Dimitri Logothetis on Pitting Jean-Claude Van Damme Against Mike Tyson in 'Kickboxer: Retaliation'

Kickboxer Retaliation

On the eve of shooting his third entry in the Kickboxer franchise, director Dimitri Logothetis, chats with us on the many splendors of martial arts cinema.

We might reach a point where every Jean-Claude Van Damme franchise achieves reboot status. Andrei Arlovski has already stepped into his shoes for Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Scott Adkins took over the bayous in Hard Target 2, and Alain Moussi stole his dance routine for Kickboxer: Vengeance and Kickboxer: Retaliation. Can reimaginings of Double Impact and Time Cop be far behind?

The late 80s, early 90s era that “The Muscle from Brussels” operated within was a time of tremendous escalation for the martial arts movie. Each outing not only had to top what we had witnessed in Van Damme’s previous work, but it had to build on decades worth of kung fu classics from the likes of Bruce Lee and the other wushu masters. The splits had to get wider, the roundhouses more exaggerated. We pressed play on those films to see just how absurd the lengths JCVD was willing to go to get the job done.

Arnie, Sly, and Segal were all about power…and bullets. Van Damme would kick your ass on speed, style, and a smile. Successfully returning to that place requires a filmmaker eager to revel in the art of martial arts. Story, character, and structure are important. Yeah, absolutely. However, if you’re making a Kickboxer flick, the way the camera tracks the arc of a fist is even more crucial.

Producer/Director Dimitri Logothetis doesn’t want to hear your polite comparisons to classic cinema. He wants you to join in on the glory of Bruce Lee’s battle cry, or the punishing power of Mike Tyson’s rapid jab. Stepping behind the camera to bring Retaliation to the screen, Logothetis simply wanted to top the madness of the previous film. Drop Alain Moussi on a train, or plunk him into a prison pit yard, the only desired response he wants from his audience is an approving howl at the brawls he’s pulled off.

Just a few months after Retaliation hit VOD and Digital HD, and mere weeks before he returns to the Kickboxer realm for his third epic endeavor, I chatted with Logothetis about stepping back into the ring with Van Damme. His enthusiasm for the genre is infectious, and the lengths he went to put Mike Tyson and Christopher Lambert in the same frame with Van Damme are impressive. We spoke over the phone for a good, long chat. He’s eager for you to see the film he’s concocted, but he might be even more excited for you to see the next one right around the corner. Two words: Snoop Dogg.

Here is our conversation in full:

How or where do you even start with a sequel to the remake of Kickboxer?

Well, the original Kickboxer was, what we may or may not call, a Jean-Claude Van Damme state-of-the-art action film at the time. Today, there’s a completely different approach to martial arts action. What I wanted to tackle first? I wanted to make sure that I came up with a martial artist number one, who had credibility and who could blow your mind when you watched him do things in an authentic way.

Unlike a number of the Chinese martial arts films, I don’t attach my guys to wires. When they’re flipping and jumping and doing … you know, Alain does a triple right off the ground. He’ll take about five steps, and then he’ll jump up in the air, and he’ll do a triple flying kick. He’ll do a front aerial. He’ll do a back aerial. All that stuff with everybody else you can tell they’re wired. What I wanted to do is I wanted to approach it with real authenticity so that the audience, might immediately as they’re watching it, not understand but certainly if they spend about 10 minutes and get into the film, they’ll go, “Oh my God. This is real.”

I thought that was the very first thing to tackle. Secondly, I wanted to come up with a style that fit today that was modern and would last. So, I came up with a style of shooting that I thought would work for the picture and I think I achieved that.

What I loved so much about the film was tracking where you placed the camera during those fight sequences. It’s handheld, it’s tight, and it’s locked on Alain. Like you said, you don’t see any wirework.

And there isn’t any. And thank you so much for that. The first sequence that you see in a prison is over four minutes long. I think he has contact with over 17 … there’s over 17 different contact points. Those contact points, as you know, as you can see, he really kicks guys in the head. He really throws guys off the second story of a building. He really throws a guy down a staircase over 12 feet.

That’s my favorite throw.

Yeah, yeah. Most people don’t even notice that … Audience members don’t think about technical things; however, they come up to me afterward, and they’ll go, “God, I was watching that, and half way through I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, there isn’t a cut here.'” Roger Ebert [.com critic, Simon Abrams], when he wrote the review, he said, “There has to be a cut.” And I had my guys call him and say, “There’s no cut.” I’ll swear to it on a stack of bibles. I did not cut at all.

So, that’s one scene we shot. Also, you’ll notice that the camera moves in and out of the railing. We had to really figure it out … it was a very complicated shot. It looks simple, but the camera’s going up a staircase and then all of a sudden it steps out onto a crane and steps back into the staircase and back out again. You don’t notice any of that just ’cause you’re watching the action.

