A Kicking Retrospective: The 30th Anniversary of the Kickboxer Saga

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This feature is dedicated to the memory of Darren Shahlavi (1972-2015)

30 years ago, on this date, Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in a film that would be the beginning of one of the biggest American martial arts sagas in the 80’s and 90’s. The film in question is Kickboxer and it would have four official sequels and in 2016, a remake was unleashed that will change things up with it being part of a trilogy with the third installment to be released in 2020.

For this featured article, World Film Geek looks at the saga of Kickboxer, its sequels and its rebooted series to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original film’s release.

 

Kickboxer was the beginning of the saga that revolved around the Sloane family. The idea came from lead actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was relishing on the success of his breakout performance as Frank Dux in Bloodsport. He collaborated with Bloodsport producer on the script of the film. The film would be part of Van Damme’s contract with Cannon Films, even though Kings Road Entertainment would be the production company behind the film.

Van Damme took on the lead role of Kurt Sloane, a Belgian-born American martial artist/ballet dancer who works the corner of his champion older brother Eric, who was heading to Thailand to fight their national champion, Tong Po. Playing Eric was Dennis Alexio, at the time a real-life champion kickboxer. In the role of Tong Po, although credited as himself in the end credit sequence, is actually Van Damme’s real-life best friend Michel Qissi, who was an expert in Muay Thai, who played a Kumite fighter who gets his leg broken by Chong Li in Bloodsport.

When Eric is crippled after a crushing elbow to his spine by Tony Po, Kurt seethes with revenge and finds a teacher to train him in Muay Thai. He eventually finds his master in the reclusive Xian Chow. Originally, Van Damme was hoping to find another friend in former kung fu film actor Rambo Kong to play Xian. This was confirmed in a 2008 article in the now-defunct Impact magazine written by Mike Leeder, a renowned expert and actor in Hong Kong cinema. However, the producers felt that Hong Kong actor Dennis Chan would make a better choice and Kong agreed. Chan brought a bit of humor in the role of the Muay Thai mentor but also brought a sense of emotion when the script calls for it.

Van Damme himself choreographed the film’s martial arts action sequences. In one of the film’s highlighted sequences, Xian takes Kurt to a local drinking hole where he convinces Kurt to dance with two girls before making derogatory comments towards members of Freddy Li’s gang prompting a drunk Kurt to fight. The dancing part of the scene has since become a famous Internet meme. The final fight, pitting Kurt and Tong Po, is set in an underground arena where they fight the “ancient way”, in which the fighters wrap their hands in rope and broken glass.

Upon its release on September 8, 1989, the film made $14 million at the box office, making it number 3 in the United States. No one would ever thought that this would be the beginning of a saga…that is, until two years later.

 

On June 13, 1991, Trimark Pictures would be the distributor of the sequel Kickboxer 2: The Road Back. Originally, Jean-Claude Van Damme was planning to reprise his role of Kurt Sloane. However, a bigger deal and schedule conflict prevented him from returning to the role. As Van Damme was deemed “irreplaceable” and the producers wanted to capitalize on the original film, there was only one solution: kill off Kurt Sloane.

The script for Kickboxer 2 was written by David S. Goyer, who made his screenwriting debut with Death Warrant, which starred Van Damme. However, with Van Damme’s backing out of the sequel, a new character was introduced, and it would be David Sloane, the youngest brother of the Sloane dynasty. Cast in the role of David Sloane was 23-year old Sasha Mitchell, who has martial arts experience with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and amateur kickboxing champion who broke out in the 1988 indie drama Spike of Bensonhurst as the titular character of a young boxer.

