Action, Martial Arts

No Retreat No Surrender (1986)

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Presented By: Seasonal Films, Balcor Film Investors, New World Pictures

Produced By: NG See Yuen

Blu-Ray Distributed By: Kino Lorber

Initial Release: May 2, 1986

Blu-ray Release: February 21, 2017

Director: Corey Yuen

Rating: PG

Reviewed By James M. Dubs

I’ll watch anything…including No Retreat No Surrender.

I originally encountered No Retreat No Surrender on VHS sometime during 1987. One of my classmates, Peter (and his younger brother Johnny), had discovered it at our local video store and they told me that it was about a kid that learned Karate from the ghost of Bruce Lee. And then there was something about the kid having to fight a Russian! We watched No Retreat No Surrender that Saturday afternoon, and then again Sunday afternoon. We probably would have watched it Monday after school if Peter’s mom hadn’t returned the tape. It’s a movie that digs up forgotten memories and stirs feelings of nostalgia. Therefore, I was very excited when Kino Lorber (under its KL Studio Classics banner) planned to release the film with, not one but, TWO versions of the film on blu-ray.

Before “rediscovering” No Retreat No Surrender, if you had asked for my recollection of the plot, I would have said, “It stars Jean-Claude Van Damme in his first movie role as an evil Russian kickboxer, and features the ghost of Bruce Lee teaching a kid karate.” That bare-bones description indicates what resonated and imprinted on my 10-year-old memory. As I would soon (re)discover, these two plot devices actually make up a very small part of the overall story structure, and a film that was cherished as a child would prove to be a completely different experience as an adult.

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

Ivan “The Russian Butcher” Kraschinsky (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hard Target, Double Impact) faces off with Jason “Kid Karate” Stillwell (Kurt McKinney, Sworn to Justice) in a do-or-die battle between good and evil. Jason is an avid admirer of Bruce Lee, but has suffered countless defeats. At his lowest emotional ebb Jason is visited by Bruce Lee’s spirit (Kim Tai Chong, Game of Death) offering to teach him all his closely guarded secrets. Jason’s training is quickly put to its ultimate test when a crime syndicate threatens to take over Seattle as the fate of Jason’s karate school hangs in the balance. Jason is forced to submit to a “trial by combat” against the syndicate champion, Ivan, an unstoppable butcher who has made mincemeat out of all the black belts he’s faced before and there’s no retreat and no surrender. Directed by action-great Corey Yuen (The Transporter and Jet Li’s The Legend and The Legend II). This release includes both the international cut and U.S. theatrical cut, available for the first time in HD.

Kino Lorber’s synopsis plays up everything I remembered as a child, and speaks to the most memorable aspects of the film. What the synopsis doesn’t tell you is what most of the film is really about.

The film opens in the karate dojo owned and operated by Jason’s father, Tom Stillwell (Timothy Baker, Bloodfist II). They are soon visited and threatened by members of a crime syndicate that are recruiting fighters for their organization. After Tom refuses, a fight ensues and Van Damme takes care of business. Jason’s father, beaten and afraid, shuts down the Los Angeles dojo and secretly moves the family to Seattle (a very California-esque, palm tree laden Seattle, I might add). From here the film falls into very familiar The Karate Kid territory. Jason meets R.J. (J.W. Fails) a wise-cracking, breakdancing neighborhood kid and they form an immediate friendship. Stuffing his face with a large chocolate cake, and watching from across the street is Scotty (Kent Lipham); the fat, antagonistic bully that seems to hate R.J. and Jason for no apparent reason other than “look villain”! While Jason and R.J. focus their efforts on Bruce Lee worship and martial arts training, Scotty rounds up the rest of the Cobra Kais… (Sorry, Karate Kid reference) Scratch that!  Scotty rounds up the generic karate bullies, lead by Dean Ramsay (Dale Jacoby, Ring of Fire), to further cause torment and torture for Jason. Jason’s troubles come to a head when Dean beats Jason up at a birthday party for Jason’s girlfriend, Kelly (Kathie Sileno), for whom Dean also carries a torch. (That doesn’t sound familiar.)

