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Movie Review

The ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’ Trilogy

In the mid-eighties Ng See Yuen’s ‘Seasonal Films’ company decided it might be a good idea to try their hand at making films with more international appeal, initially inspired by the success of a certain Hollywood martial arts movie.

But unlike previous attempts at international productions by the likes of Golden Harvest and other studios, where the main goal was to introduce a home grown star to the west, Seasonal’s aim was to make movies with a combination of American actors in front of the camera, with a mostly Asian crew working behind the scenes, putting together the kind of action that Hong Kong does so well.

Their first attempt, ‘No Retreat, No Surrender‘ was released in 1986…A film which would eventually spawn two sequels.

“Tonight, he either fights for his life, or he’ll be running for the rest of it.”

The original ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’, directed by the great Corey Yuen Kwai (‘Yes Madam‘, ‘Fong Sai Yuk‘), was inspired by the success of ’The Karate Kid’, Seasonal’s mindset was to take the same concept, but pepper it with better action scenes. The film tells the rather simple tale of a Bruce Lee fanatic teenager named Jason (Kurt McKinney), moving to a new town, having problems with the local bullies, the usual stuff. After one particularly bad day he is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee (played by Tai Chung Kim, who doubled Bruce in ‘Game Of Death’). Ghostly Bruce teaches Jason in the ways of Jeet Kune Do, turning Jason into a kung fu master. All of this leading up to a typical tournament scenario, which is being held by the goons than ran his father out of business, so it’s up to Jason to settle the score by beating seven shades out of their toughest fighter, the evil Ivan The Russian (Or Karl Brezdin according to the credits, even though they call him Ivan numerous times in the movie. Not sure how they messed that up.)

As you can see, the film is ’The Karate Kid’ with some Brucesploitation added into the mix for good measure. Yes, the idea of having the spirit of Bruce Lee randomly appear to teach some kid kung-fu is stupid and pretty tacky, even when I first saw this movie as a kid I thought it was a little daft, but it does add to the overall cheese factor of the movie. And cheese is something it has in abundance; It seems like ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’ exists in a world of it’s own, it’s damn sure the eighties, but it feels like the eighties in overdrive at times. It’s almost as if Corey Yuen and the guys at Seasonal were trying a little too hard to make the movie as hip as possible and as American as apple pie. Just check out the random break dancing/body popping for example and overall corny back slapping friendship between Jason and his buddy R.J. The music, which I’m sure even at the time was considered an Edam-fest, should also be noted, with it’s power-rock styling’s and motivational “training montage” lyrics.

Of course, we can’t forget that this was the first time the world got to see Jean Claude Van Damme on the big screen and to be honest he probably gets to show his stuff in a more impressive way here than he did in ‘Bloodsport’ or ‘Kickboxer’ thanks to the choreography. Van Damme really should play bad guy roles more often because he’s great here, with his Stallone-esque curled lip, battle cries and brutal tactics.

Overall the film kind of falls into guilty pleasure territory, or indeed “so-bad-it’s-good” territory, as do the sequels at times but more so here. You have some pretty atrocious acting and clichés by the bucket load, but you also have well choreographed fight scenes from Mang Hoi (Randy Mang!) and Corey Yuen, which although are not as tight and fast paced as the work they crafted in Hong Kong, are still miles apart from the kind of stuff Chuck Norris and other American martial arts stars were doing at the time.

So ‘Seasonal’ had a little hit on their hands, what was next on the agenda? A sequel of course.

“It’s not a rematch…IT’S WAR!”

‘No Retreat, No Surrender II: Raging Thunder’ was originally intended to be a continuation of the original, bringing back the Jason and Ivan characters to do battle one more time. But, Van Damme had his mind set on starring in ‘Bloodsport’, which ended up shooting at around the same time, but he was contractually obliged to make two more films for Seasonal. So according to producer Roy Horan (of ‘Snake In The Eagles Shadow’ and ‘Game Of Death II’ fame) production was about to commence on the movie in Thailand when he received a fax from Van Dammes lawyer saying he wasn’t going to show up, effectively breaking his contract. As for Kurt McKinney, he had recently married and his wife had concerns about the risks of shooting in Cambodia, so he was out too. In the end the roles ended up being recast and the script was given a re-write.

