Pros: Some good moments, pretty funny unintentionally
Cons: Van Damme's barely in it (false advertising), the Bruce Lee angle, bad acting, unoriginal
Don't be fooled by the box art: Jean-Claude Van Damme is barely in 1986's No Retreat, No Surrender. This was a few years before he would make the breakout hit, Bloodsport, and he's relegated to a minor role as this movie's principle villain of sorts who the good guy (played by Kurt McKinney) must beat to avenge his father's vicious beating at his dojo in Los Angeles, which led to his family moving to Seattle. Being a huge fan of Bruce Lee, but not being such a good fighter, he runs into some trouble--that is...until the ghost of Bruce Lee starts visiting him to help him train to beat JCVD's character, Ivan--a deadly Russian martial artist.
The story is definitely clichéd and falls into some serious bumps as far as pacing is concerned...but even more so you don't really find yourself caring for any of the characters. Even the fighting in the movie isn't really too much to write home about. There are fight scenes, but since this movie was filmed in the mid-eighties they are very corny and ridiculous despite trying to look as realistic as possible. This is a more straightforward (white/suburban) martial arts film and it's also considered to be one of the standouts from the eighties, which led to a few miserable sequels.
Possibly one of the many faults of the movie was including the ghost of Bruce Lee (portrayed by Tai Chung Kim) to teach McKinney's character how to fight like him. This leads to an interesting premise of sorts and one that I LOVED as a kid since I was a huge Bruce Lee fan, but I felt that it was ridiculous on my recent watch and almost a little insulting to demote this amazing martial artist/icon to a fictional movie where he trains a teenager to beat a crime syndicate at a tournament in Seattle. This may work for some people, but I found it mildly offensive as much as I'm sure the real Bruce Lee would've.
The acting is pretty atrocious all across the board. McKinney definitely isn't a great actor, though he definitely has the stamina and realistic ability as a fighter. His father, Tom, who ran a karate dojo in Los Angeles was a complete wuss and gives a performance that is quite hilarious. McKinney's character, Jason, has a good friend that he meets in the neighborhood named RJ, who serves as the comedic relief of the flick--but really he's there to propel a weird homoerotic relationship with Jason, which is pretty interesting (though maybe not intentional). Either way you slice it, he's pretty funny as he raps and laughs through the movie especially concerning a neighborhood fat bully character, Scott, who's painful to watch and hilarious at the same time.
What hurts this movie the most is the lack of budget--where you can clearly see that a majority of the film was shot in southern California...there aren't palm trees in Seattle. Not only that, but the cheesiness is almost unbearable at times coupled with the cringe-worthy acting from every single body involved in the production. The only thing that saves the movie from being TERRIBLE is that it has an okay premise and some good moments which trudge it along. I found myself laughing a lot of the way through in embarrassment and I really dig this as a piece of JCVD's history. He's a great villain, though he's barely in it, and he's cold and scary. At the same time it's weird seeing him in this role--hair slicked back and greasy with a killer stare--only to have him be the cute, clean cut guy we'd see a few years later in Bloodsport.
Even if you are a huge fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme, I wouldn't consider this a film of his and I'd only recommend it if you wanted to see him for a few minutes of screen time. The vast sum of the movie is pretty forgettable despite the fact that I grew up with it and as much as I liked it back then...I'm sorry to say that it doesn't hold up well at all. Sure, it gave me a few laughs, but they were the mean kind. There's some action in it, which is pretty unoriginal and not too interesting, and it has a story that's pretty far-fetched and ridiculous. If you like this caliber of flick from the eighties where Russians were ALWAYS the bad guys, then I'd say more power to you...but I'll be busy watching something else.
© Jason Haskins, 2010