An Oral History of One of the 80s Most Underrated Action Movies

Cold War fever, the ghost of Bruce Lee, and the debut of JCVD. No Retreat, No Surrender is a special kind of action movie.
No Retreat, No Surrender
By  · Published on March 7th, 2018

Cold War fever, the ghost of Bruce Lee, and the debut of JCVD. No Retreat, No Surrender is a special kind of action movie.

One of the most under-appreciated action B movies of the 1980s features Cold War fever, the ghost of Bruce Lee, and the major acting debut of one of the most prolific action stars of the last three decades. It wasn’t the first American martial arts film, and it doesn’t rank as the best, but the 1986 film No Retreat, No Surrender is a unique work of the genre.

Years before Yuen Woo-ping’s fight choreography graced multiplexes with 1999’s The Matrix, a group of Chinese filmmakers sought to blend American martial artists and settings with the prevailing Hong Kong action style of the era. Unlike other early American chopsocky films, it wasn’t produced by Cannon Films or directed by Robert Clouse. Instead, it was a Chinese studio’s cinematic response to a wildly popular American movie that had poached story elements from a Jackie Chan film they had released six years earlier.

This is the story of No Retreat, No Surrender, as told by a group of the cast and crew members who were there.

I. The Seeds for a Story

Keith Strandberg, screenwriter/2nd AD: I knew that we would do something that no one else was willing to do. It may have been just because I was able to speak [Mandarin] Chinese, and they needed somebody that could work with them, and I was a martial artist. It was sort of this divine triangle of how everybody brought something unique to the table.

Paul Maslak, casting: Hong Kong director Corey Yuen (Yuen Kwai) – who had grown up in the Chinese opera school with Jackie Chan – saw The Karate Kid while visiting his sister in Seattle, Washington. He thought the non-specific way the karate master taught the karate kid (Ralph Macchio) had ripped off the non-specific way the grandmaster (Siu Tin Yuen) in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow had instructed his young disciple (Jackie Chan). Corey called Seasonal Films producer Ng See-Yuen immediately. “Ng, the Americans stole your film! The Americans stole your film!”

Roy Horan, foreign sales agent at Seasonal Films: Profits from the international market gave Ng See Yuen some confidence. I think what really stunned him was when Karate Kid came out. To him, it was just a simple kung fu story, yet it made so much money in the United States. He thought, “We can do better than this!” [Source]

Paul Maslak: Ng then decided to steal the story back. He would come to Hollywood, produce a Chinese film in English, using American actors, but with a Chinese kickboxing take – or retake – on the Karate Kid tale. For Ng and Yuen, the ghost of Bruce Lee would be the master who teaches the beleaguered kid.

Keith Strandberg: Once I got into the martial arts, I saw how the martial arts were a lot more than fighting and kicking and punching, and there was this lesson behind them and a philosophy. That’s why Ng approached me about writing No Retreat, No Surrender. I wanted to make sure that at its heart, there was something good about No Retreat, No Surrender, that there was a lesson that could be shared with the people that watched it.

Paul Maslak: By then, I knew Ng was regarded as, like the Walt Disney of his generation among Hong Kong filmmakers – an independent who made emotionally moving action stories based on some central relationship. Often teacher and student, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers, sometimes lovers, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. But always heartfelt on some level.

Keith Strandberg: It was a really good learning experience for me because when I wrote the script, I didn’t really know much about scene setting, to be quite honest. My first draft of No Retreat, No Surrender, was called “Ring of Truth,” and in this first draft, it was about 180 or 200 pages long, which is way too long for an action movie.

Paul Maslak: To be honest, I didn’t know anything about what I was doing as a casting director when I did that. They wanted me because I knew martial arts people, I knew the martial arts masters, and I knew the top martial artists in the country.

II. Finding the Fighters

Paul Maslak: Beyond Asia, Ng and Yuen wanted this film to be able to play in both the US and Europe — something they had not previously achieved. Roy Horan told them that American tastes were different from Chinese tastes in that Americans favored John Wayne knockout power as opposed to complexity in fight sequences. They specifically emphasized to me that they did not want pansy dancers or untrained actors on camera, as in The Karate Kid. They wanted authentic martial power conveyed in all the martial arts set-pieces.

