In 1985, Rocky IV was a big hit at the box office. A year earlier, The Karate Kid was the monster hit that launched Ralph Macchio. Hong Kong director Corey Yuen and producer Ng See-Yuen melded ideas from both blockbusters and have come up with the underrated cult classic that launched the man who would be known as “Van Damage”, Jean-Claude Van Damme, released today thirty years ago.
Future soap opera actor Kurt McKinney plays Jason Stillwell, a karate student who is a Bruce Lee fanatic. He likes to emulate Lee in the dojo, making a fool of himself. When his father, who is also his karate teacher, is forced against his will to fight a crime syndicate, he is annihilated by Soviet powerhouse Ivan, played by Van Damme. Van Damme is impressive in his first action film role as a villain, showcasing his impressive kicking skills against Shotokan karate champion Timothy Baker, who plays Jason’s father.
As a result of the attack, the family moves from Los Angeles to Seattle, Washington. Jason makes a new friend in local dancer R.J., played by dancer/actor J.W. Fails. However, he also makes enemies in the form of local karate champs Dean and Frank, played by Dale Jacoby, and kickboxing champion Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham. Cunningham proved to be so impressive in his fight scenes that Corey Yuen would use him a year later in the Hong Kong film Above the Law as a hitman who takes on Yuen Biao in a memorable fight.
Jason seeking for help, relies on help from Bruce Lee, who is buried in Seattle. To bring the supernatural twist, Bruce Lee comes back from the grave and is played by the late Bruce-alike Kim Tae-Jeong, best known for playing Bruce Lee in two films, Game of Death and its “sequel” Tower of Death. An interesting thing to notice is the fact that McKinney speaks English while Kim speaks in Korean but is dubbed over in English. In fact, during production, Kim and McKinney have no idea what they were saying.
Of course, being predictable, Jason gets his training complete and in the end, he is forced to fight Ivan in the ring. Despite his limited screen time, Van Damme explodes on the screen as the Soviet powerhouse, who takes on Jacoby, then Cunningham (actually knocking him out as seen on screen), and then Chuck Norris protege Ron Pohnel. The Van Damme-Pohnel fight is actually one of the highlight fight sequences aside from the McKinney-Van Damme climatic fight scene.
When the film was distributed in 1986 by New World Pictures in the U.S.A., parts of the film were cut out, including the finale, where the intercuts between the Ivan-Jason fight with Jason’s training showed more of an impact in the film. Despite all the clichés and predictability, the action is sweet in the film. Corey Yuen and Mang Hoi, using the English name “Harrison Mang”, did an impressive job with the fight choreography, showcasing the skills of McKinney, Van Damme, Jacoby, and even in a highlight fight, tang soo do black belt Ron Pohnel and Van Damme.
Van Damme, notably, would follow up this Hong Kong-U.S. crossover with the film that made him one of the top action stars of the 80’s and early 90’s, Bloodsport. After working on lesser films and a plague of personal problems, Van Damme has recently made a huge comeback in the direct-to-DVD circuit. On the other hand, Kurt McKinney would go on to become a very well-known soap opera star with major roles on General Hospital and Guiding Light. McKinney did strut his martial arts skills again when he teamed up with Cynthia Rothrock in the 1996 martial arts film Sworn to Justice.
Despite many harsh criticisms as an uninspired cross of The Karate Kid and Rocky IV, No Retreat, No Surrender is without a doubt one of the most underrated martial arts films of the 1980’s by today’s standards.
WFG RATING: A
A Seasonal Film Corporation production. Director: Corey Yuen. Producer: Ng See Yuen. Writer: Keith W. Strandberg; story by Corey Yuen and Ng See Yuen. Cinematography: John Huneck and David Golia. Editing: James Melkonian, Mark Pierce, and Allan Poon.
Cast: Kurt McKinney, Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails, Kathie Sileno, Ron Pohnel, Dale Jacoby, Kent Lipham, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Timothy Baker, Kim Tae-Jeong.