The 1980’s were the halcyon days for action films. For me, it was such whimsical nights of watching rented movies that made me into the great man I am today. Guilt-tripping a naive mother into renting the likes of Robocop, Predator, or Die Hard as a seven-year-old was a skill of mine, and I took full advantage of my local corner shop’s extensive collection of over-sized VHS.
But my introduction to the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, came via another member of my family – my cousin
He’d somehow obtained a copy of Bloodsport (most likely belonging to his Dad). This was unusual, as the only other tape he owned was Thriller. Anyway, my cousin knew I liked my action, and tested me to watch it with him. Seeing a young JCVD flying kick the legendary Bolo Yeung on the cover with the promise of “the secret contest where the world’s greatest warriors fight in a battle to the death” was all it needed to lasso my interest.
My memory now of the movie basically boils down to three things – the arcade game they play in the hotel lobby, that guy getting his leg broken, and Van Damme fighting the big dude from Enter the Dragon.
Watching it now, you’d consider it tame by today’s (or Ong Bak’s) standards. There’s only the occasional bit of gore, the odd clunky swear word. Hell there’s not even any tits – a staple of later JCVD titles.
So Jean-Claude plays Frank Dux, a US Army Captain who was trained by the last ninja, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao – Game of Death, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). As a kid he was a bit of a bad goon. He’d followed two “friends” into the house of Tanaka to rob his expensive looking katana. He’s obviously caught red-handed, and tries to get out of it by offering to train under Tanaka as penance.
Tanaka is hesitant, but Dux’s reflexes and lack of fear (this comes across as mild retardation if I’m honest) indicate that he has the “making of a warrior”. He accepts.
This rubs Tanaka’s real son, Shingo, up the wrong way, but after some Judo throws and spiritual bonding, they both become “blood brothers”. Sadly, Shingo passes away, and Tanaka’s line ends. Dux beg’s his mentor to train him in Shingo’s place, and so begins the inevitable slowly-getting-better-at-something montage. That’s five minutes of JCVD throwing kicks, doing the splits (there is a lot of this in Bloodsport), and making tea while blindfolded.
Years later, Tanaka is old and dying, and Dux receives an invitation to join the Kumite in his place. The Kumite is an underground martial arts tournament held once every five years. Only the best from around the world are invited to join this elimination contest. The reward – great spoils. The risk – potential death or minor crippling.
Obviously, being sane, law-abiding people, the US military refuses to allow one of their own participate. But in honour of his fallen brother, Dux goes AWOL and makes his own way to Hong Kong. Hot on his heels are the army’s Cagney & Lacey – Helmer and Rawlins, played by Norman Burton (Diamonds are Forever) and Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland).
Helmer is played straight as an arrow, while Whitaker is clearly relishing his free ticket to Hong Kong. They are a time-limit for Dux – can he compete long enough to win the tournament before he’s found and taken back? Don’t worry about it too much – they’re totally inept.
Instead they’re the comic relief. They’re middle-class America, with their casual 80’s racism and ignorance to the Far East and martial arts culture in general. They make fun of the Chinese way of life, rip on their food, and make themselves look totally alien in the ancient city. They’re so lame that they don’t even carry guns, just these whacky 80’s tazers. It’s weird.
Dux obviously has bigger fish to fry. His first Kumite encounter is with Jackson (Donald Gibb – Revenge of the Nerds), one of the other Americans competing this year. This guy is also totally foreign to the quiet ways of the warrior. He’s a huge, rude, bruiser, wearing Harley Davidson bandanas and cut-off t-shirts. He doesn’t win on technique, but through raw brute strength (again, like America). Instead of tea, he drinks Budweisers. He has a mullet. He’s that big drunk bastard who always starts shit in bars. You know the type.
Anyway, their Kumite attache, Vic, introduces them both. Vic is there to keep them out of trouble, explain all the rules and give background on Hong Kong. He also has the pick of hilarious, cross-culture quips too. Not only is he the smallest man on earth, but has great on-screen charisma, despite some of the obvious dubbing. I’m surprised he didn’t do many more movies.
Jackson knows that Dux is here for the Kumite. Sensing a potential future opponent, he starts the mindwar straight off the bat. He challenges Dux to a game of Karate Master on the lobby’s handy (and only) arcade machine.
Obviously, being a black belt at ninjitsu imparts master skills when it comes to gaming too. Remember this was pre-Street Fighter 2. Back then we had games about spinning eggs and that actual worm game was a real thing you paid money for. This was legit super advanced Flight of the Navigator graphics man.