Keith Strandberg: When I went out for the casting, I had never been in a casting before. I would sit in there with the director, and Ng, and the stunt guys, and we worked with a casting agency in L.A., but we also did what’s called an open call, when you say, “We’re casting for this movie, anybody that wants to be considered, show up.” We had hundreds of people there.

Paul Maslak: We advertised in Drama-Logue, a Hollywood trade paper, for actors with legitimate black belts. I also asked all the top martial arts masters to send over their top students to audition.

Kurt McKinney, actor, “Jason Stillwell”: For me, I was just a kid from Louisville, Kentucky, who had an idea that maybe I could act a little bit and maybe my martial arts training might get me in a martial arts film. Maybe I can get a few parts here and there and I can start to study. I’ll get a job as a waiter in Hollywood, and I’ll just do what actors do — they wait tables, and they go to acting class, and they try to get auditions.

Paul Maslak: Cynthia Rothrock and Ernie Reyes, Jr. were among the first ones I had auditioned for Ng. Karen Shepard was among them too, who was also a kata champion like Cynthia [Note: “kata” are choreographed martial arts training exercises]. They all came out of that audition. They did not audition Ernie Reyes, Jr., or Cynthia, or Karen Shepard specifically for No Retreat, No Surrender. That was a strategic courtesy audition I told them they had to do if they wanted the cooperation of Ernie Reyes and [his] constellation of friends, in that, he was the kata champion’s champion. He was a teacher of very many kata champions.

Kurt McKinney: The No Retreat, No Surrender audition was actually something I got on my own through Drama-Logue — it was called “Ring of Truth” when it was out in Drama-Logue. I had sent in a picture and resume for it, like everybody did . . . They didn’t call me!

Jean-Claude Van Damme, actor, “Ivan the Russian”: [No Retreat, No Surrender] was with a guy that came from Hong Kong, his name was Corey Yuen, who’s now doing lots of big movies. That was his first movie. And then I came to talk about this movie, and I came to a casting session in a karate school. I came to show my physical skill, and you were having three Chinese guys sitting at the end of that room, at a table. Almost like a jury. It was American Idol type of stuff. [Source]

Paul Maslak: With Jean-Claude, he came in and he’s just so physically impressive immediately when you see him. He’s just physically impressive, and because of his ballet training, his leaps were terrific. First, I just had him do kata-like moves. Whatever he wanted. He showed leaps and he showed some kickboxing-style shadowboxing. And then I had him spar under very controlled circumstances with one of Hee Il Cho’s black belts, and I did this with all of the fighting people.

Brandon Pender, talent manager: Around the time that picture was being made, I was working at Paramount — I was in with the studio executives over at Paramount. I had my finger on the pulse of most of the martial arts movies that were being done because they were contacting me for guys. For instance, Ron Pohnel, he was one of my black belts.

Ron Pohnel, actor, “Ian Reilly”: At that time I broke away from Chuck Norris, then was courted by Wayne Yee and Brandon Pender with the Chinese Institute of Martial Arts. After they tested me for fourth degree, Brandon then proclaimed himself as my “manager.” He sent me on the audition for No Retreat, No Surrender.

Peter Cunningham, actor, “Frank Ramsey”: Paul [Maslak] and the guys, they came to the Jet Center, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez’s family’s gym back in the day. They came to scout locations, but also they wanted to know if there were a couple of fighters who, first of all, were interested in acting, and also maybe had done a little something before.

Ron Pohnel: When we were cast for the film, I personally had martial arts stunt work under my belt. From my own research, JCVD was an extra doing some dance scene in a low budget film prior to NRNS.

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I came to the US, staying in a car, moving from place to place. Kinda hard, but exciting too. When they gave me a chance to be in Breakdance [the international title of Breakin’], I was only an extra. But to me at the time, a movie was a movie. I didn’t know the difference between medium, high, and low budget. [Source]

Kurt McKinney: I’m sitting at the pool at my house, at my condo in Sherman Oaks. I was reminded, in my head, of the audition and I thought, “What time is it? Oh, it’s too late, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon or 2:30 or something and I’d go in at 4:30 or five, I’d probably miss it.” Then I thought, “You know, what the hell? You’ve got time, you can get over to Hollywood in time, maybe you’ll catch the tail end.” The guard at the gate asked me what I was doing there, and I said, “I’m just here for the open call for ‘Ring of Truth.’” And he said, “Oh, I think they’re about wrapping up, it’s been going since ten o’clock this morning.” I said, “They’re going until 4:30 or five right? It’s four o’clock.” He said, “I think they’re trying to wrap it up. I think they already cast everything, except for the lead. I think they’re still looking for the lead.” So, I said, “Okay, I guess I’m here to audition for the lead.” He said, “I think they’re looking for a young guy, like a 17-year-old.” I’m 22 at the time, meanwhile; I look like I’m 14. He goes, “Well, Okay, go ahead.” The guy was so skeptical of me even being there for the audition! Like he had something to do with it. He’s a security guard!

