No Retreat, No Surrender: MUSK

October 24, 2009

No Retreat, No Surrender
Directed by Corey Yuen
Written by Ng-See Yuen and Corey Yuen
Starring Kurt McKinney, Jean Claude Van-Damme
1986, New World Pictures, 85 minutes.

***

The formula here is literally a formula — the movie is a series of sequential vignettes of training montages; and storyline

events which signify the presence of a narrative, but no actual character development.
Hence the movie is blatantly surreal, its rails constantly wandering off. It protrays karate as the center of the universe.
The best part is when the protag’s ravished mental state actually procures a ghost of Bruce Lee, who trains him to a new level
of martial expertise. At this point it makes no bones about being a fantasy, but is also a hilarious indictment of Bruce Lee
fanboys across the universe.
This is actually a pretty interesting presentation,
for it blatantly disregards the cinematic desire to produce realism. Guys like Tarantino lap this approach up and have made it the
cornerstone of their canon.
It is pornographic in one sense, for the attention of the creators is mainly given to the center character, the avatar of the weird
juvenile male fantasy, and all other
characters are somehow even simpler — 1-dimensional stand-ins for the protagonist’s personal demons. In other words, we have the
starlet at the center of the orgy, the camera focused on her emotional engagements, surrounded by numerous faceless male partners
absent of detail or real relevance.
The movie has no real conclusion either. None of the character’s social ties are remedied until he proves he is a more efficient
killing machine (in the ring, of course) than the rest of the crowd. The love interest is concocted as another background color,
but the female character really is nothing more than a prize to be won. Amusingly, the lead can’t do this until he has the
self-confidence won by beating everybody up, even though she doesn’t seem to actually respond to that quality, but likes his
effeminate exuberance. The plot is a mere sketch, but this is part of the appeal.
Flicks like this are pure escapist role-playing fantasy. The fantasy is an extension of unfulfilled male drives — it ventures off
into harmless fantasy, but also strange solipsism and anti-social narcissism. Because anyone who deeply entertains these kinds of
fantasies seriously is either a little kid, or a dysfunctional adult. Separating the world into such simplistic and convenient
notions is villainous work. It makes me think the presentation of the protagonist, fighting against such boring and obvious evil
landing right in one’s lap,
is actually the way the dysfunctional villain of the story (and society) sees themselves.
This is evident in how much the badass master tries to talk down the criminal, who manifests some kind of insane anger out of
nowhere and pushes the guy to no end. Violent thugs also justify their actions to themselves by often asserting blame upon others,
that others pushed them to behave in the way they did. What is common amongst cheesy, cathartic action movies is the notion that
the protagonist just wants peace, but others force them to maim and kill.
This is the condition of most action movies, particularly those of the ’70s onward. Bruce Lee managed to make everyone think he
was a super badass, whether he was or not. By reveling in himself and his desire for fame and recognition (why did he care if
white people liked his movies?), he managed to become the pinnacle of the male pubescent fantasy.
It’s also Van Damme’s first starring role. He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, but he gets to show off his kicking chops
and do at least one good 180 split. Supposedly the guy only got an initial $250 for working on the film — kinda cheap considering
the quality of his acrobatic work here.
Anyway, Van Damme playing an evil Cold-War Russian is pretty funny, right? I suppose the underhanded agenda is that the Russians
want to take over the karate schools in the USA or something, but it’s not really all that clear. My favorite moment was definitely
the awkward highlight when JCVD grabs the girlfriend’s hair. An evil action, but so necessary to awaken the volitional spark in the
protagonist!
It’s fascinating in how it further defines her role.
–protagonist treats her like a princess (the way a repressed male treats a woman)
–school rival treats her like an object or objective (the way a hedonistic or cynical male treats a woman)
–villain treats her like a victim (serial killer or process predator)
So we have the three
Of course, cinema can be blatantly fake and still influence our own narratives.
LET THE FLIRTING BEGINNo Retreat, No Surrender is a cheesy martial arts movie from the mid-80s, starring Kurt McKinney, who would later go on to do… a few other things. The series incarnations don’t have much to do with each other, but the second and third (and unofficially titled fourth) of the series are notable for being higher budget, well-choreographed, with a recurring lead role played by Loren Avedon (who actually trained under Best of the Best star, Philip Rhee).
The formula here is literally a formula — the movie is a series of sequential vignettes of training montages; and storyline events which signify the presence of a narrative, but no actual character development. Hence the movie is blatantly surreal, its rails constantly wandering off. The plot is a mere sketch — but this is part of the appeal (as a bonus, karate is featured as the center of the universe in the town the movie takes place in).
Flicks like this are unabashedly awesome escapism. The fantasy is an extension of unfulfilled male drives — it ventures off into harmless fantasy, but also strange solipsism and anti-social narcissism. Because anyone who deeply entertains these kinds of fantasies, with any serious intent, is either a little kid or a dysfunctional adult. Separating the world into such simplistic and convenient notions is villainous work. The presentation of the protagonist, fighting against such boring and obvious evil landing right in one’s lap, is actually the way the dysfunctional villain of the story (and society) sees themselves.
Protagonists in action movies are based on narratives actually woven by narcissistic villains.