In the film, David Sloane has taken over the family gymnasium and gives free lessons to kids while training his best friend Brian Wagner. Wagner is played by Vince Murdocco, a champion kickboxer from Canada who had just made his film debut taking on the titular role of exploitation spoof hero Flesh Gordon in a sequel. When kickboxing promoter Justin Maciah attempts to woo David in his new promotion, the United Kickboxing Association, David wants no part of it. Hollywood legend Peter Boyle plays Maciah. However, when the gym is running out of money, David reluctantly agrees to a fight against UKA champion Neil Vargas, played by Matthias Hues, who has come off his debut as Soviet powerhouse Yuri in No Retreat, No Surrender II and was getting more involved in martial arts after training for his film debut.

When David wins, he decides he’s done. However, Maciah’s partner Sangha, played by Cary Tagawa, has a plan to lure Sloane back because he is the new manager of a very familiar face. But first, Sangha sends Vargas and others to set the gym ablaze, killing a young homeless boy David had just taken under his wing. Injured badly, David learns that Xian has arrived from Thailand to help David regain himself. Meanwhile, Brian, having been separated from David, has risen through the ranks to become a top contender for the UKA. However, when Brian is up for the title, the fight is cancelled when Sangha pays off the champ’s manager and sends in that very familiar face mentioned: Tong Po. Despite David’s pleas, Brian fights Tong Po and ultimately succumbs to the brutal beating, forcing David to face off against Tong Po.

In an earlier sequence, it is revealed that Tong Po, having lost his honor after the fight against Kurt Sloane, had intended to fight him in a rematch. However, Tong Po resorted to dirty tactics and shoots Kurt in the head. In the flashback, the fight portion was not shot and instead, we see Kurt’s death with Emmanuel Kervyn replacing Van Damme as Kurt with a bullet hole in his head. It would also be revealed that both Eric and Kurt’s girlfriend Mylee (Xian’s niece) were also killed by Tong Po.

While Van Damme had choreographed the original film’s sequences, it was decided by director Albert Pyun and the producers that they wanted to bring a more realistic approach to the sport for its action sequences. Enter the duo of Jimmy Nickerson and Benny Urquidez. Both were established boxing and kickboxing champions, the latter considered one of the greatest of all-time. Both have also established themselves are renowned stunt coordinators, the former coming off work on the bare-knuckle fight film Fist Fighter with lead star Jorge Rivero and the latter having worked in Hong Kong opposite Jackie Chan and training Patrick Swayze for his most famous action role in Road House.

The big surprise comes in the return of Tong Po, once again played by Michel Qissi. While he doesn’t appear until the beginning of the third act, he once again makes an impact like he did with the previous film. Once Qissi unleashes, despite an overabundance of slow-motion at times, Qissi is the iconic Tong Po, who decimates Brian before taking much of the climactic fight against David, where they fight in the “ancient” way once again, with their fists wrapped in rope and broken glass in an abandoned L.A. arena.

 

In 1992, with the success of both Kickboxer and Kickboxer 2, Kings Road wanted to keep the fire burning and much to fans’ surprise, there was a new adventure coming for David Sloane and Master Xian. While in the second film, David is considered retired, perhaps it is the thrilling emotion of defeating his brothers’ killer in the ring that sparked David to enter the ring again full-time to become champion, even with the fact that the gym is in need of money.

In Kickboxer 3: The Art of War, the current champion and his teacher head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to compete in a title fight against the Argentinian-born fighter Eric Martine, who is hellbent on taking the title from David. However, from the film’s introduction to David’s arrival, it is clear that it will be more than just a title David seeks.

Upon his arrival, David gets his camera stolen from homeless boy Marcos and after a brief confrontation with some locals trying to protect the kid, David and Marcos soon bond and Marcos introduces his sister Isabela to David and Xian. The next day, David invites the kids to an exhibition for charity, and it is there David sees the skill of Martine, who puts up-and-comer fighter Miguel to the ground, breaking the rules of exhibition. Martine is played by another former kickboxing champion, in this case Cruiserweight champion Ian “The Jackal” Jacklin, who may be known for playing usually villains during his film career but had his share of good guy roles such as Expert Weapon and Death Match.

