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Thoughts on the Dave Bautista Kickboxer remake from a pro wrestling fan

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The highly anticipated (by me, anyway) Kickboxer: Vengeance arrived in theaters and on streaming services yesterday (Sept. 2). The remake/reimagining of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme “guy flick” stars stuntman Alain Moussi in the Kurt Sloane role Van Damme played in the original, Van Damme in a new role as the Muy Thai trainer Durand and, of course, a big reason for my excitement Dave Bautista, aka WWE-ex Batista, as Tong Po, the main baddie.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I plunked down my $6.99 to rent this bad boy on Amazon just as soon as my schedule allowed for it.

How was it? We’ll get to that. But first, some important observations vis-à-vis the subject matter to which our humble fan-blog is dedicated:

Batista is an amazing heel

This, of course, comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers him destroying Rey Mysterio, whining about losing to John Cena or telling smarks to “deal with it”, but Kickboxer: Vengeance is a cool example of Big Dave flexing his sports entertainment villainy muscles in a different way.

You’ve seen a picture of him in the role, so you know he’s got the look of Tong Po down. What you might not know, or what I didn’t expect based on a trailer that made it look like this was going to go the way of many 21st century reboots and flesh out the bad guy with a sympathetic origin, is that Bautista says like 20 words in the 90 minute run time.

And he probably didn’t even need that many to be one of the best things about the film.

For most of the movie, including an extended flashback which opens it and contains most of Tong Po’s dialogue, Bautista is called on to look cool while playing the kind of bad-ass who’s such a bad-ass he’s gotten bored of the bad-assery he pulls off on the reg. This is a man who leaves the makeshift throne he watches his students fight from to go have a threesome with the two ladies giving each other pedicures in his private chambers.

He’s also someone who has his own hype man, and I have to pause to mention Sam Medina’s Crawford - my favorite thing about the movie. Crawford is who a living, breathing champ from Def Jam Vendetta would hire to be his Paul Heyman. When he’s not selling fights with dialogue that sounds like it was written by Samoa Joe, he’s delivering Tarantino-lite monologues about The Godfather. He’s great.

Anyway, Bautista’s shining moment is the climactic fight against Sloane, looking to avenge the brother Tong Po killed in the ring during another flashback. As an actor, Moussi is a heck of a stuntman, so the pressure is on the heel to create investment in their battle. All of Dave’s pro wrestling skills come into play as he does just that - displaying arrogance at the start, frustration when the babyface won’t stay down, anger when he starts to take damage and steely defiance when he knows he’s finished.

His handful of lines are delivered well, but this movie needs his skills as a physical performer to work. Luckily for Kickboxer: Vengeance, Bautista is more than up to the task.

JCVD is a great pro wrestling character

Van Damme is pretty good as Durand, and does a lot of heavy lifting of his own to generate empathy and sympathy for Moussi’s lead. This is accomplished by Durand revealing a fatherly side during the multiple training montages which make up the movie’s middle portion.

But it’s electric to watch him as Jean-Claude Van Damme.

All of the big 80s action stars have a ‘reality’ element to them. When we watch Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role, we’re always still kind of watching Sly or Arnie.

Van Damme has embraced that a little more openly with meta-projects like JCVD and Jean-Claude Van Johnson. When he dismisses this new Kurt Sloane proudly doing his trademark splits during one of those montages, it's almost impossible not to see that as the 55-year-old industry veteran judging his 28-year-old, Muscles from Brussels persona.

The same way we bring what we think we know about Colby Lopez to how we view the Seth Rollins character, or more appropriately, how we combine every "news" story we read about Paul Levesque with all the angles Triple H has been a part of to interpret someone his friends call Hunter, that's the Van Damme we're watching in Kickboxer: Vengeance.

Or maybe it’s just me wanting to breathe some life into a character that doesn’t have much backstory or motivation. That’s entirely possible. But I encourage watching his turn as Durand with knowledge of Van Damme’s rise, fall, struggles with addiction & bipolar and recovery & reinvention in mind. It adds a lot.

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So how is the movie? It’s okay.

You know what you’re getting into with a martial arts flick like this one, and Kickboxer: Vengeance mostly delivers. Lots of fight scenes (some better than others, with the duds falling short due to how they’re shot more than the choreography or performances), a completely non-developed female lead who exists just so we get some end-of-second-act boobage and plot holes through which you could drive a large sport utility vehicle.

And for MMA fans, you also get Georges St. Pierre doing a Drunken Master bit, Cain Velasquez in yoga pants and Gina Carano inexplicably cast in a role where she never fights.

It’s not a classic, and I still prefer the original if for nothing other than nostalgic purposes, but there are worse ways to spend a few bucks and an hour & a half.

Now if they could give us a movie where Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean-Claude Van Damme squared off with David Bautista as Batista?

That $#!+ would be epic.