No Retreat No Surrender – More Than Meets the Eye in Plain Sight

No Retreat No Surrender
No Retreat No Surrender / New World Pictures

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For Westerner martial arts (MA) stars that got their break and made their name in Hong Kong (HK) kung fu films, no matter who the star, when they began making MA movies in America, their American productions’ fight choreography fell woefully short of their HK counterparts. No Retreat, No Surrender (NRNS; 1986) was a surprise trend reversal because it was a HK production company that came to the US to make an American karate film with mostly American actors that was directed by an A-1 Chinese action director, had a top-notch Chinese fight choreographer and starred a soon to be famous actor whose first bit role in 1984 was playing a gay martial artist in a cheap French film. I’m referring to Corey Yuen (Jackie Chan’s Beijing opera brother), choreographer Meng Hoi (Sammo Hung Stunt Team member and Cynthia Rothrock’s former beau) and Jean Claude van Damme (aka JCVD), respectfully. Yet the point behind NRNS is still being missed by many folks.

The origin of NRNS began in 1978, when Ng See-yuen wrote and produced the Chan starring Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (SES ), in which the film director Yuen Woo-ping’s father played a gray-haired, gentle old man dressed in shabby clothes, who taught Chan’s innocent street bumpkin character kung fu so he could defend himself, not be taken advantage of, and to protect the weak.

When I saw Karate Kid (KK; 1984), the resemblance to Chan’s SES was as obvious as Humpty Dumpty’s stress while visiting the Great Wall of China, where after the new kid in town, Daniel (Ralph Macchio), is bullied and harassed by local karate students, with the addition of the former girlfriend of the lead bully falling for Daniel further complicating things, meets an old graying karate sensei that teaches him karate as a means of self-improvement and self-confidence.The difference to SES is that Daniel does the common American martial art film theme of fighting in an MA tournament to find validation and get revenge against those that beat him up.

These similarities did not escape Corey’s eyes who upon seeing KK while visiting his sister in Seattle, he contacted Ng and said, “We can do better.” From Corey’s perspective he was mostly referring to KK’s martial arts fight choreography and fight scenes, which to me based on being a stuntman/actor in Chinese kung fu film/TV shows from 1979-1981 in Taiwan, KK’s fights were rather untidy. Yet KK captured the true spirit of karate, something Daniel learned, and the Cobra Kai students did not.

When watching old MA movies, one must watch with an honest eye and compare the fights, choreography, and MA performances to other films already released. When I saw NRNS in late 1986, I had already seen 1000+ mostly Asian MA films. Furthermore, my good pal David Golia was NRNS’s DP/camera operator and I met him when we co-starred in my first Chinese kung fu film in Taiwan where in 1979 I quickly learned how perilous cinematic fights were in Chinese kung fu films when during my audition, an actor’s kick dislocated my neck that was quickly snapped back into place and I had to perform the same stunt minutes later (see Film Fighting in Taiwan: A Full Contact Introduction! at https://blackbeltmag.com/film-fighting-in-taiwan). I guessed since NRNS had a HK fight director and choreographer that the American actors had no idea what awaited them. I later found out that was true, as for example, Pete Cunningham gotaccidentally decked by JCVD.

Kurt McKinney

No Retreat No Surrender / New World Pictures

NRNS features all newcomer MA talent headed by Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell, a karate-trained, Bruce Lee wannabe whose father refuses to hand over his Los Angeles dojo to a crime syndicate bent on wanting to control dojos nationwide. After the mob’s hitman, Ivan the Russian (JCVD), breaks Jason’s father’s leg then easily forces Jason into denigrating submission, the McKinney’s shamefully abscond to Seattle. Trying to fit it in, Jason is bullied and harassed by superior local karate students, and since the lead bully’s former girlfriend, Kelly, falls for Jason, it further complicates matters. With no one to turn to and his father a shell of who he was, the broken spirited Jason visits Bruce Lee’s grave and spills his guts to Lee. That’s when I teared up.