There’s no physical stitch there? Are you not editing anything together? That’s all one shot?

That’s correct. One shot.

That’s amazing.

And there’s a second one that I did by the river, which is a little shorter but it’s also one continuous … Well, you’ll see the cuts. The first cut, it becomes one shot after that guy closes the door. So, the minute he steps in and closes the door on him, then all of a sudden, you see the camera pan, and the camera just walks and follows him, and that’s it. That’s the beginning of the take. And then he jumps off of the scaffolding at the very, very end and walks out of frame and that’s the end of the take. So, that’s it.

What was your inspiration for the music choices of Retaliation? ‘Cause there’s some really odd and creative choices, whether it’s the Blues sequence with that prison brawl or the “Wipe Out” music sequence at the end. What was your thought there?

Well, my thought was you have to approach a martial arts film with a little bit of tongue in cheek. You have to obviously have a serious revenge story. All martial arts films are basically about revenge, no matter what. That’s what you’re dealing with one way or another. And so you have to approach it with a really serious story there, but you have to remember you’re making a martial arts movie and everybody gets it. You have to have a little fun with it.

So, I thought to myself, I was listening to about 40 or 50 songs, and I remembered one of my favorite songs as a kid was “Wipe Out.” And I thought, you know what? It fits so perfectly with this sequence. I had so many people say to me, “Oh my God. You’re taking a big risk. What’s gonna happen if the audience doesn’t like it?” And I said, “Listen. I never worry about audiences. I worry about what it is that I think is cool.” And hopefully, I’m right. You know? And it worked, and I think the audiences really loved it. So …

I really enjoyed the previous Kickboxer movie, but I had an absolute blast with Retaliation because of these little nuances that you’ve added to the film. It’s obvious to me that you’re a fan of martial arts films, action films in general. Love those kung fu sound effects injected throughout. What geeky tidbits did you want to add to this classic genre besides the fighting style?

I am a fan. I grew up; I spent about nine years of my life in martial arts. I got two black belts from some very significant martial artists. I trained with some really interesting people growing up. All of us that were part of the school, no matter what age we were, every time they played Enter the Dragon, and they would always play it like the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, right? We’d all run out and we’d watch the movie and we would sit there at the opening title sequence, the music was by Lalo Schifrin, and he had the screaming in the title sequence. He’s playing this amazing music and then all of sudden, you hear, “Waaa” in the soundtrack. All of us in the audience, I’m talking about, now, from age 15 all the way up to our mid-20s, we’re going, “Waaa!”

Because come on, man, it’s fun. It’s one of the only genres, I believe that somebody will watch and the little boy and little girl and anybody will say to themselves, “You know something? If I work out and train with that particular guru, I too could possibly become a human superhero.” I don’t think you feel that when you’re watching a Marvel movie. I think you really do feel it when you’re watching martial arts film because the things they do are pretty amazing.

So, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to capture that little boy, and little girl in all of us and I wanted to include that fun. I think my wife finally appreciates the fact that I’m immature. Because it works.

The opening sequence of the film, on the train. That’s a very playful moment but also just something that I was not expecting to launch Kickboxer: Retaliation. How did you determine this weird dream sequence would kick off your film?

Sure. For exactly the reason that you just mentioned. I thought, “what do we do now?” We’re not tied to the original story. Now we’re on our own. Now we can go do whatever we want. And I thought, what would be really cool? Well, why don’t we come up with a dream sequence that sort of has moments of the film that it foreshadows for our lead? All the different moments in the film that lead to the very, very end. And that’s what I did. That’s how I approached it and I thought it’d be really cool so that everybody would hear this Argentine tango and they would go, “Did I walk into the wrong movie?” So, that was the reason behind that.

And it easily perks you up ’cause you think you’re going into one film and then suddenly it’s this James Bond-like espionage, Suspiria sequence. It’s really, really joyous.

Yeah, and that was really what I was … thank you again … that’s really what I tried to do. I just tried to; wherever we can have fun, I tried to have fun. It’s a completely different thing to watch some of the stuff that Alain pulls off and to watch the guy who is the European strongman, who’s 6’10”, and to watch Alain jump up on top of him and get thrown off and get thrown 20 feet, you’re going, “Oh my God. This is a real human giant with the ability to throw somebody 20 feet.” It’s pretty awe-inspiring to watch.

Where did you find him? He is a monster.

Well, I’ll tell you what. My producing partner, Rob Hickman, he said, “You know something? I want you to come to Vegas. I want you to meet this kid. I think he should be the guy that is the new Tong Po because he’s twice as big as Tong Po.” And I said, “But can he move?” And he said, “Hey man,” he goes, “Go online and watch him [Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson] fight Conor McGregor” because there’s a little thing on YouTube where Conor McGregor runs around him in the ring. And so I took a look at that and I said, “Oh yeah.” I said, “We can do this.” And then I went and met him. He’s 28 years old. It’s crazy. He’s a great guy. He’s a lot of fun. But he’s not a big fat guy. He’s ripped. His arms are, you know, I’m not light. You can put two of my legs together and they still won’t make the thickness of one of his arms. So I thought, okay great. Let’s put this guy on the screen. That’s the guy he has to fight.

