The Karate Kid meets Rocky IV in Corey Yuen’s irresistibly preposterous Cold War martial arts movie
Anyone growing up in the mid-1980s will remember the overabundance of martial arts movies flooding the VHS market. Bona fide bad ass and enigmatic philosopher Bruce Lee had introduced martial arts to the American mainstream at the turn of the 70s, the icon’s growing popularity culminating in Robert Clouse’s international smash Enter the Dragon, a movie that wasn’t released until after the actor’s sudden and unexpected death in 1972. Lee had been at the peak of his powers when suffering an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer meprobamate at the tender age of 32, and his death was a big blow to the genre as a truly mainstream product, but the ways of the Orient would rise again.
Shooting to stardom as Lee’s fictional nemesis in 1972’s Way of the Dragon, American martial artist and future Chun Kuk Do founder Chuck Norris would soon take up the mantel, becoming the face of cult production company Cannon Films, who would also bring Japanese martial arts legend Shō Kosugi to western shores as US movie fans turned to the low-budget realms of high-kickery. Films like Enter the Ninja, Return of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination catered firmly to niche markets, but 1984‘s sleeper hit The Karate Kid, as well as introducing us to Pat Morita’s iconic Mr. Miyagi and a plethora of timeless quotes, would return martial arts to the Hollywood mainstream, specifically karate.
Karate is an Eastern philosophy that teaches students how to defend themselves rather than how to attack. Principle 12 of Funakoshi’s ’20 Principles of Karate’ instructs pupils to, ‘not think you have to win. Think, rather, that you do not have to lose.’ Though The Karate Kid dabbled in racial stereotyping, director John G. Avildsen, who had previously mastered the underdog movie with Sylvester Stallone’s breakout smash Rocky, certainly adhered to Funakoshi’s principles, though No Retreat No Surrender director Corey Yuen clearly didn’t get the memo, delivering a puerile revenge fantasy the likes of which I have rarely experienced. This was Yuen’s debut film, and he was smart enough to tap into the popular and wholly ridiculous Brucesploitation genre by casting lookalike Tai Chung Kim as Lee’s ghost. Kim was no stranger to imitating Bruce Lee, having previously acted as the deceased actor’s stand-in for posthumous outings Game of Death (1978) and Game of Death II (1981), incomplete movies pieced together using existing Lee footage.
No Retreat No Surrender is also notable for being future martial arts superstar Jean Claude Van Damme’s first major role, though 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. Van Damme was originally contracted to two pictures but reneged on the deal, much to the dismay of screenwriter and long-time martial arts practitioner Keith W. Strandberg, who would never see or hear from him again. He only had kind words for Van Damme and their time on set together, describing him as someone who was “willing to do anything” and just “wanted to learn about the business”, though others were not quite so enamoured with the ‘Muscles from Brussels’, who would soon earn a reputation as a stiff guy to work with.
Scott: Bruce Lee freak, just what Kingswood needs.
Van Damme put several of his co-stars through the wars with his ‘careless’ style, knocking real-life world kickboxing champion Peter ‘Sugarfoot’ Cunningham out cold with a jump spinning crescent kick, a feat that he would later repeat. This was a potential source of embarrassment for a man who had garnered a reputation for having never been knocked out. Credit to Cunningham, who was humble enough to take it on the chin (quite literally) without kicking up too much of a fuss, though another cast member was not so forgiving. Timothy D. Baker, who was repeatedly kicked in the face, knee and throat during the movie’s opening fight scene, would later testify as a character witness in a lawsuit filed by former Cyborg co-star Jackson ‘Rock’ Pinckney, reaffirming the actor’s supposed carelessness when it came to simulating combat. “[Van Damme] knocked a couple of guys out,” Strandberg would recall. “He had some control problems, and, from what I understand, he still does.”
On the subject of ill-discipline, No Retreat No Surrender‘s antagonistic bullies are the most puerile rabble ever to step foot inside a dojo, the kind who make John Kreese’s dastardly Cobra Kai seem like Buddhists distilling in the upper echelons of nirvana. Released less than two months before the much-anticipated The Karate Kid Part II, Yuen’s Cold War farce is a supernatural variation on Avildsen’s unlikely smash, one too cheap and vacuous to live up to its derivative aspirations. This is essentially a kids movie, but if you’re looking to hone your child’s moral compass you’re better off with Miyagi as a TV babysitter. There are a few weakly delivered ethical lessons in the Miyagi mode, but as far as most of the cast are concerned, Karate isn’t about self-defence, or even about strike first, strike hard, no mercy. It’s about bagging babes and kicking ass, about arrogance and buffoonery and generally being a prick. The dialogue and delivery are so unnatural that drama is just impossible, and it’s an absolute joy to behold for fans of cinematic absurdities.
