Tagline: Tonight, he either fights for his life or he’ll be running for the rest of it.
Director: Corey Yuen
Writers: See-yuen Ng (story) Corey Yuen (story)
Starring: Kurt McKinney, Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails, Kathie Sileno, Tae-jeong Kim, Kent Lipham, Ron Pohnel, Dale Jacoby, Timothy D. Baker, Gloria Marziano, Joe Verroca, Farid Panahi, Tom Harris, John Andes, Mark Zacharatos, Ty Martinez, Bob Johnene
PG | 1hr 25min | Action
Budget: $400,000 (estimated)
For a brief period during the mid-1980’s the US fell in love with Karate.
Karate is an Eastern world philosophy which teaches students how to defend themselves rather than how to attack. Principle 12 of Funakoshi’s ’20 Principles of Karate’ instructs pupils thus: ‘Do not think you have to win. Think, rather, that you do not have to lose.’ This is a credo which would most likely baffle the vast majority of American patriots.
In 1986 those same patriots were in the grip of cold war paranoia, and would use an inherently fascist cinema, and more specifically Karate, to vent their capitalist frustrations. It is perhaps worth noting that America had begun referring to the Eastern bloc as the Eastern world around that same period, a term which had until then been used exclusively for the continent of Asia. Put succinctly, the Western world would adopt and abuse an Eastern philosophy as a way to discredit communism – a political ideology for which the Chinese were also advocates.
Ethically, this was all pretty confusing stuff. Less confusing was Commie-bashing B-movie No Retreat No Surrender, a film with such basic character delineation that it could have been made by a five-year-old – and strangely enough, that seems to be the target audience here. Unlike mainstream propaganda vehicles such as Rocky IV and Rambo III, No Retreat No Surrender carries a Parental Guidance rating, and is apparently aimed at warping the minds of America’s children, a task which it undertakes with the most strangely accessible simplicity.
We begin in Los Angeles, when during a late-night Karate class, Sensei Stillwell (McKinney) is attacked by cold-blooded Commie warrior Ivan the Russian (Van Damme) after refusing to join his boss’s criminal organisation. Unwilling to risk the well-being of his family, Stillwell shuts up shop and moves to Seattle, Washington, where he intends to start afresh with his son Jason. Although a student of his father, Jason is a precocious young fellow whose obsession with Bruce Lee sometimes proves a distraction, and impromptu displays of Jeet Kune Do often leave the two at loggerheads. As far as Stillwell is concerned, the boy has much to learn.
Before he has even unloaded the family wagon Jason meets RJ, a BMX riding, ghetto blasting black kid, who embodies all of the decade’s African American stereotypes through a convenient political lens. And just like every other man of colour in 80s action cinema, the bubbly young character can’t wait to play second fiddle to his bland, whitebread leading man, a role that he takes to with servile enthusiasm. If this chance meeting wasn’t convenient enough, local bully Scott is watching from across the street. A cake-scarfing malcontent with a black belt in goofing off, Scott is instantly jealous of the plucky young pair, and in a matter of seconds the two-bit social paradigm is set.
Initially, Jason has trouble adapting to his new surroundings, and a run in with a local karate instructor named Dean only exacerbates the situation. In perhaps one of cinema’s most pathetic paradoxes, spiritual instructor Dean is also a sleazy, egotistical bully who uses words like ‘Bitchin’ and ‘Awesome’ in his attempts to turn local hottie Kelly into his plaything. But Kelly has a thing for Jason, and so Dean embarrasses him with a public display of violence that would have him banned from martial arts forever – particularly since his Sensei is Kelly’s brother Ian, a national champion who has somehow failed to identify his student’s odious personality for a period of several years.
Putting the blame squarely on Kelly, an astonishingly petulant Jason flees the scene, and after stewing over a series of flashbacks designed to extend the movie’s running time he has a blazing row with his ‘cowardly father’, who takes to destroying his garage-bound dojo like a child who refuses to share with his infant sister. Life in Seattle is not all it’s cracked up to be.
In an incredible stroke of good fortune, Seattle, Washington turns out to be the burial place of hero Bruce, and the iconic martial artist feels that Jason’s trivial predicament is worthy of his awakening spirit. Visiting Jason’s garage, Lee’s ghost learns him the many wisdoms of Jeet Kune Do, preparing him for a series of petty battles which directly conflict with its philosophies. As if that wasn’t disrespectful enough, Jason insists on referring to the great man as ‘Sensei’ Lee, which is actually a Japanese term, and the Western disparagement of their Eastern counterparts is almost complete.
After reconciling with his father and smooching with Kelly at a local body-popping event, Jason’s spiritual equilibrium is restored just in time for the National Karate Championships, where Ivan the Russian lays waste to America’s best thanks to some ridiculously over-the-top action. Predictably, Ivan sinks to the ultimate low of getting in dream girl Kelly’s face, and with the home crowd facing Cold War defeat it is left up to Jason and the movie’s titular slogan to dramatically overcome the odds.
Most Exaggerated Fight Move
After strangling his opponent with a chain during a tournament bout, Ivan the Russian sends the referee hurtling over the top rope with a flying kick, somehow managing to evade disqualification on foreign soil.
Welcome to The Free World, Boris!
Most Absurd Moment
After filling out an application for a Seattle dojo in 11 seconds flat, things are starting to look up for Jason. That’s until crapulous bully Scott riles Sensei Dean by informing him of Jason’s cocky belittling of Seattle-based karate, a juvenile lie which not only succeeds in fooling his spiritual master, but leads him to have Jason beaten up and publicly mocked by the very students in whom he is supposed to instil wisdom.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Although quickly making a fool of himself in Jason’s DIY dojo, RJ shows that he is as committed to the arts as his high-kicking friend with an incredible bout of body-popping. In his ceaseless quest to embody every black stereotype, he then treats us all to some very fine freestyle rapping.
RJ: ‘Well, I dance a bit and I’m really quick; I rap to the beat so viciously, while you go imitating Bruce Lee; I like to feel my highs, I like to feel my lows, while you rock rock rock, try to kick with your toes; I’ll do it for you now, and I’ll show you how; I’ll rock to the beat, now watch my feet!’
Cue stunt double.
A puerile tale of very little logic or insight, No Retreat No Surrender is a series of absurd revenge fantasies played out in paper thin black and white, but asides from corrupting the minds of millions of American children with its blatant propaganda and disrespect of ancient philosophies, this is endearingly goofy stuff. A movie which is never more than mildly offensive, and never less than hilarious.