When Isabela is kidnapped by a gang, David learns that Martine’s manager, Frank Lane, is not only a businessman, but is the head of a teenage prostitution ring. However, in order to save Isabela, David is forced to endure a series of severe training before his fight. It is not that Lane wants David to throw the fight, but to feel the results of the training so he will be too tired and thus make it easy for Martine to destroy Sloane and take the title. However, thanks to Xian and Marcos, David finds himself refreshed in time and together, they plan to keep the title and save Isabela and put an end to the prostitution ring.

For this film and even after Kickboxer 2, Sasha Mitchell decided to keep up with his martial arts training, focusing on Muay Thai for the films. Training at the world famous (now closed) Jet Center, Mitchell’s trainer was Israeli-born kickboxing champion and former soldier Shuki Ron. Ron even appears in the film as David’s training partner during their exhibition scene where David starts with pad work before impressive the Brazilian locals with kicking a plastic cup off Ron’s head. Jacklin makes for an excellent opponent for Mitchell as his kickboxing experience comes in handy during their fight. Of course, when Martine gets the upper hand at times, he shows his cockiness in a funny way. Can you say “Running Man”? Ultimately, a good installment, but that’s nothing compared to what’s next.

 

Doing well on the straight-to-video circuit, Kings Road opted for Mitchell return to the series again for a fourth installment. However, it is revealed that after the fight in Rio, David and Xian have went their separate ways and David opted for a new job: a government official who was supposed to transport a witness who was to speak against an old enemy only to be forced to kill him and serve time in prison.

The opening of Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor shows an imprisoned David writing a letter to his wife Vicky and it is revealed that Tong Po has returned and is now a drug lord in Mexico after his falling out in Thailand. Having put David in prison, Tong Po has kidnapped Vicky and made her his slave. David meets with DEA agent Casey Ford, who offers David a chance for both freedom and rescuing Vicky. Tong Po is holding an annual tournament where the winner gets $1 million and it is to be held at his compound. While director Albert Pyun returned to direct the fourth film, Michel Qissi opted not to return to the role of Tong Po and is replaced by Kamel Krifa, another friend of original star Jean-Claude Van Damme and is a martial artist himself. However, due to budget constraints the mask Krifa wears on Tong Po looks a bit cheap as in some scenes, one can see the folds of the mask from the back. However, that doesn’t take away his performance as the one-time enforcer now turned mastermind.

David finds his contact in a former student of his, Lando Smith, who has been undercover for the DEA and is tasked to help Sloane bust down Tong Po’s operations. Lando is played by actor and martial artist Brad Thornton, who has since gone on to become one of the major go-to guys when it comes to director Pyun. The fighters of the tournament are played by excellent martial artists from former world champion Michele “Mouse” Krasnoo as Megan, who becomes David and Lando’s top ally to Jeet Kune Do and Filipino Martial Arts expert Burton Richardson as the cocky fighter Thomas. There are also Capoeira Mestre Joselito “Amen” Santo and kung fu expert Vernon Rieta among the fighters as well.

Mitchell once again got to work with trainer Shuki Ron, who now appears as a fighter that David faces to impress Tong Po’s man for the tournament with the two going at it with motorcycles circling the two. However, it is Ron and Webster Whinery’s fight choreography that stands out in the film with their amazing use of the fighters’ skills. This would mark the end of the Sloane saga in some way as Mitchell would continue his work on the hit sitcom Step by Step as the fun cousin Cody Lambert, who got to show his martial arts skills in three key episodes. With Mitchell now completing his contract, what would be David Sloane’s fate? Happily ever after? Not so fast!