One thing No Retreat No Surrender has over its mainstream predecessor is its superior fight sequences. The majority of the film’s cast are well-schooled in the ways of the Orient, so lord knows what they made of the screenplay, especially Dale Jacoby’s Dean Ramsey, who welcomes our protagonist to his dojo by having his best student beat the living shit out of him in a public display of violence that in reality would see him banned from practising martial arts forever. He even gathers the whole class to laugh new-to-the-area protagonist Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) out of the building. Why? Because a local fatso, who has already taken a well-deserved beating at the hands of Jason for sheer ignorance and stupidity, lied by telling Ramsey that the LA native has been dissing Seattle karate, and like a naive preschooler he immediately believes him. This, from a man who has been temporarily placed in charge in dojo owner and national karate champion Ian Reilly’s absence. Why would a highly respected sensei promote the likes of Dean? Does he have no respect for the art form he has supposedly mastered?
In one of cinema’s most pathetic paradoxes, spiritual instructor Dean is a sleazy, egotistical bully whose vocabulary barely extends beyond words like Bitchin’ and Awesome, and when sensei Reilly’s teenage sister, Kelly, takes a shine to the new kid in town, Dean makes it his aim to destroy him completely, and I don’t mean emotionally. Days after subjecting Jason to that initial thrashing he beats the living crap out of him at Kelly’s 17th birthday party, something our handsome newbie senselessly and vehemently blames her for. Jason is even subjected to that time-honoured playground trick where one kid secretly kneels down behind another while a third pushes them over. During the movie’s gloriously OTT finale, crapulent bully and all-round pissant, Scott (Kent Lipham), even bites Ivan’s ankle like a teething toddler. The dialogue is mindbogglingly inane, delivered with all the feeling of a cardboard cutout gone soggy. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, and you know you’re on a tight budget when a film that is already 80 minutes short uses previous scenes as intercut flashbacks to fill up the time. It’s all so juvenile, and it makes for hilarious viewing.
RJ: [Rapping for Jason] 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.
The film’s plot is no less ridiculous. Jason and his family move to Seattle after an organised crime syndicate interrupts one of his father Tom’s karate lessons and let Van Damme’s Ivan the Russian off his leash. Their dastardly goal is to take over all of America’s dojos, though I personally don’t see the logic. It’s hardly a money-spinning scam, and what’s their ultimate goal here? What exactly do they expect to achieve beyond a few ten dollar students? Where are the truck hijackings, the arms deals, the extortion rackets and drug rings? After decades of tried-and-tested criminal ventures it all seems just a bit left-field. Imagine Tony Soprano pitching such an endeavour to his associates over in New York. They’d whack him first chance they got for such a risky, transparent and fruitless venture. I just don’t think they’ve thought it through. The acting is so wooden, the characters so cartoonish that such strong-arming borders on the foolishly comical. And it’s all so clumsy and melodramatic. Just watch Tom’s expositional inner monologue after Ivan puts him out of business. The sheer deluge of melodrama, bad writing and inhumanly awkward delivery is pure comedy gold, and it goes on like this.
Jason is a Bruce Lee fanatic more interested in imitating his idol than learning discipline. Lucky then, that Seattle turns out to be the place where Bruce is buried. We discover this when Jason casually remarks to his new friend RJ, “Hey, I hear he was buried here.” You’d think he’d be more knowledgeable and assertive when discussing his lifelong obsession. RJ’s introduction is one of the most hilarious I have personally ever witnessed in any movie, and don’t mistake that comment for hyperbole. The character, a plucky young black kid who personifies the word Spunk (not that kind) manages to embody every 80s African American stereotype you can think of in his quest to play obsequious second fiddle to our white meat babyface. He raps, he break dances, he skates (his various body doubles do anyway), and when he first rides up to meet Jason on his shiny BMX he’s carrying a ghetto blaster and dribbling a basketball (just barely) all at the same time. He’s a one-man circus of racial standardisation. Watching the clunky editing zip between goofy close-ups of actor J.W. Fails (an apt name if ever I’ve heard one) to clips of the an actual break dancer spinning around the family garage like the Tazmanian devil have to be seen to be believed. I’m laughing just thinking about it. Fails was so determined to land the role that he lied about his break dancing and skating abilities. If you ask me, the film would have been much less entertaining if he hadn’t.
RJ is the comedic lifeblood of this movie, much of it accidental. His only purpose is to offer advice and emotional support for Alpha bud Jason, who immediately saves his ass from the puerile clutches of neighbourhood barf bag, Scott, a belching, burger-scarfing malcontent who deserves every butt-whipping that comes his way. For some reason, Scott has it in for RJ from the off. I always assumed he was racist, which at least gave the bumbling ninny a dark edge worthy of retribution, but the truth is a scene was written that saw RJ trip Scott in the school cafeteria that was never shot. RJ reminds me of the Puerto Rican kid from Michael Winner’s equally ludicrous Death Wish 3, popping up with the contrivance of a Days of Our Lives character to give his white saviour the smiling thumbs-up.