Jason’s father is outraged with Jason’s persistent fighting, and having been beaten to his lowest point, Jason is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee who offers to train Jason in the art of Jeet Kune Do. Through the magic of movie montage, Jason begins is unconventional training by waxing the car, painting the fence…  (Sorry, another Karate Kid reference) Let me start over.

Jason begins his training and soon has the ability to thwart a group of bar room hooligans who threaten his father. With a renewed confidence in himself and his abilities, Jason patches things up with his girlfriend, makes amends with dad, and even prepares to reassert himself back among the karate community. Unfortunately the crime syndicate has made its way to Seattle and has challenged Dean’s mentor and sensei, Frank Peters (Peter Cunningham), to a winner-take-all match. Van Damme finally returns to the film’s narrative, having last been seen at the very beginning of the entire film. And suddenly the film becomes Rocky IV with Jason having to face Ivan in the ring for no reason other than “look villain”!

I have to apologize for all of The Karate Kid comparisons because its just too painfully obvious. Even the blatant Rocky IV rip-off attempt by including a Russian fighter is so mind-numbingly noticeable that I almost feel too stupid for pointing it out. But all of this aside, the film offers enough small variances to these familiar plot devices to give this effort a shot at standing apart from its more popular predecessors. To start, despite only having about 17 minutes of total screen time, Van Damme’s performance and brand of action is a top reason for watching the film. He perfectly bookends the entire picture and it is clear, even in his brief appearance, that he was destined to become an action film star in his own right.

Speaking of brand of action, the fighting style and choreography of No Retreat No Surrender follows a more stylized and deliberate motion of Kung Fu films. Every kick, punch, block, attack is very rhythmic in nature and gives the film an air of Hong Kong style blended with American cinema. Screenwriter Keith R. Strandberg states on the disc audio commentary that this style of fighting was “groundbreaking” for American film. I’m no scholar of martial arts cinema, so I can’t verify this statement but considering they ripped off two of America’s biggest films, I’m a little skeptical of this claim. Regardless of the validity of this statement, it is apparent that the people involved in the film are passionate about martial arts and the action sequences are strong and reinforce this love of the discipline and spiritual development.

The cast is almost exclusively made up of non-actors with strong martial arts skills, and it shows. Strandberg describes them as “good-enough actors” in the audio commentary track. The acting S-U-C-K-S…  But this is also part of the film’s appeal and charm. At best there’s Van Damme who relishes in playing and over-the-top film heavy. At worst you have lead Kurt McKinney, whose acting skill never exceeds the level of high school theater department. And then you have the bizarre with the casting of Korean fighter Kim Tai Chong, who plays Bruce Lee. According to Strandberg, Kim spoke zero English so they hired a Korean translator to write Korean dialogue that would closely resemble the English dialogue in the script. When you watch the film it is clear that there is a poor voice over trying to sync up with Kim’s lip movements. Strangely the effect kind of works, not because the dialogue is seamless, but because it isn’t. The character of Jason is experiencing some otherworldly, supernatural encounter and it’s funny and strange that the apparition of Bruce Lee speaks to him like a badly dubbed Hong Kong Kung Fu movie. A fortunate accident for certain.

The popularity of No Retreat No Surrender was strong enough to encourage the production of two sequels that would have absolutely nothing to do with the Jason Stillwell story line. Screenwriter Keith R. Strandberg would help pen both the 1987 and 1990 sequels and Director Corey Yuen would return to direct No Retreat No Surrender 2. I have yet to view the follow-ups but I have little doubt that they rip-off better, more established Chuck Norris action films based on their synopses. If Kino Lorber sees fit to give the sequels the blu-ray treatment, based on the simple joys and fun I experienced with the original, I may have to give them a spin.

No Retreat No Surrender is the kind of film I would feel safe showing my boys. There are strong themes and philosophies of non-violence in the face of adversity, but standing up for oneself if conflict can’t be avoided. The storytelling is simplistic and basic and will resonate with children, but adults may find the overall tone and execution a little clunky, cheesy, and unintentionally funny. Thank God we have Van Damme to do that awesome split moves on the ropes (picture at the end of review).

