Monday, September 8, 2014

Newsploitation: Kickboxing the Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is for a film now considered a martial arts semi-classic – Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KICKBOXER, which was released in the U.S. on September 8, 1989.  Deep in martial arts clich├ęs and histrionics, KICKBOXER tells the story of Kurt Sloane (Van Damme), a young martial artist who seeks to avenge the in-ring paralysis of his brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio, a real life kickboxing champ).  The executioner of his kin is the evil Tong Po (Michel Qissi) and to learn how to defeat him Kurt must endure the punishing training of Xian Chow (Dennis Chow) in the jungles of Thailand.  It all culminates with a showdown where the contestants have broken glass glued to their hand wraps.  You know, just like in real life.

KICKBOXER was the third theatrical headlining vehicle for the Belgian Van Damme (born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg).  After co-starring in villainous roles in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1986) and BLACK EAGLE (1988), Van Damme caught on with the release of BLOODSPORT (1988) in February 1988.  What was essentially a throw away release for Cannon (its widest theater count topped off at 124 theaters) ended up making them $11.8 million dollars at the box office.  They quickly threw him into another starring vehicle and we got Van Damme in Albert Pyun’s CYBORG (1989). That came out in April 1989 and made just over $10 million, so Van Damme was now a proven box office commodity.  KICKBOXER proved his growing popularity even more when it debuted at number 3 at the box office that following September in 973 theaters (by comparison, the number 1 film UNCLE BUCK, in theaters for a month already, was still in 1,800 theaters).  It grossed just over $4 million its first weekend and went onto pull in $14.6 million.

KICKBOXER is one of those films that has a special place in my heart as Van Damme was one of the first action heroes whose entire career I got to see unfold theatrically (“Yeah, until STREET FIGHTER came out,” says Tom).  Bronson was way before my time; Norris a bit too early for me too; I missed Stallone’s first two ROCKY films and FIRST BLOOD theatrically; and Schwarzenegger’s first CONAN only got to my eyes on VHS.  Starting with BLOODSPORT, I got to see Van Damme’s progression on the big screen and watch as he went from little guy to international superstar.  Each subsequent theatrical release after KICKBOXER saw his box office standing kick higher and higher – DEATH WARRANT ($16.8 million) to LIONHEART ($24 million) to DOUBLE IMPACT ($30 million) to UNIVERSAL SOLIDER ($36 million).  It would peak with TIMECOP ($44 million).  As Van Damme would later admit, he was full of himself (and cocaine) and flatly rejected a huge deal with Universal Pictures at the time.  Instead he went his own way and things were never the same.

Not surprisingly, Van Damme didn’t sign on when KICKBOXER 2 (1991) was announced. Rather than be an in-name-only sequel, this follow up from Albert Pyun continued the Sloane/Tong Po feud with a heretofore never known third Sloane brother, David (Sasha Mitchell).  Writer David Goyer (I hear he went on to do some other things) cleverly opens his sequel with a Van Damme double being offed by Tong Po. Mitchell headlined two more sequels, while the fifth film featured up-and-coming Mark Dacascos.

While I haven’t seen the film since the theater, KICKBOXER still holds some name power as plans for a remake have been off and on for the last 5 years.  The latest incarnation was announced earlier this year with Hong Kong director Stephen Fung attached.  Names such as former UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre, Tony Jaa, Dave Baustita and VJ fave Scott Adkins have been attached to the project.  Here’s hoping they might get to work in Van Damme in a role somewhere.  If that happened, we’d totally do this dance.

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