“Stand On Your Own” by Joe Torono & Stan Gilreath
Interesting Dated References: Karate culture as a whole.
Best Line: Anything that comes out of the dad’s mouth or R.J.’s mouth.
Social Context: Yet another entry in the “don’t run away from your problems” school of thinking. This was eventually proved to be a false ideology by the mid 90s.
Summary: Conceived as a “higher stakes” Karate Kid rip-off, No Retreat, No Surrender treads the fine line of being too unrealistic for adults, and too confusing for children. The resulting product is fucking hilarious.
Our film opens up in a wood-paneled Karate studio. You remember them; you probably spent some time in one. Or you had to sit and listen to some kids talk about how they could kill people with their fists and how, “At the Karate studio Sensei Wilson said I had the best high kick,” and other such assorted fucking nonsense. See, in the mid-eighties, Karate fever swept the nation. Between ninjas and Karate and fucking nunchucks, you couldn’t get away from it. All the non-Karate kids like myself walked around in fear of some asshole jumping out of the bushes and doing a crane kick. Luckily most of us saw Karate for what it was: just another way to drain our parents’ money.
So, after we watch some white guy teach some white kids how to spar, the white guy is visited by a businessman and his two cronies. The businessman asks him if he “signed the papers,” and the white guy refuses with one of the shittiest acting performances I’ve ever seen. I think what’s going on here is the businessman represents some type of Karate union, and our white Sensei refuses to join. Then the henchman attack. One of the henchman happens to be future Double Team star Jean-Claude Van Damme. He beats the guy up. As the white Sensei lays on the ground crying, all his students come out. One of the students is his son, who asks his dad, “What should we do?” Apparently the answer to this question is “move to Seattle,” because that’s what happens immediately.
Once in Seattle, white Karate instructor forces his son, Jason, to unpack the U-Haul. It appears Jason will be our Karate kid. While unpacking, Jason meets break-dancing, rapping, Jheri-curled, R.J., who is playing the Black Kid.
R.J. then takes Jason to visit the grave of Bruce Lee. Jason is apparently a big wimp because in the next training montage he keeps going into gratuitous “OWWW” motions. So as if Black Kid wasn’t enough, we are next introduced to Fat Kid who hates Black Kid. During a foot chase, Fat Kid keeps up with Black Kid and starts to attack him. Luckily, Jason comes to the rescue and delivers the title line. Apparently it’s “no retreat, no surrender” when it comes to Fat Kid, but if some union guys are pressuring your dad, you just run away to Seattle.
When R.J. finally takes Jason to join a dojo, Jason gets his ass kicked. But he and R.J. note in the locker room that it is a “nice dojo.” They are clearly just sitting in a high school locker room. Jason immediately forgets getting his ass kicked when his girlfriend from back home shows up. It looks like she brought along her mom-pants and feathered hair, though, so they go to the Space Needle, a puppy mill, and other assorted things that people in love do. Meanwhile, Jason’s dad retreats from karate and surrenders himself to a career as a bartender.
Somehow Jason’s girlfriend Kelly has a brother who is lead Sensei at the dojo where he got his ass kicked at. This leads to a confrontational birthday party scene where all the dudes pick on Jason, trip him, and throw food at him. He gets really upset and drives to Bruce Lee’s grave, all the while having vivid flashbacks of the fight you just saw a minute ago. When he finally is done complaining to the grave, he goes home where his dad takes out all his aggression from the bar on Jason’s makeshift garage dojo. He even goes so far as to rip down a Bruce Lee poster. Jason becomes so upset he has R.J. help him set up a makeshift dojo in some abandoned house. He even falls asleep with a bunch of candles and kerosene lamps burning, so, obviously he has no fucking discipline. He obviously hasn’t gotten to the stage of Karate where you learn not to fall asleep with candles burning. Oh, then he dreams the ghost of Bruce Lee visits him and teaches him how to not be a fuck-up. This of course leads to a few Rocky-esque montage sequence and some of the tightest sweat pants I’ve ever seen on a guy.
In the meantime, R.J. joins some type of break-dancing competition dressed as Michael Jackson. While there, Jason and Kelly make up. But no, it’s then immediately back to more training with the ghost of Bruce Lee. This includes three fucking montage training sequences, guitar licks, and one stock 80s motivational rock theme song. Now keep in mind it’s all still a little unclear what he’s training for, but I guess that’s not that important. In fact, just when you’ve had enough of the training sequences, there’s suddenly a major Karate Championship match in Seattle! It’s supposed to be a big event at the “Kingswood Sports Center,” but the venue is no larger than a high school gym. The dueling fight appears to be between the dojo where Jason got his ass kicked, and the businessman’s cronies from the beginning of the film. How these two are related is not made clear. Anyway, they utilize only one fighter to defeat the Seattle team. Yes, that one fighter is Ivan the Russian, played by Van Damme. So then Jason jumps in the ring and kicks Ivan’s ass. At one point Jason starts to lose, so a sweaty and/or Jheri curl juice-covered R.J. yells out, “No retreat, no surrender!,” and then Jason wins. Fade to black, and queue that motivational rock song from the montage sequence.
Russian fighters, Karate, break-dancing, Fat Kid, synthesizers. It’s really the total package. All things considered, No Retreat, No Surrender has some great fighting choreography that can be attributed to the veteran Hong Kong director and producer that worked on the film. It should also be noted that there are approximately four sequels to this movie, none of which have any returning characters. Unless you count Karate as a returning character. In fact, none of them even follow similar storylines, they were all just efforts to cash in on late-80s ninja-mania.
Poster and Box Art: Contrary to my belief, this movie did have a theatrical run. I could find no information on how wide a release it got. This was definitely a big rental, though. The poster features the USSR vs. USA theme that we somehow thought was never going to go out of style. Guess what else makes it even more dated? The entire poster is done in airbrush. I feel bad for those guys who were really good at airbrush because it was super fucking hard to master. In fact, I’ll go so far as to call it a dead art because computers totally destroyed the need for premium airbrush artists. I remember my mom once tried to get me to like airbrushing in the early 90s. You would spend an hour setting up, then you would airbrush for 15 fucking minutes, then something would get fucked up. Then you would spend another hour cleaning up. So my hat’s off to the great airbrush artists of the late 80s. Someday you’ll get the respect you deserve.
Availability: There are a few different cuts of this film. The original U.S. theatrical version everyone watched on VHS when they were little is not the version currently on DVD. I guess after Van Damme blew the fuck up, they decided to re-cut the film. They did the following: Added more fighting, took out some of the lame dramatic 80s plots, took out some of the comedy, took out the motivational rock and replaced it with stock “Oriental” music, and put Van Damme’s picture real big on the box. This updated version is also about 95 minutes. Oh, I should note this is only available on Region 2 DVD, anyway. If you want the 80s version pick up an old VHS copy on eBay. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to see more Van Damme and have a region-free player, buy the DVD. I do really recommend this movie if you smoke a lot of weed or get drunk with friends while watching movies a lot. This certainly has all the required laughable elements.