No Retreat, No Surrender (1985)
In the mid 1980s — during the boom of action films that made men ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sylvester Stallone to Chuck Norris huge stars — martial arts films made a rather solid inroad among the more hardcore action fans.
Few of those films were actually good, and the 1985 effort “No Retreat, No Surrender” wasn’t to the extent that it today has attained status as a schlock classic.
“No Retreat” was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first film, assuming you don’t want to count his turn as “Gay Karate Man” in 1984’s “Monaco Fever” or roles as extras in 1984’s “Breakin’ ” and “Barbarous Street.” After revisiting this film, Van Damme might embrace those roles as his breakthrough rather than this one.
Officially billed as “Ivan, the Russian,” Van Damme’s character is given a last name — Krachinsky, which makes him sound more like an evil Russian/Jewish accountant than a villainous karate master.
Ivan, “Eastern Europe’s most feared martial artist,” doubles as the heavy for a greasy businessman type who wants to … take over all of LA’s karate dojos? Their actual intentions are a little murky but really unimportant; they’re the bad guys.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Our hero is young Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney), a simpering whiny pretty boy who loves karate, especially Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do. He trains at his dad’s dojo in Sherman Oaks and has been studying for two years, which is apparently not enough to know that when you’re sparring in class, you shouldn’t kick the crap out of your partner. (My 7-year-old son is in karate, and that’s something instructors drill into the students the very first day).
Anyway, young Jason gets a totally unfair tongue-lashing from his father (Timothy D. Baker), who just doesn’t understand that Bruce Lee apparently goes full-contact 24/7 even if your partner doesn’t know it’s coming. I should point out that Pops, who is a karate master, sort of resembles Sensei Kreese of the “Karate Kid” films if he were undergoing his third round of chemo.
After class, Ivan shows up with his slimy Eurotrash boss and a bearded dude in a karate uniform to put some pressure on Sensei Stillwell. They apparently want him to “join our organization,” but the elder Stillwell refuses. Eurotrash guy shakes his head, and bearded karate guy attacks as Jason and the class watches. The sensei dispatches skinny-karate Zach Galifianakis, but Ivan the Russian sucker-kicks him, breaks his leg and makes them move to Seattle. (I haven’t really left many details out, as that’s almost exactly what happens).
Jason doesn’t seem to care because he loves Bruce Lee so much (Bruce is buried in Seattle, and the film
exploits homages Bruce by travelling twice to his grave, where Jason “talks” to his idol.)
Jason makes a friend, R.J. (J.W. Fails), a living embodiment of the jive-talking, breakdancing, stereotypical, black ’80s movie character who dresses (and dances like) Michael Jackson circa 1984 and speaks almost entirely in rhyme and catchphrase.
He also makes an enemy in Scott (Kent Lipham), his portly neighbor across the street, who doesn’t like R.J. … which also means he doesn’t like his new “Bruce Lee freak” friend either. We know Scott is bad because he’s fat and is constantly eating in the sloppiest way possible, often smearing chocolate or mustard on his face as he eagerly stuffs it full of cake or a plate of cheeseburgers.
Against his dad’s wishes, Jason turns his new garage into his own little karate studio, complete with Bruce Lee poster. It seems after his encounter with Ivan the Russian, dad decides that karate is now bad, but giving beer to drunk guys is a good way to make a living.
Jason goes to check out the local dojo R.J. recommends, whose sensei happens to be local kickboxing star Ian Reilly (Ron Pohnel), who is also brother to Jason’s girlfriend, Kelly. (And yes, you say, Jason does have a girlfriend shortly after moving to Seattle from L.A. How he meets her we don’t know … and no, she doesn’t mention her brother’s dojo to him, knowing he’s such a karate fiend).
