1985 movie starring Kurt McKinney as good guy Jason Stillwell, and then-largely-unknown Jean-Claude Van Damme as an evil Russian martial artist inventively named "Ivan". Despite the American (and Belgian) cast, you will notice that the names in the production credits are overwhelmingly Chinese. You might take this as a sign that whatever faults the movie may have, you will at least see some nifty martial arts. In this you are correct.

The plot is as follows: some gangsters who appear to believe that their fortune lies in taking over karate dojos send their evil Russian enforcer Ivan to whup ass all over young Jason's father because he won't play ball. Dad's spirit is broken (not to mention his legs) and he swears off karate and moves his family to Seattle.

(This whole theme of Seattle and karate assumes a bewildering level of importance in the course of the story. Characters talk about "Seattle karate" so often and with such passion that one is forced to assume this movie was intended to be released ONLY in Seattle, and marketed exclusively to local karate enthusiasts.)

Jason is ashamed of his father's cowardice, bummed at having to move, and resentful that the old man wants him to stay away from karate too. He acquires a black sidekick named R.J. (in his first few minutes onscreen R.J. manages to rap, breakdance, AND play basketball!) and falls hard for Kelly, little sister of local karate god Scott.

But a tussle with a bully puts Jason on the outs with the local martial arts community. The bully spreads the rumor that Jason's been talkin' trash about Seattle karate. And no one talks trash about Seattle karate, man. NO ONE! After enduring all sorts of humiliation at the dojo and at various social events, and having his dad rip up his cherished Bruce Lee poster, Jason is ready to give up all hope.

But wait! Stepping out of the taped-up poster is none other than the GHOST OF BRUCE LEE, who proceeds to train Jason in the ways of martial arts! I swear I am not making this up. Master Lee turns Jason into a whirlwind of Shaolin fury, and passes along some badly-needed wisdom to his eager pupil.

The film's climax takes place at a karate tournament, and behold! The gangsters have come to Seattle and brought their stable of black-clad karate bastards with them. The local heroes (including Kelly's big brother, natch) are all set to take them on when the weaselly leader of the mobsters stops the proceedings cold. He announces that Seattle karate is SO LAME that they only need ONE guy to take on the city's finest: the despicable Soviet juggernaut Ivan.

What follows is some damn fine fighting as Jean-Claude effortlessly beats the living shit out of the Seattle contingent. When Kelly tries to stop him from pounding her brother to a bloody mess, he grabs her by the hair and Jason can stand it no longer - he dives into the ring himself.

Ivan sneers. "So. It is you! The son!"

"That's right," Jason shoots back. "But it'll be different this time...Russian!" Ivan is enraged at this bizarre insult (he is Russian, after all) and the battle is on. The bout is fast-paced and wonderfully choreographed and, unlike most fight scenes in recent martial arts films, there is a minimum of fancy camera work so we actually get to see what's happening.

There are two things I should mention at this point:

  • There is a very powerful kick in The Ghost of Bruce Lee's repertoire that Jason was unable to perform before now.
  • There is a moment very near the end of the picture where it looks like Ivan is about to dispatch Jason to the land of wind and ghosts, and R.J. shouts from ringside: "Jase! NO RETREAT! NO SURRENDER!".

I will leave you to piece together these clues and figure out the finale for yourself, but I will say that in the end the honor of Seattle and particularly Seattle karate shines brighter than ever. The movie spwawned numerous sequels, and as far as I can tell not one of them had the slightest thing to do with the original.

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