Psycho Kickboxer (1997) Review by RevTerry

I'm under the impression that you can make any topic into an entertaining film idea just by adding “psycho”, “killer” or “maniac” to the title. For example, I might watch a movie about zebras, if it was on--I mean zebras are cool, and I like to learn shit. If, however, you have a film about killer zebras, I'm fucking down right now. Bloodthirsty, striped, safari horses sound like something I would like to see (at soonest convenience).  It works for all kinds of stuff, and it can be the least threatening thing that jumps to mind. Say the word “mailman” to me, and for some reason I instantly picture the kindly postal employee from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stopping by to drop off letters or packages with a big honest smile on his face. Now, while poor Mr. McFeely had a very unfortunate name that elicited a few chuckles out of me later in life, he seemed like someone on the up and up. The mail person is so standard in society it's almost a comfort, but it's also hardly a concept at face value that I'm excited for. I see a title like Maniac Mailman, and I picture a hard-nosed civil servant that snaps one day and starts delivering death door to door (rain, sleet or snow). Which sounds like it would make a cool movie, if not a little offensive to our USPS friends in the field. The best part is that these combinations pretty much write and sell themselves. By placing any of those words in front of another usually unrelated, typically contradicting word, you not only have a title but as much plot as you would generally need to get started on a trashy splatter flick. A fIlm which someone like me will probably watch, no questions asked. If a word can make something usually lame into a cool movie title, then it goes double for something that already implies violence of some kind. For example--Psycho Kickboxer (1997).
Alex Hunter (Curtis Bush) is a kickboxer with a career on the rise. When he is not having romantic getaways, he spends his time kicking the shit out of sparring partners at the gym while supportive onlookers with mullets cheer him on. Having just proposed to his beautiful girlfriend, the couple attends a romantic dinner with Alex's cop father (George James). After congratulations, they spend the night appropriately discussing the police officer’s latest case involving the high profile mob boss “Houthorn” (Tom Story), of which he feels pretty secure in being able to prosecute. Mister Houthorn’s ears must have been burning from his minimalist bad guy HQ, because after having some dude's hand chopped off, he instructs his cronies to abduct the Hunter family. Catching the trio as they are leaving the restaurant, the mobsters get the jump on the (extremely well trained) martial artist and his (veteran police officer) father, loading the whole group into a limo with little issue. The men take their captives to a dark underground structure, where they tie them up for some shit talking and torture. At some point during the kidnapping, Alex pisses off the head goon who rewards him by forcing him to watch as they blow his father's head off and rape his girlfriend. Left for dead, Alex is rescued by a Vietnam vet (Rodney Suiter) who heals him with unshown magic and pep talks. As luck would have it, the highly motivated coach/nurse also has his own beef with the mob boss --and a plan. Using long-winded speeches, he tells Alex that to properly seek revenge, he must be trained under his guidance and also wear a ninja outfit. Understandably, Alex is reluctant at first, but since everyone thinks he's dead anyway, he is soon running the streets in black, breaking heads for justice. With his vet homie’s guidance, Alex is somehow transformed into a vigilante with superhuman powers--such as the ability to cave in heads--and begins working his way up the criminal empire. Along the way, some muggers get the shit kicked out of them for practice, a rambunctious reporter (Kim Reynolds) gets involved, and Alex has to fight in some kind of tournament-of-death for whatever reason.
The film is built around the lead, Curtis Bush, and his very real ability to fuck people up with his extremities. Essentially, a well mannered, gunless Punisher in a ninja costume, at no point does the main character give off a psychotic vibe. In fact, he never even edges on anti-hero, he is just a full-fledged old school do-gooder. He does dispense vigilante justice outside of the law, but he generally catches his criminals right in the middle of some kind of openly illegal activity and, for the most part, only kills the really bad guys (who fucked with his family first). So, while the story doesn't quite live up to the psycho part of the film's title, it does make an adequately simple backbone for random ass-kicking. Mostly, it's a low rent, cornball revenge flick in the vain of a Van Damme vehicle from the same time period, but with gore, more grime, and less money. The pacing drags a little when people aren't throwing blows, but the slower moments pack enough laughable dialogue to keep interest. In some ways it carries itself like a horror film, even though what's on the screen is completely made up of comic book elements and action movie cheese.  What actually plays out is a bare, but extremely spirited fight movie with extra blood. Unlike movies produced after UFC, and its influence on the fight movie genre, it has the benefit of being born from the tropes common in Bloodsport (1988) and the first five Kickboxer movies. The trashy tribute to martial arts feels like a scrappy, less well-off cousin to the Don “The Dragon” Wilson lead Bloodfist series. It has only a fraction of its less-graphic counterpart’s money to work with but makes up for it with a blood-soaked soul. There is a great grimy feel to it, but it is bizarrely light-hearted for a gore-filled revenge flick. It has more in common with something like Lady Avenger (1988) than Deathwish (1974), never quite selling the emotional gut of what's going on. Brutal acts happen on screen, but nothing feels grounded enough to matter in a meaningful way. There is little logic to what's happening, but it's never complex enough to matter. The pep talks our hero receives from his, almost mystical, Rocky style coach, about things like hate and inner strength, are borderline nonsense. Though for some reason, I have no issue with the fact that they seemed to be an integral part of his psycho-kickboxer trainer. That kind of shit can make sense in a place like this. If you took the Lundgren Punisher (1989), Hard to Kill (1990) and The Hammer of God (1970), chopped them both into pieces, (lost some), then boiled that medley in  watery juices, left over from a straight to VHS slasher (served undercooked), you would get something close to this film's motif.  There are only enough bits of a story given to grease a sleazy, fun ride through a fictional 90s underworld with a guy who breaks people with his feet.
