Awfully Good: No Retreat, No Surrender
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
Director: Corey Yuen
Stars: Kurt McKinney, J.W. Fails, Jean-Claude Van Damme
Is there a plot?
After his dad runs away from the mob like a galloping sissy, a young aspiring martial artist is trained by the ghost of Bruce Lee so he can stand up to the town bullies and accept his burgeoning homosexuality.
What's the damage?
Poor Bruce Lee. Not only did he die tragically young and on the precipice of legendary stardom, but his corpse may be the most desecrated item in Hollywood. Just in this column we've seen all manner of genre homages (THE LAST DRAGON), blatant ripoffs (CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER) and cheap plot devices (KINDERGARTEN NINJA) attributed to the late martial arts star. But none as great this movie.
How a champion sits.
NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER reminds me a lot of BREATHING FIRE, the first film I ever did for Awfully Good. And since that movie, which starred Short Round and Bolo Yeung, kicked unholy amounts of ass, this is a very good thing. NO RETREAT is an embarrassing blip on the filmography of otherwise competent martial arts director Corey Yeun (THE TRANSPORTER, a bunch of Jet Li movies). His American debut gets everything gloriously wrong in the way that only select films from the 1980s can, as if Yuen watched THE KARATE kid and thought, "Hey, I can make this much, much worse!" That means terrible acting across the board, laughable story and characters, goofy music and dancing, and, surprisingly, moderate to poor fight scenes (except for Van Damme, but more on him later). Let's break it down:
How a…um, "not a champion" sits.
The Story. When his LA dojo is threatened by mobsters, a man moves his family to suburban Seattle…where the same mob (literally the same three people) is trying to force themselves on the local martial arts studios. Exactly what kind of crime syndicate goes around the country trying to buy up karate clubs? (And why would such an assumedly illegal operation be okay with settling their differences in well-publicized fighting tournaments open to the public?) This is never explained or explored so I just have to assume some misinformed mafia boss believes that once he owns all the fighters in the United States, nobody will be able to touch him. There. I just put more effort in to this movie than the screenwriters.
You know, that might be more impressive if we couldn’t clearly see the wired device holding you up.
The Hero. I am truly embarrassed to share a name with the main character. Jason Stillwell is a whiny brat and drastically terrible fighter, especially for being the son of someone who owns their own karate studio. (Plus, he looks like the wimpy suicidal kid from DEAD POETS SOCIETY.) Despite being on par with Chris Farley in BEVERLY HILLS NINJA, Jason is obsessed with Bruce Lee to an alarming degree—praying to him, taking flowers to his grave site, and shedding adolescent tears when his dad rips up his ENTER THE DRAGON poster. The Lee family should sue for defamation of character for even suggesting the ghost of the late fighter (or an Asian actor who looks nothing like him) would leave the afterlife to train him. It's like that great moment from THE SANDLOT where Babe Ruth's spirit offers the perfect advice to Benny in his moment of need…except the kid is a completely undeserving tool.
A shot of Bruce Lee holding poop from BRUCE LEE HOLDS POOP.
The Dad. Apparently Jason's sissy temperament is genetic. His father is a complete crybaby who also inexplicably can't fight and runs away from any confrontation. He gets in to one little scuffle with Jean-Claude Van Damme and then immediately packs up his Family Truckster station wagon and uproots everyone to Seattle (in case you don't recognize the Space Needle, they make sure to say SEATTLE in big letters). He spends the rest of the movie yelling at his son for fighting and defending himself or his friends, and forbidding him to practice karate, even though he owned a dojo two weeks prior. When Dad isn't failing as a parent or member of the masculine persuasion, he also works as a bartender who lets patrons walk all over him, throw their drinks in his face and beat him up in the parking lot until his teenage son shows up to rescue him.
I would make a joke, but self-fulfilling prophecies aren't that funny.
The Token Black Friend. The character of RJ Madison (played by the sadly named J.W. Fails) is a walking racist stereotype. Within the first minute of meeting him, we see him carrying a boombox, do tricks with a basketball, break in to freestyle rap and break dance—all things he does repeatedly throughout the movie. And even though they live in the same neighborhood, when we finally see RJ's house it's much smaller, darker and rundown when compared to all the other white people's houses.
