No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

“L.A. karate… I’m impressed.”

Justin’s rating: Three of six packed abs

Justin’s review: I’m sure there have been many occasions on which you’ve found yourself watching Karate Kid with dissatisfaction, thinking to yourself that while this classic movie is all well and good, it makes too much sense. It’s too full of actual acting and likable characters. What would it be like, you think, if someone ran it through a machine to make the same plot far more goofy and over-the-top melodramatic? And tossed in Jean-Claude Van Damme for no good reason?

Well, it would be No Retreat, No Surrender. And you’d be in for a treat.

No Retreat, No Surrender came out two years after Karate Kid (and the same year as Karate Kid Part II) and was roundly shamed for being a weird knock-off without any of the talent and Miyagi quips of the real thing. Yet what critics couldn’t understand back in 1986 is that No Retreat, No Surrender is a bold and beautiful film that deserves to be watched — nay, studied by aspiring Ph.D. film students — who want to look at a film without any inner sense of shame.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, so you’re going to have to jog along side of this summary and try to keep up. At the start, we have a karate teacher named Tom who is drummed out of running a dojo in L.A. thanks to some mobsters who want to take over all of the karate dojos in the land (but of course). Tom’s leg is broken by the mob’s martial arts expert, Ivan (Van Damme), who then disappears until the final act. So Tom and his son Jason and a mom that we almost never see relocate to a very California-looking Seattle, where the dojo-dominating mob eventually spreads.

In the meanwhile, Jason — our whiny, over-dramatic teenage star — finds himself making enemies practically everywhere he goes. One of these is a slobby fatty who mugs for the camera and is supposed to be our Cobra Kai Johnny substitute, but it’s far to hard to take him seriously. I mean, look at this guy:

But anyway, Jason’s only allies are a breakdancing kid named RJ and the ghost of Bruce Lee. Wait, what? Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you this. Jason is downright obsessed with Bruce Lee — there are two extended scenes where he visits Lee’s grave to bow and request help from his “sensei” — and eventually Bruce Lee comes down as a ghost to help train Jason. Except that the ghost doesn’t look anything like Bruce Lee, he slaps Jason around a whole lot, and the film suggests that all of this is happening just in Jason’s head. Either way you interpret this part, Jason’s in a real messed-up place.

The end result of all this ghost trainin’ is that Jason gets super-amazingly awesome at karate and starts to solve all his problems by roundhouse kicking them in the face. As one does. Eventually, his karate mojo leads to a showdown with Ivan during a city karate tournament that in no way is supposed to make you think of another movie.

So there are three real reasons that I’m going to recommend No Retreat, No Surrender to you if you like campy martial arts movies, but all of these come with the caveat that everyone involved knew that this wasn’t a good movie (and it isn’t).

First, there’s a whole lot more karate in this movie than Karate Kid, and the fight sequences are well-done and pulled off without a lot of extensive cuts. It’s all helped by Van Damme’s expertise, of course, although allegedly the guy couldn’t control his attacks and kept making far too much contact with his fellow actors. I kind of liked how the final fight showed how Jason used his training techniques to win the fight.

Second, No Retreat, No Surrender contains some of the most bizarre acting styles that I’ve seen in a movie. Everyone’s just… acting at an 11, all the time, without any understanding of how actual human beings speak or act. The dad goes into hysterics over his kid wanting to take karate, Ivan outright tries to murder people in the ring, the fat guy controls a mob by giving them fast food, and RJ is the product of a frightening amount of sugar injected into the bloodstream of an American teenager.

Third, there’s the Mother of All Training Montages in here, not to mention a rap (this was the 1980s), and people say the film’s title no less than four times with complete seriousness. They also retreat and surrender at least that many times as well. You don’t want to miss that, do you?

We’ve all seen Karate Kid too many times and we need something new in our movie diet. Well, here you go. Here’s the ludicrous action of No Retreat, No Surrender, and you will thank me afterward for it.

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