1986 in Film – No Retreat, No Surrender

Release date: May 2nd
Box Office: $2,273,045

First off: yes, it’s pretty much The Karate Kid (1984). Boy does karate but not that well so finds mentor to help him.

Only this film, instead of Mr Miyagi, it has The Ghost of Bruce Lee.

Let’s step back a little first.

Corey Yuen was (and still is) a director from Hong Kong. With the burgeoning cinematic scene in the country (kicked off by the Cinema City production company and about to go supernova as Jackie Chan and John Woo hit their stride) he was a stunt man and actor who started directing films. There followed a decent sized hit with Yes Madam (1985) which put Michelle Yeoh on the map and kicked of a mini-trend of similar movies. And then he came to America.

Which is weird. At this stage the popularity of Eastern cinema was mainly built on the back of Bruce Lee and Enter The Dragon (1973). Stars from the East had trouble crossing over to Hollywood, Jackie Chan being the main one to suffer this. It would take about five years for Hong Kong Cinema to gain a true critical and artistic impact following films from people like Wong Kar-wai, part of the second half of the Hong Kong New Wave.

In 1986, however, it was all about the kung fu.

The writer had tried to sell the script to Shaw Brothers and various other studios but no one wanted it. Somehow he was able to sell it to Ng See-yuen, the producer of kung fu classics Snake in Eagle’s Shadows (1978) and Drunken Master (1978). He was looking to make a film in the US and thus No Retreat No Surrender (1986) was born.

Starting in LA, it has Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell, the son of a martial arts instructor being coerced to sell his dojo to a crime syndicate looking to take over all the dojos in America. Never mind drugs or gambling, martial arts dojos are clearly where the real money is to be made. After he refuses to sell he is beaten and has his leg broken by the syndicate’s top hired thug, Ivan The Russian played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Wait. Hold on. Van Damme? The Muscles From Brussels? That Van Damme.

Indeed. This was his first proper role in a film, both he and McKinney were martial artists in tournaments around the world. Both were looking to parlay this into acting which was good timing given the exploding action movie scene.

The fact that both men have a serious fighting background helps to add authenticity to the fights in the film. Then you can mix in Corey Yuen’s fight choreography experience; he was in the Peking Opera’s Seven Lucky Fortunes alongside his friends Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The man knows his stuff.

So why is the film so terrible?

McKinney isn’t an actor yet still manages to show up most of his other cast members. Once the family re-locates to Seattle to escape the criminals he meets and befriends RJ, who skateboards and can breakdance so we can squeeze in more trends of the 80s. He is terrible. He is also subject to unwanted attention from the local bully, Scott. You can tell he’s a bully because when we first meet him he’s eating a cake with his hands. He is also terrible. McKinney’s father is terrible, the love interest is terrible, the people at the Seattle dojo who the crime syndicate inevitably targets? Terrible.

And we haven’t even got to the Ghost of Bruce Lee yet.

In his defence, the actor in that role at least has prior form for the part; in the Bruce Lee impersonator industry that mushroomed after the man’s death, he played Bruce in Game of Death (1978) and Game of Death II (1981). He doesn’t really look like him, plus his voice was dubbed.

How was this film made? How did people think was a good idea? It’s madness. The soundtrack is a hot 80s mess, the story barely makes any sense. Why is a crime syndicate going after dojos? Why does all this hinge on a martial arts contest? Why the Ghost of Bruce Lee?

In the spirit of balance it does have a good song over the training montage.

It’s a bizarre film but also bizarre because of it’s place in history: starting the career of JCVD; being the first of the imports from Hong Kong; Corey Yuen would go on to work with Jet Li and then later return to Hollywood in the late 90s for Lethal Weapon 4 (1998); Ng See-Yuen would go on to produce several of Jet Li’s fantastic Once Upon a Time in China series.

It’s telling that it’s the Eastern (and European) side of the crew would go on to better things; McKinney would bounce around in minor roles in various projects, same for the rest of the cast. This makes sense because the only one on screen with any real charisma is Van Damme, which says something. The writer, Keith Strandberg, would go on to write the rest of the films in the series and a few other low budget affairs.

It’s a curio. It’s not really meant to be watched, it’s an answer in a trivia quiz.

Can’t wait for the sequels.

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