Happy Birthday Tong Po! The Qissi Brothers Experience
The Qissi brothers haven’t quite made the impression on Hollywood the way that their good friend Jean Claude Van Damme has but the effect they have had on the career of Van Damme and on the action genre in general cannot be understated. The fact that the Qissi’s Hollywood career is directly tied to that of JCVD is not a slight in anyway but a testament to their abilities and influence on one of the greatest action heroes of the past 30 years.
Mohammed Qissi embarked on his journey to become the next big action star with his good friend Jean Claude Van Varenberg in 1982. They had met when they were only boys and shared a mutual admiration for martial arts and they dreamt of one day moving to Hollywood to be action stars. Their big break came several years later after they had secured a meeting with Menahem Golan, a director and producer with the beloved Cannon Films. Jean Claude hopped up and did the splits between a pair of chairs (why wouldn’t he) but Golan was unimpressed so as they were being ushered out the door Qissi mentioned that Van Damme was playing the villain opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Predator. Golan didn’t know that Van Damme’s face was completely covered and that he would soon exit the production but the connection was made and they would soon be preparing to make one of my favorite movies of all time, Bloodsport. Hell yeah!
Michel as Suan Parades in Bloodsport
The newly christened Michel Qissi settled into the small role of Suan Paredes while Jean Claude prepared to become one of the biggest action stars in the world. They had signed a three picture deal with Cannon Films and after making a huge splash with Bloodsport, Qissi took a step back into another role as a fight trainer for JCVD in the film Cyborg. The movie wouldn’t match the critical or financial success of their earlier picture but looking back on it I like to think that it was a pretty solid film for all of the trouble that went into making it.
Michel Qissi on the set of Cyborg with Van Damme and spotting him while he gets a wicked burn.
Qissi’s most well-known role would come in 1989 when after auditioning and winning the part of a Thai champion badass, he donned some pretty decent prosthetics and turned in a great villainous role as Tong Po in Kickboxer. It was a character he would re-visit two years later sans Van Damme but it would turn out to be his defining career role. Michel would make one final appearance with his friend Jean Claude in the movie Lionheart as a French Foreign Legionnaire trying to return JCVD’s character to his unit for discipline after going AWOL to see his dying brother. Michel didn’t get an opportunity to flex his martial arts muscle as much in this one and after watching him as Tong Po he was hardly recognizable.
Michel as Tong Po in Kickboxer.
The aforementioned Lionheart is where we segue into Abdel Qissi’s partnership with Van Damme as the big bad Attila. Abdel looked totally badass with his crazy sideburns and his white fluffy James Bond villain cat. His fight scenes really brought out his imposing size, especially since JCVD is only 5’9” and Abdel stands around 6’2”. His fighting style was also much different to the other villains that Van Damme had faced in previous movies and it really seemed that he brought out the underdog quality that we all loved in JCVD. It worked so well that Abdel would return to play the villainous and equally unoriginally named Khan in The Quest. Looking back I’m not sure if he spoke any lines in either movie but his physical presence and what he was able to convey with his facial expressions made for memorable performances.
The Qissi brothers with Van Damme on the set of Lionheart.
Abdel would appear in one more JCVD movie called The Order in 2001 but his days of being the main baddie were over. Jean Claude is back in most fans good graces after a decade or so of bad movies. His most recent films have been some of his most critically successful of his career and most of that success, in my opinion, comes from him returning to a more emotional aspect of filmmaking. Over the years, he has produced some amazing fight scenes but one thing that has always stood out to me was that you cared about what happened to his character. It is the role of a good villain to differentiate himself from the hero and make you want to root for and connect with him. The Qissi brothers were both able to do this, and in a way make us love Van Damme even more through our hatred for them.
Abdel Qissi in Lionheart and with JCVD in The Quest.
The blueprint for an action movie so closely resembles that of professional wrestling that it is no surprise that guys like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin have had so much success. Get a big, mean, ugly asshole to play the heel and get a good-looking, clean-cut baby face to fight him. In the end, we all want to cheer when the hero saves the day and roundhouse kicks the villain through a burning wall and off a 30-story building to his death. After seven films with Jean Claude, I’m a little surprised that neither Qissi brother has succumbed to such a fate but as long as they are still making Van Damme movies, there will always be a need for a good Qissi to root against. So Michel and Abdel Qissi, take this as a compliment when I say that you are two of my favorite big, mean , and ugly assholes.