So much about this movie is gloriously painful. So, so much. First and foremost, the acting is awful. The script was written by a man who had never written one before, and he apparently spent long nights each night revising it. As a result, vital scenes are missing and were likely never filmed. Dialogue often makes no sense. Audio queues are off. And perhaps most importantly for the advertising campaign, the backstory of our “primary” antagonist gets only a mention once or twice in the film and isn’t actually relevant at all to the plot. At its core, No Retreat, No Surrender is little more than a Karate Kid knock off that took way too much influence from Rocky IV…and then threw in Bruce Lee’s ghost.
Are there any positives? Well actually, yeah. Many of the leads were martial artists first and actors second, so while they’re terrible at delivering their lines, they’re actually quite good at choreography. This movie marks Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first major performance, and his fight against Ron Phonel’s character in the lead up to the final showdown is highly watchable and brilliantly handled. Supposedly Van Damme had problems with his control while making the movie, a fact that would come back to bite him during a lawsuit some years later, but when he was on point, he was on point. Also, if you like 1980s training montages, this movie has one tha seriously tries to last for a third of the run time. And it uses the greatest 1980s montage song that isn’t Eye of the Tiger: Hold On to the Vision.
But it still makes some pretty unforgivable mistakes: an obvious white guy plays the breakdancing double of the black sidekick to the hero. The same shot is used showing the crowd in the final fight at least four times. Another shot from a different movie is in the final arena scene which shows a completely different set of exhibition judges in a completely different arena. The crowd size changes noticeably at the end. Add this to the problems with the script and such, and you’ve got a ridiculous mess of a movie. Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about Bruce Lee’s ghost; No Retreat, No Surrender is classic Brucesploitation, even going so far as to star Kim Tai-chung, one of the doubles used to make Robert Clouse’s release of Game of Death and Game of Death II. The training montage I spoke of earlier contains all of the “Sensei Lee” scenes.
No Retreat, No Surrender is terrible, but it’s also entertaining, usually for the wrong reasons. The fights are great though, so watch it for the fighting. And the never-ending training montage.