In the 80s and early 90s, there were fewer bigger action stars than Jean-Claude Van Damme, more affectionately known as “The Muscles from Brussels.” Van Damme is a man of many talents – he’s not just a martial artist, but also a ballet dancer (who has killer moves when not balleting) and a bodybuilder, where he won the Mr. Belgium title in 1978. So this guy was perfect for the 80s explosion of mindless action films – a man with the grace of a ballet dancer coupled with the muscles of a bodybuilder and the asswhippitude of a Belgian Bruce Lee.
In 1987, after catching the eye of producer Joel Silver as the villain in No Retreat No Surrender, he was cast as the alien in Predator to do battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But after two days, quit the job because of health concerns regarding stunts done in the alien suit. Here’s the story:
With Predator out of the way, Van Damme was able to focus his attention on Bloodsport, a loose adaptation of the story of Frank W. Dux, a former military man who invented his own form of ninjitsu (Dux Ryu) and was supposedly the first westerner to win the Kumite, an underground and illegal all-contact martial arts tournament held every five years with the best fighters from around the world. This film is Van Damme‘s coming out party to the US. He shows us he’s more than just sweet moves in the background of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. He shows that he has more jump kicks, full splits and thickly accented English (even though Dux is native English speaker) than the day is long.
The film starts out with a montage of preparations for the Kumite to be held in Hong Kong – the fighting arena being set up and fighters from around the world doing their training. It is here that we are introduced to Dux’s future friend and fellow combatant Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb of Revenge of the Nerds fame) also training. It’s here that we get our first piece of terribly written exposition. Jackson is warned by a fellow fighter that he “hears that you can get killed” in the Kumite. Really? In a full-contact fighting event with the most badass fighters in the world? Thanks for that warning, genius. That Jackson has no apparent fighting skill other than being a giant who can punch a bag really hard, we have no reason to doubt that he will do fine against martial artists from across the world.
Dux training with shidoshi Senzo Tanaka.
After the montage ends, Dux’s storyline is picked up. When the military gets word that he is leaving for the Kumite in Hong Kong, they want to deter him from doing so, but Dux is as slippery as he is flexible and gets away. Two men are dispatched to find Dux and bring him home, one of them played by a young Forest Whitaker. Dux flees to the home of his teacher or shidoshi, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao), to say goodbye before he leaves. It is here that we get one of the longest and most ridiculously expositional flashbacks in the history of film laying out the backstory of Dux and how he came to train with Tanaka. The most preposterous part of it, and this was hard to discern because it’s all really bad, was not the young Dux’s (Pierre Rafini) terrible accent or googly-ass eyes, but the fact that when Tanaka slices the bill off of the hat with a katana Dux’s friends were trying to steal and he doesn’t flinch, Tanaka declares that he has “the fighting spirit.” Now, how in the fuck can you tell that? Martial artists and their mysticism.
In order to keep Dux from trouble with the law for the B&E he and his friends pulled, Tanaka uses Dux to train his son, Shingo, basically condemning him to a life of being a punching bag. That is until Shingo dies. Then Frank becomes his student and he soaks up all of Tanaka’s knowledge, i.e. is sadistically tortured and becomes immune to the pain.
Upon arriving in Hong Kong and at his hotel, Dux strolls through the lobby and conveniently is stopped and met by the aforementioned Jackson. They bond immediately over the arcade video game Kung Fu. Jackson states that if Dux wants to see some “real fighting” he can come watch him in the Kumite. So much for a secret underground fighting event, huh Ray? How did this guy get the invite again? To top it off, Jackson is the epitome of the Ugly American – a rude, beer swilling, woman harassing, Harley Davidson gear-wearing shitkicker. Of course he and Dux would become fast friends, right? Because they have so much in common. There are no friends in the damn Kumite.
