Directed By: Corey Yuen
Starring: Kurt McKinney, Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails
Tag line: "When life is on the line there can be ..."
Trivia: Jean-Claude Van Damme knocked out Peter Cunningham twice with a spin kick while filming their fight scene
They say confession is good for the soul. Well, I have seen Plan 9 from Outer Space more times that I have 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s strange, I admit, especially when you consider that I rank the 1968 Kubrick classic among my top 50 favorite films, not to mention my all-time favorite science fiction flick, while Plan 9 From Outer Space is…, well, simply awful. But there can be joy in watching a bad movie with a group of people: Ed Wood’s atrocious dialogue, the ridiculous situations, the pathetic special effects, all amount to a rollicking good time, allowing you and your friends to become, for a while anyway, honorary cast members of Mystery Science Theater 3000. When it comes to the cinema, bad can sometimes be good, and, on rare occasions, even great.
With an opening like that, I suppose it’s easy to guess my take on the 1986 action / kung-fu flick No Retreat, No Surrender: I think it’s bad. Very, very bad. But much like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Eegah, The Crater Lake Monster, and pretty much every live-action kids show that Krofft put out in the ‘70s, it is so bad that it’s good.
No, check that: No Retreat, No Surrender is so bad it’s great.
He may not be the most gifted martial artist, but Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) loves karate. He idolizes the late Bruce Lee, and spends every free moment practicing at the Sherman Oaks, California dojo owned and operated by his father Tom (Timothy D. Baker). One day, a representative from a New York crime syndicate demands that Tom sell his school to them. When he refuses, the rep has one of his cronies, Russian martial arts champion Ivan Kraschinsky (Jean-Claude Van Damme), break Tom’s leg. Not willing to fight it out with such a powerful organization, Tom closes his dojo, packs up his belongings, and moves his family to Seattle.
Shortly after their arrival, Jason befriends a smooth-talking breakdancer named R.J. (J.W. Falls) and, a few days later, reunites with Kelly (Kathie Sileno), a girl from Seattle who he met and fell in love with when she spent the summer in California. Unfortunately, Jason also makes some enemies, including Scott (Kent Lipham), a pudgy karate student with a bad attitude. When Jason tries to join the local dojo, Scott spreads rumors about the new kid, saying he heard him bragging about how California karate is better than what’s available in Seattle. This puts Jason at odds with assistant trainer Dean (Dale Jacoby), and before long he finds himself an outcast.
Visiting the grave of Bruce Lee (who is buried in Seattle), Jason asks the late master for help. To his amazement, the spirit of his hero (played by Tai Chung Kim) pays him a visit one evening, and agrees to assist with his training. And when the syndicate, once again with Ivan Kraschinsky in tow, makes its way to Seattle, the new and improved Jason may just be the local dojo’s best chance to retain its independence.
Like many micro-budget productions, No Retreat, No Surrender suffers from poor acting, and the action scenes (with the exception of the final showdown, which is pretty kick-ass) lack excitement. But that’s just scratching the surface of this film’s problems. For one, the chief baddie, Scott, may talk like a villain, but in almost every scene feels more like the comic relief (when we first meet him, he’s smearing chocolate cake across his face, lamenting the fact a Bruce Lee fanatic has moved into the area). In addition, the dialogue is trite, and some scenes end so abruptly they leave us scratching our heads, wondering what happened; a sequence where R.J. walks in on one of Jason’s training sessions with Bruce Lee (who only Jason can see, by the way) ends with a pratfall before R.J. has a chance to ask his buddy who he was talking to.
Throw in a handful of laughable ‘80s-style montages, a story that rips off both The Karate Kid and Rocky IV, and the mysterious appearance of palm trees in Washington State (aside from a few pickups, the Seattle scenes were shot in sunny California), and you have a movie that simply cannot be taken seriously on any level.
In my write-up of 1985’s Gymkata, I mentioned how my friend John and I watched that movie fully expecting to be blown away by its awfulness. But that never happened; the fun, laugh-filled experience we were hoping for was instead a slog through a film that sapped all the energy out of the room. Gymkata is just plain bad. But while that travesty let us down, No Retreat, No Surrender was everything we hoped it would be, and the afternoon we spent watching, and laughing at, this ‘80s treasure was truly a memorable one.
Most great movies are windows to the world, transporting us to exotic places and touching our souls in ways we never dreamed possible. Bad movies, on the other hand, including No Retreat, No Surrender, unleash our inner comedians, and that can be every bit as rewarding in the end.