Jackson, defeated, warms to Dux, and they both head off to the Kumite’s initiation ceremony. This bit is kind of like Mortal Kombat, but without the mysticism or the sense of impending doom.
But there’s an issue with Dux’s invitation. Clearly he doesn’t look like a Tanaka, and he has to prove he has the fighting ability to compete with the best martial artists in the world. He’s tasked with demonstrating the Dim Mak – death touch – on a pile of innocent bricks. He Dim Mak’s the bricks and everyone is like “holy shit, this boy got skills”. Even Jackson is impressed.
Soon, the first round is underway and we get a sense of things. Basically, there’s all sorts of guys here doing different kinds of martial arts. There’s a dude that looks like Bronn from Game of Thrones doing Muay Thai, an African tribesman guy jumping about like an ape (not racist at all), some Chinese wushu types, a fat E-Honda prototype, and a couple of others who are destined to get maimed.
Jackson make’s his bloody debut by clubbing down some poor little Asshole wearing Yoga-pants. He then calls out Chong Li, the current champion, WWF style. Li (Bolo Yeung – Enter the Dragon) is genuinely surprised by this. I love the look on his face when he realizes what’s going on. He’s like “Who? Me?! Srsly!”.
Dux sat in the crowd wearing a black kimono remarks that Jackson should have been faster. Then the crowd goes nuts. Chong Li is next. Vic and Jackson ruminate about how he’s never been defeated, holds all the records, and killed the last guy he fought at the kumite (he kicked him in the throat). Apparently, Chong Li just stood there and watched him die.
He also has a horrible habit of blowing his nose on the mat. Yeah, I guess he’s probably got nasal problems from the years of ass kicking and training. But please, use a hanky at least. I’d be totally conscious of Chong-Li greb near my feet if I was fighting. Maybe it’s a diversionary tactic?
Anyway, he’s the man to beat, and he’s next. If you’ve never seen Bolo Yeung before, imagine the largest Chinese man you’ve ever seen. As Chong Li, he’s super confident of victory. So much so, he doesn’t even keep his hands up. He punishes some silly Kung Fu guy unlucky enough to be matched with him in the first round. He doesn’t kill him at least. Instead, he just chokes him unconscious, then drops him off the mat, setting a new speed record.
It’s Frank’s turn next. He’s facing off against some Arabian dude who was giving some journalistic broad some shit at the hotel. Dux heroically stepped in (in exchange for a date – classic JCVD) and saves her. Now it’s payback time. Or so he thinks. He’s beaten down in less than ten seconds. It’s so quick it sets a new record, to Jackson’s glee and Chong Li’s annoyance.
The tournament continues with the staple ’80s soundtrack and montage. Fighters come and go, with Chong Li, Jackson and Dux all advancing without difficulty. What I think is really cool is that all of the flashy kung fu wushu stuff doesn’t seem massively effective (much unlike other traditional chop-socky movies). Instead, it seems to be brawn over style, as Jackson and Li just smash anyone foolish enough to go toe-to-toe with them. Only Dux uses what I’d consider a traditional martial arts technique.
Meanwhile, Helmer and Rawlins have tracked Dux down to the hotel. They confront him during some downtime in the scene I like to call “that moment when JCVD nearly got into a fight with Forest Whittaker”. Dux is with Jackson who has naturally been drinking some buds. Some quality 1980’s slanging is thrown about (“I ain’t your pal, dickface”) and they lay it down real clear for old Frank – they aren’t waiting around for him to get fucked up in the kumite. He’s coming with them now.
Saving his friend from 70,000 volts, Jackson tackles them both to the ground, and Dux ducks out. So begins a weird, comedy chase sequence around Hong Kong. No, I’m serious.
It’s like a cartoon – with Dux effortlessly negotiating the busy streets. Rawlins and Helmer fumble as they attempt to catch him. JCVD looks like he’s having the time of his life. It’s kind of pointless considering, you know, they know exactly where Frank is staying in Hong Kong. It pads out two minutes of the run time, I guess.
Dux still manages to make his date with the journo-whore, Janice Kent (Leah Ayres – The Burning). She’s desperate to find out more on the super secretive kumite. But more then that, she wants to get into his pants. JCVD won’t get her inside the tournament, but’s happy to oblige her access to his tiny-Y’s.