I’ll bang you if you give me a story…
So what happens from here is Dux outruns the inept fools the government/military send after him, successfully becomes the odds on favorite to face off against defending Kumite champion Chong Li (Bolo Yeung, who starred alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon) who looks like an Asian Incredible Hulk (he too was a bodybuilder and was named Mr. Hong Kong) and…becomes romantically involved with a woman reporter (Leah Ayres) who is trying to do a story/exposé on the Kumite. Quaintly enough, when she is denied access by other fighters who are rude or feel like she is their whore, what does she do? Attach herself to Frank, bangs him and then is able to get into the Kumite. Of course, she gets in his head, yammering on about how dangerous it is and how he could get hurt and how she doesn’t want to see it. Ummm…don’t watch then. The guy is on a mission to honor his shidoshi and his dead friend. Let him whip ass without you getting in the way. You’ve only known him for one day. Can’t you wait at least two weeks before you become all controlling?
The Kumite goes as planned. Dux breezes through his competition, breaking Chong Li’s record for the fastest knockout ever, which puts him on Chong Li’s radar. And as if Chong Li weren’t enough of a villain, he gets to fight Jackson. Since we’ve seen what Jackson can do in the ring/square, which is nothing, the outcome is no surprise. Chong Li straight whips his ass, sending Jackson to the hospital and taunting Dux afterwards. Here’s the fight:
Hey Dux – why the fuck are you moving his neck like that? You’re going to make it worse, you fool. Do you want him to die? And Chong Li, you fucked up. Now you’ve given Dux more incentive to drop the hammer on you. In movie villain school, you must have missed the class where you were instructed not to be overly confident and taunt the hero.
Chong Li to Dux: You are next!
So after Dux toys with and destroys his final opponent before the finals, Chong Li kills his final foe and preparations are made for the final match. It’s East vs. West, Good vs. Bad, white vs. other. Dux the Avenger vs. Chong Li the Demon. Gosh, I wonder how this one turns out.
Here’s the fight:
No surprises here. At least there was a small payoff for those ridiculously long flashbacks in the beginning of the movie. For someone who was so in tune with his training and preparation for this event, that it took Dux so long to reacquire his sensibilities after Chong Li threw salt in his eyes was stupid. As if there weren’t enough challenges to Dux winning the thing to begin with, that they had to throw another stupid obstacle in front of him. Make the move 10 minutes shorter by excising the flashback and you don’t need that part. Honestly, it took away from how badass Chong Li really was by having him resort to cheating. He’s not even a villain that you can even respect after that. I just think it was a cheap move on the part of the writers. And need I say that it was so painfully obvious that he threw something in his eyes? I mean, the damn referee was standing about 5 feet from them. The least they could have done was make the cheating a little but more surreptitious.
I don’t think it’s hard to argue that this is Van Dammage at its finest. How many times did I replay these scenes with my siblings/step siblings and friends? Too many to count. Despite how fun this movie is, it is also laughable in so many ways. The fighters chosen for the Kumite were a mixture of ridiculous and stereotyped/racist characterizations (the African monkey man? really?). Here is a funny list of the shittiest fighters in the Kumite.
And let’s not kid ourselves, Van Damme may be able to do this…
…but acting isn’t his strong suit. His movies after this one get progressively worse even though most feature some pretty badass fighting sequences. I stopped watching them after Universal Soldier. I mean, you appear in a movie where you fight Dolph Lundgren, is there any reason to continue? For Van Damme, the answer was unfortunately yes. He had yet to appear in a movie with basketball star and total zero as a person Dennis Rodman and had that wish fulfilled when they made Double Team together. Need I say more? SIGH.
The real Frank Dux
The story of the real Frank Dux is still elusive as much of the legend around still remains a mystery. Here is a link that gives some of the info on him. He and Van Damme had become good friends during the filming of Bloodsport, but Van Damme supposedly stole an idea of his for a movie and turned it into The Quest which sits at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe Van Damme did you a favor, Dux.
Bloodsport is another example of a movie so bad that it’s good. From a production, direction, script and acting perspective, there isn’t much technically good about it…well, maybe the theme song. But it’s hard to overlook fight scenes with compound fractured legs, giant Asians breaking people’s backs, slow-motion photography capturing how far away the kicks and punches were from really hitting their intended targets.
Watch and enjoy.
Here’s the trailer:
P.S. It appears that Universal is getting back on the Van Damme train and redoing Timecop, you know, because it was…awesome?