|No Retreat, No Surrender|
|Directed by||Corey Yuen|
|Written by||Keith W. Strandberg|
|Produced by||Ng See-yuen|
|Music by||Paul Gilreath|
|Distributed by||New World Pictures|
|Box office||$4.6 million (US/Canada)|
1.4 million tickets (US/France)
No Retreat, No Surrender is a 1985 martial arts film directed by Corey Yuen in his American film directorial debut. It is the first title in the No Retreat, No Surrender franchise, whose plot lines and characters are mostly unrelated. It stars Kurt McKinney, with a supporting cast of Jean-Claude Van Damme, J.W. Fails, Kathie Sileno, and Tai-chung Kim. The film was released in Italy on October 20, 1985, and in the United States on May 2, 1986. McKinney performs as Jason Stillwell, an American teenager who learns martial arts from the spirit of Bruce Lee. Stillwell uses these lessons to defend his martial arts dojo against Soviet martial artist Ivan Kraschinsky (Van Damme).
The film was written by Keith W. Strandberg, after being contracted by Ng See-yuen, the owner of Seasonal Film Corporation, to put together a script for them, despite not having done so before. Van Damme was cast in the film and caused problems on the set for continually physically contacting other actors and stuntmen during fight scenes, even after director Yuen told him not to. Upon release, the film received negative reviews, focusing on the story, which many critics found too similar to The Karate Kid, The Last Dragon, and Rocky IV.
Jason Stillwell is a young karate student and Bruce Lee fanatic who trains in his father Tom's dojo in Sherman Oaks, California. One night after a training session, the dojo is visited by members of an organized crime syndicate looking to take over all the dojos in the country. After refusing to join the organization, Tom's leg is broken by a Soviet martial artist named Ivan "the Russian" Krachinsky, one of the boss' hired thugs. A furious Jason tries to take revenge but is easily subdued by the Soviet. Tom discourages any further effort, telling his son that fighting is not the answer.
The Stillwell family relocates to Seattle, where Jason meets R.J. Madison, and they become good friends. Jason reunites with his old girlfriend Kelly Riley, who lives in the neighborhood with her brother, Ian "Whirlwind" Riley, the newly crowned U.S. National Karate Champion. Despite this, Jason has a hard time adjusting, as he and R.J. are constantly beaten and harassed by local bullies, led by an obese boy named Scott and arrogant martial artist Dean "Shooting Star" Ramsay. After getting beaten up and humiliated by Scott and Dean at Kelly's birthday party, Jason visits the grave of Bruce Lee and asks him for help.
Later that night, Jason and Tom have a heated argument over Jason's fighting. When Jason calls his father a coward for running away from the syndicate, Tom destroys some of Jason's Bruce Lee memorabilia in the garage. Distraught, Jason consults with R.J., who helps him move all of his training gear into an abandoned house nearby. Exhausted from the move, Jason falls asleep at the house but is suddenly awakened by the soul of Bruce Lee, who begins to train him. Under Lee's tutelage, Jason goes from a below-average fighter to a superior martial artist, at one point able to fend off several thugs who ambush his father in a parking lot. In doing so, Jason convinces him that there are times when fighting is necessary.
Later on, Jason, Tom, and R.J. attend an annual kickboxing tournament between the Seattle Sidekicks and the Manhattan Maulers. Before the contest can get under way, the crime syndicate interrupts and makes a wager that none of the Seattle fighters can defeat Ivan. While Dean and Frank are easily bested by the Soviet, Ivan's last opponent, Ian, makes an impressive showing, forcing Ivan to resort to dirty tactics to defeat him. With Ian helplessly entangled in the ring ropes, Scott attempts to bite Ivan in the leg, but the Soviet dispatches him with a headbutt. Kelly tries to stop Ivan by hitting him with a stool, but the Soviet easily disarms her and grabs her by the hair. Angered by this, Jason charges to the ring and attacks Ivan, to the crowd's delight. Utilizing his advanced training, Jason is finally able to conquer his nemesis and earns the respect of his peers and family, who celebrate with him as the frustrated crime syndicate leaves Seattle.
- Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell
- Jean-Claude Van Damme as Ivan "the Russian" Kraschinsky
- J.W. Fails as R.J. Madison
- Kathie Sileno as Kelly Riley
- Tai-chung Kim as the ghost of Bruce Lee
- Kent Lipham as Scott
- Ron Pohnel as Ian "Whirlwind" Riley, the Seattle Sidekicks
- Dale Jacoby as Dean "Shooting Star" Ramsay, the Seattle Sidekicks
- Peter "Sugarfoot" Cunningham as Frank Peters, the Seattle Sidekicks
- Joe Verroca as New York mobster
- John Andes as New York mob boss
- Farid Panali as Fajad "the Headhunter" Azmand, the Manhattan Maulers
- Mark Zacharatos as Michael Rocco, the Manhattan Maulers
- Ty Martinez as John Alvarado, the Manhattan Maulers
- Timothy D. Baker as Tom Stillwell
- Gloria Marziano as Mrs. Stillwell
- Paul Oswell as Trevor
Development and writing
After living in Taiwan for a year in the early 1980s, screenwriter Keith W. Strandberg became interested in working in martial arts films as an actor. He moved back to the United States and became a tour director in China, from where he continued to visit Hong Kong to make contact with producers and screenwriters. After being turned down by several studios, including Shaw Brothers, Strandberg read about Seasonal Film Corporation and got in contact with the studio head, Ng See-yuen. Ng expressed an interest in making an American film and asked if Strandberg knew anything about screenplays; Strandberg lied that he did. A year later, Ng contacted Strandberg in America, stating that he wanted to write a script for them. Strandberg wrote a draft of what would become No Retreat, No Surrender. While production began on the film, Strandberg was on set and spent hours every night changing the script to improve its quality while filming.
Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast as the Soviet villain, Ivan Kraschinsky. On set, he performed a roundhouse kick on Pete Cunningham, rendering him unconscious. Actor and martial artist Timothy Baker stated that during action scenes on the set, the production manager and director Corey Yuen instructed Van Damme to not make contact with the other actors and stuntmen. Despite repeated warnings, Van Damme continued to do so, performing kicks on Baker during filming. Other actors and martial artists claimed that Van Damme had not been reckless with his physical contact, including Ron Pohnel, who said, "His control wasn't such as mine, but I had no complaints". Van Damme originally had a two-picture deal with Strandberg but broke his contract.
While there was never a DVD release in the United States, a Blu-ray edition of the film was published by Kino Lorber Classics in Region A, on February 21, 2017, which contained both the American theatrical release and a longer international cut.
Reception and legacy
No Retreat, No Surrender was released on May 2, 1986. It was the eleventh-highest grossing film on its opening week at the American box office, earning $739,723; it grossed a total of $4,662,137 in the United States and Canada.
Walter Goodman of The New York Times gave the film a negative review, writing that the story appeared to have been "slapped-together". Time Out compared it to The Last Dragon, Karate Kid, and Rocky IV, noting that it "borrows heavily" from those films and "makes them look like masterpieces". Martial arts magazine Black Belt gave the film a rating of one-and-a-half out of five, noting that Jean-Claude Van Damme does not have much screen time and that the film was derivative of The Karate Kid. Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times called it "hilariously bad" and an "amateurish clunker" with poor action scenes.
In 1993, Black Belt placed the film at seventh on their list of top-ten choreographed martial arts films. The magazine specifically praised Van Damme's jump kicks, while noting that McKinney's look "suspiciously quick", mentioning that, "unlike the Hong Kong movie industry, American filmmakers have yet to master the technique of speeding up the film without "jumpy/fidgety" side effects". In 2017, Ed Travis of Cinapse said the film "manages to never the less [sic] entertain and delight with a combination of pure earnestness and legitimately cool fight work". Austin Trunick of Under the Radar said Van Damme's scenes "are prime Van Damme, at least, with some fantastic fight choreography and a full showcase of splits, high-kicks, and bug-eyed snarling".
The film was riffed live at a number of venues on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Tour, by Joel Hodgson, in 2019. It was also riffed by RiffTrax on October 15, 2015.
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