In the ’70s, it was kung fu; in the ’80s, ninja. But so far in the ’90s, kickboxing rules. Why? With its soaring, swirling acrobatics, it’s different, but not too different. Moreover, its timing is perfect. Just when the ninja concept was getting beaten to death, along came Jean-Claude Van Damme in Kickboxer (1989), giving birth to a whole new martial-arts subgenre. And judging from the flurry of new titles moving storeward, the assault is just starting to peak.
As the brawny Belgian leaps into more mainstream action, like the recent Nowhere to Run, his old stomping ground is open to new contenders. Most of them are real-life kickboxing stars (with championship accreditations dotting their video boxes like so many Oscars), and that keeps up the level of martial artistry. The art of acting, however, tends to take its lumps.
The acting is especially lumpy in American Kickboxer 2, starring Dale ”Apollo” Cook as a hothead cop searching for his ex-wife’s kidnapped daughter. Teaming with Cook is Evan Lurie as a martial-arts guru who was also once involved with Cook’s ex-wife. Each guy thinks he might be the missing child’s father, and therein lies a bit of emotional conflict. The two are plenty convincing while jealously snarling at each other, but not so good with the deeper feelings force-fed into the script. Burdened by such troubled characters, the stars seem genuinely relieved when they can just tear off their shirts and tear into gangs of bad guys.
The competition is more formal in To Be the Best, featuring Michael Worth as a young maverick trying to prove himself at the World Kickboxing Championship. Also on his team are his coulda-been-a-contender older brother (Phillip Troy) and his father, the coach (Martin Kove). All that family togetherness stirs up some old tensions that neither the actors nor the scriptwriter really seem to want to get into. Fortunately, for some killer conflict, there is a sleazy Vegas gambler (Alex Cord) who is trying to blackmail the kid into taking a dive. To be the best or not to be the best? That is the question here.
Things are blessedly less complicated in Live by the Fist, starring Jerry Trimble as an ex-Navy SEAL framed for murder and dumped in an island prison. The place is your usual snake pit of sadistic guards and cutthroat inmates-and they all want to kill our surly hero! Rising to the occasion, Trimble spends the bulk of the movie staring them down, then beating them up in bunches.
While Live by the Fist is run-of-the-mill fodder for less-demanding straight-to-video tastes, Blood Ring is strictly bottom of the barrel. Somewhere in this dimly lit atrocity, Apollo Cook rides again as a down-and-out kickboxer searching for a missing friend. The story barely makes sense, and the supporting cast can barely blurt out the dialogue — which you can barely hear on the murky soundtrack.
Blood Ring is so inept that even its fight scenes — its raison d’être — are sloppily choreographed. The combat in the other films, though, is above average. These kickboxers have all the right moves-yet as action heroes, they’re practically interchangeable. If any of them is serious about filling Van Damme’s shoes, he’d better start working on his style. Actual acting talent may be too much to ask for, but some sort of presence is an absolute must. Without it, these contenders are doomed to remain pretenders.
American Kickboxer 2: C; To Be the Best: C; Live by the Fist: C; Blood Ring: F