No Retreat, No Surrender is as innocuous as they come, but it still took me eight sittings to get through it all. That’s the kind of peek-through-your-fingers statistic more suited to Salò or Jeanne Dielman, which is no mean feat for a bunch of chirpy teenagers in a Karate Kid ripoff. I give full credit for this to director Corey Yuen, whose mise-en-scène is so static and immobile that you can’t help but focus on the non-dialogue and barely-acting: where a zestier schlockmeister might have risen/sank to the level of his enthusiastic writers and performers, he phones in the pictures and yawns through the cutting. Visually, it’s like the mutant progeny of Stranger than Paradise and The Room, and not in a good way.
The Karate Kid was popular partly because it hedged its bets: the martial arts culture in the movie bore no resemblance to the can-do rhetoric we know from reality. That would have cut into the vast audience of people who would never set foot inside a karate class, let alone manage a flying scissor kick. NRNS is tailored more exclusively for people who know martial arts as a commonplace, and it’s a much different world; instead of the city kid sucked into the aphoristic whirwind of that guy from Happy Days, we start with a martial arts studio being taken over by bullies with money. This being the ’80s, the studio in question is run by the hero’s father (Timothy D. Baker), the man who breaks his leg is a villainous Russian named Ivan (Jean-Claude Van Damme), and daddy’s boy Jason Stillwell (Kurt McKinney) must then figure out how to heal his wounded masculinity when dad signs over the deed and they retreat and surrender to Seattle, Washington.
McKinney is a good-looking kid with a bit of bright-eyed twinkle and would do nicely for froth like this if Yuen could figure out a style for him, and maybe the rest of the movie. But our director is a master of a master shot, and damned little else. He can’t capitalize on the good elements of the performers or whittle things down to the stereotypical demands of the script; thus everything is doggedly realistic even as the plot becomes ever less believable. Matching Jason/McKinney with jheri-curled black stereotype R.J. Madison (J.W. Fails), one is stuck with two actors with little experience who know they’ve been rooked into schlock. Scene after scene unfolds with the two friends awkwardly gesticulating, smiling knowing smiles, and generally keeping things rolling while the unforgiving frame captures every move, and the result is like talking with an antisocial person at a party who is trying too hard. You feel for them, but there’s no escape from those indefinable x-factors that defeat your ability to like them.
In any other bad movie, a subplot with a cackling fat bully would be a hoot, and this is a movie with two: local boy Scott (Ken Lipman), who terrorizes the home-towners and requires the martial-arts intervention of our hero, and a nameless bar thug who can’t stop threatening daddy. Ditto for the Ghost of Bruce Lee Gives Me Lessons sequences, which by all rights should have you rolling on the floor, and the gloriously perfunctory love interest Kelly (Kathie Sileno) interfered with by a jealous rival kung-fu teen. And with R.J. milking the Michael Jackson by way of Alfonso Ribero moves (he appears in full Sgt. Pepper frogging by the end of the movie), there is no excuse for this not being iconic ’80s schlock. But this is as unfabulous as camp gets, for the simple fact that nobody believes in this story. The film neither takes the plot doggedly serious nor lampoons it for lack of other options; it’s a convictionless muddle that strands its actors in a desert without food or water.
NRNS has moderate residual fascination because it knows its beat—the fantasies of the aforementioned martial arts domain. It’s rare that I reach for this kind of thing without the prompting of a journalistic hook, and it was interesting to get out of my assumptions for a while and slip into someone else’s. But if the illegal DVD-ROM I had to settle for is any indication, it’s nobody’s idea of a classic of the form. If a great bad movie blows your mind with the idiot possiblities of its surreal bad decisions, this one shrinks your expectations until you give up out of exaustion: you don’t root for the badness, you just feel embarrassed for it. Granted, I watched this by myself, and without the aid of alcohol or drugs, but you would need the biggest, drunkest crowd on earth to take this even millimeters out of the snooze it is alone.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.