Paul Maslak: Kurt McKinney was really, really amazing. A good black belt, a gifted actor, very handsome, and just an all-around good guy. For real. I don’t know why the major studios didn’t pursue him. They should have. In my opinion, he could and should have been as big a star as Tom Cruise.

Kurt McKinney: I go inside and there’s still maybe eight or 10 people still waiting to get in, and they came out at some point. I forgot who it was that came out, but it might have been Corey Yuen, and they pulled me inside. They started asking me a bunch of questions and had me change into my karate uniform and show them some forms and a bunch of fight moves and stuff like that.

Paul Maslak: That’s pretty much what I did for the martial arts auditions, consistently. I’m a black belt myself, with an awful lot of experience looking at professional fighters. I’ve got an eye. It doesn’t take me very long to see what they can do.

Kurt McKinney: After being there for probably what was I’d guess an hour or two, one and a half maybe — other people came and went — and then finally, Keith Strandberg pulled me aside. “Can I talk to you in the back room here a minute?” And he took me into a little office area. He said, “Jason, we want to talk to you about starring in our film.”

III. Communication is Key

Keith Strandberg: I was a second AD, so I was there to help Corey, because he didn’t speak English. I was there to translate. My role on set was to translate for the director and get the word across as to what this Hong Kong company wanted to do with those American actors.

John Huneck, director of photography: We made the film and it was interesting in the fact that it was the first time I’d ever worked with a Chinese production company and, especially in those karate films, they shoot them in order, according to the script. You could cut the tails off, and the heads off, and you could put it together and make the movie. That’s the way they worked.

Diane Durant, script supervisor: I didn’t know how to do this job from Adam, and the Chinese people wanted me to do the European slating, and everybody who was American on the crew would say, “No, no! Don’t do that, don’t do it that way!”

Kurt McKinney: They didn’t waste any time, they wanted to get in as much as they could. We shot the entire film in six weeks and then went to Seattle for a seventh week. I was working every day…We worked all the time and I was practically in every scene of the movie. You always had to be there, because they might change their mind on a dime and decide to shoot a different scene because something wasn’t ready, or the light was really good for this, or that location wasn’t working out.

John Huneck: Most of the sets were in an abandoned house or something, where you could actually destroy it without consequence to your budget or anything. You’re stealing things all the time in those kinds of movies, you try to steal shots where you can. One of them that was kind of unique, was the scene where Jean-Claude is coming out of the airport — somebody’s coming out of the Burbank Airport — and we went into the parking space. The parking was in the center of a loop at that time. We had a van and we had the camera all set up, and we got the radio contact. As the guys were walking out the door, we drove into the center, opened the door, shot the scene as they come out there. On the sidelines, you could see the [airport] head of security was going nuts! You couldn’t tell if it was a gun or anything! Just all of a sudden, there’s this van and a door opens, and there’s this long lens pointing out.

Keith Strandberg: All the time, we’d meet together the day before we filmed and look at the scene that was to be shot that day, because there isn’t any time during the shooting day to do any of this. We would shoot all day long — we’d start at six in the morning and finish at eight at night — and then we’d go home, eat dinner, and then I would sit with Ng and the director, and we’d look at the next day’s work. We’d say, “Okay, this scene’s too long, you’ve got to change this, you’ve got to cut this, you’ve got to do this.” I’d be up until midnight or one o’clock making all these changes and getting it to the production office so they could make new copies of the script for everybody.

Peter Cunningham: It was cool. Long hours, waiting around and stuff. You learn that part of it, the wait. But other than that, most of it was kicking and punching that we do anyhow. The dialogue, it wasn’t a Gone with the Wind kind of thing, so it was cool.