 

In late 1994, Kings Road produced a film entitled The Redemption. Originally thought to be a standalone film, it was evident that from the film’s opening scene and credit sequence that this was in fact, a new installment of the Kickboxer saga. Negaal, an Afrikaner promoter in South Africa, has learned that David Sloane (who after the events of the last film, is once again a kickboxer) has refused to give up his title to Negaal, a former fighter who created his own organization to unite all the world titles. Negaal sends his men Moon,Bull, and Pinto to deal Sloane. Shot in a blue screen with shadows, it was clear that David Sloane is played by an unknown who seemed much skinner than Sasha Mitchell.

With David Sloane dead, a new champion must be found. Enter Johnny Styles, an up-and-coming fighter who has trained under longtime friend and former kickboxer Matt Reeves. Reeves is played by Mark Dacascos, one of the greatest young martial artists and film stars of the 1990s. His breakout film was the 1993 film Only the Strong, which was theatrically released by 20th Century Fox and revolved around his character, a former Green Beret who returns to his hometown and teaches Capoeira to the worst students of his alma mater. Today,  he is known for his roles as The Chairman on Food Network’s hit show Iron Chef America and as the assassin Zero in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum.

Reeves is revealed to be a teacher and longtime friend of David Sloane. Saddened by his death, Reeves supports Johnny, who wins the title and is approached by Moon, Bull, and Pinto. When Johnny refuses, Matt learns that they were the same trio who met with David before his death. Matt is able to fend off the trio but it’s too late as Johnny is killed by the trio.

Negaal, learning Reeves is involved, hires Paul Croft to kill Matt. However, just serving prison and looking to just go home, Paul opts not to kill Matt. However, the two cross paths again when Matt decides to go to South Africa to find Negaal. At first Paul and Matt seem to work together well and the two eventually realize that with Paul’s so-called “betrayal” of Negaal and Matt’s opting for revenge, the only way to stop Negaal is to work together.

Playing Paul is Geoff Meed, an American martial artist and actor who had trained in many styles and even had former Karate Kid star Ron Thomas as one of his mentors. However, the big surprise comes in the character of Negaal as he is played by James Ryan, who in the early 1980s, wowed American audiences with his role of Steve Hunt and Steve Chase in the local martial arts films Kill or be Killed and its sequel Kill and Kill Again. Ryan had no formal training prior to the films but after undergoing karate training by the duo of Senseis Stan Schmidt and Norman Robinson, Ryan kept up his training and established himself as both a viable actor and action hero. This was a welcome villain role for him and his first real fight in the film was against the kickboxing champ from Germany, played by future Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood.

The Redemption would be the final official installment of the original saga. A few years back, there had been plans to reunite Sasha Mitchell and Albert Pyun for a proposed series called The Kickboxer, which would have revealed that Sloane survived the fate of the last film and has hidden out under an alias until he is called into action again. However, this would soon evolve into a potential sixth film to be called Kickboxer: City of Blood, which would have David Sloane assisting the military in a siege-ridden foreign land. However, that would be taken away with taking the Kickboxer name out and resorting to just City of Blood, which never went into production when Albert Pyun revealed his battle with multiple sclerosis. However, Pyun is overcoming the odds and continuing his film work delving into sci-fi action films as of late.

Meanwhile, in 2014, it was revealed that filmmaker Dimitri Logothetis, who worked at Kings Road, opted to remake the original Kickboxer and has found partners in producers Ted Field and Robert Hickman. Logothetis and Jim McGrath wrote a screenplay that would modernize the franchise and at the Cannes Film Festival that year, it was announced that a new action star would take the lead role of Kurt Sloane.

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Alain Moussi, Dave Bautista, and Darren Shahlavi on the set of Kickboxer: Vengeance, the first of a rebooted trilogy that launched Moussi as a viable action star.

His name is Alain Moussi, a Canadian-based stuntman who trained in kickboxing and Jiu-Jitsu under two legendary locals, Jean-Yves Theriault and John Therien. Moussi had established himself as a stunt performer and his skills impressed Logothetis. Casting continued with the likes of Scott Adkins being offered the role of Eric Sloane and WWE superstar Dave Bautista playing the new Tong Po. Adkins opted not to take the role and it was British-born martial artist Darren Shahlavi, a former star in Hong Kong films and was friends with Moussi, who would play Eric. Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts legend, would play a straight acting role in Marcia, the fight promoter responsible for bringing Eric to Thailand.

