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Kickboxer: Van Damme learns his craft
on June 26, 2002
Jean-Claude Van Damme will never be confused for anything other than what he is: a martial arts actor whose acting abilities are less important than his high-kicking ones. This is not a bad thing either. He is probably one of the two or three best action stars now working, and his legions of fans appreciate his style. In KICKBOXER, he reveals in one movie the best and worst of what he is capable. He plays Sloan, an American fighter whose brother is crippled by the savagery of the Thai champion, Tong Po, played by Van Damme's real life friend Michel Quissi, who stars in many of his other films. What the viewer sees is your basic get-revenge-on-the-dude-who-hurt-my-brother movie.
Van Damme closes with s stirring victory over a very tough and, in his own way, a colorful foe. Van Damme's strengths include his good looks, athletic ability, martial arts expertise, and even some boog-a-looing disco dancing. What he adds to this is a sense to the audience of breathless expectation. By simply looking at him undergo the bone-breaking training imposed on him by his Wise Old Master, the viewer can just for that moment put himself on the screen, absorbing the same beating. Even in his first films, when he played the bad guy, the audience knew that any victory the hero achieved over him was dictated only by the script. In KICKBOXER, Van Damme begins what for him proves a winning trend: he needs a worthy opponent to make the movie resonate. In KICKBOXER, Michel Quissi, who is no Asian at all, puts on makeup to simulate the epicanthic eyefolds and shaves his head to produce one mean-looking man. One of the most effective uses of a heavy that I have ever seen in any martial arts film is directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth's decision to introduce Tong Po not by sight but by sound. Van Damme hears a strange pounding and when he investigates by following the noise, almost as if he were a human geiger counter, he sees Tong Po kicking a concrete pillar hard enough to shake dust. The latent fear in his eyes connects viscerally to the audience. This scene in which Van Damme shows hesitation is one of his best, but he rarely exhibits this less than heroic temperament in future films. The down side to KICKBOXER is generic to the genre. It is simply not possible for him to absorb such bone-crunching punishment and bounce up off the mat to fight on and win. But his ability to do so is probably part of the myth and mystique that marks such fight movies. Does anyone really want to peek into the magician's hat to see where the dove comes from?