John Huneck: At that time in my career, I worked on a lot of movies where the hours were long. I worked movies where we worked 16 hours a day, 16 or 18 hours a day for 20 days straight. Because you still had to go out and party for a couple hours afterward!

IV. Lights, Camera, Kick!

Keith Strandberg: This was back in ‘84 and there hadn’t been a lot of martial arts movies in the US, so none of the actors we hired really knew how to fight for the movies. We had to teach everybody how to react, and how to throw a pretty kick for the cameras. I remember one time, in particular, we were shooting a scene and Yuen Kwai was dealing with an actor, a martial artist, and he’d say, “Okay, this is what I want you to do.” I would translate for him and the kid would go, “Well, how about if I do it this way?” They wanted to do what they were good at. I understand that if you say “Throw a left kick,” you might say “Well, my right kick’s better so let me throw a right kick,” not understanding that the camera’s here and this is going to look better. There were four or five times where the actor said, “Well, how about I do it this way?” And so Yuen Kwai turns to me and says, “Okay, you let this guy direct the scene.” He just walked off, leaving the actor by himself on the set. I looked at him and said, “Dude, you’re really screwing up here. You’ve got to do what this guy says to do.” The goal of any action director is to make whatever the person is doing to look the best that they can . . . Of course, the kid apologized and then he ended up being a really good listener.

Paul Maslak: In the opening of the film – also, the first fight we filmed – when it came time for Van Damme to knock down his scene partner, Tim Baker, with a jump kick, Jean-Claude actually tried to drop him. Full-power. Here, Jean-Claude had this martial arts performer who was standing on a mark and allowing him to kick him unimpeded, without moving. And Jean-Claude kicks him really hard. That’s such a sucker punch!

Keith Strandberg: As a kickboxer, you don’t have to have control because you’re looking to hit the guy as hard as you can. We explained to Van Damme that you don’t have to be close, you don’t have to make it look good — in fact, it’s better if you’re a little bit farther away — because the camera’s hiding the point of contact. But Van Damme was continuously a little bit too close.

Paul Maslak: I wasn’t on set for that part of the scene, but when I asked Jean-Claude about it afterward, he said he had been inside a Hong Kong film studio and knew that that’s how they did it on film sets there. I asked Ng and Yuen, and they agreed. Jean-Claude was right about that. Hong Kong stuntmen expected to take more contact than American stuntmen.

Brandon Pender: Because of the way [Van Damme] was doing things, he did not make friends on that set at all. You give him the benefit of the doubt because he didn’t have a lot of experience and just had a lack of control.

Keith Strandberg: There was another scene at the end with the guy that played Kelly’s brother, who was the [last] fighter in the ring against Van Damme. I guess he was a bit of a celebrity in the Los Angeles area in the martial arts, he had won a bunch of tournaments. The script called for him to lose to Van Damme, and on the morning of the movie he comes in and says, “Keith, I just want to tell you, I don’t want to lose today.” I think his name was Ron [Pohnel], and I said, “What do you mean you don’t want to lose? You’ve got to lose. The story says so.” And the guy goes, “I don’t want to lose.” I said, “It’s a movie! Nobody’s going to believe that if you lose in the movie, that you lose in real life.” “Sorry, sorry. I don’t want to lose,” and he was very adamant about it. One of the problems with making a movie is that actors, at some point, realize you can’t finish the movie without them. This guy was established as Kelly’s brother, and he knew on the morning of that day that we couldn’t replace him. We couldn’t say, “Okay, we’ll get somebody else.” We had to use him, so he felt he had a little bit of power. I went to Ng and Corey, and I said, “As silly as this sounds, this kid doesn’t want to lose.” We put our heads together and we decided, okay, we’ll let Van Damme cheat a little bit. If you remember in the final fight, he takes the turnbuckle off the corner of the ring and chokes him.

Ron Pohnel: It took three days to shoot the fight scenes in the ring with JCVD. He said to me and I quote, “You are the best one here next to me.” During our fight scenes, he actually spit on me. His intention was to infuriate me for a higher sense of emotion in the shot. By day three, we were two individuals who did not like each other. The stunt coordinator and the director actually sat us both down to defuse what was going to be an actual brawl between the two of us.

Peter Cunningham: There were a couple of errors… One was myself and Jean-Claude. They said, “Okay, he’ll push you, bounce off the ropes, and he does a jump spinning kick that hits you in the chest and knocks you back.” And the kick went high instead, and caught me upside the head and dropped me.

