No Retreat No Surrender a.k.a Karate Tiger (1986): Breakdown by Kain424
Kid trains with the ghost of Bruce Lee to gain peace of mind and defeat Jean-Claude Van Damme in close quarters combat. And with the help of a friend, learns the way of the gay.
I should mention, first, that there are two versions of this film. One, with some scenes missing and containing demo tracks and a song called Stand On Your Own by Joe Torono. The other, with an 80s synth score and featuring the song Hold On To Your Vision as the main theme. I will talk about the latter, as that one is the more “complete” version.
Playing like an even more 80s-style (meaning extremely dated), gayer version of The Karate Kid, this film is all over the place in terms of style and acting. According to Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, director Corey Yuen saw The Karate Kid and liked it, but thought that the fight scenes could have been much better. This film is the result, and it shows. No Retreat No Surrender features better montages, better music, and even a 25 year-old Jean-Claude Van Damme as the final villain of the picture. Sweep THAT, Johnny. With Corey Yuen’s direction, the fight scenes are never a problem. That said, I like to think of the film as The Karate Kid meets Rocky IV.
We got the kid moving in from another town, dealing with local bullies (here, a mini-Joe Don Baker-looking kid plays the bully), and trying to to impress some teenage hottie. Add to that the outside influence of a fighting tournament in place of a test of manhood and a Russian fighter, and you’ll see what I mean by comparing those other two films. Interestingly, the politics and morality are switched around here. While in The Karate Kid Macchio’s stubborn determination and skill eventually win over even the bully that harassed him for the entire film, in No Retreat No Surrender the film’s primary antagonist, Van Damme, actually wins the tournament pretty much fairly. And even after doing so, he remains the villain, and a victim of circumstance. His keeper sends him into the ring to “kill” and he nearly does. But when McKinney charges into the ring (not as a fighter, but as a concerned spectator) and defeats JCVD, Jason is carried into the credits as a hero.
Whatever the issues with the story may be, it still turns out to be a fun movie. And if you can get past all the 80s costuming and occasional plot hole (when did Jason meet Kelly?), I think you’ll have a good time. It’s formulaic as all hell, but at least the fights are cool. However, when there isn’t fighting, there is lame drama and badly done character development. And it just seems sacrilegious to have the ghost of Bruce Lee pop up and start teaching Kurt McKinney how to handle bullies and train with sand bags. Way to piss on a guy’s grave. But check this one out if you can.
[HOW BAD-ASS IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?]
Not very. Kurt McKinney plays his role like a whiny Brandon Lee, always crying about something. He’s also a jerk and a bully. While karate sparring (something that seems to be more about posing than anything else), he starts actually beating the hell out of his partner, using Jeet Kun Do. His father, who is also the instructor, has to stop him and ask what the hell he’s doing.
Sure, McKinney trains in ways that hurt just to look at, but all of the film’s bad-ass points are stolen whenever Van Damme is on the screen. They should’ve made him the star.
[THE BODY COUNT: ZERO]
Though Van Damme nearly kills two people, he simply never follows through. The morticians were left twiddling their thumbs after this one.
[MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING]
The final tournament, where Van Damme beats all three of Seattle’s “finest” fighters, one after another. He absolutely decimates them. And the final opponent is annihilated the worst of all, with Van Damme wrapping him in the ropes and beating him senseless. It kicks the shit outta anything in The Karate Kid.
[DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO]
I mentioned this film in my list of the Gayest Action Flicks for a good reason. There is an entire subplot, wherein the clearly gay character of RJ helps McKinney’s Jason learn that he is, in fact, a heterosexual. You see, Jason thinks that, because a bully humiliated him in front the film’s female interest Kelly, he must be gay. In fact, he wants to be gay. Jason spends a good portion of the film making awkward advances on RJ, who in-turn, convinces Jason to let his feelings loose in martial arts training, all the while working behind the scenes to hook him back up with Kelly. This all culminates in a dance scene, where Jason just wants to hang out with RJ, but RJ tricks Jason into dancing with Kelly. Jason, having learned the error of his ways, seems to stop training after this, and returns to his true heterosexuality.
I’m pretty sure Van Damme remains gay, though. He shows off his flexibility to his main opponents by doing the splits from his corner of the ring and can’t wait to start tearing his clothes off to fight Jason. His story, untold in the film, may be the most tragic of all.
[EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY]
The women in this story are mostly just emotional pawns, with Jason’s mother only there to give the “Oh, you!” face and the character of Kelly there to waste the protagonist’s time being a skirt to chase. The one time it seems Kelly might have something valuable to put into our story, she is grabbed by the hair and thrown away. Of course, this is from the same director that took a film about two, tough-as-nails female cops and turned it into a movie chastising women for trying to be as good or better than their male counterparts.
[EPIC MOMENT AND BEST ONE-LINER]
Two-in one: Jason is fighting Van Damme and starting to lose terribly. Van Damme performs the same move that he’d performed earlier, wrapping Jason up in the ropes and beating him mercilessly. Suddenly RJ, from the crowd, shouts “No retreat! No Surrender!” Jason flips around, his health bar restored to full, and fights his way free of the ropes to beat JCVD, and win the game… er, movie. This, to the thundering awesomeness that is the song Hold On To Your Vision by Kevin Chalfant. It’s beautiful.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
A martial arts movie should be helmed by a martial arts director. Also, be true to yourself; gay or not, you can still hang out. Bruce Lee might be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t milk the fucker for all he was worth.
[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[ ] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Special Move Involving Either The Splits or A Spinning Round-House Kick
This is Van Damme’s first real film, and you can see he’d already created a prototype for which all his following characters would be based upon. Since this character is Russian, however, you won’t see him dancing, let alone expressing any sort emotion that might be confused as “happy.” He got that out of his system in Breakin‘. Even when he wins a fight, he seems sort of pissed off about it.
[THE CHECKLIST: 10 outta 25]
[X] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[ ] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[X] Crotch Attack
[ ] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[ ] Factory/Warehouse
[ ] Giant Explosion(s)
[ ] Heavy Artillery
[X] Improvised Weapon(s)
[ ] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[ ] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[X] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[ ] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[ ] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[ ] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[X] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[ ] Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel [No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder]
[ ] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice*
*Jason isn’t supposed to fight at the end. He’s just a spectator who intervenes after Van Damme starts kicking everyone’s ass.