, Dave Bautista, and Gina Carano? Yeah, I allowed myself to be optimistic about this one. That was a mistake.
This is a martial-arts movie, so let's talk action first. This movie was yet another victim of modern Hollywood crappy camera work; all quick-cuts and excessive close-ups. Now it wasn't nearly as big a problem here as it has been in some other movies - nowhere near as bad as Jason Bourne for example - but it was occasionally bad enough that I didn't really enjoy some of the big fight scenes.
It's a shame because all the actors handled themselves quite well in the action scenes, with better camera work I think I could have enjoyed this movie a lot more. There were actually some fights that I did like quite a bit, but ironically these were the "smaller" ones; it felt as if the more important the fight was the more they tried to make it feel fast and hard-hitting by speeding up the camera work, which sadly just made fights harder to follow and robbed them of their impact.
Unfortunately the last fight was the probably worst one, which is a problem because it's pretty much the last impression the movie makes on you and ends up being what colours your opinion of the whole thing the most.
Outside of the action scenes the acting was a different story. To be honest few of the cast had that much to do outside of the fights, and what dialogue they did get was generally not very good. Bautista might have had the worst of it; he felt as if he was sleep-walking most of the time. I feel as if he was directed to act aloof and unreachable, to try and make him seem like a more imposing villain? I dunno, it just made him seem uninterested.
At least Bautista probably a had few decent lines (the scene where his character first meets Kurt was not bad), Van Damme might have had even less to work with. He was great physically, and that includes some small elements of physical humour, but he never had any dialogue that allowed him to do anything more than that. I mean, he's not exactly known as a great actor, but I know he's better than this. Actually the abysmal dialogue his character had during some scenes was a big problem; literally the most meaningful line he had during the final fight, when you expect him to impart some wise words of wisdom or encouragement to his student, was "coconut". Spoken twice, by the way. I mean, coconut? What the hell?
They might have been the lucky ones though; at least they had some screen time. Gina Carano had hardly any dialogue, almost no impact on the plot, and didn't even get a single action scene. Seriously, why would you hire Gina Carano, put her name on the poster, then not give her anything at all to do? Again, what the hell?
Alain Moussi was OK. He didn't do anything acting-wise that impressed me, but as you might have guessed by now it's not like he had much to work with. Again, he handled the action scenes just fine, no complaints there. I didn't like Sara Malakul Lane in this movie; again, it could just be the material - her character was just so weak - but... I don't know, I didn't like her. At least Georges St-Pierre was mildly amusing. Sam Medina was just annoying.
The reason why the cast had so little to do other than hit each other was that the plot was pretty much as simple and straight-forwards as it gets; not a good thing when it's literally exactly the same story as the movie that it is a sequel to. Yes, there's a subplot about corrupt cops or something, but it really doesn't matter except for providing a bit of busy work and a couple of extra fight scenes.
The real problem though wasn't just the simplicity of the plot, but the complete lack of character and relationship development. The characters were given very little to flesh them out, to make them feel human, and what's more there was just... there was no chemistry between anyone. Other than Kurt's anger towards Tong Po and Liu's weird obsession with Kurt, I never got a sense that any of the characters felt anything towards each other. I don't know if this was caused by or a cause of the fact that I often didn't understand why the characters did certain things that I couldn't see a reason for them to do.
As a result I found it increasingly hard to care about the events and characters; coupled with my problems with the camera work, I was feeling pretty indifferent by the end. Which is a shame, because I wanted this one to be good.
Overall I'm giving it a 5/10; there are some good fight scenes and some that are not so good; everything else is sub-standard.
So why exactly didn't Kurt kill Po when he had the gun pointed at him? We aren't really given an explanation, other than maybe it was cowardly so he didn't do it, cos he's the hero so he would never do something cowardly? I guess we are just supposed to be on board with the idea that shooting someone is cold-blooded murder, but deliberately and intentionally beating them to death in a fight is somehow just fine?
While I can accept that a fair fight is somehow more noble than killing someone in their sleep, I don't accept that it's somehow right while the other is wrong: if a person should be killed, then the quick, painless, reliable method is not worse than the slow, painful, low-probability-of-success method. But what's worse perhaps is that even if we believe that it is, that still doesn't explain why he didn't do it.
