I've seen a fair few Jean-Claude Van Damme movies by now, but there was a time when I'd seen next to none, and I was eager to make a start. I knew he started out with A-pictures like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, and when I saw the name No Retreat, No Surrender next to them, I foolishly believed it to be an equal. I know, I can hear you laughing from here. 'This film an A-picture? What a dope!' That's not even the half of it though, as this is more than just a run-of-the-mill B-movie...
Jason Stillwell is an eager martial arts enthusiast, trained in his father's dojo until some mobsters try and force the man into a protection racket, leading him to move the family to Seattle. Jason has a hard time fitting in, making a few rivalries with local fighters, but also makes new friendships. After a terrible day of humiliation, a despondent Jason runs to the grave of his Idol Bruce Lee and begs for help, hoping to have the skills to solve all his problems...
No Retreat, No Surrender is perhaps one of the greatest camp classics of the 1980s martial arts genre.
An Asian-American co-production, it was directed and produced by brothers Corey and Ng See-Yuen, who were often pumping out DTV flicks of varying quality, this being no exception.
This is often accused of ripping off The Karate Kid, but it really doesn't. It tells a fairly standard tale of a typical kid who knows a thing or two about martial arts, but can't quite get it together, and suffers from bullies. If it's all that normal then, what makes No Retreat such an oddity? Well, he is trained by none other than the ghost of Bruce Lee! When I first read that on the back of the DVD before watching, I thought it must be metaphorical, but nope, it is entirely literal. Lee comes back from beyond the grave to instruct youths who need the help. I wonder if he charges, because I'd quite like that, Sensei Lee!
The film is also called a Rocky IV knock-off, and that's harder to defend. It rips that movie off superficially with the presence of a bulking Russian giant working for the criminals, but that's it really. Him vanishing for the bulk of the runtime doesn't really help matters. It makes for a great climax though!
Despite the bad acting rendering them unintentionally hilarious, some of the dialogue is legitimately pretty decent. The occasional line provokes a sincere laugh, and Jason's interactions with his father are very well handled, with Jason actually saying things we viewers wish characters would say more often. "Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I'm wrong!"
The characters are the biggest focus here, and they carry the movie pretty well. Jason is a likeable hero, with a nice dynamic with those around him. He's got his clashes with his father, friendship with R.J., romance with Kelly, and animosity with the bullies. It's always a pleasure when a character has got this many people to interact with in so many ways. It really puts some meat on their bones. It helps too that he's never a whiny baby, and he becomes a real badass by the end!
Jason's father goes through a good arc too, going from a regular dojo master, to a frightened hypocrite, who has good intentions at heart in protecting his family, but goes about it all the wrong way, even to the point of belittling his son for 'daring' to fight. Dude, you ran a dojo! Cut that shit out! By the last act he learns the error of his ways though, and in a believable way, that doesn't feel too forced. I was confused by where the heck Jason's mother disappears too though! We rarely if ever see her.
R.J. is your typical hip-hop comic relief, and he's a fun addition, if hilariously dated at times. He's endearing too, as we see during his first scene, when he offers to help pack the new family's belongings. It's little things like that that make an otherwise goofy and irreverent character stand out.
Kelly is a nice supporting character and love interest. She shares good chemistry with Jason, which is a good thing considering their first meeting is entirely offscreen! The first time we meet Kelly, the couple are not only already acquainted, they're already sweet on each-other! Oh well, economical storytelling! I like how she always makes her feelings clear. When the bullyish jock Dean is trying to put the moves on her, she tells him flat out that she's not interested, to back off, asking him what the hell he's playing at, etc. At no point is the asshole made out to be wanted or desirable to her.
Bruce Lee's presence is just bizarre, and really wasn't necessary (I can only imagine what Brandon thought about all of this!), but has its moments. His exit is pretty poor though. After Jason accomplishes a special kick, 'Bruce' just buggers off without even saying goodbye! "Ok I've taught you that one move now, I'm leaving. Don't let the door hit you on the way out".
Fat bully Scott is genuinely loathsome, with the filmmakers trying and unfortunately succeeding in making the character so ugly and unappealing through his appearance and his actions that it's almost hard to watch. At least some scenes do support the borderline ludicrous supposition that this obese kid is somehow part of a martial arts class despite being seemingly as out of shape as you can get. If nothing else, he takes hits like a champ!
The main villains are the mobsters, and they're a suitably smarmy bunch. Their main agent is Ivan 'the Russian'. He gets next to no dialogue, and lets his fists do all the talking. He makes for a great final opponent, although you wonder how he even gets away with some of these moves in the ring without being tossed out, or arrested. His ogre-ish personality is built up well, despite the huge gap in his screentime, and it's a pleasure seeing the arrogance get kicked out of him.
The acting is mixed. Some of the performances are hilariously bad, though never boring. For them ost part the cast do a decent enough job. Kurt McKinney is a good lead, carrying the movie well enough, while J.W. Fails makes for an amusing sidekick. Kathie Sileno is a sweet love interest, and very cute, as are all the girls in the movie, matter of fact. Kent Lipham excels at playing a jerk, and having read interviews with him, he is glad he succeeded so well. I'm curious to see him in other roles, to see how much of it is his demeanour, or the direction/writing. Timothy Baker is the worst actor here, but I don't mind, as he gives us some of the funniest moments.
Jean-Claude Van Damme only appears fleetingly, but his scenes are made to count, and he makes for a formidable presence. Lastly, there's 'Bruce Lee', who's not played by one of the usual myriad Lee impersonators such as Bruce Li, Ly, Lai, or Lee Bruce. Instead he's played by Tai Chung Lim, who was most known for his role in the cut-and-paste Game of Death films.
For all No Retreat, No Surrender's deficiencies in its acting, it excels in the martial arts department. There are plenty of great fights, neat moves, and talented performers, and that's not even getting into Jean Claude Van Damme! The most notable thing about this film is that it's his main acting debut!
The overall feel of the movie is swathed in 80s goodness. From the music, to the hairstyles and the fashion. Whether it all earns eyerolls or cheers probably depends on your nostalgia factor, or general opinion of the decade. As for me, it's both! I get a laugh out of it all, but man what I wouldn't give to be living there!
The score here is a nice infusion of east and west, with lots of 80s tunes to enjoy, along with amusingly overdramatic moments. The real highlight is the theme Hold on to the Vision, which makes for a perfect montage, and is terrific in the ending, really selling the moment.
No Retreat, No Surrender certainly has its weaknesses, and hardly compares to bigger budgeted features, but it still has lots of great martial arts, and a unique charm. And compared to some DTV fare it probably looks like gold! Well worth a watch no matter what...