Film and drama

Screen Themes — Hard Target 2 vs Kickboxer: Vengeance

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It’s time for some mid-budget action as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the sequels to a pair of Jean-Claude Van Damme “classics” and explores the much-maligned world of direct to video sequels.

Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016) — directed by John Stockwell

In this modern age of Netflix, video on demand and rampant online piracy, the concept of “Direct To Video” (DVT) seems somewhat quaint. Back in the 1980s, DTV was a staple of video stores everywhere, with horror titles like Splatter Farm, Killing Spree and Death Nurse sitting comfortably beside action fare, like King of the Kickboxers, Megaforce and Beastmaster. Videos were hired half a dozen at a time with titles chosen on how good the box art looked and, once in a while, you would stumble across something pretty great.

While his movies often had a short theatrical run, Jean-Claude Van Damme was a video store legend, with movies like Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Kickboxer inspiring a generation of kids to briefly take up martial arts. A generation has passed, but JCVD is still at it, co-starring in DTV sequels to his own movies. His three instalments in the Universal Soldier franchise buck the sequel trend and get progressively better, adding authenticity by hiring former fighters like Andrei Arlovski (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) and Georges St-Pierre, who plays alcoholic fighter Kavi in Kickboxer: Vengeance.

Essentially ignoring Kickboxers 2-5 (none of which featured JCVD), Kickboxer: Redemption reboots the story and introduces arrogant karate champion Kurt Sloane and his gormless brother Eric, played by former stuntman Alain Moussi. When Kurt is killed in the ring by the monstrous Tong Po, Eric tracks down Kurt’s trainer Ducard (JCVD) and begins his path to vengeance.

Rarely removing his hat and sunglasses (even while fighting) the haggard JCVD seems to be enjoying himself as Ducard, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour as he makes fun of Eric for doing the splits. Alain Moussi is athletic but bland as Eric, while Dave Bautista brings a definite physical menace to the near-superhuman Tong Po.

The former pro wrestler has a limited range (to say the least) but is convincing in the fight scenes and has a lot of badass tattoos, which is pretty much all you need in the world of DTV. It will be interesting if Bautista’s turn as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy will lead to a Dwayne Johnson-esque movie career or one more akin to Hulk Hogan, which seems to be the trajectory of most WWE wrestlers who make the jump to acting (I’m looking at you, John Cena).

At the end of the day, Kickboxer: Vengenace is almost entirely predictable, but it’s worth a look for fans of the original and to enjoy JCVD’s career resurgence.

Hard Target 2 (2016) — directed by Roel Reine

If you were a fan of action flicks in the early 1990s, there is a chance you will remember a movie called Hard Target. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and his magnificent mullet, the movie told the story of a group of jaded ultra-rich assholes who embark on a hunt for the most dangerous game; a Belgian man who can do the splits. Stylish yet ridiculous, Hard Target is notable as the U.S. debut of acclaimed Chinese director John Woo, auteur behind such films as A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head.

A scant 23 years later, the sequel that almost nobody asked for has finally arrived. Telling essentially the same story, but set in Myanmar, Hard Target 2 stars Scott Adkins, one of the most charismatic stars in the DTV world. While Adkins has played small roles in big action flicks, including The Bourne Ultimatum and Zero Dark Thirty, it is his DTV work that really shines. Movies like Ninja, Close Range and the Undisputed sequels allow him to display a combination of awesome athletic skills and gentlemanly machismo.

In Hard Target 2, Adkins plays professional fighter Wes “The Jailor” Baylor, who inadvertently kills his best friend in the ring. After accepting an offer of a big money underground fight in Myanmar, Baylor finds himself hunted by a group led by the cartoonishly evil Aldrich, played by Robert Knepper, better known as the creepy guy from Prison Break. Slightly more convincing is Temuera Morrison as henchman Madden, channeling shades of Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors as he glowers from behind a pair of wraparound shades.

Taking advantage of the natural environment for beautiful establishing shots (a hallmark of many DTV films shot in Asia), Hard Target 2 includes a plethora of visual tributes to John Woo, notably white doves in the middle of a shootout, people flying through the air while firing a gun/bow/angry grimace and an almost overwhelming use of slo-mo.

In a nice contrast to most big screen action movies, Hard Target 2 is shot so you can actually see what’s going on, rather than trying to create the illusion of action via quick cuts and shaky-cam.

The Verdict

Neither Kickboxer: Vengeance or Hard Target 2 could be considered a great movie, but despite that I really enjoyed both of them. There is no doubt that nostalgia for the days of the video store play a part in this enjoyment, but it might also be something to do with managing expectations. If I pay a hundred bucks or so for the family big screen experience and have to endure something like Assassins Creed, it feels like I’ve been ripped off. When I pay a few bucks to stream a DTV video or watch a random movie on Netflix, I’m a bit more forgiving.

If you’re one of those people who prefer to watch films at Dendy and can name all of Kar-Wai Wong’s movies, then Kickboxer: Vengeance and Hard Target 2 might not be your speed, but if you like old-school action movies then you could do far worse.

Kickboxer: Vengeance — 6.5/10

Hard Target 2 — 7/10

IA subscribers may listen to entertainment editor John Turnbull discuss movies, music and conspiracy theories with managing editor Dave Donovan in the latest members only Independent Australia podcast HERE.

Like what you read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee, you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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