Yeah, he’s a find for sure. Were you doing any forced perspective with him or is he –

No. No. No. All I need to do was drop the camera down around his waist and just look up at him. I mean, look at him. And put any human next to him, and you’ll go, “Oh my God.” Right? He’s 6’10” 405 pounds. He literally outweighs Alain by 200 pounds.

Wow. All right. Along those lines, you have a hell of a cast in this movie. You have, obviously, Jean-Claude Van Damme. You got Christopher Lambert. But now you have Mike Tyson, speaking of a human giant. How did he get involved?

Well, I tried to get him involved in the first picture, which I produced and wrote. But he wasn’t available at the time. I knew that he was in that part of the world and I reached out to his agent again, and I said. I knew that he was shooting Ip Man, I-P Man with Donnie Yen. And I said, “Would Mike be interested in being in this?” And he said, “Yeah.” He goes, “You could probably swing over.” So, then I thought to myself, oh my God.

Now, I had happened to have made, years ago, a boxing documentary with Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Ken Norton called Champions Forever, and it was a very, very successful, one of the most successful first-time documentaries of all time. Mike Tyson opens the documentary. I remember seeing about; I don’t know, maybe over 80,000 feet of footage on these different fighters. The biggest problem with Mike is a boxer never loses his punch. So, I thought to myself, how the hell am I going to capture…? This is one of the fastest punchers that ever lived. Right?

Right.

And so what I did was, I thought, okay lemme get a camera that shoots rocket ship launches, which was the Phantom, and we shot him punching at 500 frames a second. Then we ramped it, and you can see how fast he punches. Okay? Now, again, Alain is half his age and so is Fabricio [Werdum]. Right?

Right.

And accidentally, both of them got clipped in the chin by Mike. They couldn’t get out of the way fast enough because the minute he starts that flurry, you’re finished. You know? Both of them were thrilled, because they both said, “Okay, that’s it. That’s off the bucket list. I got hit in the chin by Mike Tyson.”

What’s he like on set, though, when you’re offering him direction, choreographing a fight scene?

He’s great. Fantastic. But I told you, of all of the guys that I met and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with throughout the years, you’ll find that martial artists and fighters in general, they happen to be for the most part, pretty nice guys. Out of the ring, they happen to be pretty gentle and nice. He loved working on the movie and he really took direction very, very well. He was very open to it. Of course, he’s promoting the movie now. He promoted our movie more than he did the other movies that he’s ever been in. And he’s looking forward, I’m gonna bring him back on the third one.

So often with these films, when you have people like Tyson and Van Damme cast, the expectation from the audience member is you’re going to have the Tyson sequence, and then you’re going to have the Van Damme sequence, and then you’re going to have the Lambert sequence. You don’t expect Tyson and Van Damme to battle, but you made that happen.

Yeah, that was a chore.

How so?

Well, because first of all, they were both working at different times. They both had availabilities at different times because both of them are very busy. So, I had to figure out a time to get them together that was about, I had a two-day period. It happened to be in Thailand and one was coming in just as one was leaving. So, I redid the entire schedule just specifically to put them together in a sequence. It worked out. They worked together. They trained for about a week beforehand, separately, so that when they got together, they had the sequence down. Unfortunately, I would have loved to have made it a longer, more elaborate sequence but I only had them for a few days. You know, action is action. You need time to cover action.

Well, it totally works. And like I said, it was a real surprise. It’s one of those moments where I think I literally clapped my hands together once I saw them on screen.

Yeah, everybody does in the screenings, too. That’s really kinda neat. It’s wonderful. It’ll be one of those iconic moments. It’ll just be around. It’s really wonderful. I’m a big fan, and you’re a big fan, and that’s really what I tried to go for.

And with Van Damme himself, coming back in the last movie and now for this film, what’s his relationship with these new Kickboxer movies? How does he feel about them?

Well, he was conflicted before we got him for the first one. He didn’t want to do it, because of what you’re talking about. This is an iconic role that he created. And I said to him, I said, “Listen, I’m gonna tell you something right now.” I said, “Number one,” I said, “I’m gonna make you look terrific. You deserve it.” I go, “You’re going to be the man who blesses the next Kickboxer.” And I said, “And that’s how I’m gonna approach it and I’m gonna approach it with reverence. And I’m gonna approach it with the fact that you’re the expert.” And I designed that sequence that I ended up shooting in the rain when he first meets, in the first movie, Alain. I think, again, that’s one of the fan base’s favorite sequences that they’ve ever seen. It just really shows him at his age being able to pull off stuff that we all remember.