All of the fights look semi-realistic, brutal and are well performed. Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite have the camera work or editing quality to match the skills of the performers. Each scene only has a handful of angles, even during fights, sometimes producing a less than helpful look. The squandering of expert high kicks just goes to show how much work actually went into some of the classic hate dancing in other films. Curtis Bush and company know what they are doing, but without technical support, it ends up looking like someone’s Handycam recording of a seedy sparring competition.  Although somewhat handicapped, the brawls are a cut above what you might find in another no budget, beat-'em-up flick with a similar plot. Outside of the throwdowns, the technical side is more in line with a shoestring horror flick. Much of the movie takes place in dim basements or in alleys illuminated by street lights. Sometimes, at its most together, it reminded me of a Canadian TV show. Think, The Highlander TV series, but filmed in a basement (minus swords and immortals). The highlight of the features is ample gore which seemingly took the whole Budget. It's not quite Riki-Oh (1991) or anything, but there is a notable escalation from bigger action flicks that it otherwise imitates. The practical effects for the splatter are a step above most everything else in the film, and the movie takes pride in making a mess. People make low powered fountains when busted open properly, reminiscent of the bloodier Shaw Brothers films but with more realistically colored fluids. The music is kind of fun when it makes an appearance. It starts off strong with some video game worthy synth but goes quiet for large parts of the film. The sudden lack of soundtrack adds to the misappropriated horror tones, leaving whole scenes with only background noise. The best part of the musical choices is a makeshift theme song that accompanies the credits. It’s as if Tone Loc was in charge of making Mortal Kombat’s soundtrack but had only a low-end Casio and a Yak-Bak. Every aspect of the film crashes against its limited resources with optimistic bravado. I'm pretty sure most of the scenes were done in one take, as I doubt some of the mumbling was scripted. Most likely, editing was more worried about sampling the best action than getting the wording perfect--it’s that kind of movie. With that kind of budget and priorities, there is plenty to poke fun at, but it goes for broke on the face smashing which is pretty damn respectable in my book.
 At the center of the mayhem is Curtis “The Explosive Thin Man” Bush, a real-life 90s world champion kickboxer, who not only takes the lead in the film but was also the driving force behind its production. According to legend, Bush dreamt up the film with his then-girlfriend Kathy Varner after his role as a foot soldier in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). Bush, inspired by Bruce Lee and the film careers of other similar martial artists, persuaded his friends and family to invest in the project and shopped the idea to studios. After about five years and multiple setbacks, including being robbed of his film’s funds by an associate, Bush found some kindred spirits in the form of David Haycox and Mardy South , who took on the passion project as their own. They brought on Danny Dennison who provided some script work and the scant tunes. Even the completed film, also referred to as The Dark Angel: Psycho Kickboxer (unrelated to Dark Angel 1990, or the 10+ other releases with that name), had trouble obtaining distribution until Alternative Cinema picked it up in 1998.  As stated above, Bush is obviously skilled as a fighter, and it comes through even in the film’s most ridiculous fight scenes. He isn’t much of an actor, to the point that every one of his lines is almost inaudible (and I don’t think I missed anything important), but he does make up for the atrocious delivery by just looking like he is having a blast the whole time.
Psycho kickboxer runs almost completely on hand to hand combat, fake blood and ambition. It's a cheap, brainless experiment that doesn't have much to offer, outside of well-trained fights and extra gore, which is sometimes exactly what I want out of a movie. It squeezes a lot of trashy entertainment out of its resources, even though the kickboxer is never what I would call psychotic. I don't even feel tricked, they got half the title actually in the movie and somehow that's relatively good for some of the movies I watch.
1h 30min | 1997
Directors: David Haycox, Mardy South
Writers: Danny Dennison, Kathy Varner

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