I’m sort of glad this happened for a few reasons; firstly, Van Damme ended up making ‘Bloodsport’ which is one of the greats of eighties action cinema. And secondly I prefer the direction the series went from here and the characters it introduced in part two especially. So, let’s talk about part two…

The story this time centers on young American hard ass Scott Wylde
(Loren Avedon), a man with martial art skills and without a doubt the greatest name of all time; Throughout the movie you’re always waiting for someone to say something along the lines of “You’re insane, Scott! You’re wild” and for it to be followed up by the line “I’m wild alright…Scott Wylde” [CRASH ZOOM]. Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, Scott is in Thailand to visit his girlfriend and meet her folks, but typically she ends up kidnapped and in the hands of the bad guys, who are once again, the Russians (it was the eighties after all). After Scott beats seven shades out of the kidnappers that stayed behind to finish him off, he ends up in police custody, but being the “Wylde” renegade youngster that he is he escapes, determined to get his girl back.

He enlists the help of his old buddy Mac Jarvis (Max Thayer), a ‘Nam vet
who now earns a living selling all sorts of weaponry, including tanks. Now they’re armed to the teeth with machine guns and crossbows. Off they go into Cambodia to save the day, along with helicopter pilot Terri (Cynthia Rothrock).

Whilst the original was spurred on by the success of ‘The Karate Kid‘, this movie seems to have taken it’s influence from ‘Rambo: First Blood Part 2‘, it’s full of machine guns, explosions and even a red head band. But there’s another movie that this has a lot in common with, ‘Star Wars‘. When you think about the plot; young guy and his friends try to rescue captured beauty from an evil and powerful army. Now I know, that can be said for lots of movies that were made even before ‘Star Wars‘, it is of course a classic narrative, but Max Thayer sounds a hell of a lot like Harrison Ford at times and has this penchant for calling Scott “kid” all the time (I’m sure he also calls him “farm boy” too) so we’ve got a bit of a Han/Luke relationship there. If that seems like too much of a stretch, they’re destination is a place called Death Mountain…Yes? No? Am I over analyzing to the point of annoyance, Mark Cousins style here? Right, moving on…

This is probably my favourite of the three, it’s full of great characters and great slam-bang eighties action, as well as great martial arts action too; the stand out set piece being the fight with the monks, it’s a fantastic piece of complex choreography, especially when the ropes come out and it goes into agile flips and twirls. Brilliant.

As for the bad guys, taking up the role of the bad ass Russian this time around is b-movie favourite Matthias Hues, who I’d say is best known for his role in Dolph Lundgren’s ‘Dark Angel’. Apparently Matthias learned how to fight for the screen whilst shooting this movie, under the masterful tutelage of Hwang Jang Lee, you certainly can’t tell that this is his first stab at an action movie. Matthias is a lot of fun in the movie, playing it just right with a hefty dose of menace along with a slight dose of camp (whether the latter is intentional or not I don’t know, but I still enjoy it). Ty, his right hand man however is played by the aforementioned kung-fu legend Hwang Jang Lee, star (and usually the villain) of many kung fu classics, most notably the movies Seasonal produced that made Jackie Chan a star, ‘Snake In The Eagles Shadow’ and ‘Drunken Master’. As usual Hwang gets to show off his trademark kicking skills, especially during a small, but memorable, fight scene with Cynthia Rothrock.

Rothrock is also good in the movie, handling her action scenes as brilliantly as she usually does. The only problem is her character is hampered with some horrible dialogue, it’s obvious they were trying to make her character the smart ass, tough chick, but it really doesn’t work and her character eventually just ends up coming off like a bit of a childish bitch with some really bad put downs in her repertoire.

Avedon’s character is basically a younger version of the typical gung-ho American “nam vet” heroes of the time, and as I said earlier he even sports the Rambo-esque red head band. And once again his fight sequences remind you of the fact that this guy could easily have been a much bigger star given the chance. It’s a shame he never went to Hong Kong, he could’ve easily been one of the top “gwailo” bad guys over there.

