He is the kickboxing middleweight champion of the world. He’s not above using an elbow during a match and acting like a jackass between rounds by sreeching his trademark banshee cry. He’s got a potty mouth, a drinking problem, is a jealous turd who tells his girlfriend to shut up at dinner, and abandons the guy he trained right before that guy’s biggest fight of life! He’s also a hothead who gets into a fight, kills a guy, goes to prison, gets out of prison, gets into another fight, and then moves away from his girlfriend because he’s a pouty-assed baby. Meet B.J. Quinn, our hero!
American Kickboxer (shot in South Africa of course) is strange in that it acts like it wants to use the template we all know and love for these punch and kick fairy tales. A champ has everything taken away from him through the evil machinations of the seemingly unstoppable villain. The champ has to dig deep into his soul to overcome all the obstacles and prove to himself and the world that he really is the best there is and simultaneously reveal the villain for the empty boxing trunks he surely is.
But then American Kickboxer takes all these elements and completely messes them up to such an extant that much of what happens either doesn’t seem to matter or makes us want to see B.J. Quinn kicked in the head. Take the death and criminal trial that leads to Quinn spending ten months in prison for example. Quinn loses his temper at a party, punches a guy trying to stop Quinn from fighting with bad guy Jacques Denard and that guy dies. Quinn is tried for the death and Denard testifies that Quinn punched the guy hard. Which is what happened!
Sure, he wasn’t truthful about having an argument with Quinn’s wife that caused his confrontation with Quinn, but so what? That doesn’t mean Quinn can just punch other people to death. Besides, if it really was part of his defense, both he and his girlfriend could have testified about the confrontation. So the bad guy didn’t actually frame Quinn for anything! But I guess I’m supposed to hate Denard because he wore sunglasses during part of his testimony and smugly waved goodbye to Quinn when the judge sent him to prison.
But wait! It wasn’t just a prison sentence that Quinn got as punishment! Even worse is that the court ordered that for the next five years, he’s banned from participating in championship kickboxing matches! But how will he ever get his revenge on Denard for testifying against him? (In real life this is called witness tampering and would get you additional prison time, not a motive for revenge that an audience can cheer for.)
While Quinn is prohibited from fighting in a championship match, there’s nothing that says he can’t fight in a match for money! Beyond the casual dismissal of an important plot point due to the hairsplitting of all involved, the movie plainly stumbles as it would have been more dramatic if instead of a big fancy money fight, these two fought to the finish in an illegal street fight while Quinn’s parole office keeps trying to arrest him between rounds!
Even worse for American Kickboxer is that it takes an eternity to get from Quinn being released from prison to his brawl with Denard. Quinn trains his friend Chad Hunter (Keith Vitali from No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers), throws a tantrum and ditches Chad, throws a tantrum and ditches his girlfriend and moves into a broken down beachside shack. Many montages follow including one that shows Quinn fixing up his bachelor pad, painting things and arranging plants.
Throughout all this, the foul mouthed muckraking reporter on the city paper’s kickboxing beat (only in kickboxing movies is a world portrayed that actually gives a crap about kickboxing) is harassing Denard at press conferences and the gym, harassing Quinn, harassing his editor and printing various lies about everything in an effort to cause both Denard and Quinn to fight in the money match. I’m all for this type of freedom of the press especially if it means that Quinn will quit hanging around Chad’s karate school and connecting with kids. Dude, there is a French guy out there bad mouthing you and you’re teaching spoiled rich kids about sweep kicks?
Chad starts helping Quinn train for the showdown and besides the cringe-inducing workout wear they sport, there’s cringe-inducing arguments the two have where Quinn screams and whines that he’s just a loser! Sure you are, but why is your most emotional outburst and confession of your deepest fears made to your hunky work out partner and not your girlfriend? To be fair to Quinn though, it was Chad that gushed “you’re in the best shape I’ve ever seen you in!” not his girlfriend.
In its favor, American Kickboxer features a decent amount of intense and sweaty scenes of dudes being kicked and punched in the head repeatedly. And while John Barrett isn’t likely to make you forget such low budget kick gods as Michael Dudikoff, Olivier Gruner, Gary Daniels, or even David Bradley, he is pretty good at making us dislike Quinn (there is such a thing as making a hero too flawed though) and there’s no questioning his in-ring skills (he currently runs a school in California teaching his own hybrid of various martial arts). In addition, the reporter is such an entertaining and foul mouth jerk that combined with misanthrope Quinn, poor old regular bad guy Denard is mostly an afterthought reduced to poor sportsmanship inside the ring to get over that he’s the villain.
The oddness of all this continues beyond the end of the film because there is a sequel not named American Kickboxer 2 despite there being such a film. Quinn returns instead in To the Death! I’ll bet he’s really surly in that one!
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