Last year, Mike Leeder looked at the 30th anniversary of ‘No Retreat No Surrender’. As Kino-Lorber release a blu-ray of TWO versions, he reminds us of why the original was so important…
It’s incredible when you realise that its 31 years ago that Seasonal Films‘ No Retreat No Surrender introduced us to a very flexible charismatic young Belgium martial artist by the name of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Directed by Corey Yuen (Yuen Kwai) and written by Keith W.Strandberg, the film features a story that combines elements of The Karate Kid and Snake in the Eagles Shadow, the ghost of Bruce Lee, breakdancing and – oh, yes – Rocky IV! It’s all wrapped up in a sandwich of high impact HK styled fight choreography courtesy of Corey and actor/choreographer Mang Hoi.
The story: Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) is a young karate student and Bruce Lee fan who trains at his father’s dojo in California. His father falls foul of ‘The Mob’ who are taking over the seemingly lucrative martial arts school system. His refusal to join them sees his father’s leg broken by the Syndicate’s Soviet mean machine Ivan (Jean-Claude Van Damme), and Jason left beaten.
The family relocates to Seattle, where Jason makes a few new friends and falls foul of the local karate bullies, who happen to be students of his girlfriend’s older brother. Jason argues with his father and moves into an abandoned house where he is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee who begins to train him… and he makes great progress with his skills.
But when the Seattle kickboxing team falls foul of the Syndicate and Ivan’s pugilistic skills, Jason is forced to stand up and fight for himself, his family and for his friends. There can be… No Retreat, No Surrender!
While I’m a huge fan of No Retreat No Surrender, one can’t deny that it does deliver a certain amount of cheese and some very strange homo-erotic moments during the training scenes, but its still a lot of fun. The fights still hold up, and while McKinney comes across very well (he’s artfully doubled by choreographer Mang Hoi for some of his more gymnastic moves), its very much Van Damme who steals the show.
According to former Seasonal Films actor/producer Roy Horan (Snake in the Eagles Shadow): “I recommended JCVD for NRNS based on his submission through an ad in various Hollywood trade magazines. Hwang Jang Lee had taught me how to analyze martial arts action photos. It was obvious that JCVD was flexible (eg: splits), he showed good power but was not very fast and his strike focus was not sharp. I suspected that he competed. Speed, however, is easily compensated for by camera angles, editing, and frame rate. Focus can be learned quickly. He also looked the part of an antagonist which fit the character profile. I felt he was likely to have screen presence which panned out to be true. His success in the industry did not come as a surprise. Although I did not meet him personally until after the film was licensed by New World Pictures…”
While some aspects of the film may seem dated,it’s still a lot of fun, and to this day showcases the one time Jean-Claude really let a Hong Kong action team fully showcase his ability -he shows a variety of techniques we rarely saw him do again in any of his films. You can see just how enthusiastic he was. I remember talking to both Corey Yuen and Mang Hoi about the film and Jean-Claude and both of them spoke about how much he impressed both of them with the way he picked up the choreography, how much he put into it and how he delivered… while also commenting on their disappointment that he never really let a Hong Kong action team call the shots completely on any of his projects ever again.
While McKinny is the hero, he’s given a very vanilla role. The film better showcases Van Damme as the villain of the piece. His introductory scene – where he lets loose in the white suit – is modeled on the way Seasonal Films‘ perennial villain Hwang Jan-lee would often be introduced, kicking the crap out of someone’s father or teacher before beating the inexperienced hero (who would then have to undergo extensive training – in this case with the spirit of Bruce Lee!) before returning for a very dramatic finale. In this case, Van Damme’s character – who is referred to by name as Ivan Kraschinsky (although credited as Karl Brezdin in the American version end credits) – takes down an entire kickboxing team including Peter Cunningham before facing off with McKinney.
Ivan: So it is you, the son, is it not?
Jason Stilwell: But this time it will be different, Russian.
Kino-Lorber Studio Classics has given the film a new release on shiny disc, with a very nicely remastered print and two versions of the film, the 1986 New World Pictures edit and the extended 95 minute original cut. What differences are there between the two?
Key aspects include longer training sequences for the character of Jason, and during the final fight there are flashbacks to the training sequences, while Sensei Lee has a different voice in the international edit. The shorter tighter 85 minute cut features a sequence not seen in the International cut when Jason goes on a date with his love interest and we get to see a little bit of Seattle.
Stand on Your Own: An interview with Kurt McKinney: Kino-Lorber talks to Jason Stillwell himself, the interview runs a little over 10 minutes but covers plenty of ground, including how a black-belt from Kentucky ended up moving to Hollywood to become an actor, and within five months had secured his first leading role in this film). He talks about his experiences working on the film, his friendship with screenwriter Keith W.Strandberg and Jean-Claude Van Damme and reveals just why he ended up turning down the opportunity to star in Raging Thunder, the original idea for which would have seen both Kurt and Jean-Claude reprise their characters from the first film. (It’s a good interview, that would have benefited from a longer running time, but good to see McKinney on-camera again, and its a pity he never really got the chance to follow up on the opportunities of this movie.)
The New World cut of the movie also features an entertaining and very informative audio commentary by the film’s screenwriter Keith W.Strandberg, who would go on to write the scripts for the entire English language run of Seasonal Films, although his original idea for Raging Thunder was taken in a very different direction for various reasons. Strandberg discusses how he first made acquaintance of Ng See-yuen (The trailer promotes producer Ng See-yuen’s earlier work including breakout movies Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master, by proclaiming the film comes “From the creator of Jackie Chan!”) and that the original script he wrote Ring of Truth clocked in at over 220 pages (and with scripts normally being a minute a page, that would have been quite a lengthy movie!). He also discusses how proud he is of this movie and how various members of the cast and crew got involved and interacted. He talks about Jean-Claude’s behaviour on set including an incident involving Van Damme and co-star Peter Cunningham, working with Kurt Mckinney and the late Kim Tai-chung (Game of Death) who plays the spirit of Bruce Lee, and reveals some very interesting trivia about the making of the film. Strandberg can also be seen in the movie, playing a bar thug who comes off worse after bullying McKinney’s screen father, using a pseudonym as Keith Strange!
I do find myself wishing they’d put some more special features on the disc (I did ask them about providing an interview with Jean-Claude for its release but never heard back from them) but its a very good release. It’s interesting to have two versions of the film, interview with McKinney, audio commentary by Strandberg and a nice trailer gallery including the classic trailer for this film – which I think many of us knew off by heart! It’d be nice to see this do well, and hopefully Kino-Lorber might have a crack at the rest of the Seasonal Films English language martial arts movies……and hey we could put together some very cool special features for them!
No Retreat No Surrender is available to order from https://www.kinolorber.com/