I did a Jason in 1986, a 45-minute cathartic moment speaking to Lee’s tombstone weeks before seeing NRNS as I had just completed a 3000 mile walk across America ending in Seattle, as to pay my respects to Lee, in honor of how he saved my life when I was 16 and days away from dying due to the lethal disease cystic fibrosis (see How Bruce Lee Saved My Lifeat https://blackbeltmag.com/bruce-lee-saves-life). How could I not like this film?

When Lee’s ghost began teaching Jason, of course that didn’t happen to me, yet I understood how Ng and Corey would have Lee appear this way in the movie, it’s not a stretch of theirs or my imagination that spirits can visit someone in a dream or during some crazy unexplainable event, to become a spiritual guide.

Here’s the point that many have overlooked, even though it’s hidden in plain sight. Part of Lee’s jeet kune do (JKD) martial tenet is about training not to fight. In Lee’s Li Tsung role in ABC’s Longstreet (1971-71) Way of the Intercepting Fist episode, Li stops teaching Longstreet MA because the blind detective angrily yells, “I’m trying to learn how to fight and not how to think.” Later in the show, Longstreet wins back Li’s trust as he opens his mind to Li saying, “It’s funny that out of a martial art, out of combat, I feel something peaceful, something without hostility, as if by simply knowing JKD, and by knowing, never have to use it.” What do you think Lee meant in Enter the Dragon (1973) when he said he practices the art of fighting without fighting?

Lee’s philosophy is about training to master oneself, one’s MA and to honesty express yourself. Lee was not practicing MA to intentionally hurt or maim someone for money, glory, or status. He didn’t fight in tournaments and never claimed to be a world champion of anything, he simply called himself a martial artist. Corey and Ng understood this and didn’t lose sight of it as Jason became Lee’s neo-Longstreet.

Thus, when Lee’s ghost appears in front of Jason, he tells Jason that martial arts in Chinese, means to stop violence and what he learns from Lee is for defense only and that should never be abused. When Jason says, “I don’t wish revenge, I just want to learn.” Lee teaches him. Through the rest of the film, he doesn’t seek revenge against his bullies or even Ivan. Instead, he uses his martial arts to stop violence and defend the defenseless.

Prior to the finale fights where Ivan is going to fight Jason’s oppressors, he tries to warn them, but they of course chide him. Even while Ivan crushes his bullies, Jason shows no glee. He makes no effort to join the fray until Ivan violently manhandles Kelly, and then the fight becomes Rocky v Drago (Rocky IV; 1985); take two.

NRNS is smartly disguised as a tournament-based film, yet the beauty is that it’s something completely different. During the first fight, within 15 seconds, with well-honed physicality and immaculate kicking skills, JCVD is immediately recognizably as a breath of fresh air. Corey intelligently sets a different and effective martial arts tone showing JCVD’s intensity and intention behind each technique in a way that many American MA actors didn’t, then he ends the bout with JCVD’s signature kick, a high jumping spinning kick with elegant leg extension. What a great intro for JCVD to American MA films. It’s no wonder he excelled in the genre. Yet when his films didn’t use HK stylism or choreographers familiar with it, his fights became sorely repetitive.

There are more training sequences than fights in NRNS that feature some Chan-ish training montages from SES, because ultimately, the film is a subliminal homage to Lee for US audiences regarding Lee’s philosophy, Lee teaching Jason and then Jason honestly expressing himself as he attempts to stop violence. Thus, his fights are short, well-choreographed and his improvement is measurably better each time he applies his new skills. One great example is when he must protect his father from a handful of bar thugs where each camera position and varying camera speeds bring out the sparkle of Lee’s lessons and the added dimensions of Jason’s calmness.

Overall, the camera choreography was typical HK style, as by using varying camera speeds, mostly 23-24 fps for tight shots, and 20-22 fps for wider angle shots, each fight looks believably fast and powerful. Over the years I’ve delineated what I consider to be the ABCs of HK fight choreography and hopefully now for every MA film: Assume any fight move or stunt is achievable; Believe that it’s more about using the brain and not bank on any status quo; and that Camera Choreography (fights too) is always part of the bigger picture.

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