An objectively bad Karate Kid rip-off, No Retreat, No Surrender manages to never the less entertain and delight with a combination of pure earnestness and legitimately cool fight work.

I kid you not with this plot summary: Kurt McKinney stars as Jason Stillwell, a Bruce Lee worshipper who’s kind of a screw up when it comes to karate. After his father is attacked at his own dojo (he refuses to fight because karate must not be used in anger), the family relocates to Seattle. There Jason meets some new friends, makes some new enemies, and gets trained by the spiritual incarnation of Bruce Lee whilst squatting in an empty house. Then he fights Jean Claude Van Damme.

It’s absolutely insane. There’s definitively two movies happening at the same time. On the one hand, there’s the vast majority of the film, which includes Jason’s antics with his breakdancing comic relief buddy R.J. (J.W. Fails), getting bullied by a Francis from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure lookalike and some other kids from a local dojo, and a reconnection with an old girlfriend that is introduced as if we’ve seen her before or the script has referenced her before, when in fact neither is the case. There’s a HUGE Karate Kid vibe about the whole thing. And there’s no shame in that. Karate Kid is awesome.

Then there’s another movie entirely, which only comes into play on occasion, but without which there would be no big finale. There are some gangsters that for some reason believe muscling ownership of karate dojos is a great business plan. Their enforcer is a young, gorgeous, ripe-for-stardom Jean-Claude Van Damme. But after an opening scene where he does the aforementioned damage to Jason’s dad… ole JCVD doesn’t show up again until the final fight. It’s a weird tacked on thread that spreads an already thin movie thinner. Why the bully role and JCVD’s “Ivan The Russian” role couldn’t have been condensed down into one role we’ll never know.

But while the film features flat performances, broad over the top humor (fat kid has food on face), and hilariously overt inspiration from Le Kid du Karate, it’s got a genuine heart to it. Time proved Van Damme to be the biggest star to emerge from the film, but McKinney actually acquits himself fairly well as the aww-shucks hero of the story. His impassioned speeches at the real life graveside of Bruce Lee in Seattle are downright touching… even if they do result in a Bruce Lee lookalike supernaturally materializing in the film to train Jason in martial arts. Even that Bruce Lee-sploitation angle further makes the case for the endearing nature of the movie.

And I’ve yet to mention that this is directed by Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen (The Legend, The Transporter). There’s a real quality to the fight sequences that can’t be overlooked when assessing the overall value of the film. Van Damme is obviously breathtaking in perhaps his youngest and most hungry appearance on film. McKinney also does well in his numerous fight scenes. There’s a higher quality to the action than the rest of the film would suggest thanks to Yuen and his team bringing Hong Kong action to North American screens.

I should make it clear that the version I watched is the longer international cut made available here on Blu-ray for the first time in North America. I had seen No Retreat, No Surrender in my youthful days as a ravenous JCVD fan, but had never revisited since my younger self was very confused by how little screen time Van Damme received. The cut I would have seen in my youth is apparently wildly different, and I simply didn’t have time to watch it through both ways to compare and contrast. The scenario of a girlfriend character appearing out of nowhere which I highlighted above is apparently a result of these differing cuts, and a whole lot of fat was trimmed in the US cut which is almost 10 minutes shorter.

I had a blast with No Retreat, No Surrender, and this Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber is thrilling in the sense that it includes two varying cuts of a largely forgotten early-80s actioner, not to mention a writer’s commentary track and an interview with star Kurt McKinney. Fans of The Karate Kid, JCVD, Corey Yuen, or hell, even Bruce Lee would do well to revisit this earnest little time capsule of an action film.

And I’m Out.

No Retreat, No Surrender hits Blu-ray on February 21st from Kino Lorber

Previous post Criterion Review: MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
Next post Julian Singleton’s Top 25 Films Of 2016 Countdown Video