The self-indulgent homoerotic fantasy is more than evident in how much the badass master tries to talk down the criminal, who manifests some kind of insane anger out of nowhere and pushes our protag to no end. Violent criminals often justify their actions to themselves by asserting the cause of their actions (blame) upon others — that others pushed them to behave in the way they did. Hence, what is common amongst cheesy, cathartic action movies is the notion that the protagonist just wants peace, but others force them to maim and kill.
This overly simplistic narrative is pornographic (duh!), for the attention of the creators is exclusively given to the center character, the avatar of the weird juvenile male fantasy, and all other characters are somehow even simpler — one-dimensional stand-ins for the protagonist’s personal demons. The movie has no real conclusion either. None of the character’s social ties are remedied until he proves he is a more efficient killing machine (in the ring!!! he’z good guy!) than the rest of the crowd. The love interest is concocted as another background color, but the female character really is more of a prize. Amusingly, the lead can’t sweep her off her feet until he has the self-confidence won by beating everybody up — even though she doesn’t seem to actually respond to that quality, but likes his effeminate exuberance (neither a male nor female fantasy cliche, but just more lazy surreality!).
Of course, cinema can be blatantly fake and still influence our own narratives. That’s part of the beauty here: for all the angsty nonsense that the production embellishes, underneath the whole schemata lies some basic male social need that male viewers can identify with. The best part of the story, for me, is when the protagonist’s ravished mental state actually procures a ghost of Bruce Lee*, who trains him to a new level of martial expertise. At this point it makes no bones about being a fantasy, but is also indirectly a hilarious indictment of Bruce Lee fan-boys across the universe. This is actually a pretty interesting presentation, approaching pure irony. Guys like Tarantino lap this approach up and have made it the cornerstone of their canon, but in Tarantino’s case, the blatancy of such an approach actually kills its fertility. The potential for unintentional irony here creates a thrill not unlike real, “found” or docu footage.
This film is only well-known now for being Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first starring role, playing the villain: Ivan the Soviet kickboxer (Cold War, remember?). He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, but he gets to show off his martial chops and do at least one good 180-split. Supposedly the guy only got an initial $250 for working on the film — kinda cheap considering the dangerous quality of his acrobatic work here. Interestingly, Van Damme has pointed out recently, and rightly so, that action stars today don’t have to physically work for their appeal. The editors just chop the action up so that even complete schlubs like Christian Bale or Liam Neeson can look like efficient killing machines. I mean, at least Arnie had to look tough, even if he couldn’t move like Jet Li.
The film can be seen in 8 or so parts on YouTube, and is worth a look if only for the very alluring soundtrack. It’s pure ’80s low-budget keyboard work, but is surprisingly tasteful. Every single interaction is a bursting bubble of homoeroticism, and on the whole is definitely worth it for the giallo, B-movie, MST3K, chop-socky crowd. Modern ironic film fans need not apply and should stick to mass-marketed nostalgia. This one takes balls!

@ Amazon
@ IMDb

________
*Bruce Lee taught a Chinese martial art of his own design, much much different than any form of karate that the movie portrays. It makes his phantasmic appearance to the karate student all the more amusing.
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One Response to “No Retreat, No Surrender: MUSK”


  1. […] 3-D modern society) but the charm actually makes the message more resonant, in the same sense that the unintentional irony or camp of B-movie action creates a kind of interactive relationship with th…. It’s an interesting effect in conjunction with the 3-D glasses and the impressive […]


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