1991, Cannon Films/Distant Horizon

Frans Nel
Anant Singh
John Barrett (story)
Emil Kolbe (screenplay)
Paul Morkel
Renee Engelbrecht

John Barrett (Robert James “B.J.” Quinn)
Keith Vitali (Chad Hunter)
Brad Morris (Jacques Denard)
Terry Norton (Carol)
Ted Le Plat (Willard)
Roger Yuan (Howard)
Len Sparrowhawk (Bob Wiser)
Mike Huff (Robert Bentley)
Evan J. Klisser (Jason)
Gavin Hood (Ken)

In the midst of the B-movie circuit during the early 90’s comes this tale of a kickboxing champion who goes on a downward spiral only to regain his self-esteem and take on his arch nemesis in a fight for money. These brand of films are a dime a dozen, but thanks to the storyline revolving around the central character as its focus, this is somewhat of a notch above some of the standard fare.

B.J. Quinn is the current middleweight kickboxing champion of the world and has retained his title against number one contender Chad Hunter. A party that night become B.J.’s downfall thanks to the brash cockiness of middleweight contender Jacques Denard. When Denard and Quinn exchange words and almost begin to fight, partygoer Ken tries to step in and B.J. accidentally punches him out of the way, instantly killing him. Due to Denard’s testimony in court, B.J. is sent to prison for a year and is no longer allowed to compete as a professional kickboxer.

A year has passed and B.J. is out of prison, hoping to start life anew with his girlfriend Carol. He has become good friends with Chad, who is now top contender to the title, held by none other than Jacques Denard. Denard is proud to be champion, but his arrogance and style has angered promoters. When B.J. is asked to judge a contest between Denard and an opponent, Denard annihilates the opponent and begins his taunting against B.J. once again. Meanwhile, B.J. trains Chad for an upcoming fight with Denard. When Denard puts Chad in the hospital, B.J. feels responsible and hides away to get his head straight.

When Denard decides that in order to get a true reputation, he must face B.J., he challenges him to a match for $100,000. B.J. finally musters up the courage to get his life in check and decides that he is the only man capable to stop Denard and trains with Chad and his former trainer Howard (Roger Yuan). Now, the stage is set for the showdown everyone has been waiting for as B.J. must face Denard in the main event.

Take your pick. Rocky (1976). Raging Bull (1980). The Champ (1979). Champion (2002). The life of a fighter is quite an interesting film to look at as one gets to feel for the central characters. In these films, we learn about the true nature of Rocky Balboa, Jake LaMotta, Billy, and Kim Duk-Ku. While these films were made on major budgets, American Kickboxer 1 takes this type of story and makes it work successfully despite its miniscule budget and South African locations (in which one can assume is set in California.)

In his first lead role, John Barrett possesses not only the acting chops to bring the character of B.J. Quinn to life, but in addition, has the martial arts skills to match. A former student of Chuck Norris, Barrett plays B.J. in what one can call a “rise and fall with redemption” stage. Quinn is this world champion who makes a fatal mistake, pays for it with prison, gets out of prison, trains former challenger, and yet, has a chance to redeem himself by taking on his arch nemesis. Throughout the film, one may or may not get to feel the emotions of Quinn yet at the same time root for him when he fights in the ring.

The film is boosted by a wonderful supporting cast including Keith Vitali, who plays a former opponent of Quinn who becomes his best friend and in a way, his conscious when it comes to dealing with arch-rival Denard. South African-born martial artist Brad Morris plays it at times over the top as Denard, but he is supposed to be this arrogant fighter who wants things how he wants it. As a way, the over the top bits work pretty well. Roger Yuan, who later would gain fame playing the villain in Shanghai Noon, takes on a minor role as Quinn’s trainer Howard, who switches to Denard during Quinn’s imprisonment but goes back to his old buddy after growing tired of Denard’s arrogance. We even have the typical jackass journalist role, in this case Willard, played by Ted LePlat. Willard tends to get in Quinn’s business a little too much, but shows more respect to him than to Denard by making wisecracks and embarrassing him at press conferences.

The kickboxing sequences themselves are played out very well. Some of the fights look a little dynamic, but are edited well. There are not many quick cuts and the close-ups are not extreme. There is even a hint of where slow motion actually plays out well in one of the fight sequences, almost to perfection. In fact, they tend to show how kickboxing in film should be seen. What many will find interesting is that there are four fight choreographers in the film and they are none other than the stars of the film, John Barrett, Keith Vitali, Brad Morris, and Roger Yuan.

Barrett would return in an official sequel, To the Death, in 1993. In conclusion, American Kickboxer 1 is a rise above standard B-movie fare thanks to the performance of John Barrett as a “troubled soul” who has a chance for redemption and some well-choreographed and edited fight scenes.