The Karate Kid Goes to College.
Anyone who spent some time browsing the Action section of their local video store back in the 90’s can no doubt rattle off a few popular American Martial Arts movies- No Retreat, No Surrender, Rush Hour and just about anything starring Jean Claude Van Damme. You’d be forgiven for thinking these classics of the genre were as good as it got, but delve a little deeper into the VHS archives and I can assure you you’ll find some lesser-known but just as entertaining flicks out there. Eric Sherman’s College Kickboxers is one such ultimate action movie.
VHS is Best
In the early 2000’s one of my local video stores decided to become an industry leader and completely devote itself to DVD’s. As a movie obsessed teenager this meant only one thing- A massive, one-off sale of VHS’s at bargain basement prices. Knowing that the store would likely be mobbed by like-minded movie buffs I donned my backpack and jumped onto my BMX pronto. This sale was not something I was about to miss.
When I arrived at the store I pushed through the crowds gathered around the ‘overnights’ section, multi-million dollar blockbusters spilling out of their hands. I wasn’t about to be lured by the sirens of critically acclaimed films, I was going straight for the good stuff – The Action Section. As a skinny, pale white boy action movies were my passion, they offered me glimpses into the type of life I knew I would soon be living. Big buff heroes kicking ass and saving buxom girls, that was my future. But right now I had a store to pillage.
At $1 each I scooped up action movies by the handful, the more violent the cover-art the better. It was at the end of the ‘C’ section I came across College Kickboxers with a determined looking James Caulfied on the cover. I added it to my stack of goodies and after raiding the rest of the genre I came home with my summer holiday watching sorted. It wasn’t until a few days into my solo movie marathon that I watched the movie, but strangely it stuck with me. More to the point, the performance of Tang Tak-Wing left a definite impression- his moves were so fluid, so sharp for a man of his proportions. But more on that later.
Trained to Fight
College Kickboxers, released in the United States as Trained to Fight sticks to the same sort of story you come to expect from 90’s American marital arts movies. James Caulfield, played by Ken McLeod is a young martial arts master who finds himself in a new city for his freshman year of college. On his first day he butts heads with his bookworm roommate Mark, but after a brief tussle the two find a shared passion in martial arts and become buddies. It’s also on his first day that James encounters local badass Craig Tanner (played by Matthew Ray Cohen) and his racist, though strangely multi-ethnic martial arts gang ‘The White Tigers’.
James managed to find a job at a local Asian restaurant owned by the secretive Wu (played by Tang Tak-Wing). One evening at work James is jumped by The White Tigers who deal him a vicious 90’s style ass kicking. Wu overhears the commotion and intervenes, giving the gang members an ass kicking of their own. James, already a black belt in multiple styles, has never seen Kung Fu before and begs Wu to teach him so he can defeat Craig at an upcoming tournament. Wu declines stating that ‘Kung Fu for money no good’.
James doesn’t relent however and quickly proves his worth to Wu who eventually agrees to teach him provided he doesn’t fight in the tournament. James agrees, but after several more encounters with the White Tigers he’s forced to break his promise to Wu and enter the tournament. The tournament is a melee of un-sportsman like battles between the evil White Tigers and the other local martial arts schools resulting in a final showdown between James and Gary, the largest and most vicious member of the Tigers. Wu miraculously shows up to the tournament, gives his approval for James to kick Gary’s ass with Kung Fu (or was it Kung Wu?) and James wins the tournament, wins Wu’s approval and donates all the prize money to a local Karate school for underprivileged kids.
There’s a lot to like about College Kickboxers. Tang Tak-Wing really shines through as Wu, so much so that he steals all the scenes he’s in. It’s a real shame Wing never really continued acting and stuck to behind the scenes roles after College Kickboxers. The fight scenes (which Wing choreographed) are also enjoyable to watch and thankfully avoided the zoomed-in, quick cut styling that crept into martial arts movies later in the decade. The movie also manages to stay on a positive note throughout, steering clear of the seediness often seen in low budget action movies.
The movie is far from perfect however. The dialogue is fairly poor and the acting is wooden at times (the initial scene where James meets love-interest Kimberly is cringeworthy). Probably most annoying is the Craig Tanner gang leader caricature. He rocks sunglasses indoors, wears fingerless leather gloves and tries very, very hard to give off seething psychopath vibe all of which leave the viewer wondering if he’s meant to be taken seriously at all.
Despite its flaws I really enjoyed College Kickboxers. It certainly isn’t an Oscar’s contender but as far as American martial arts movies go this one performs far better than many from the genre, which probably explains why I still have that $1 VHS in my cupboard. UAMC Review: 3.5 stars out of 5.