I feel that this is important enough that his reasons really should have been made clear, rather than just assuming we're already on board. I mean, he's developing this relationship with the cop, and she keeps telling him not to go after Po, why not have a scene where they actually talk about it? Instead of her just saying "you're not allowed to go after him" and walking off, why not have her ask "If you're so determined to go after him, why didn't you kill him when you had the chance?". Then he talks about what was going through his head, etc. It helps us sympathise with the character and his goals, and also makes their relationship far more believable. Two birds with one stone! I really think that a little scene like that would have made the whole movie much better. In fact, a part of me hopes that such as scene was actually shot, but got cut from the version I saw for some reason. Who knows, it could have happened.
As it was, the relationship between Kurt and Liu was by far the least developed romance I have ever seen. We pretty much never see them talking, then in the middle of a training montage there's suddenly a scene of the two taking each other's clothes off. I genuinely didn't even know it was her; I was literally sitting there asking myself "Who is that? Did his girlfriend follow him from America? Wait, did he even have a girlfriend? I don't remember them introducing one."
It just doesn't make any sense. He's both a felon and a witness to an important investigation that she is risking her life and her career to follow, they have nothing in common and never had a chance to bond, then suddenly boom, she's jeopardizing the case and her job. I guess it could be argued that he had just saved her life or something, but a) she's a cop, she's probably a little bit more accustomed to having her life endangered than the average movie token female, and b) her life wouldn't have been in danger in the first place if it wasn't for him.
Is sleeping with a witness illegal, or just against regulations? Speaking of ways she broke the law, why didn't she take him to the police station after arresting him? Instead she, let's call it "leaves him in the custody", of a civilian that we didn't really have any reason to believe she even knew (she knew of him, that doesn't mean she knew him well enough to ask him to harbour a fugitive). And why didn't she break up the fight at the end? She was never behind his quest for revenge, why was the sight of him battered and bleeding, his life in serious peril, enough for her to decide to break the law and just stand around watching? Even when Po was inches away from killing Kurt, she just stood there and watched.
And why didn't she arrest him later (and why did none of the other cops with her say anything either)? He had just killed a man in an illegal fight; something that she was trying to arrest Po for earlier. Why is OK for Kurt but not for Po? Let's face it, she's just as corrupt as the guy she was trying to take down.
Speaking of poorly developed relationships, the movie really should have worked harder to develop the one between Kurt and his brother. As it is, we see one scene with his brother talking about how Kurt takes good care of him, then the very next scene he's yelling at Kurt for holding him back, then he dies. That's pretty much it. Talk about inconsistent and ungrateful. And we're supposed to care about this guy? It's not exactly lending weight to Kurt's quest for revenge when we don't really believe that the two had a good relationship.
What's more, it's this weird victim-blaming situation; Eric should have known better than to go get himself killed, the hero told him not to do it but he didn't listen, etc. Basically, it's his own fault he died, but the hero is going to avenge him anyway. I really don't see how this helps us to care about the Kurt's motivation; if the death had been in some small way his fault (maybe if he encouraged his brother to take the fight rather than the opposite) then we could understand his motivation a bit better. It would be a bit deeper anyway; it would be about a little more than just revenge - which is such a stupid and lazy protagonist motivation. There's nothing noble about it, nothing good about it, it's just a desire to cause pain.
Remember the first Mortal Kombat movie? Liu Kang wanted revenge, but it was more than that: his brother had died trying to shoulder the responsibilities that he had run away from. He felt guilt and shame as well as grief, and seeking revenge was his way of dealing with that. And while that alone is nothing new, the point of the movie was that revenge was a terrible motivation; by the end he had learned that it wasn't all about him and his pain. When he defeated Shang Tsung it wasn't because he had murder in his heart, it was because it was the right thing to do, it was what people were relying on him to do. Kickboxer: Vengeance does not have any of that. And that was videogame movie!
