Jean-Claude Van Damme’s skills as an actor, as well as a martial artist, were on full display in Kickboxer, in ways we didn’t witness in Bloodsport (1988) or Lionheart (1990) and Double Impact (1991). Mark DiSalle and David Worth carved a gem for the martial-arts subgenre of action cinema in 1989. Van Damme plays Kurt Sloan; a humble, wholehearted American kickboxer raised in Europe who’s hellbent on avenging his brothers permanent paralysis at the hands of a ruthless Muay Thai Champion, “Tiger” Tong Po (Michel Qissi). After witnessing an illegal elbow strike to his brother Eric’s spine amid a match, Kurt seeks the tutelage of Xian Zhou – a Chinese-Thai master – to train him for revenge.
Muay Thai, being the art of 8 limbs, is brutal in comparison to the intensity of American kickboxing’s art of four limbs; in the latter a fighter is not authorized to utilize knees or elbows, signified as dirty techniques used in Muay Thai. Kurt discovers this cruelty and inhumaneness through his training, with ruthless sequences taking place underwater, while endlessly kicking a banana tree until it snaps. The cinematography by Jon Kranhouse captures the magnificent ancient grounds of Stone City in Thailand with gallantry during magic hour at dusk. The heart stroking score by Paul Hertzog induces a bittersweet tug of nostalgia; a Zen-like feeling evoking determination for victory within Kurt’s dangerous and powerful motive of revenge.
The darkness that would follow in the film’s sequel, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991) reveals Kurt’s murder immediately after the fight in an alley behind the underground arena by the hand of Tong Po, firing a bullet from a firearm directly into Kurt’s forehead. Eric and Kurt’s youngest brother, David Sloan (Sasha Mitchell), vows to seek revenge, once he is veered into the ring by Tong Po, who wishes to regain his honor after losing the support of Thailand. Kickboxer 2 spends a great deal of time constructing the character of David by showing how deeply he’s been affected by the death of Kurt, and building him up for a powerful third act of vengeance versus Tong Po.
Kickboxer is equated with masterpieces of martial arts cinema, like Enter the Dragon (1973) and Police Story (1985). Jean-Claude Van Damme’s performance solidifies his imprint upon the genre as a master of his craft in addition to his embodiment of character. The film’s stance as a classic is proven with its timeless exhibition of martial arts. The laborious style of the story is well thought out, allowing the film to stand the test of time. With Kickboxer, Jean-Claude Van Damme exemplified his skills as a martial artist and displayed his emotional range of acting to its fullest degrees. Van Damme is on the Mount Rushmore of martial arts stars, along with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. Moreover, JCVD might arguably be the greatest martial artist of cinema history.