Home Video Hovel: No Retreat, No Surrender, by Craig Schroeder
Though the Blu-ray box art (put out by Kino Lorber), as well as the IMDb log line, would have you believe No Retreat, No Surrender is a movie about a young karate enthusiast (Kurt McKinney) going mano a mano with a Russian Jean Claude Van Damme, that is not quite the case. Other than an opening sequence, where McKinney and Van Damme share a furtive glance, JCVD (nor the evil-Russian storyline that he’s embroiled in) appear again until the sixty-seven minute mark of an eighty-four minute film. A categorical failure that it is cringe-inducingly earnest and astonishingly dull, No Retreat, No Surrender was never going to be remembered as anything but a joke but unfortunately—even judged against the generous parameters of trash cinema fandom—it doesn’t have a punchline.
When Jason Sitwell’s (McKinney) karate instructor father is chased out of Los Angeles by Russian mobsters, they move to Seattle to start their life over (a huge chunk of the film is devoted to comparing the merits of L.A. karate and Seattle karate). After being humiliated by a karate bully (a chubby character who spends much of the movie with various condiments smeared across his face), Jason visits the grave of his hero, Bruce Lee, and begs to become a better martial artist. Turns out: it works! Bruce Lee’s ghost (played by Kim Tai Chong, whose entire dialogue appears to be dubbed) visits Jason and teaches him the ways of a karate master. This revelation mercifully allows the plot to advance enough to finally allow Jason some face-time with JCVD’s Ivan “The Russian Butcher” Kraschinsky (“an awesome machine of annihilation!”).
If you subscribe to the “so bad it’s good” theory of film fandom, No Retreat, No Surrender might check your boxes. There’s clunky dialogue (“Yeah…this is a nice dojo. I’ll probably join.”), grossly generic archetypes, stilted action scenes, and a sundry of eccentricities (there’s a subplot with a bunny rabbit whose given as a birthday gift and a minor character sports a mullet in which the “party” portion of the cut is braided into pig-tails). Unfortunately, I’ve never found myself able to indulge in the “so bad it’s good” convention of film fandom. Once the novelty of a bad film wears off in the first fifteen minutes, the rest begins to feel like homework. In the case of No Retreat, No Surrender, these singularities—while humorous in a vacuum—never amount to anything resembling fun.
Released in 1986, before all the major JCVD tent poles like Bloodsport and Kickboxer (which may absolve the film for Van Damme’s conspicuous lack of screen time but not Kino Lorber for marketing it as a JCVD punch-a-thon), No Retreat, No Surrender has been revived in Blu-ray form as an oddity of 1980s cinema. Debuting at the apex of the “Cold War Playing Out in Action Movies” (Rocky IV put up huge numbers at the box office just a year earlier), No Retreat, No Surrender can’t even pull off the cheaply earned affection of the jingoistic sports tropes in which it was incubated, often waffling in and out of its story beats and concluding in a hastily assembled finale. And though the story’s climactic fight scene is a dud, the film becomes much more watchable with Van Damme on screen. If this review is beginning to sound like glowing admiration of Jean Claude Van Damme, I guess it kind of is. I’m not a big JCVD fan—in fact I’ve seen surprisingly few films of his films. And I’m well aware of his vast limitations as a performer. But he has charisma and commands audience attention. As a part of the whole, Van Damme isn’t really any better than the rest of the film, but when he enters—sixty-seven minutes in—the film becomes much more interesting. It’s a bad film but, if nothing else, No Retreat, No Surrender is an argument for JCVD as a hard-to-define, compelling action commodity.