November 14th, 2009


Take one part Karate Kid. Add a dash of Rocky 4. Throw in a splash of Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. Toss in an insane amount of Breakin’ 2: Electric Bugaloo. Add the ingredients in a blender and puree at Ludicrous Speed. And what you get is No Retreat, No Surrender; which happens to be one of…


Jason (Kurt McKinney) is a hotheaded karate student whose dad (Timothy D. Baker) gets hassled by the Mob who wants him to hand over his dojo. When he says no way Jose, the gangsters get “Ivan, the Russian” (Jean Claude Van Damme) to break his leg. Daddy turns into mental Jell-O and packs up and heads to
Seattle to become a wimpy bartender. While Jason gets accustomed to his new surroundings, he befriends a rapping, breakdancing Jheri Curled guy named R.J. (J.W. Fails) who gets bullied by a big fat dude who likes to stand in the middle of the street eating cake. One day Jason tries to join a Seattle dojo but Fat Kid cockblocks him. Later, at Jason’s girlfriend’s birthday party, Fat Kid and his cronies beat him up and make him look like a complete wuss in front of his gal. Jason finally reaches his breaking point when his dad has a meltdown and rips up his Bruce Lee poster. Distraught, Jason goes to Bruce’s grave and asks for his help. Much to Jason’s surprise, Bruce Lee’s ghost (Kim Tai Chong) appears and whips him into fighting shape. In the end, the gangsters try to move in on the Seattle dojo and hold a karate tournament where Ivan kicks everyone’s ass in the ring. Finally Jason hops in the ring and shows the Russian what’s what.

No Retreat, No Surrender is one of The Greatest Movies in the History of the Human Race mostly because it’s a bad movie. I make no bones about it. Much of this movie reeks of useless clichés and idiotic dance sequences. What makes it all work is that the film is a rainbow of awfulness. It runs the gamut of So Bad It’s Good (like the overacting gangster villain who seemingly channels Snidely Whiplash during the final fight), to So Bad It’s Awesome (like the lame banter between R.J. and Jason), to So Bad It’s Genius (the breakdancing scenes), to Hey, You Know What Folks, This Movie Kinda Rocks (the Bruce Lee training sequences), to Wait a Goddamn Minute, This Movie is Da Bomb (the excellent final showdown between Jason and the Russian).

Let’s talk about the bad first. Let’s talk about acting; or lack thereof. Never before has a movie featured performances so wooden and dialogue so stilted that it ends up being kickass in spite of itself. (Although Attack of the Clones comes close.) Kurt McKinney is a bland lead but he is at least proficient enough with his karate skills to make up for that. As the dumbass dad, Timothy D. Baker displays some of the worst acting by an alleged parent on the silver screen. The scenes between him and
McKinney play out like a shitty After School Special and all of their dialogue seems phony and forced. But nothing and I mean nothing can prepare you for the hilarious ineptitude of J.W. Fails as R.J. Good God man, this guy says all of his lines in the same upbeat fake jive manner that will drive you bat shit insane. I don’t know what is funnier, seeing him desperately try to breakdance (his stunt dancer is haphazardly edited in) or the scenes where he “raps”. I dare you not to crack up whenever he overenthusiastically says the title. At least Van Damme exudes a sense of menace and essays his villainous role with a lot of authority.

Speaking of Van Damme, his final brawl is quite exciting and is the only legitimate thing that is intentionally good about the whole deal. He kickboxes the Hell out of three competitors before taking on
McKinney one on one. The choreography is excellent in this scene (despite a couple of obvious jump cuts) and is a great showcase for JCVD’s skills.

Looking at this scene, I can’t help but note that Van Damme got a raw deal in this flick. I know we’re supposed to root for Kurt and everything but Jean Claude was fighting with a severe disadvantage. I mean he fought not one but THREE guys in the ring, gets bitten on the leg by a fat dude, and is almost hit with a chair by a girl all before going toe to toe with the hero. Also, Kurt was receiving supernatural tutelage from beyond the grave by the greatest martial artist of all time, which ain’t exactly fair if you ask me.

And let’s face it, this Kurt guy is a straight-up wimp. Despite the title, he actually retreats AND surrenders at least FOUR times by my count. Once during his initial run-in with JCVD, then when he squares off against the fat guy and his gang in front of the burger stand, then against the same guys at his girlfriend’s birthday party, and finally when his dad tears up his Bruce Lee posters. Granted, he doesn’t retreat or surrender by the end of the film, so I have to give him a little credit.

Corey (The Transporter) Yuen directs the action solidly enough. He films the dance sequences in a tongue in cheek manner and really gets to strut his stuff during the end match. He also displays a softer side in the scene when the two breakdancers help to reunite Jason and his girlfriend.

In 1986, the year No Retreat, No Surrender was released; Crocodile Dundee was the highest grossing comedy. This flick is a hundred times funnier and should’ve been just as big. Sure, the laughs are all unintended, but to me, an unintended laugh is just as good as an intended one. You know, it’s kinda a shame that No Retreat, No Surrender never won any Oscars. It’s sad to know that this flick will make it’s way on the AFI 100 Best Films List. Heck, I think I’m the only reviewer who has ever given it a positive review (let alone Four Stars). Hopefully, it’s inclusion into The Greatest Movies in the History of the Human Race will inspire readers to seek out this unadulterated camp classic. Do not retreat or surrender an opportunity to check it out.

AKA: Karate Tiger.