Saturday, December 17, 2011

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)




Okay, you can approach “No Retreat, No Surrender” in two ways. You can prepare for the kind of acting and storyline that will leave you with a sick feeling in your stomach (or, in my case, a huge grin and plenty of giggles), or go in with the mindset that there’s some cool action/fight choreography worth tolerating for such HORRIBLE performances, brainless dialogue, and putrid plot. I am making no excuses, people like me eat these jokers up, stuff like “Gymkata”, the crème de la crème of goofy, bad action movies, and “No Retreat, No Surrender” is right there beside it. I don’t know, you watch “American Ninja III” and maybe something like “No Retreat, No Surrender” is a masterpiece.

These movies always look like they were made for twenty bucks with cameras that sat in hot warehouses baking for a period of time, the film stock worn and cheap. I like it just fine that way, as well as, the exhausting method of the editing and rapid fighting choreography, the way a fight has a different camera placement and cut for each body blow. I appreciate the meticulous care by those involved who gave a damn about how awesome a martial arts fight could be between numerous individuals, even if they sacrificed everything else about a movie that might have needed the same kind of attention.

I imagine the character of RJ, with a Jeri-curl and boom box, will probably make quite a few African-Americans cringe as he functions as the “jive bro” stereotype you often see in these kinds of films when the filmmakers sought to branch out to certain kinds of demographics. He even raps and breakdances (oh, boy, wait to you see the dance contest where RJ arrives dressed like Michael Jackson!). What 80s movie with teenagers would be complete without the food-gorging obese kid (“Stick with me, kids, and you’ll never go hungry.”), rude and crude as expected?

Jason Stillwell is a disciple of Bruce Lee and his created Jeet Kune Do, and his father was recently “retired” by a criminal enterprise “taking* dojos from martial arts instructors to use their establishments as fronts for organized crime. Stillwell hasn’t forgotten this nasty incident (his father’s leg broken by the mute, powerful thug Ivan, the Russian (played by the menacing, very young, fresh-faced Jean-Claude Van Damme) and will obviously be certain to confront his adversary in the near future.

But the movie takes this strange detour as pops moves his son to Seattle and Jason tries to start at a new dojo against his “no fighting” father’s wishes. The villain winds up being the bullying overweight kid who is part of a famed karate champion’s dojo (!) and instigates an unfair contest (the champion’s protégé is head of the dojo while he’s away fighting tournament’s across the country and is told by the overweight kid that Jason was talking crap about Seattle’s karate compared to Los Angeles) where Jason looks foolish and stubborn when one of the more talented students continues to beat him. It ends with RJ forcing (at first) Jason to retreat! It is all quite bizarre, but so are all the scenes with the obese character who snarls and lies because he doesn’t like RJ.

The movie piles on more plot, if you can believe it (you might ask, what about Van Damme and the crooks he thuggishly fights for? Because this thread seems cut when the movie treads in Seattle waters away from the opening sequence almost completely), where the karate champ, Ian’s sister, Kelly, is the love interest for Jason, with dojo protégé, Dean (with designs on Kelly) also very wantonly aggressive in his desire for her. Of course, Dean embarrasses Jason by whooping his ass at Kelly’s birthday party, he drives off in a rage, and eventually Ian is confronted by those crooks we saw in Los Angeles wanting to take dojos in Seattle now.

The acting in this movie believes every emotion should be expressed loudly, with plenty of shouting and melodramatics, the overweight kid always a source for Jason’s misery. He plots and schemes, the chunky bastard, always with a devilish grin, loves causing problems, thrives on it.

The movie is devoted to Bruce Lee; a love letter to him. Jason goes to his grave to beg for help, to seek guidance, to vent about his frustration at trying to follow this dead icon’s fighting methodology. Director Cory Yuen was obviously a fan.

In a weird, but wonderfully fit for this genre, turn of events, Jason is “visited” by the spirit of Bruce Lee (in the form of Tai Chung Kim) who will teach him the art of defense, not the misuse of superior fighting skills but how to integrate them into a way to defend himself against those physically stronger through a higher degree of mental strength. That’s a first for me: a training regiment conducted by the spirit of Bruce Lee! Concentration, focus, quick reflexes, Jason learns a great deal from a ghost! And director Yuen gives the Ghost Sensei a ton of story time. It is just mind-boggling to me, but what could bad martial arts movies do without such absurd ideas?

While Ian’s team (two of Jason’s well-established antagonists’ Dean and the overweight kid) never suffer for the miseries they caused Jason (this ongoing feud is never settled despite all the plot dedicated to it), two members suffer painful losses to Ivan during a match determining the Seattle dojo. Ivan will have his fight with Ian (a well balanced match that ends in the nasty Russian being disqualified), but the end result allows Jason to utilize his training under Ghost Sensei Lee and get even with the man who broke his father’s leg and pride. It was interesting seeing Van Damme in the heavy menace role normally occupied by Bolo Yeung, grunting and hard-charging like a rhino. Also funny is seeing Jason have such success against him in the ring (albeit the Russian had just demolished two of Ian’s best fighters and went 2 physical rounds with the karate champ himself). Today’s audience will only care about seeing Van Damme’s seven or so minutes on screen while the rest isn’t anything to write home about. Most of the film is about father (portrayed by an actor who believes every line of dialogue should be overemphasized)and son bickering over when to and not to fight, and the jerk obese kid's mean-spirited shenanigans. Watch at your own risk.

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