The next day, Dux is alarmed to see Kent at the kumite – on the arm of some Hong Kong business type no-less. The fickle bitch. He doesn’t have time to get concerned though, as we’ve got another round of fights to get through. First up is Muay Thai dude Paco (Paulo Tocha – Predator 2) vs. Kung Fu-man Toon (John Cheung – Police Story 2). It’s a pretty brutal affair, with Paco kicking ass in impressive fashion. Kent looks on, shocked and excited.
She’s even more involved in the next fight, as Dux dismantles some other guy. Chong Li’s up next, and takes a few ineffectual punches to the melon. He pays the sucker back by breaking his leg. The crowd goes mental and Kent has to swallow some vomit.
Dux, Chong Li and Jackson all progress onwards through the over-matched combatants. Problems arise when Dux comes up against E-Honda. The gi-jacket comes off first, and then he uses his exploding-closed-fist-into-balls technique. I find it hilarious how no one finds this strike blatantly dishonorable to use. Even Jackson is cool with it.
Next it’s the grudge match. Chong Li vs. Jackson. Dux advises to go for Li’s gut. I don’t know why, considering Yeung, even at 50 years of age in this, is freaking ripped all over. But he think’s it’s Li’s weak spot, so what do I know?
Jackson get’s the upper hand, initially. Blow-for-blow, he’s probably the stronger of the two. But Chong-Li is more versatile. Using his kicks (which Dux recommended Jackson avoid – like, no shit), he quickly puts the American down. A quick jumping head stomp ends the fight. Dux is gutted. Chong-Li steals the Harley Davidson bandana from his fallen opponent and flaunts it in front of Dux. Now it’s personal.
The doctor says Jackson is going to live, thank God. He’s not even crippled, like in Kickboxer. Just mildly brain-damaged. Kent goes off on Dux for wanting to get revenge. She clearly doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.
The speech Dux gives about trying to be the best they can be is actually pretty spot on. They’re not here for revenge, or money, or glory (at least he isn’t). It’s to prove that a lifetime of training and sacrifice was worth it. It’s the martial way. They’re trying to be the best they can be. She still doesn’t get it though, and she won’t be there to see Frank fight anymore (like he needs the added drama).
Only Vic has some good advice: chill the fuck out, clear your head, and do the right thing. Good old Vic. Dux heads off to reflect and do some splits whilst meditating to get ready. Kent, meanwhile, has gone to the police, and ratted out the whole kumite. Naturally, they know about it, and instead look to arrest Dux. Again, that’s easier said than done.
The Hong Kong police, including Rawlins and Helmer, corner the fighter down a dark alley as he makes his way to the auditorium. Using only a dustbin lid, he disarms everyone. Finally admitting defeat, Rawlins and Helmer agree to back off until after the tournament. Dux only just manages to get there before he’s disqualified. He’s first up against Paco.
Paco get’s the advantage with a crafty elbow, but it quickly descends into a battle of kicking which only Dux can win. It’s a spirited performance from the non-Thai Thai fighter, but it’s not enough (to Chong-Li’s disappointment).
The big man is up next. He brutally snap’s the neck of his opponent in front of Dux. It’s not enough that he brained his best friend. He’s now calling him out using the limp body of some poor Chinese dude too.
For the final, there is a change. The edges of the mat are raised, making it sort of like a giant mattress that is bent at the edges. Chong Li and Dux are also down to their shorts. There is some form of correlation of losing clothes as they progress in the tournament. No, I don’t know why either.
Chong Li discretely hides a large white mint down his shorts. At this stage, we don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s some form of breath attack. Or he has really bad stomach acid. He’s also got Jackson’s bandana tied around his leg. He displays it to Dux and is all “You break my record. I break your friend. Now I break you”. Classic villain dialogue type stuff.
The battle commences. Chong Li is the crafty old vet, throwing the ref at Dux in moments of desperation, but eventually Frank finds his groove. His endless kicks begin to get the better of the older man. Chong Li may have the strength, but Dux has the JCVD flexibility and the technique.
It all changes when Chong Li pulls out his hidden weapon. The little mint thing was actually some form of chalk. He’s smashed it up in his mighty paw, and hurls it in Frank’s eyes. Why he didn’t reach over the side of the mat and just grab some sand is a question only his trainer could answer.
Chong Li pummels the blinded Dux. All seems lost until Frankie boy remembers all those lessons spent with Tanaka fighting blind-folded and making tea and stuff. After a quick mid-fight meditation, he begins to fight back blind. Soon it becomes clear he doesn’t need eyes to beat the hulking Chong Li.