Keith Strandberg: One of the problems was that Van Damme went to help him immediately. He landed and we had all seen that he had hit and knocked Pete out, but we weren’t moving yet because the camera was still rolling. But Van Damme landed, and looked at him, and went to help him. We all were saying, “No! No!” Because we’re going to have to do it again now.

Paul Maslak: False reporting to the contrary, Jean-Claude did NOT knock out world kickboxing champion Peter Cunningham. It would be called a “flash knockdown,” if at all. Peter told me that he wasn’t hurt and that he went down because he was supposed to go down.

Peter Cunningham: Try and control a jump spinning kick, all right? The director had you do so, without really rehearsing it, or maybe it was the fact that [he] hadn’t done it before. You know what I mean? I think somebody else got punched some place or kicked someplace, but this happens in action films all the time.

Paul Maslak: The Chinese spent six days choreographing and filming the final fight sequences. On an American production of a comparable budget, the same sequence would be filmed in one or two days.

Keith Strandberg: I’m friends with a lot of the guys that were our competitors at the time, [who] were making movies that were similar to what Seasonal was doing, and I’ve spoken to them about the way they went about doing it. One guy told me that they had a certain number of takes for every shot, and if they didn’t get it in the number of takes they were given, they moved on. That’s something that Seasonal would never do. If we had to do 50 takes to get the kick exactly right, we did 50 takes, no matter what.

John Huneck: It turned out to be really fun because of the characters and everything, mostly your stunt guys, who were all Chinese, and none of them spoke English. You’d always have this constant conversation that’s going on on the side that’s in Mandarin. It was kind of fun, and the thing is, they’re like big children! They really are, they were like big children, and they were having fun. One of my grip guys actually put a fun meter up!

Kurt McKinney: I got along with everybody, I can’t remember an incident with anyone that wasn’t copacetic. Everybody was cool and I think we were all pretty happy to be in a movie. Most everybody, it was their first film.

Diane Durant: I remember working late one night, people were falling asleep on set — that was back in the days when people would just lie down and fall asleep — and I had pictures of people sleeping all over the back of my clipboard. I probably made $350 a week and I was as happy as could be.

Kurt McKinney: Jean-Claude and I got along, he was funny. I had to push his Volkswagen every night to get it started. He had an old beat up Volkswagen that had a bad battery, and I had to push-start him every night when he left.

Diane Durant: I drove Jean-Claude Van Damme home once and he didn’t hit on me. I was just remembering that, and I was wondering why he needed a ride home!

V. Exceeding Expectations

With New World as the theatrical distributor, the film was released in the spring of 1986, playing 371 theaters domestically and grossing more than $4 million at the box office. No Retreat, No Surrender was a financial success for Seasonal Films and emboldened them to produce six more films for the American market.

Keith Strandberg: It was fantastic. It was better than anybody’s wildest dreams. In fact, one of the things about Seasonal [Films] — this was its first foray into American movies. I don’t think they realized how big it would be, so the deal we made with the distributor probably wasn’t the best deal that could have been made because they didn’t know what they had. It got a theatrical release, which is something that very few of those kinds of movies ever got. So it had a theatrical release and then it went on to be a blockbuster in video release. That was a time when videos were selling for $90 a piece, and it sold a lot of copies.

Kurt McKinney: I went into acting really wanting to do everything. Never really wanted to be a martial arts film star. For Jean-Claude, clearly, that’s what he wanted to do. I mean, we talked about it. For me, and I told Jean-Claude, I just want to act. I want to be in a lot of different roles, I want to play different characters and not any one thing. Jean-Claude was like, “Not me, I want to be the number one action star.”

John Huneck: All in all, I can say that it’s always been a fond experience. I’ve shot a lot of different movies where they became tiresome by the end. But this one, even though you’re working long hours…the fun meter was high!

Keith Strandberg: I think why No Retreat, No Surrender is such a cool movie is because it had kind of a sweet story — though, if you watch it now it’s pretty dated — but back then it was a sweet story. It was something that people could learn moves and it had some really good fighting.

Kurt McKinney: It’s funny, I thought I was in the only cheesy movie of the ‘80s, and when I go back and watch ‘80s movies, I see that everybody was in these cheesy ‘80s movies!

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Writer, dabbler, and obsolete physical media enthusiast based in Boston.