Video & Audio Rating: ★★★½☆

There are actually some pretty stark differences in image quality between the “U.S. Cut” and “International Cut”. Of the pair, the international cut is superior, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The source print used for the transfer shows noticeable wear and tear. Scratches, blemishes, speckling, come and go throughout the film. Upon viewing both versions of the film, I suspect Kino Lorber primarily used the international cut for the bulk of the transfer and reassembled, omitted, and added the footage for the shorter U.S. cut version. The reason for this guess is that the footage found exclusively in U.S. version shows noticeable image deterioration when compared to the overall international version. For instance, the U.S. version has an extended scene introducing Jason’s love interest Kelly as the pair tour the sites of Seattle. The footage is significantly more grainy and dirty compared to other sections of the film. Comically the international version excludes this scene all together so you never meet Kelly prior to the birthday fight and are left wondering who the hell she is or why Dean seems intent on kicking the crap out of Jason. Putting these image abnormalities and inconsistencies aside, the overall presentation is mostly very strong. Colors are a little washed out but overall pleasing. The food smeared on Scotty’s face is especially juvenile and will play well to prepubescent boys.

The audio is nothing that will impress, but it mostly gets the job done. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mix doesn’t seem to have lasted the test of time and reminded me more of a flat VHS presentation than what we’ve become accustomed to in modern digital cinema. That may sound harsh and I’m certainly not suggesting the audio is equal to an analog VHS output. Even without a side by side comparison, I’m sure the blu-ray audio is much better. Even still, the overall presentation feels bland and muddy and certainly makes the film feel like a product of the mid-eighties, for better or worse. But even if the sound quality didn’t date the production, the film’s title song “Stand on your own” provides a distinct and dated eighties pop vibe that fills me with giddy nostalgia.

Extras Rating: ★★★½☆

The crowning jewel of the set is the inclusion of that alternate, 94-minute international cut of the film. If you want the version that makes the most narrative sense, watch the U.S. cut. The international cut includes several scenes that add a little depth to some of the characters and story arcs, but also omits critical scenes that introduce important characters. For anyone interested in an “ultimate cut” there are several fans who have edited all of the scenes together online. The disc supplements break down as follows: 

  • Two versions of the film: 85-minute U.S. Cut, 94-minute international cut
  • Interview with Star Kurt McKinney (17:12) – McKinney recalls his beginnings in martial arts, how he earned the role of Jason, and shares many other interesting stories including Van Damme’s inability to pull a punch, and other career and No Retreat No Surrender fan experiences.
  • Audio Commentary by Screenwriter Keith R. Strandberg (U.S. Cut) – Strandberg succumbs to a handful of periods of silence where he gets caught watching the film, but it must be forgiven since he admits this viewing is the first time he’s done so since the film’s original premier. The information he shares is varied and interesting, covering topics such as the film’s original title, his personal experiences in martial arts, how he convinced the producer to come aboard, and other anecdotes about the cast and crew.
  • Trailer Gallery
    • No Retreat No Surrender international trailer
    • An Eye For An Eye
    • Enter The Ninja
    • Avenging Force
    • Revenge of the Ninja
    • Steele Justice

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

What more really needs to be said? To quote Jerry Maguire, “You had me at ‘mid-eighties, Americanized, Hong Kong style martial arts film co-starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as an evil Russian, and featuring the ghost of Bruce Lee.'”

Okay, so that’s not an exact quote. However, I think you see that there’s enough to like here to warrant a viewing. It’s far from a perfect film. By all considerations it’s a bad film, but a gloriously innocent, dumb fun kind of bad film. Considering Kino Lorber has gone well beyond the call of duty by including two versions of the film, an audio commentary, and a nice interview with the film’s star, it’s easy to recommend No Retreat No Surrender for any and all of the reasons listed above.

Author

- who has written 64 posts on UnRated Film Review Magazine | Movie Reviews, Interviews.

James Dubs is a father and husband who loves his family first and movies a close second. He believes every movie is worth watching once and, as a film fan and critic, believes that even the worst movies offer something in return. His mission is to watch anything and report without pretension. Follow James Dubs on Twitter and send him suggestions on movies you would like reviewed - popular, obscure, independent, etc. He'll watch anything for you.

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