Bloodsport RevisitedOctober 20, 2010
It had been a long time since I last watched the late 80s martial arts classic Bloodsport, the film that launched the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme. My Korean cable channels very often throw out brilliant 80s action flicks like Predator, Commando, First Blood and 70s martial arts masterpieces like Enter the Dragon and Drunken Master but unfortunately, they don’t have a great deal of variety and tend to repeat the same half dozen over and over again. Recently, it occurred to me that Bloodsport seemed like perhaps the most fitting film that my Korean cable hadn’t yet broadcast (to my knowledge). This in turn triggered a nostalgic longing in me and, lo, I got my hands on the fight flick forthwith. I suggested to my wife that she watch it with me but she firmly declined and politely informed me to watch it alone. At least, that is how she euphemistically remembers the moment that she rebuked my suggestion with a swift “fuck off”.
Released in 1988 and directed by one Newt Arnold, Bloodsport was made for a mere $1.5 million and became a surprise box-office success, grossing $12 million in the domestic U.S. market alone. Van Damme had been in Hollywood for a few years by then, eking out a living doing stunt work and extra work, but Bloodsport marked his first starring vehicle. The film was written by martial arts practitioner and fight choreographer, Frank Dux, and purports to be based on the true events of his life participating in underground fight tournaments. Twenty-two years later, and on account of the inexhaustible capacity for nostalgia amongst our shameless generation, it remains a cult classic much beloved by fans of the cheesy action films of yore.
Frank Dux is an army captain who goes AWOL in order to participate in The Kumite, a renowned underground martial arts tournament taking place in Hong Kong. By way of an extended flashback we discover that Frank had a difficult childhood on account of his unrelenting Frenchness and was one day apprehended by a Japanese martial arts master when he and his dickhead teen buddies hit upon the incredibly wise move of breaking into the master’s home to steal his sword. Rather than having his awfully French head cut off, Frank is given the opportunity to be trained in Master Tanaka’s exotic martial art in order to turn around his wayward ways and grow into a disciplined ass-kicker. Frank agrees and is soon having seven shades of shit kicked out of him by the master’s son, Shingo. Years later, Shingo dies in entirely unexplained circumstances and Frank implores Tanaka to teach him the family martial art properly in order for it to be kept alive and so that he may one day fulfil Shingo’s wish of representing the Tanaka clan in The Kumite. Tanaka agrees and proceeds to train Frank by beating his naked torso with a bamboo staff and stringing him up with an elaborate pulley system that forces Frank’s legs into a complete split. In mid-air. Tied between two small trees. Eventually, they move on to cooler stuff like Frank snatching goldfish from a pond with his bare hands whilst blindfolded, thus indicating that he has mastered the fighting style. Back in the now, Frank lands in Hong Kong and is pursued by Air Force cops looking to get him back to the states. He meets Ray Jackson, a hulking, wild-eyed freestyle fighter from the states who is also in Hong Kong for The Kumite and the two become friends. He also meets a sexy blonde reporter who is looking to break a story on The Kumite and, although she wants to jump on Frank’s dick badly, she’s nonetheless appalled by the human cockfighting glory he is in passionate pursuit of. Frank enters the tournament and excels, moving ever closer toward the final showdown with the reigning champ, Chong-Li. Chong-Li, however, has already stomped Frank’s friend Jackson and almost killed him. He’s a badass who enjoys exciting the crowd by needlessly crippling and even killing opponents and he’s prepared to cheat in order to remain champ. Will Frank be able to overcome his emotions and defeat Chong-Li using calm, Zen warrior power?
Bloodsport remains popular apparently on account of the different martial arts that are featured in the movie. It’s something of a proto-mixed martial arts showcase and plays like a decent adaptation of a video game despite not actually being based on a video game in the first place. Frank squares off against muay thai fighters, a sumo wrestler, karate masters, etc. There is even an African guy whose style consists solely of imitating a shrieking monkey that bounds around on all fours, slapping at his forehead and smacking the shit out of people’s skulls as if they were coconuts. This was back in the day when presumably such an awful spectacle wasn’t a problem. The premise is also very simple and stripped down. Frank Dux is just trying to win the fight tournament. Contrast that with, say, Enter the Dragon where the fight tournament is a mere Macguffin in order for Bruce Lee to infiltrate the fortress of a Chinese crime lord and bring down his empire of opium and sex trafficking whilst taking revenge for the death of his sister and the overall desecration of the Shaolin temple. There are no such distractions in Bloodsport, which went some way to convincing me as a child that it was actually quite a factual sports bio-pic. Van Damme displays some legitimately impressive skills with the debut of his trademark 360° jump-spin “helicopter” kick and the utterly marvellous full-splits uppercut to opponent’s ballsack move. It’s almost touching to see the man at arguably his most innocent, prior to being subsumed by his own eccentric reaction to celebrity and the adoption of a herculean cocaine habit. Unfortunately, the fight choreography is a little slow and hasn’t aged terribly well. It seems to suffer from poor editing and compares particularly unfavourably to the frenetic pace of Jackie Chan’s superior chop-socky flicks that were being made around the same time.
Van Damme has obvious limitations as a leading man but here he is brilliantly supported by the immensely charismatic and entertaining Donald Gibb as the nutty brawler Ray Jackson. Gibb’s sweaty, bear-like physique and wide-eyed, manic grin make for a truly fun character who delivers in terms of comic-relief. He has the best line in the film. When told “listen pal, stay out of this” by one of the military police (Forest Whitaker) come to apprehend Frank, he replies “I ‘aint yer pal, dickface.” Enter the Dragon veteran badass, Bolo Yeung, performs admirably as the psychotic chief antagonist Chong-Li. Yeung displays his signature move of jiggling his outrageous muscle-moobs whilst he crunches the skulls of his unfortunate opponents. It was only recently I noticed the Korean flag on Li’s headband and on the jacket of his coach in the movie despite the character sporting a more Chinese name. This is but one of many slightly odd features about Bloodsport that may be the responsibility of the writer, the “real” Frank Dux, who claims that the movie is based on true events in his life.
Frank Dux really is a martial arts expert and instructor who has operated martial arts schools in Hollywood since the 1970s. He also really was in the military for a few months. Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot that can be verified about the man, especially his claims regarding his involvement in a actual underground fighting tournaments (also called ‘Kumite’, a name taken from Karate training) and various outlandish claims made about his clandestine exploits in the military. See this Los Angeles Times article from 1988 –Ninja: Hero or Master Fake? and for a more succinct take on the legend of Frank Dux I direct your attention to the inimitable Seanbaby, and his article 7 Fighters Who Lied Their Way to Legendary (Dux is #1)
Bloodsport remains one for the shamelessly nostalgic. It marks the beginning of the Van Damme phenomenon and plays out with harmless brevity and simplicity. It’s a cheesy and accomplished martial arts film that feels like the cinematic equivalent of an early video game; Street Fighter 1, if they ever adapted it to the screen. That said, it’s not as ridiculous as later martial arts films that are deliberately based on video games like the actual Street Fighter movie Van Damme made or the Mortal Kombat movies. Bloodsport is easily more watchable and fun than those films. Alas, it’s not the best martial arts film out there, even for the era in which it was made, but it does what it says on the tin and delivers bloody, bone-crunching action. It’s worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it in years.