So... Gina Carano doesn't get to fight; in fact she has almost no screen time at all. Not sure why they bothered to get a reasonably famous actress known for her action skills, and put her name on the poster, only for her to do nothing at all. They actually seemed to be trying to set her up as some sort of a villain, but it was so underdeveloped and unimportant, that they might as well have not bothered. I mean, why would this random American fight promoter be some kind of underground big-shot in Thailand, who even has the police chief on her payroll? And if she was so important in Thailand, why would she go and ask some random American fighter to join in person, especially knowing that he didn't actually trust her (and therefore that she'd have a better chance of getting him to agree if he didn't know she was involved)? If so many people are getting killed in these underground fights that the police are trying to break up, why would she go to the police station to pay her respects to Eric's corpse in person? We know she had some kind of relationship with him, but if she cared about him why did she sign him up for a death fight (we know that she's working with Po and we know that Po has killed a large number of fighters in just the past year)? In fact, why did Eric even agree to an underground fight?
Plus, she kinda starts acting cartoonishly evil near the end, and she clearly has a deal going on with Po. If that's the case, why did she arrange for the best kickboxing trainer in Thailand (as she puts it) to train Eric? Unless of course that was a lie and Durand isn't atually anything special, he's just some washed-up old has-been. Which would make sense since his only other student is some old guy doing Tai-Chi or something.
What the hell was that lame assassination attempt on the cop? Earlier on that promoter guy gives a vague "make sure she doesn't get where she's going", and five minutes later there's a dozen guys ambushing a car with elephants. But when they have actual time to plan and prepare, there's just one guy with a gun and no plan? And he waits until they reach the only cover in an empty warehouse before opening fire? It was literally the worst "set-up" I've ever seen.
It's kind of weird that in his first fight after the first training montage, Kurt gets his behind handed to him, the Durand walks up and easily takes out the other fighter, but then we never see Kurt go back and defeat that guy or some other fighter who we can accepts as being of equal or greater calibre, so there's no reason to believe that he's ready now when he wasn't before.
The last fight was probably the worst in the movie. Partly this was probably the camera work, but also it wasn't fun because it was so one-sided for most of the fight that the actual combat just wasn't interesting, then suddenly it flipped and became completely one-sided in the other direction (there really wasn't much middle ground), which again wasn't interesting and also wasn't very believable (especially not with the beating Kurt had taken by that point). And the way he kills Po at the end? I can accept Kurt somehow beating Po in a test of skill, but he just straight up overpowered him. How the hell does that make any sense? We clearly see over and over again how much stronger Po is, so how does Kurt suddenly out-muscle him in the end(again, especially after the beating he'd taken up to that point)?
So why did Kurt hold up the amulet he ripped off Po's corpse at the end? Was he fighting to earn some sort of symbol of status? Here I thought this was about avenging his brother! There was no reason for him to care about that amulet. I guess you could say the it was some way of insulting Po, of taking away from him that which he held dear, but it really didn't feel like the was the cause, not the way he was holding it up like a trophy. Plus, he'd already taken away his life, wasn't that enough? The simple act of picking it up actually weakened the impact of his victory because it further divorced his actions from his supposed motivation. Yes, I know it seems like a small thing, but it actually really bothers me.
Typically the wise old trainer is expected to provide some meaningful advice and/or moral support to his student in the last fight, but we really didn't get that from Durand. I mean, the best thing they could think of for him to say was "coconut"? This right in the middle of the dramatic climax of the last fight? Sigh. That was just such a terrible decision. He didn't do much the rest of the fight either; no advice, not even a "believe in yourself" or "remember your training" or something safe like that, just a "you're doing fine" (when Kurt was getting seventeen shades of sugar beaten out of him) and a shoulder rub for some reason. It was just terribly written. Well, the whole character was quite terribly written to be honest.
I mentioned in my Mechanic: Resurrection review that I really liked some of their establishing shots; I thought they did a great job of showing off the beauty of some of the locations. Kickboxer had a couple of establishing shots where we saw forests and interesting architecture, but it never managed to make them look particularly appealing. Which is a shame because I understand Thailand is a very interesting place. This is not the sort of thing that I would normally notice or think about, but I saw Kickboxer so soon after Mechanic that the difference stuck in my mind.