Did he take well to the blind aspect? The sensei role?

It was his idea.

Ok, cool.

He’s the one that wanted to do it blind. He came to me and said, “I think we should up the ante a little bit on the second one. I wanna do it blind. I want to have been wounded.” And he said, “That way it’ll help heighten my senses for everything else that I’m gonna need to show Kurt.”

Just like with the Tyson sequence and Van Damme, you got Van Damme and Lambert to have a sword fight. The Highlander himself.

Well, when I first saw Christopher Lambert, when he first showed up, I called him on the phone. He was in France at the time, and I said, “Chris,” I said, “do you mind if I write in a really cool …” ’cause I hate exposition. In an action film, it’s just death. The minute you have to start talking about stuff, and you need it. You need to tell a story.

So, if you’ll notice, what I do within that scene is I do a lot of exposition and a lot of emotional exposition while they’re sword fighting, which is what I grew up watching, again. I said, “Do you mind if I write in the story?” And he goes, “Oh my God.” He goes, “We used to train for that in Highlander for weeks and how am I gonna do it?” I said, “Listen,” I go, “if you trust me,” I said, “I’ve got some wonderful guys here.” And I said, “As long as you’re open to it, let me work something out.” So, he was very, very open to it. And JC loved the idea. He knows Chris. They’re friends, you know.

And so, I had the sequence worked out that I first had the stunt guys videotape and I sent it to both of them. And I said, “If you guys don’t want to do it, either one of you doesn’t like it, you tell me. No problem. I’ll figure something else out.” They looked at it, and they said, “Oh no, we’re in. We gotta do this.” So, that’s how you ended up with that. I thought it ended up being pretty cool, actually.

We’re talking about all these geeky moments for fans of the genre, but you still managed to give the best fights to Alain. You’ve got the Mongkut fight at that end. But then you also have that house of mirrors Enter the Dragon sequence with the two lady assassins.

It’s so funny. One of the reviewers said, “That’s an homage to Lady from Shanghai.” And I’m like, “No, man.” I said, “Clearly you haven’t watched martial arts films.” I said, “Lady from Shanghai? What the hell are you talking about?” Yeah, absolutely. We needed to do it. We had to do it. And I said, “Come on.” Again, everybody said to me, “It doesn’t make any sense.” And I go, “Really? Did you see anything that made any sense in Enter the Dragon?” I go, “Stop with that. We’re gonna do it really cool. Let me pick a location.” You know, at the top of this building. He owns this building and he’s in the penthouse. And I said, “It’s just gonna be a room that he has in the penthouse. Don’t worry about it.” And I got a lot of shit for it, obviously, when I cut it together, ’cause everybody said nobody’s gonna get it. Then we did a bunch of test audience screenings and it ended up being one of their favorite sequences in the whole film. Right?

I was going to say; it’s easily the best fight in the movie.

Right? Well, Alain kept saying to me, he goes, “Nobody’s gonna believe that these girls can beat me up.” And I said, “Brother if they’re looking at that, they’re looking at the wrong thing.”

I don’t know. When you shot them coming out of the hot tub, they feel like they have a lot of mass to them. They feel formidable.

They’re in great shape. They knew how to fight. We trained them. And the girls that I got to double them are World Champion … it’s called Krabi-Krabong in Thailand. They’re world champions at that. So, when you see those swords moving and stuff like that, they really know what they’re doing.

And then, of course, all the black light tattoos, too, it’s just a very unique effect.

Yeah, yeah.

Well, I know you’ve got places to go, but before we finish, you mentioned that you were considering doing another Kickboxer movie. How far into development are you on that one?

Oh no, it’s set. The script was done about three months ago. It’s called Kickboxer: Armageddon. We’re gonna start shooting at the end of March. We’re gonna shoot one of the interiors in Vegas for Morocco inside this really cool Moroccan restaurant. We’re gonna have Snoop Dog. We’re gonna have half a dozen other MMA guys, world champions. I’m also bringing on Cody Garbrandt and Urijah Faber. Oh and Alpha Male, which is their group of UFC fighters that they train and stuff like that. So, we’re bringing them on. I’m gonna bring back Tyson. And because it’s Kickboxer Three, the end fight sequence is gonna involve three different fighters that he has to take on in a very, very elaborate sequence that takes place in our Temple. But it’s gonna be on three different levels, again.

That sounds kinda like Bruce Lee’s aborted Game of Death.

That’s right. That’s exactly right. Only it’s going to be this millennium, and it will blow your mind. If you like the stuff that you saw this movie, wait ’til you see this next one. We’re gonna step it up, and it’s gonna blow your mind.

Red Dots

Kickboxer: Retaliation is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital HD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.