But wait! Tubby Scott is also a member; he lumbers around, his white belt seemingly in danger of snapping at any second and unleashing his massive gut from his too-tight gi. He sees Jason and tells Dean Ramsay (Dale Jacoby) — one of the instructors, who happens to have a thing for Jason’s girlfriend — that Jason was talking smack about how Seattle karate sucks compared to L.A. karate. Instead of talking with him or confronting him, Dean pits Jason against the dojo’s top black belt student, thinking it’ll be a fair fight despite the fact that Jason wears a red belt.
Jason holds his own, but is humiliated in the end and “escapes” the dojo with R.J.’s help, which leads to a fight at Jason’s girlfriend’s birthday party. This leads to Jason’s dad angrily ripping down Jason’s Bruce Lee poster, which leads to Jason and RJ taking up in an abandoned house in the neighborhood, which leads to … Bruce Lee’s ghost teaching Jason karate. Yes. Bruce Lee COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD to become this whiny douchebag kid’s karate instructor because, in Ghost Bruce’s own words, “you asked me to” despite the fact that Jason … never asks him to.
So Ghost Bruce, who looks nothing like the real Bruce Lee (whose poster is constantly shown in the film), teaches Jason karate by slapping him around and making him do impossible things.
Meanwhile, greasy Eurotrash businessman brings his thugs (including Ivan the Russian) to Seattle, apparently to fulfill his goal of total domination of the West Coast’s karate businesses. He interrupts a 3-on-3 karate match to pit Ivan the Russian against the Seattle dojo’s best: Ian Reilly, the top student who thrashed Jason earlier, and Dean Ramsey (a great name for a douchebag villain, by the way, and a bad guy who kind of looks like Guy Fieri’s jock older brother).
It’s not hard to guess what happens next: the villains are beaten down by the other villain, despite Jason’s warnings to them, which they dismiss haughtily, and Jason hops into the ring to defend the honor of his girlfriend/father/people who beat his ass over and over against Ivan the Russian.
There’s plenty of cheesy ’80s techno pop music, the obligatory breakdancing scene, feathered/crimped/jheri curled hair and people uncomfortably wearing ties and cut off shirts (at the same party, mind you).
The transitions and changes in characters come rapid-fire, and it’s hard to keep up with all of the characters. Few characters come off well, especially Jason, who as a two-year karate student, all but starts crying every time he comes out on the losing end of a match, mouths off to most everyone and all but physically assaults his girlfriend at one point.
There is also a subplot with Jason’s father losing confidence, and in a massive coincidence he, too, is targeted by local thugs, though in the form of barflies. When Sensei Stillwell throws one out of his bar, the drunk threatens “I’ll be back, and I’m gonna get you!”
Also jarring is the way the primary villains disappear for the majority of the movie, and an almost entirely new movie emerges. It’s like 45 minutes of a poor man’s “Karate Kid” were dropped into the middle of a low-rent “Rocky IV” with no explanation or transition.
While Van Damme’s martial arts skills are on full display, and the most of fights appear conducted with real martial artists (even as people dramatically explode across and out of the ring on occasion from kicks and punches), the acting, as is to be expected, is atrocious. Van Damme, as the film’s big heavy, appears in only a handful of scenes and speaks little; with acting this bad, what does it say that the Muscles from Brussels is protected?
The Ghost Bruce scenes are patently preposterous. We’re left to wonder whether Jason is imagining Lee’s participation; at one point, R.J. stumbles upon Jason and Ghost Bruce sparring, and sees only Jason kicking the air and talking someone who isn’t there). But if that’s the case, how does he get so good at karate? If he’s not imagining him … well, that’s even dumber.
“No Retreat, No Surrender” is one of the more gleefully ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen. It has historical perspective by setting up Van Damme’s stardom, features believable but still ludicrous fight scenes with real athletes and betrays all sorts of silly, backwards ’80s values and quirks. If you’re a fan of bad karate movies, you ain’t getting any worser than “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
Warning: This trailer spoils virtually the entire film. Because, you know, this column didn’t.