No Retreat, No Surrender

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Feb 21, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Find It At: AMAZON

Chances are you looked at the poster art for No Retreat, No Surrender – reproduced here on the Blu-ray cover – for a grand total of five seconds before you knew whether or not the film was for you. This movie stars the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, as an evil Soviet karate fighter named Ivan Kraschinsky – if you’re a fan of his, that’s enough to make this movie a must-see.  

Before you get too excited, though, let me warn you: he’s only in this for maybe the first five and the last ten minutes of the film. Y’see, this was Van Damme several years before Bloodsport launched him into action movie superstardom. His first major role, No Retreat, No Surrender was released in 1986 but actually shot some time earlier. (In those days, JCVD was waiting tables in Los Angeles and taking on bit parts, like that of a background dancer in Breakin’ or being credited as “Gay Karate Man” in Monaco Forever.) Those fifteen-ish minutes are prime Van Damme, at least, with some fantastic fight choreography and a full showcase of splits, high-kicks, and bug-eyed snarling. This happened to be the stateside directing debut of action maestro Corey Yuen, who’d later oversee the martial arts sequences in many of Jet Li’s movies and direct the first film in the Transporter franchise.  

Just because Van Damme isn’t always on screen, however, does not mean all is lost. A bizarre, knock-off mélange of Karate Kid and Rocky IV with a bit of Breakin’ sprinkled in for good measure, No Retreat, No Surrender is about as ‘80s as it gets. Teenage martial artist Jason Stilwell (Kurt McKinney) moves to Seattle with his parents after an evil businessman’s goons rough up his karate instructor dad and force him to close down his dojo. He becomes fast friends with a rappin’, breakdancin’ neighbor kid, but together they’re targeted by some bullies from a local dojo who don’t think he properly respects the Seattle karate scene. To improve his technique so that he won’t keep getting pushed around, Jason sets up a gym inside an abandoned house where he receives one-on-one training from the ghost of Bruce Lee.

Let that sink in for a little bit. The ghost of Bruce Lee.

Needless to say, No Retreat, No Surrender is a lot of silly fun. It was shot by the Hong Kong movie studio Seasonal Films with the intention of being sold as a Hollywood feature; the HK influence certainly shows through in the movie’s sense of humor, in particular in the broadly comedic, blubbering fat kid bully who always seems to be chowing down on fistfuls cake or hurling insults at our protagonist with ketchup and mustard running down his face. There’s also an out-of-nowhere rap musical number, a bunch of breakdancing, and the obligatory training montage set to a motivational ‘80s rock ballad. (Did I mention the ghost of Bruce Lee?) Come to No Retreat, No Surrender for the Van Damme-age, but stick around for the wall-to-wall WTFness.

This new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics marks the film’s first official appearance on home video since the heyday of VHS. Appearance-wise, it looks pretty rough – the HD transfer shows a lot of damage – but this isn’t the sort of movie that receives (or even merits) a painstaking restoration. Given that the other options, however, are a crusty old videocassette, bootleg DVD, or shady YouTube upload, this is going to look a lot better than what was previously out there. (Not to mention, you get the full widescreen presentation and high-quality sound, which is a significant upgrade over all of the above.) Where the studio chose to spoil fans instead is in its extra features. The disc includes two cuts of the film – the U.S. version, and the longer international version – the first of which includes a commentary from screenwriter Keith Strandberg, who had been working as a tour guide out of Hong Kong while trying to break into their film industry when he was hired by the Chinese producers to write their planned American action film. (The track is quiet for long stretches, but he does provide many interesting nuggets of behind-the-scenes trivia.) Also included is an on-camera interview with the film’s star, Kurt McKinney, who shares a delightful take on the old kid-moves-to-Hollywood-with-nothing-but-a-dream-and-becomes-a-star tale, and the reasons why neither he nor Van Damme returned for the movie’s sequels. (Sneak peek: it involves Cambodian pirates.)


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