In his hour of need, Jason turns to the only person who can help him, though technically he’s not a person at all. The fact that Bruce Lee feels that Jason’s trivial predicament is worthy of his awakening spirit is absolutely laughable, as is the great man’s entrance (in Jason’s cruddy garage of all places). Bruce arrives in a bolt of supernatural light, only for a mesmerised Jason to ask, “RJ, is that you?” Not the best first impression to be leaving a man you’ve respected and admired for as long as you can remember, and it doesn’t get much better. Their interactions are so clumsy and unnatural. Since McKinney and Lee impersonator Tae-jeong Kim speak different languages, Kim’s English voice-over was dubbed after the fact, which means the actors were reading out-of-shot cue cards and had absolutely no idea what they were saying to each other. A fictional Lee spends most of those scenes smacking Jason around for ill-discipline, though how he’s able to feel the bruising wrath of an apparition is anyone’s guess. Then there’s the Rocky IV-on-a-shoestring-budget montage, one which seems to go on forever, popping in and out without warning and interrupting events whenever it pleases.
But the thing that struck me most about No Retreat No Surrender is its playground approach to Cold War propaganda. In 1986, Cold War tensions were the key motivation for so many American action movies, exploiting our base emotions with the pantomime insouciance of a late-20th century pro wrestling match. All filmmakers had to do was cast a cold, musclebound villain and wrap them in communist accessories and you pretty much had a surefire hit on your hands. The majority of those movies were aimed exclusively at adults who know better, but No Retreat No Surrender is propaganda for kids. Imagine being a Russian boy growing up in the US and watching this, or, even worse, imagine his American classmates renting No Retreat No Surrender during the weekend and returning to school on Monday with a grudge to bear. You’d be dead meat.
Ivan: You’re good.
Jason Stillwell: I get better.
No Retreat No Surrender masquerades as anti-bullying but its motivations are often rather muddled. I mean, karate, originally written as “Chinese hand”, originated in southern China ― a communist country. So we’re basically admiring the art form of a communist country and using that art form to crush communism in the name of capitalism. That’s confusing for adults, let alone kids. At least The Karate Kid had the decency to show that people are people, wherever they originate from, introducing a few small-minded drunks who subject Miyagi to the usual Mr. Moto shtick, but acts of diplomatic bigotry are painfully absent here. In No Retreat No Surrender, if not American, or American-born like Lee, you’re evil, plain and simple, a maleficent with absolutely no capacity for redemption.
All of this comes to fruition in the movie’s deliriously over the top climax (think Rocky vs Ivan Drago played out in the confines of a high school gym). So confident is Ivan’s crime world representative that he interrupts an annual kickboxing tournament and challenges the entire Seattle team, none of whom are capable of toppling the mighty Russian. Here, the fight sequences go from credible to video game silly. Ivan even sends the referee hurtling over the top rope with a stiff roundhouse kick when the tide threatens to turn, one of many examples of cheating thrown in for patriotic good measure. It’s like they used a stunt dummy, only they didn’t. It just looks that way because its so gobsmackingly overblown, and it’s not an isolated incident. The entire scene is gloriously silly, especially Jason’s late-to-the-dance heroics, McKinney treating us to the most unconvincing Bruce Lee impersonation ever committed to celluloid. Hands-down.
Yet despite its dubious political motivations, bottom-rung screenplay, trite characterisation, wooden performances, gauche editing, derivative aspirations and confusing moral message (and perhaps because of those reasons) No Retreat No Surrender is priceless viewing, a stark reminder of 80s B-movies in all of their failed glory. This is everything you want in an 80s movie, right down to its surprisingly exceptional soundtrack, a heady mix of grungy synth rock, unfettered power ballad explosions and funk-driven boogie that will leave fans of synthwave creaming at the ears. It even has something of a Carpenter vibe at times. Beyond that and some pretty enjoyable, if not next-level-spectacular fight sequences, this is the kind of movie you’d recommend to connoisseurs of the exquisitely preposterous, one that serves up juicy T-bone steaks in flavoured potato chip form. It’s cheap, borderline-tasteless, but oh so satisfying, and any bellyache experienced will surely be laughter-inspired.
For those of you who prefer their cinematic junk food in multi-packs, No Retreat No Surrender would even lead to a series of sequels, none of which hold any relationship to the first film and all of which I’m eager to review. 1987‘s No Retreat No Surrender II, also directed by Yuen and starring female martial arts sensation Cynthia Rothrock, is a quasi-war movie set in Cambodia, and 1990‘s No Retreat No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers, which is next-level preposterous and a personal favourite, is a buddy revenge movie directed by Lucas Lowe which bears absolutely no narrative connection to either of its predecessors. Only in the 80s could such a low-profile B-movie inspire a series of films sold on a shared title alone. Imagine buying the trilogy with no previous knowledge of the series and slowly realising that you may as well have purchased three different movies entirely. It’s an audacious, fickle, underhanded commercial legacy that proves nothing short of baffling, but the movies are all those things too. At least they were consistent.