The Film: Bloodsport (1988)
The Principals: Newt Arnold (director), Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Bolo Yeung, Leah Ayres, Roy Chiao, Forrest Whitaker
The Premise: A young Marine competes in a secret, underground fighting tournament (the Kumite) to honor his dying mentor.
Is it any good? Bloodsport is a movie I can’t really view objectively, despite having only seen it a couple of times back in the ’90s – it was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, and still holds a special place for me.
Revisiting it now as an adult, two things surprised me. One: this movie that I thought was so transgressive and ultra-violent as a child is surprisingly tame, and would probably get a PG-13 today with minimal trims, if any. Second: I was surprised by how earnest it is, and how its heart is clearly in the right place. Hell, the fact that an essentially plotless movie about guys kicking the shit out of each other has heart is something to celebrate – there’s no cynicism here, and I was surprised by how refreshing that was.
The “character” of Frank Dux is drawn in broad strokes: he wants to honor his dying teacher by kicking ass. He can play video games. He sleeps with pretty blonde reporters (despite meditating like this):
He’s a bland, boring protagonist; and yet you do root for him. It’s a testament to Van Damme’s obvious martial arts skills and genuine likability in his first lead role – he’s like a big, dumb puppy that falls down the stairs on its way to greet you. Despite being a barely competent actor, his earnestness fuels the character of Dux – both want to excel at their chosen quest, and what kind of asshole would want them to fail?
Rounding out the rest of the cast … Leah Ayres plays an American reporter researching the Kumite. Her methods include pumping Dux for information, sleeping with him in a flagrant breach of journalistic ethics, and then trying to get the Kumite shut down when she realizes that *gasp* people are getting, like, hurt really bad in this secretive, underground, no-holds-barred fighting competition, you guys! Standard ‘80’s heavy Donald Gibb plays a meathead American fighter who befriends Dux, and provides him with motivation in the final act after getting his ass kicked by reigning Kumite champion Chong Li – not the girl from Street Fighter, this guy:
As played by Bolo Yeung (of Enter the Dragon fame), Chong Li is the perfect sneering villain to threaten the saintly Dux. It’s not enough for him to be kind of an asshole, or just exceptionally skilled – nope, this is a guy who kills other fighters just for the hell of it, steals Gibb’s Harley Davidson bandanna to taunt Dux, and cheats during the climactic fight.
For comic relief (if the acting and dialogue don’t do it for you), a very young Forest Whitaker is on display as one of the two most incompetent Marine/CIA/government enforcer guys ever. Whitaker comes to Hong Kong to track down Dux and stop him from fighting in the Kumite. (It seems odd that the government would care this much, or be able to track down Dux in less than 24 hours, but just roll with it – the screenplay needed padding.) And Roy Chiao (Lao Che!) classes up the joint as Dux’s sensei Tanaka.
So … is Bloodsport a good movie? Probably not, if I’m being objective – the third act in particular is a scripting mess, with various reversals of motivation solely to provide last minute tension. The dialogue is, at times, painfully on the nose, some of the acting struggles to rise above community theater level, and the soundtrack hasn’t aged well. To balance that out, there are some great character moments (such as the economic, graceful first meeting between Dux and Gibb’s Jackson), well-choreographed, well-shot fights with clearly delineated competitors, fantastic use of Hong Kong locations that provide the film with a legitimate sense of place, and the aforementioned earnestness. It’s not exactly Rocky, but it’s also not Rocky V.
If you’re a fan of Van Damme, martial arts, or 1980’s cheese … give it a shot. It’s only 88 minutes, after all.
Random anecdotes: The real Frank Dux is, suffice to say, a much more interesting guy than his cinematic alter ego. Not only was he the fighting coordinator f or the film, he initially declared Van Damme to not be in good enough shape to play him, and put Van Damme on a three-month training regimen before shooting that the young star called “the hardest training of his life”. (Dux would later go on to write The Quest with Van Damme, and had bit roles in Highlander and Little Shop of Horrors.)
Despite his verified skills, Dux has had many of his personal claims disputed – including whether or not the Kumite even exists. An expose was published in the Los Angeles Times (link), and it’s pretty damning (if inconclusive).
There were three direct-to-video sequels starring a Van Damme lookalike playing a different character. My affection for the original doesn’t stretch far enough to watch them.
Cinematic Soulmates: Kickboxer. Enter the Dragon. Rocky. JCVD.