All in all ‘Raging Thunder’ is a hell of a lot of fun, chock full of great action set pieces and a great explosive finale which gives us the carnage of the war themed action epics of the time and combines it with some great martial arts rumbles. It also has quite a cool theme tune too, which I can almost guarantee will be stuck in your head after the credits have rolled.

“The first was for honour…
The second was for his country…
This time…It’s family.”

In 1990 we got ‘No Retreat, No Surrender III: Blood Brothers’, which brought back Loren Avedon from part two but unfortunately Corey Yuen did not return, instead we have Lucas Lo in the directors chair, who after this would go on to direct Avedon again in the great ‘King Of The Kickboxers’…Which I’m pretty sure is one of the only movies to mix the world of snuff films and martial arts.

The story this time centers around two brothers Will (Avedon) and Casey (Keith Vitali) Alexander, but as the trailer says “they’re oil and water, they‘ll never mix”; Casey is following in his father footsteps and making his way up the ranks of the CIA, whilst Will is a rebel, disagreeing with the CIA’s methods and making his own way in the world by running a karate dojo. When their father (the Jimmy Stewart-esque Campanella) is murdered, the brothers go their separate ways to track down the killer; Uber terrorist bastard Franco (Rion Hunter).

So, this time around we have a plot that seems to have been inspired by the likes of ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Lethal Weapon‘, what with the terrorists and mismatched partners etc. And it’s good stuff, once again we have lot’s of good action which is probably even more “Hong Kong style” than the previous entries, the fights certainly seem a lot quicker and sharper. Keith Vitali especially looks great here and whenever I watch this I’m always disappointed that he didn’t get more to do in ‘Wheels On Meals’, but maybes his screen fighting chops weren’t up to scratch back then. After all he has said before that he accidentally knocked Sammo Hung out cold during a fight scene.

Although Keith may be strong in the action department here, his acting is certainly on the stiff side, at times it sounds like he’s saying his lines for the first time or reading cue cards. Take note of the scene in which he goes through the CIA’s records looking for information on his fathers murderer; Never mind the fact that the file he’s looking at is called ‘Top_Secret.doc’, it’s just a classic bit of bad exposition. Even seasoned actors can have trouble with dialogue that only serves to fill in the audience as to what’s going on, never mind actors that are not that experienced.

To be fair, this was only his third time in front of the camera, the others being the aforementioned ‘Wheels On Meals’ and the other being ‘Revenge Of The Ninja’ alongside Sho Kosugi, with this being his first shot at a lead role, so I do have to cut him some slack. And besides, in interviews he always seems like a really nice guy, so I feel a bit bad slating his performance…Plus he could kick my head off it’s hinges.

But, the most memorable thing about the movie (Besides the gorgeous Wanda Acuna in a bikini) is Franco, with his white mullet and white eyebrows and maniacal smile, he’s like a classical Kung Fu villain of yesteryear, but late eighties style. I always find it amusing that Franco is wanted the world over for terrorist acts, yet he never bothers to hide his most distinguished feature, the fact that he’s pretty much an albino. Even when he’s on his way to assassinate the president (with a rocket launcher!) he still doesn’t seem all that bothered that he’ll be spotted. You’d think he’d be well stocked up on ‘Just For Men’.

The finale isn’t as explosive and grand as the ending to part two, but it certainly has more kung fu action with the brothers squaring off against Franco and his George Eastmen look-alike henchman, there’s even a pretty cool homage to Jackie Chan’s ‘Dragon Lord’ thrown in there for good measure.

Well, I’d better finish up here because this is getting long, but if you’ve stuck with this until the end then you’re a good person, anyone who would read this much about this series is alright with me.

To sum up, a great set of films that always put me in a good mood after viewing them. Stick ‘King Of The Kickboxers’ in there and you’ve got yourself a night of solid, no bullshit entertainment. B-movie action at its finest.

Note: For maximum satisfaction, this night of martial arts action is best viewed with pizza, beer and a few friends.


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