Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (1994) — The Pyungilist

Matty savours Albert Pyun’s criminally overlooked sequel.

Albert Pyun forged a tight bond with Kings Road Entertainment across Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991), Knights (1993), and Brainsmasher… A Love Story (1993) — so much so that he dedicated his subsequent masterpiece, Mean Guns (1997), to the company’s boss, Stephen J. Friedman, following Friedman’s death on 4th October 1996. Shot in and around New Mexico in May ‘93, two months after Brainsmasher wrapped, KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR (1994) was the final film Pyun made for Kings Road and, Ravenhawk (1996) aside, was the last picture he tackled as a gun-for-hire until Ticker (2001) for Nu Image. In between, the perpetually underappreciated auteur was busy heading his own shingle, Filmwerks, with longtime collaborators Tom Karnowski and Jessica Budin, and Brian Yuzna’s former producing partner Gary Schmoeller.

Scripted by Pyun and David Yorkin (who’d go on to pen Spitfire (1995) for Filmwerks), Kickboxer 4 opens with David Sloan (Kickboxer sequel mainstay Sasha Mitchell) writing a letter to his wife, Vicky (Deborah Mansy), from the confines of a jail cell. The letter details how David has been framed for murder by the franchise’s arch baddie, the dastardly Tong Po, and, thanks to a bunch of flashbacks to the previous instalments, attempts to connect the Kickboxer saga’s dots — a token gesture given that the series’ already loose continuity is pretty much flung out the window here. Indeed, all you really need to know is that Tong Po sanctioned the assassination of David’s older brothers, Kurt and Eric (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Alexio, the other fella from the original Kickboxer (1989)), at the start of Pyun’s Kickboxer 2. By the end of that solid first sequel, the youngest Sloan had avenged their slaying; but everything David went through in the Po-less Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992) — which Pyun was unable to direct because of a scheduling issue [1] — is completely ignored. When Tong Po kidnaps Vicky, David cuts a deal with a slick DEA agent (Pyun regular Nicholas Guest). Somehow, Tong Po has become Mexico’s most powerful drug lord — and, in a particularly strange flourish, a hugely successful record producer (!) — and the DEA needs David to bring him down… By competing in an Enter the Dragon (1973)-style fighting tournament at the bastard’s ranch hideaway. 

Essentially, Kickboxer 4 boasts the same core plot as Pyun’s later Heatseeker (1995): a man partaking in a bevy of scuffles lorded over by a sinister villain in order to get his woman back. However, the idea of a journey — of an odyssey — has long been a thematic fixation for Pyun. Each of his pictures are buoyed by the concept in some way or another. Alongside The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Radioactive Dreams (1985), Cyborg (1989), Nemesis (1992), Knights, Spitfire, and Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996), Kickboxer 4 presents the notion at its most explicit, and Pyun’s affecting introspective bent is reflected in David’s arc. David’s trip to Mexico isn’t just to rescue his girl and face an old foe; it’s a quest to save his very soul. 

According to Pyun, he cast Mitchell in Kickboxer 2 because he felt there was a darkness beneath the Dallas actor and Taekwondo practitioner’s genial demeanor. Alas, Pyun’s desire to explore it back then was vetoed by Kings Road. Come Kickboxer 4, they gave the helmer permission to create as he saw fit. Their sole stipulation was that the film return to the knockout contest milieu Kickboxer 3 largely junked. Ably supported by fellow thesps/martial artists Brad Thornton and Michele Krasnoo; Pyun perennial Thom Mathews; and future Pyun stock player Jill Pierce (Kickboxer 4 was her inaugural teaming with the filmmaker), Mitchell is excellent as a harder and more cynical iteration of David. Pyun shamelessly flirts with outlaw iconography (mirrored sunglasses, motorbikes etc.) in order to hammer home the character’s rougher edges — a ruggedness that, even by Kickboxer 4’s relatively happy ending, isn’t entirely shaken off, suggesting that the once sweet-natured bruiser has been changed by his various ordeals forever. The film’s strongest suit, though, is the exemplary Steadicam work of the late Jeff Mart. Harmonising with the stark lighting of Pyun stalwart George Mooradian, Mart’s swaying compositions are a triumph of pragmatism and artistry. On one hand, the use of a Steadicam was undoubtedly a speed-based decision necessitated by Kickboxer 4 being lensed in a measly six days. On the other, it serves as the aesthetic embodiment of David’s inner turmoil. The camera is as restless as he is. Potent and evocative — and a fan of Steadicam as a storytelling tool anyway (see: Nemesis, Heatseeker) — it’s no wonder Pyun employed the same technique on the similarly dark-minded Adrenalin and Postmortem (1998). Yet what’s even more impressive is Kickboxer 4 looking as striking as it does when the finished film represents only a fraction of what it was meant to be. 

The production of Kickboxer 4 was plagued by a camera mishap that wasn’t picked up on until it hit the editing bay. A faulty plug led to a significant amount of footage becoming overexposed, thus unusable. Like Pyun’s Urban Menace (1998), which had to be cobbled together from dirty dupes when its masters were lost in transit, the version of Kickboxer 4 as is was assembled from every scrap of salvageable material. Thankfully, unlike the execrable Urban Menace, Kickboxer 4 manages to tell a cohesive story — an impressive feat in and of itself, let alone the fact that it does so with such stylistic richness.

That said, as good as Kickboxer 4 is (in terms of underrated Pyun, it’s a step below Omega Doom (1996)), the film’s not without problems. While dramatically astute, the fight scenes are generally sloppy and clunky, and there are several flubs, flaws and risible bits — namely: crew reflections in shiny surfaces; David’s ability to covertly sneak into Tong Po’s tournament by simply sticking on a pair of shades; gangs of gun-toting henchmen standing around waiting to be thumped on cue when they could open fire and end every fracas instantaneously; and, of course, the elephant in the room… Yellowface. The Moroccan-born Michel Qissi being ‘Thai’d’ in Kickboxer 1 and 2 was dodgy ground, but at least he appeared Asian enough for his turn to be ruled a minor moment of cultural insensitivity from a bygone era. However, the putty-esque prosthetics slathered on Qissi’s Kickboxer 4 replacement, Kamel Krifa — a Tunisian-Belgian — seem offensive even by early ‘90s standards. The unfortunate invocation of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) notwithstanding, Krifa’s actual performance is weirdly captivating despite his chatty and flamboyant vamping sitting wholly at odds with the ferocious, primordial template set by his predecessor.              

Already $2.6million in profit prior to shooting thanks to Kings Road and their co-financer, Moonstone’s, lucrative presales, Kickboxer 4 debuted on U.S. VHS via Kickboxer 3 distro Live Entertainment on 27th July 1994. Amazingly, the film didn’t land on U.K. soil until 2004 when Film 2000 finally got it past the censors uncut. Previously, both Kickboxer 4’s unrated and R-rated cuts were rejected by the BBFC when 20th Century Fox submitted them for classification ten years earlier. Per the BBFC’s ruling, Kickboxer 4 was “a work in which fights to the death are staged in the kick-boxing [sic] equivalent of a Roman Circus… Purporting to condemn the practice, it plainly exploits it, since the work itself is a celebration of extreme violence as entertainment.”

[1] Instead, Point Break (1992) scribe and Prayer of the Rollerboys (1991) director Rick King was drafted in.

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