NOTE: If you have to hang this sign, it's not true.
The "Friendship." Jason and RJ are best friends, in the same way that Paul Walker and Tyrese, Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee, and Maverick and Goose were all "best friends." The level of homoeroticism in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER is incredible, especially considering they're just teenagers. The two immediately hit it off and within minutes are flirting and putting their arms around each other as they go on their first date to Bruce Lee's grave (Jason even brings flowers!). Then, when Jason's dad throws out all his karate equipment, he immediately runs crying to RJ's house, where the BFFs console each other until RJ takes Jason to an abandoned house where they light romantic candles and set up his new practice room. And then there's the training sequence. Oh boy. At what point does a director not stop and say, "Hey, maybe it's not the best idea to have a 13 year old boy eat ice cream and listen to his Walkman while sitting on another kid's crotch as he does pelvic thrusts…"
So that explains what happened to actor Kurt MicKinney. I wouldn't leave the house again either, buddy.
The Girlfriend. Clearly, Kelly is just Jason's beard, since she can't hold a candle to RJ, but her existence is still bewildering. How exactly was Jason already dating a girl in Seattle when he's from LA? And she just so happens to be a) the same girl Jason's bullies have a crush on and b) the sister of the man who owns the Seattle dojo that's under attack from the same mob guys Jason's dad ran away from in LA? (Kelly's brother is also a famous international karate champion, although Jason mysteriously has no idea who he is.) It's as if the filmmakers had written three of four different female roles but could only afford one actress for the whole movie. Be thankful they did though, since some of the film's best WTF moments come courtesy of Kelly, like Jason wrapping up a live bunny to give to her as a present, or their big fight which ends with Jason's incredibly underdramatic exit via station wagon.
I call this Bikinis, Bunnies and Boom Mics (visible at the top).
The Bullies. Aside from the obvious homophobia, we don't know exactly why the kids in Seattle hate Jason and RJ so much. The film suggests an epic gang war over who's better—Seattle karate or LA karate—but that's just stupid. At first we think their fat redneck neighbor, who sprays soda cans with a garden hose for fun, dislikes Jason because he's a "Bruce Lee freak," but we later learn the same kid is also a karate student. Oh well, the only thing that really matters is that one of his gang member's has the world's most epic rat tail.
McDonald's…the preferred fast food establishment for people who still have rat tails.
And finally, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Though he gets sole billing on the cover, JCVD is only in the movie for two scenes, about 10 minutes total. (Although that doesn’t stop him from finding time to do the splits.) Van Damme stars as "Ivan the Russian" and he's a silent beast in this movie. Who else but the Muscles from Brussels could start literally murdering his opponents during a regulation karate tournament without anybody able to stop him? The referee valiantly makes multiple attempts, but Van Damme doesn't give a crap and kicks his face out of the ring.
The face that launched a thousand Direct-to-DVD movies.
If you were thinking that a kick-ass ending could alleviate any of these issues and make sense out of the madness, think again. For one, Jason never really confronts his bullies. They just see him fight JCVD and learn to respect him. (I guess?) Not to mention, there's absolutely no way Jason could ever win against Van Dammage. If the world karate champion can’t beat him, some kid who's had three days of training with a ghost sure as hell couldn't. Oh, and if you're curious, yes, Jason's worthless dad just stands idly by while his son gets killed in the ring, fighting his fight.
Enjoy some of the token black kid's freestyle rapping, Jason's dad's sissy screams, and other memorable audible moments. (I also love that the kids yell "No retreat, no surrender!" and then immediately do the opposite.)
1) Scenes from RJ and Jason's homoerotic love story.
2) Some of the best (Van Damme) and worst (everyone else) fights from the movie.
3) An assortment of various ridiculous moments, including gift wrapped bunnies, random break dancing contests and the most underdramatic "driving away angry" scene ever.
Technically no, but some of Jason and RJ's tender scenes will leave you all hot and bothered.
Play Along at Home!
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Something blatantly homoerotic happens
- Somebody breaks a shelf
- Somebody trains
- Jason runs away upset
- Cheesy music plays
- You can spot a boom mic in the shot
Double shot if:
- Someone says the name of the movie!
Thanks to the always super Marcey for persistently suggesting this week's movie!