Jason Stillwell, a Bruce Lee fan, is beaten numerous times and trains from the ghost of Lee. Jason then must use his newly acquired skills to save Seattle from a crime syndicate, whose top martial artist is the deadly Ivan.
Martial Arts action films can be a tricky bunch of flicks. On one hand, they're action movies. They're usually about a guy in a tough situation who has to fight a lot of people. On the other hand, they're also showpieces, an exposé of raw athleticism and talent. It's the balance between these two aesthetics that makes for a truly unique and entertaining martial arts flick. Of course, sandwiched between must be a compelling story. In 1986, famed Hong Kong director Corey Yuen sought to break into the American action movie market with 'No Retreat, No Surrender' starring two up and coming action stars, Kurt McKinney and some guy by the name of Jean-Claude Van Damme. While the final results are certainly flawed, 'No Retreat, No Surrender' is an earnest, well-meaning, and entertaining coming of age flick.
It's tough to keep a Karate dojo honest. Everywhere Sensei Tom Stillwell (Timothy Baker) turns, someone is out to turn his dojo into some sort of front for organized crime. Try as he might, Tom teaches his hardheaded son Jason (Kurt McKinney) the best lessons of Karate - that it should only ever be used for defensive purposes and never in anger. After some greasy slimeballs and their hired muscle Ivan (Jean-Claude Van Damme) take over the dojo, Tom packs up the family and heads for Seattle (even though it's still obviously L.A.). Peace and quiet doesn't last long when Kurt's desires to reclaim the family's honor run counter to Tom's demands. After being trained by the spirit of Bruce Lee (a poorly dubbed Tae-jeong Kim), Kurt is ready to take on the local bully Dean (Dale Jacoby), save his breakdancing buddy R.J. (J.W. Fails) and stop Ivan and his comrades.
So, what was it with the 80s? I know that's sort of a rhetorical question considering the fashion and music tastes of the time, but there is just something odd about that decade. Corey Yuen's 'No Retreat, No Surrender' feels like the perfect unintentional satire of the decade. An odd cross between 'The Karate Kid' and 'Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo,' the film tries to be your traditional coming of age movie with a headstrong child learning the error of his ways and a sense of purpose and discipline through the teachings of Bruce Lee, but there is a cartoonish quality to the film that keeps its best assets from truly resonating.
On the fantasy angle of things, there's some genuinely nice sentiment from the moments where the spirit of Bruce Lee trains our headstrong Jason played by newcomer Kurt McKinney. Throughout the film, it's well established that Jason idolizes Lee and is in desperate need of some physical and spiritual guidance. He's being harassed daily, his relationship with his girlfriend Kelly (Kathie Silen) is on the rocks, and his relationship with his beaten-down father Tom is even worse. It's a nice Mr. Miyagi moment - and it also shows that McKinney isn't some white actor playing kung-fu. It's quite clear that McKinney knew his stuff and is impressive during these montage moments and the following fight scenes. It's when the film takes stabs at some earnest dramatics that everything falls apart because all of the characters surrounding McKinney's Jason are cartoons.
What makes 'No Retreat, No Surrender' a worthwhile outing is the closing combat moments. Through some strange convergence of frayed plot threads, Jason is forced to defend the dojo that ridiculed him from Jean-Claude Van Damme's Ivan and his greasy mobbed up goons. From the moment Van Damme takes center ring during this showcase of martial arts talent, it's clear that the muscles from Brussels meant business. In his first starring role, Van Damme is fierce and an exciting presence as these fight sequences are shot with the kinetic energy one would expect from a typical Yuen picture. All of the schlocky goofball antics are tossed aside for the final fifteen minutes and 'No Retreat, No Surrender' is all the better for it. Had the rest of the film maintained this earnestness and done away with the one-note characters and hokey antics, 'No Retreat, No Surrender' could have been a timeless classic to rival 'The Karate Kid.' Instead, it's a weird and entertaining time capsule of the American 1980s shot through the eyes of a Hong Kong film director. Finally, fans get to see the better, longer international cut. At 98 minutes, the extra 14 minutes provides some of the best character moments but isn't enough to entirely salvage this venture. Either way you kick it, 'No Retreat, No Surrender' is a terrific piece of hokum kung-fu fun.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'No Retreat, No Surrender' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Both the 84 minute U.S. Cut and the 98 minute International Cut are pressed onto the same Region A BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Before I get too deep into this section of the review, I need to point out that to my knowledge, this is the firs time 'No Retreat, No Surrender' has been available in it's proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio on home video. While this is a clear improvement over previous home video presentations (the DVD I once owned was actually a VHS dub!), it isn't a complete winner either. While grain is present and showcases some strong detail levels, the image has several softness issues peppered throughout and darkly-lit sequences tend to suffer. Colors can appear a bit hot at times while other scenes look natural and even. Same for black levels; one moment you're given an image with terrific inky blacks and shadow separation, the next the scene can be crushed and flat looking. The source elements for this transfer exhibit quite a bit of wear and tear in the form of constant speckling and some notable scratches and staining. Considering the low budget and how poorly this film has been treated over the last thirty years, this is still pretty good. Again, not ideal, but it's a very clear improvement over what has come before.
While the video presentation appears to have undergone some cosmetic work, I wish I could say the same about this English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix. Dialogue is clear through most of the film's runtime, but there are several exchanges that sound shrill and hot as if someone was yelling into the microphone during a looping session. Sound effects more or less exist when and where needed, there isn't really a sense of space or dimension as only the signature effects of a kick, punch, or other action sound effect gets the main push. Levels are a bit iffy, when the crazy 80s music kicks in you may feel the need to lower the volume and then pick it back up again once the characters start talking. It's not a complete disaster by any stretch, I'm sure this was sourced from the best elements possible, but it's not an easy track to love.
Audio Commentary: Screenwriter Keith W. Strandberg provides an interesting and informative commentary for the U.S. Cut of the film. Fans will absolutely want to give it a listen as he offers up tons of behind the scenes tidbits to enjoy.
Kurt McKinney Interview: (HD 17:12) McKinney offers up some great memories about shooting the film, how they spent most of the shooting time and budget on the fight scenes, and how his involvement in the sequels fell apart. There are some great Van Damme stories in there as well, so definitely give this a look.
International Trailer: (SD 3:20)
'Avenging Force' Trailer: (HD 1:18)
'Steele Justice' Trailer: (HD 1:36)
'Revenge of the Ninja' Trailer: (HD 1:41)
'Enter The Ninja' Trailer: (HD 2:53)
If you're a fan of 80s martial arts schlock, 'No Retreat, No Surrender' is a delight. It tries hard to be something genuine, but its antics can't help it rise above a measure of mediocrity. Thankfully the fight sequences more than make up for any shortcomings and help make this a watchable, worthwhile martial arts flick. Kino Lorber has done a solid job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a flawed but still better than any DVD release transfer. Plus, you're given both cuts of the film on top of some genuinely interesting bonus feature content. Fans will absolutely want to pick this one up, the curious newcomers should consider it worth a look - so long as tongues are kept firmly in cheeks.