Director John Stockwell, who helmed the South American horror chiller “Turistas” (2006) and pulpy police procedural “Countdown” (2016), has done a competent job at orchestrating the action in the exotic but derivative David versus Goliath, straight-to-video, sequel “Kickboxer: Vengeance” (**1/2 OUT OF ****), with Alain Moussi, Dave Bautista, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Indeed, this muscular martial arts melodrama lives up to its tell-all-title because it concerns revenge. Incredibly, its sixteen executive producers have done a commendable job of paying tribute to the 1989 original that Mark DiSalle & David Worth co-directed from a script by Glenn A. Bruce based on a story by Jean-Claude Van Damme and DiSalle. Two actors from the first “Kickboxer” show up for the shenanigans, but they don’t reprise their vintage roles. Veteran martial arts thespian Jean-Claude Van Damme has a supporting role, but you get to see more than enough of the Muscles from Brussels as he trains the inexperienced hero and indulges in a little kickboxing himself. The main villain Tong Po in the Van Dame saga, Michel Qissi appears briefly but memorably as an anonymous prisoner in a jail cell adjacent to the one occupied by Van Damme and Alain Moussi as the new Kurt Sloane. Meantime, a laconic Dave Bautista of “Spectre” is appropriately cast as the pitiless Tong Po, and he gets on the wrong side of heroic Alain Moussi when he kills his brother at an illegal, underground fight in Bangkok. Moussi’s Kurt Sloane watches incredulously as his older brother perishes in Tong Po’s malevolent clutches, and the memory of Eric’s tragic demise haunts him. In a sense, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” amounts to the equivalent of the championship boxing film “Creed” where Rocky Balboa trained a talented pugilist. Van Damme trains Alain Moussi to do what he did back in 1989 in “Kickboxer.”
“Kickboxer: Vengeance” unfolds with Kurt hammering his fist on the door of Tong Po’s martial arts compound in Thailand. He hopes that he can persuade Po to teach him. After he watches Kurt’s skill in two scraps with his students, Po allows him to join his students. Later, under cover of darkness, Kurt sneaks inside Po’s house and thrusts an automatic pistol into Po’s face. Po has no way to defend himself under the circumstances. Unfortunately, Kurt cannot summon the nerve to squeeze the trigger and dispatch this evil dastard in cold blood at point blank range. Po disarms Kurt with ease and treats him like a punching bag. He leaves Kurt in an unconscious pile for the local authorities to haul off to jail. Primarily, our protagonist spends the reminder of the lean, mean 80 minutes of “Kickboxer: Vengeance” preparing for a face-off with Tong Po under the same conditions that surrounded his brother’s bout. At this point, Stockwell flashes the narrative back to three months earlier in Venice, California, when things looked rosier for the brothers Sloane. Not a fan of these brief wrinkles in the chronology, I can understand why Stockwell and company wanted to exploit a different time frame and setting to heighten the heroics. Stuntman-turned-actor Alain Moussi is likable as Kurt Sloane, a role that elevated Jean-Claude Van Damme to international fame and stardom. MMA star Gina Carano of “In the Blood” appears in a cameo as the deceptive siren Marcia and convinces Kurt’s older brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi of “Watchmen”) to come to Thailand and compete with the undefeated Master of Muay Thai—Tong Po. She hands Eric an envelope stuffed with $200-thousand dollars in cash for simply showing up. Eric is so swollen by his own success as the newly christened Global Karate Champ that he believes he can topple the invincible Po. Later, we learn that Marcia has been in cahoots with Po. Kurt advises Eric to reject Marcia’s appetizing offer. Kurt isn’t any too happy with Marcia after he watches his poor brother perish in the ring. He reserves some of his rage for Erik’s trainer, Master Durand (Jean-Claude Van Damme of “Kickboxer”), but Durand shows Kurt how erroneous he is about him. This occurs after Po’s henchmen fail to kill Kurt and a female Bangkok detective investigating Po’s illegal fights. Jean-Claude Van Damme probably delivers one of his better performances simply by donning a fedora and wearing sunglasses. Reluctantly, Durand trains Kurt so that the latter can survive with Po in the arena and avenge his brother. The training sequences are just what you’d expect from this atmospheric athletic outing. Mind you, the close-quarters Muay Thai combat isn’t as acrobatic as the gymnastic gyrations that Tony Jaa staged in his “Ong-Bak” trilogy. A showdown between Kurt and several of Po’s henchmen on a city street atop elephants seems suspiciously phony. Stockwell looks like he used fake elephants so the actors to could fight in the closer shots. The climactic clash between Po and Kurt generates one strong memorable moment. Had the remainder of this yarn been as imaginative, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” would have been significantly better. When hero and villain clash during the climactic double-sword fight, a sword winds up impaled in the chain-link fence between them. Stockwell milks this scene for every shred of suspense. Of course, we know who will bite it, but the struggle looks challenging.
“Kickboxer: Vengeance” lacks the brutality of “Turistas.” The martial arts choreography is serviceable without being scintillating. This solid, swiftly-paced 90-minute opus qualifies as standard-issue stuff, enlivened by several professional fighters and exotic locales. The training scenes are suitably energetic and sometimes amusing. Watching JCVD smashing airborne coconuts with his elbows is funny. Jean Claude still looks in superb shape. Finally, we–or maybe just I–know now how Van Damme perfected his singular butt-split. Moussi teeters on two floating bamboo platforms and clings to a rope strung across a small pool. Bautista registers as a formidable villain, and his body art is impressive. Nobody in the cast looks out of place. Far from objectionable, the rugged but predictable “Kickboxer: Vengeance” shouldn’t affront aficionados of the original “Kickboxer.”