No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

NRNS PosterMental illness can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. Relationships with family and loved ones are jeopardized. The ability to hold a job can become difficult to near impossible. And in extreme cases it can even lead to self-harm. But there is a bright side to being crazy as a shithouse rat – you may just be crazy enough to train your kung fu skills to an elite level such that an impromptu match against a young Jean-Claude Van Damme leads to you using all your psychotic strength to kick his ass entirely out of the boxing ring!

Now we aren’t saying that folks who dedicate themselves to intense physical training are insane. While such a person is obviously bored and doesn’t have a good video game system, leading psychiatrists will tell you that isn’t a mental disorder per se. But what if the kung fu master you were training under was actually a dead guy only you could see? While it would certainly cut down on instructional fees, a society who is prejudiced against rampant hallucinations would likely try to keep you out of the big match by rigging it so you were committed to a secure facility.

This is just the sort of hill that young Jason has to climb throughout No Retreat, No Surrender, a movie best described as a fever dream of disjointed and ultimately silly narrative, acting as stiff as the wooden dummy Jason practices against, and a filmmaking sensibility from director Corey Yuen that mixes ill advised attempts at broad comedy that border on the unintentionally cartoonish with a distracting lack of attention to technical details (think visible boom mikes and lighting equipment in some scenes).

Jason’s dad runs a dojo teaching karate in Los Angeles. The mob shows up and tries to force dad to let them use his dojo as a front for their illegal operations. When he refuses, Ivan (Van Damme) busts the guy’s knee up so bad his dad is forced to close the dojo, move his family to Seattle, and take a job at a dive bar where a drunk bully torments him during his shift. That was one hell of a kick to the knee!

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Though clearly dangerously mentally ill, even Jason can see that his dad is an embarrassing pussy and periodically rages at his dad’s pussiness. This leads such classic scenes as dad tearing up Jason’s Bruce Lee poster and destroying Jason’s garage training center, Jason running away to his homosexual friend R.J.’s house, and the setting up of his new even more awesome training center at a vacant house haunted by the ghost of Bruce Lee!

Perhaps owing to the greatness of Bruce Lee, the sequences with his ghost (not really played by Bruce Lee because you know, he’s dead) are the only bits that make a lick of sense! You can’t argue with any of Ghost Bruce’s advice and techniques because they do turn Jason from a crappy kung fu fighter prone to throwing temper tantrums at his dad and displaying unconvincing moments of heterosexuality into a guy who can just jump into a ring and beat up Van Damme.

While the training scenes in the middle of the movie are easy to follow, it’s the first third and last third of the film that felt like maybe something was lost in translation between Corey Yuen and See-Yuen Ng’s story and Keith W. Strandberg’s screenplay. The plan by the mob that is the basis of the film (taking over local dojos) is a bit odd. Why pick the one place where guys are trained to beat you up if you threaten them?

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But even within the film’s strange universe where this makes sense to the mob, at the end of the movie when they are trying to take over the dojo in Seattle, they don’t just threaten the owner, but agree to a series of kickboxing matches at a local gym where the public can watch the guys from Seattle battle the mob’s kung fu creeps from New York. It wasn’t even made clear that they were battling for control of the dojo.

Even stranger, despite watching his dad get punked by Van Damme at the beginning of the movie, Jason’s motivation for turning to the spirit world for a crash course in Jeet Kune Do is not revenge on the mob, but to get back at the mean guys at the local dojo who embarrassed him at party for his gal pal Kelly. Except that we didn’t even know he had a gal pal Kelly until he suddenly started getting dressed for her party and turned up at her house kissing her and giving her a pet bunny rabbit for a present!

In addition to the karate punk who wants Kelly all for himself and is jealous of Jason, there is a big fat turd named Scott who when not literally stuffing his face with all manner of disgusting food, is stirring the pot as part of his ongoing feud with Jason’s buddy R.J.

R.J. (played by the hilariously named J.W. Fails) is a black kid who single-handedly set the civil rights movement back 20 years with his perm, break dancing, Michael Jackson costume, and the money shot moment of the movie where he impales his ass on Jason’s crotch while Jason is laying down across a bench and monkey bars and thrusting up and down as R.J. suggestively fellates an ice cream bar!

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None of the business with Scott, R.J., Kelly or anyone else is resolved or even explained. It just appears out of nowhere to fill time, motivate Jason to train and then disappears when Van Damme appears to fight everyone in Seattle. In fact, even the climatic showdown between Jason and Van Damme feels like it was conceived by someone without full use of their mental faculties as it just has Jason jumping into the ring from the audience and battling Van Damme for a few minutes before the movie ends.

Most of No Retreat, No Surrender is simply beyond the descriptive powers of a rational human being. The seemingly random melange of fight movie cliches mixed with grade school level storytelling technique and what I am assuming is the unintentional nonstop gay subtext (Look at the clothes Jason and R.J. insist on wearing! Does R.J. really need to watch Jason while Jason changes in the locker room? What is with the fat kid’s obsession with physically attacking the feminine and non-threatening R.J.?) result in a bizarre experience that will lead you to question your sanity as you realize that most realistic moments are provided by Bruce Lee’s ghost and the best acting is by Van Damme’s kicking.

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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