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
PG | 1hr 25min | Action
Budget: $400,000 (estimated)
For a brief period during the mid-1980s, the US fell in love with Karate.
Karate is an Eastern 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 likely baffle the vast majority of American patriots.
In 1986, those same patriots were in the grip of Cold War paranoia, relying on an inherently fascist cinema 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 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 it could have been made by a five-year-old – and strangely enough, that seems to be its target audience. Unlike mainstream propaganda vehicles such as Rocky IV and Rambo III, No Retreat No Surrender carries a Parental Guidance rating (US), and is apparently aimed at warping the minds of America’s children, a task it undertakes with a strangely accessible simplicity.
The movie stars Jean Claude Van Damme in his first major role, although Major may be overselling it given his sparse screen time. The fact that he starred in only three other movies prior to this probably gives you some indication of his painful transition from martial artist to action legend, going from uncredited to minor role to uncredited extra, before adorning the icy facade of Ivan the Russian, a moniker which allows for the kind of frigid performance on offer here.
We begin in Los Angeles, when during a late-night Karate class Sensei Stillwell (Timothy Baker) is attacked by Van Damme’s cold-blooded Commie for 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 (Kurt McKinney). 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.
Initially, Jason has trouble adapting to his new surroundings, and a run in with a local karate instructor 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’, and when his would-be-girl takes a shine to Jason, Dean embarrasses him with a public display of violence that in reality would have him banned from martial arts forever, particularly since his sensei is Kelly’s older brother, Ian, a national champion who has somehow failed to identify his student’s odious personality for a period of several years.
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.
Closer to home, African-Americans are given the typecast treatment in the form of bubbly underling RJ, a BMX-riding, ghetto-blasting rapper who embodies all of the decade’s black stereotypes through a convenient political lens, and like every man of colour in ’80s action cinema the kid with the eternal smile can’t wait to play second fiddle to his bland, white-bread leading man, a role that he immediately takes to with servile enthusiasm.
And so we are set for the grand finale and the second fleeting appearance of a young Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was deceptively used as the movie’s marquee draw in its quest for commercial dominance. In an era of creative fascism, this is Cold War propaganda at its most blatant, a mindless production that daubs a French-Canadian in Ruski colours and reaches for the miniature American flags.
All of this may sound a tad offensive, but you would have to be ten years old to have your feathers ruffled by this kind of nonsense.
At least in a sane world.
Most Exaggerated Fight Move
Having strangled 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 imaginable, he then treats us all to some 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.