America obviously doesn’t have the same history with the medium of martial arts as the places that birthed them; but when has that ever stopped the movie business before?
In an answer to the relentless output from Hong Kong that scored big in grind house cinemas in the 70’s, the USA gave us The Karate Kid in 1984, a romanticized family movie that attempted blended the soul of the fighting style in a contemporary environment with the underdog shades of Rocky. Obviously it was massive (have you seen Cobra Kai?!), but lurking in the wings was it’s dirtier, rougher and frankly more insane twin – think Bart’s deranged twin, Hugo, from that Treehouse Of Horror episode – that stumbled onto the stage in 1986 and somehow became a home rental phenomenon.
Behold the anti-Karate Kid. Behold No Retreat, No Surrender.
Cocky punk Jason Stillwell trains at the dojo his dad owns, but due to his overwhelming love for Bruce Lee he just can’t help busting out some Jeet Kune Do on the other unsuspecting students. Now, while I’m sure there’s a term for this (bullying prick springs instantly to mind), the film will have us believe that Jason’s a good kid despite the fact that his increasingly hysterical father is constantly exasperated with his antics, but shit changes on a dime when an organised crime syndicate muscles in hoping to take over all the dojos in the city presumably because the script seemingly has no idea how organised crime actually works.
After having his leg snapped by natty dresser and full time mob enforcer Ivan The Russian, Jason’s traumatised father up and moves the whole family to Seattle and forbids Jason to ever fight again by screaming it directly into his face whenever he can. Jason, who despite making friends with the apocalyptically funky RJ, falls foul of local heavy set bully who, despite looking like Eric Cartman has hit his mid-thirties, confusingly has a major dislike for anyone who worships Bruce Lee and targets Jason for some goofy, cartoonish bullying that makes Bulk and Skull from Power Ranger look like Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas. As Jason’s home life deteriorates after his father goes too far and tears his Bruce Lee poster (no, really), the young man snaps and runs away from home but is then visited by the ghost of his Idol who wishes to help him find the right path.
Yep, you read that last bit right – the actual ghost of Bruce Lee actually turns up to train Jason who, instead of naturally assuming that he’s got some sort of tumor pressing on a vital part of his brain or at the very least had some sort of sizable mental break, gleefully accepts the knowledge of his idol even though it frequently borders on physical abuse. However, Lee’s supernatural timing couldn’t be better as the crime syndicate from earlier in the movie has now set their sights on the dojos of Seattle and plan to win the next one in a tournament (A tournament? Seriously? Do these guys even know what crime is?). Can Jason step up to save a dojo that isn’t even his and protect people that frequently can’t stand him against the full force of of the deranged Ivan The Russian?
Judged by today’s standards, No Retreat No Surrender is painfully cheap, displays acting quality of low level porn and feels like what you’d get if The Karate Kid was written and directed by the ghost of Ed Wood for a tax dodge, but back in 1986 it’s obvious that the entire movie is nothing more than an attempt to americanise and modernise a cinematic art form in a way that doesn’t involve ancient China, monks or clans.
Whether it spectacularly failed at this is actually a suprisingly debatable point considering that despite it’s acidic reviews it did massive business on rentals for a young impressionable audience desperate for some lightning fisted violence because kids soaked up the juvenile script that felt like it was written by a first time (guess what; it was).
Whatever the reason, thanks to it’s medicated plotting, after school special acting and near infantile examples of trying to set up even the most basic scenes, No Retreat, No Surrender ends up being a near perfect recipe for a so-bad-it’s-good martial arts epic serves up some competent fights with it’s Tommy Wiseau style production values.
There are literally so many issues with the film on a professional level I’m genuinely unsure of where to begin, but a good shout would be to address the the brass balls the movie has to suggest that Bruce Lee would actually take time out of his busy schedule of being dead to teach some random kid how to be a martial arts legend in his filth encrusted hideaway home. It doesn’t help that the actor portraying Lee A) looks nothing like him and B) is painfully dubbed by a voice actor who also sounds nothing like him and so a hilariously ridiculous plot twist simply become that much more jaw saggingly genius.
Then there’s the character of RJ, whom has decided to gift the ability to turn into a stand-in in a jherri curled wig whenever the script demands that he busts out some random acts of break dancing it’s immensely confident that what all young black men did in the 80’s. Jason and RJ bond so quick and so closely that it also leads to some magnificent elements of unintentional homoerotica as Jason tries to work out by doing hip lifts laid vertically across the bars of a climbing frame while RJ happily eats an ice cream while sitting directly on his friend’s crotch. What are friends for, eh?
Also worth a mention are the histrionic line readings that frequently emerge from the screaming hole located in the panicked face of the actor playing Jason’s father who manages to turn every scrap of dialogue into a bestial bellow for help from an uninterested god in a cold, indifferent universe. When he’s not screeching phrases like: “I tHiNk YoU’rE fOrGeTtInG wHoSe HoUsE tHiS iS!”, he’s either getting picked on at the bar where he works or limping around with a cast on his foot even though it’s his leg the mob broke…
Like I said, there’s too much to mention but it’s tremendously entertaining in the wrong kind of way but it’s worth giving the movie some props and where it almost gets things right is the endearing old school fights that have the staccato feel of classic kung-fu movies. In fact, Bruce Lee’s ghost aside, it’s the only time the film is even remotely innovative and watching a pre-fame Jean Claude Van Damme bust out his now iconic doing-the-splits-between-things move and get carried away in real life (apparently he was warned numerous times during filming to stop actually making contact with his co-stars) is genuinely impressive.
But then, it should be – after all the movie was the American directorial debut of Corey Yuen, the man who co-director the amazing Dragons Forever and went on to give us The Transporter and – er… D.O.A: Dead Or Alive.
Essentially the what would happen if the script from The Karate Kid got addicted to meth; No Retreat, No Surrender is wildly fun if you’re into under produced trash but if that’s not your bag then totally retreat, don’t surrender.