Full Power, Long Hours: An Oral History of No Retreat, No Surrender

Around 1994, few action stars were bigger internationally than Jean-Claude Van Damme, mostly owing to the $100 million box office success of TIMECOP that year. As a result, his back catalog of films was widely available in brick-and-mortar video stores. On a whim, I grabbed a VHS copy of a 1986 movie called NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, where — as promised by the box art — he co-starred as the evil Russian villain kickboxer who, in the climactic fight, battles a bullied teenager trained by the ghost of Bruce Lee in a condemned house. Yes, seriously.

Something about the film’s sensibility hit just right for me, because even with (or perhaps due to) its shortcomings — continuity errors, odd supporting characters, rough line delivery — it was entertaining as hell. It kicked off a unique run of U.S.-based productions for Hong Kong-based Seasonal Films, and it spawned a franchise of unrelated sequels that ran wildly deep depending on your region.

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…

Keith Strandberg, as told to the author

Fast-forward more than 20 years later, I was seeing and reading what seemed like a deluge of “oral history” format retrospective articles about a lot of films, some good, some bad. For my money, that endearing martial arts movie I bought on video back in the day deserved that sort of treatment too. In the U.S., we take the influence of Hong Kong’s “Golden Age” for granted, but you can see its fingerprints on everything from the 2000 film version of CHARLIE’S ANGELS and the UNDISPUTED sequels to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the JOHN WICK films. NRNS was a very early version of that classic Hong Kong fight choreography mapped to an American film production, and made primarily for an audience that had gotten its kicks from flicks like THE KARATE KID.

After many hours of interviewing, transcribing, assembling, and re-editing, I had an oral history piece that was way too long for publication online. After several really tough cuts, I was fortunate to find it a home at Film School Rejects.

Read the full article on Film School Rejects

3 comments

  1. Back when IMDB had a message board, Kent Lipham (Scott) used to answer questions and tell stories about his experience on NRNS.

    My favorite anecdote that I can partially remember was that one day, during the filming of the climactic fight at the sports arena, the production decided to skimp on catering for the cast & crew by getting McDonalds instead.

    During a break early that day — I believe they were shooting the final fight scene at the sports arena — Lipham sat outside waiting for his scene. JCVD walked up to him and asked what he was doing, and Lipham said something like “I’m just looking at that tall blade of grass by the curb and watching the shadow under it, and I’m waiting to see how long it takes the sun to move so that the shadow and the blade of grass become one.”

    JCVD nodded thoughtfully.

    “Ah, I see. Very Zen. (a couple of beats later) Did you know they’re giving us McDonalds for lunch?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeez, now I’m going to be spending the rest of my life racking my brain over whether JCVD went for the McNuggets or the McDLT (https://mcdonalds.fandom.com/wiki/McDLT) that day. There aren’t a lot of publications where he’s publicly discussed his time working on this movie, and to some extent I understand why that might be. One topic I didn’t broach in the oral history article (or in any interviews with the cast/crew, for that matter) was that a couple folks from NRNS were called as witnesses in a North Carolina civil case as part of the Cyborg set fall-out where an errant JCVD knife swipe left a guy blinded in one eye (https://law.justia.com/cases/north-carolina/court-of-appeals/1994/9312sc785-1.html). Nobody really came out looking good, so I figured it was something better left as a tangential thread for the hardcore Van Damme researchers and Seasonal Films sleuths.

      I seem to remember Lipham’s informal Q&A threads being one of the high points of the IMDb message board for this particular movie, along with a lot of users claiming to be working on “fan edits” of NRNS that combined different stuff from each of the American and International cuts (none of which came to pass, to my knowledge). The former was the version I had on my StarMaker VHS edition — it had a lot of strange beats and hilarious continuity errors that really hooked me as a young fella, whereas the slightly more polished international cut had superfluous stuff like “character motivations” and “longer scenes.” Considering that a few other Seasonal Films have never even landed on DVD in the US, I feel it’s a minor miracle that Kino gave it not just the Blu treatment, but also both versions on the same disc for endless comparison.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have both cuts in my movie collection; one is the Euro cut and the other is a fan edit that is simply the Euro cut edited down with music changed to resemble the US cut (this was back before Kino finally released both cuts on Blu, which I still don’t own).

        I *did* have another fan edit that mixed both cuts of the film into a sort of “ultimate” cut, but alas, I burned it onto a cheapie DVD-R that one day ceased to be playable.

        Oh, and JCVD was definitely a McDLT guy.

        Liked by 1 person

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