Production began in November 2014 in New Orleans with former Hollywood actor turned director John Stockwell helming and Larnell Stovall choreographing the fight scenes. Stovall was impressed with Moussi and Bautista, the latter who arrived only to shoot some small scenes and the final fight scene because he would have to go to London to shoot the James Bond film Skyfall as villain enforcer Mr. Hinx. After the New Orleans shoot, two troubling things occurred. The first involved crew on the set being unpaid, thus production stopped. Eventually, within the next few months, all the debts were paid off and the crew received their pay. The second, however, would be more tragic.

On January 14, 2015, actor Darren Shahlavi, who played Eric Sloane, passed away in his sleep at the age of 42. His passing shocked the martial arts film community as he was a very upbeat individual who thrived on living his dream. Shahlavi had an amazing career that started in Hong Kong and then bringing his skills to both North America and Europe, appearing in films such as I-Spy as Eddie Murphy’s boxing opponent, and returning to Hong Kong in 2010 to face his longtime idol, Donnie Yen as the boxing opponent in Ip Man 2. In 1999, I had the pleasure to have gotten to known Darren via e-mail chats and he was a wonderful man who loved being there for the fans. Kickboxer: Vengeance, as the remake would be called, was dedicated to Shahlavi’s memory.

 

Production resumed in Thailand and Thai action star Tony Jaa was offered the role of the new Xian Chow. When Jaa opted not to take the role, Logothetis decided it was time to go full circle and offer the role of the mentor to none other than the original Kickboxer himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme happily accepted the offer and Xian was now Durand. The film was released in September 2, 2016, six days shy of the original film’s 27th anniversary. Met with mixed reviews, the film was a modest hit. Even before the film’s release, it was announced that not only a sequel was happening but that this reboot would consist of a trilogy of films.

 

In 2018, Kickboxer: Retaliation was released. This would not only be the second installment in the reboot franchise, but unlike the original saga, Kurt Sloane and Master Durand return. Set a year after the first film’s events, a plan was hatched where Kurt, becoming a MMA contender, finds himself imprisoned and learns the mastermind behind the tournament behind his brother’s death. It is American ex-pat Thomas Moore, who put Kurt in prison in an effort to force him to face off against his new brutish champion Mongkut, played by the Icelandic strongman Hafthor Julius Bjornsson. Durand, blinded for his mentoring Kurt in the previous film, is not the only mentor this time. American boxer Briggs, played by boxing legend Mike Tyson; MMA fighters Roy Nelson and Fabricio Werdum (who played a villain in the previous film), and soccer star Ronaldinho train Kurt to take on the 7-foot 450-lb. monster. Like Van Damme in the original film, Moussi worked as fight choreographer on this one with friend J.F. LaChappelle and worked together again with Thai stunt coordinator Supoj “Jim” Khaowwong, who took over stunt coordinating in Thailand for Vengeance.

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The third and final installment of this trilogy, entitled Kickboxer: Armageddon, is set to begin production at the end of the year with a release in 2020. Moussi and Logothetis revealed a teaser trailer to Armageddon before opting to work on an adaptation of Logothetis’ graphic novel Jiu Jitsu, which recently completed production over the summer and will have Moussi team with Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa, Ryan Tarran, and JuJu Chan to name a few.

The Kickboxer saga, like it or hate it, is an original American martial arts saga that has stood the tests of time over the years. Where we were treated to three “Kickboxers” over the course of five years, the reboot trilogy with just one looks to fairly stand out as well. Here’s to 30 years of an American franchise!

Stills and set photos courtesy of Kings Road Entertainment, Lionsgate, RLJE Films, and Well Go USA.

 

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