It ends on the mat with Dux trying to twist Li’s head off. Chong Li can only submit to the superior fighter, and the day is won for the American. History is made etc. He’s presented with an honorary katana, and stands to the applause of the auditorium. Kent is super pleased, as are Rawlins and Helmer.
But not as pleased as Jackson! He’s proper stoked his buddie made Chong Li submit. In a touching moment between the two, Dux gives him back the lost bandana. Jackson tells him “anytime, anyplace, you need me – and I’ll be there”. It’s proper emotional.
Back at the airport Helmer and Rawlins are again waiting for Dux to show up. Of course, he’s already on the plane waiting for those slow pokes. But they forgive him because, you know, he could kill them both. Kent is there to see him off, and Frank bows to her in respect. And we’re done.
As I said in my review for Hard Target, JCVD rode the wave to megastardom on the back of films like Kickboxer, Double Impact and Universal Soldier. But that wave began in Bloodsport. Van Damme as Frank Dux is a likable character. He’s young, handsome, and can do some badass splits as well as martial arts.
Remember, this was the same legendary year as Die Hard and Above the Law. It’s not as earth shattering as either film, but represents the emergence of the first “proper” martial artists who isn’t Chinese or Chuck Norris. It’s the beginning of something.
While the martial arts and the action pales in comparison to modern contemporaries like The Raid or Onk Bak, this film is still enjoyable. Yeah, the story isn’t anything spectacular or original or anything, so sue me. But what do you expect from a film called Bloodsport? Thinking about it, I’m sure the kumite or something like it has existed before. We’ve obviously got the modern day UFC/MMA equivalent, but I like the romantic idea of martial art vs martial art that Bloodsport espouses. I can dig all that Muay Thai vs Sumo vs Karate vs Kung Fu vs Native African Jumpy Fighting stuff.
The hyper-violence is weirdly interspersed with silly, light hearted moments that I never really noticed before. Stuff like the mat-cleaner getting proper vexed at having to clean up even more blood from the canvas. Or how he sneakily pockets a gold tooth smashed out of some punk’s mouth. What about that whimsical chase sequence?! It’s all so much more light hearted than Kickboxer. One moment you’ll have JCVD prancing around town, avoiding the feds and boning reporters, then the next second someone’s shin bone is poking out of their leg. It’s something you just have to get on board with, right.
You’ve got to love the motivations too. This isn’t about winning loads of cash, or being the “one” or getting revenge (until Jackson get’s messed up that is). This is about being the best you can be. You don’t get this rammed home as much as you do in the likes of Best of the Best (another classic of the era), but just sit and think for a while – why is Frank doing this? His brother didn’t get his spine snapped by some Thai dude. He’s not in debt or being bullied by the mob. He’s doing it to prove to himself that all that training and sacrifice was worth it. And it’s hard not to get behind someone with that kind of motivation, dammit.
The relationship between Dux and Jackson is also totally gold too. I don’t give a fuck if you think both guys can’t act; I totally bought into this “anytime, anything, anywhere, I’ll be there for you” brotherly comradeship. It’s reinforced by the fact that they both may have had to fight each other. You know, even if they had done, I still bet they would have remained friends. You just get that kind of vibe.
It’s a weird irony that when asked about it being a “human cock-fight”, Dux is quick to suggest otherwise. MMA has (wrongly) struggled with this label for a long time too. But there’s nothing underhand about the fighting. There’s no cheating (save a bit of blinding), not much gore, and Jackson is beaten fair and square. So is Chong Li.
Yes, Chong Li is the aberrant bastard of this film. He’s mean, and needlessly so. He’s got two lines, and both involve him threatening to break JCVD. But we need a good villain mixed up in between all these other no-name fighters. Plus, for all the more shitty Chong Li behaves, the more satisfying it is when Frank beats him.
There’s tons of other crazy shit that went on behind the scenes apparently. Plus, the real Frank Dux is also utterly mental (the post script on the film reads how it was all a true story, and how Dux won 250+ straight fights and retired undefeated). As a youngster, this film was a forbidden gem. I didn’t notice or know about any of this deeper (or crazier) stuff. I just loved the ass kicking, the blood-letting and all the mental ass facial expressions. Now when I watch it, I can appreciate it for a little bit more than that. Hopefully you can too. Get it watched.
Badass Bloodsport poster artwork by Gian Galang. Buy this, and more cool prints from the artist directly via the following link: http://giangalang.tumblr.com/