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Bloodsport (1988)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLOODSPORT (1988)

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bolo Yeung, Leah Ayres, Donald Gibb, Forest Whitaker, Roy Chiao

Written By: Sheldon Lettich (also story), Christopher Crosby, Mel Friedman Directed By: Newt Arnold

The Short Version

Bloodsport was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ticket to superstardom.

His first big hit remains one of his best, most watchable movies.

The tournament action is very well played.

Bolo Yeung is a badass.

Bloodsport is one of the true 1980s action classics.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MOZZARELLA MARINARA.

Tasty and classic.


Pairs Well With...

TSINGTAO.

Just drink it.  It tastes better than you think, especially after a few rounds.

“Very good… But brick not hit back.”


As the calendar turned to 1988, the heroes who would come to make up the pantheon of the Golden Age of Action Movies were still assembling.  Come February, it was time for the next hero to emerge: Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Though Van Damme had already had roles in smaller films like No Retreat, No Surrender, the vehicle of his ascent onto the Big Stage was Bloodsport, and it almost didn’t happen.  Originally meant to be released in 1986, it was instead put on the shelf for over a year and half after studio honchos decided they didn’t like the finished product.  A frustrated Van Damme offered to help re-cut the movie himself, and eventually, the studio relented.  The payoff for the studio was a movie that made more than ten times its budget back in initial box office (and far more than that since then via the perpetual profit machine that is home video); the payoff for Van Damme was instant stardom, not to mention one of the best movies he’d ever make.

The story is basic enough.  Van Damme plays Frank Dux, an American soldier who goes AWOL so that he can participate in the Kumite: an underground martial arts tournament held every five years to determine who really is the best fighter in the world.  Once he arrives at the single elimination style tournament, the object is simple: win every match.  Considering that participants in the Kumite are often gravely injured and sometimes even killed, this is something that’s easier said than done…

The name “Frank Dux” is not one that screenwriters made up; he is, in fact, a real person, and Bloodsport is supposedly based on the true story of Dux’s experiences fighting in the Kumite, with a little dramatic license thrown in for plot purposes.  Even before the film’s release, critics challenged the veracity of just about every claim Dux made about his life, from his military service to his fighting record to very existence of an underground tournament called the Kumite, suggesting that Dux had in fact just made it all up to sell a story.  Dux – who had undeniably founded his own martial arts discipline called “Dux-Ryu” back in the 70s, so he’s definitely some kind of fighter – quickly fired back, producing as much evidence as he could think of to support his claims while declaring that his accusers were agents of a rival who just wanted to ruin his and his school’s reputations.  As for me, I never take any biopic at face value.  Maybe the core story’s real, maybe it’s not; it doesn’t matter either way when it comes to enjoying Bloodsport.  

So let’s just look at it as a tournament fighting movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, shall we?

The primary plot and structure of Bloodsport are about as straightforward as they come; this is not a movie one watches for the sake of twists and surprises.  Once the intros and the training montages are over, the viewer knows with absolute certainty how every single fight that matters during the tournament will turn out.  (If March Madness were this easy to pick, you’d win your bracket pool every time.)  When a punk fighter decides to harass a nice lady, you know that a) our hero will end up with said lady, and b) our hero will defend said lady’s honor on the tournament mat.  When our hero meets a new friend, you know the friend is villain bait.  Bloodsport is so predictable that I don’t think I could spoil it if I tried…

…and that’s perfectly okay; great, even.  Tournament flicks are the ultimate in formulaic cinema: most audiences don’t want to be surprised while watching them.  It is tacitly understood by all that the primary reasons for watching a tournament flick are the training montages and the fighting exhibitions… and that’s it.  If people want a complicated plot to go with their martial arts, they can pick up a Kurosawa movie instead.  In this arena – pardon the pun – it’s all about the fighting, and anything else is extra.  For the most part – indeed, moreso than most flicks of this genre – Bloodsport actually gets that.

Intros are efficient and to the point, doing just enough to establish the characters to appropriate degrees and nothing more.  The training montages are interesting, entertaining, and relevant.  And when the fighting starts, it doesn’t stop.  Each day of the Kumite is presented as fight after fight after fight, with little to no distraction in between.  And while some of the pulled punches are obvious, for the most part, the fighting is tight, well shot, well edited, and very well showcased.  The Kumite also features a wide variety of different fighting styles (from generally legit practitioners), assuring that viewers won’t get bored from watching the same fight over and over again.  (Bonus: Bloodsport comes from a time before the pervasive use of wire work, so what you see really is what you get.)  If martial arts flicks are your thing, it’s really hard not to enjoy the combat in Bloodsport.

Having a well cast hero and a well cast villain doesn’t hurt, either.

Standing firmly in the hero’s spot for the first time is Jean-Claude Van Damme, and he makes the most of his opportunity.  First and foremost, he demonstrates his credibility as a fighter and athlete, and he does it well.  The spin kicks that would become one of his signatures are spectacular, and the splits are just plain frightening.  He fights with an authority that transcends the role offered to him by the script, and in the end, he proves his action bona fides.  He also sets himself apart from other action heroes with his boyish charm and affable demeanor: something that Sly, Arnold, and Chuck never had; not like this, anyway.  Van Damme’s ready smile and undeniable charisma easily won him as many fans as his fighting did, and firmly established him as One Of The Good Guys.  (No doubt that his ass shot in this flick picked him up a few fans, as well.)

In the opposite corner stands Man-Mountain Bolo Yeung as the villain, Chong Li, and it’s a role that he slips into very easily.  Yeung’s insane physique and brutal fighting skills are enough to make him a convincing badass (you won’t believe he’s 50 here), but it’s his too-often-overlooked skills as an actor that take his performance here to the next level.  Never mind his lack of dialogue; Yeung says more than enough just by shifting his attitude.  One moment, he’s a calculating machine, free of emotion; the next, his personality completely shifts to that of a psycho madman out for blood and glory.  Blink, and he’s somewhere in between, quietly taunting his opponents and daring them to make a mistake, hurling a thousand insults with his eyes alone.  You really couldn’t ask for a better villain here than Bolo Yeung.

Indeed, the only real wrong note struck by Bloodsport involves the completely useless AWOL subplot, which adds nothing at all to the story and only serves to chew up runtime.  Formula watchers will recognize this as a substitute for the standard “underhanded opponent tries to eliminate the hero outside the ring” routine, but even then, it doesn’t wash.  This is in no small part due to the completely half-hearted and half-assed excuse for effort put in by the G-Men sent to pursue Dux; they just sit by the river trying not to be revolted by the local cuisine, hoping that someone will do most of the work for them.  That, and the whole idea behind this particular subplot is just plain stupid.  Surely there was a better way to chew up the clock than this?

In any case, though, the Keystone G-Men, while dumb, certainly don’t qualify as a deal breaker, especially seeing how Bloodsport gets just about everything else right.  It’s simple, it’s fun, asses are kicked, and Jean-Claude Van Damme spins and does the splits while Bolo Yeung scowls and busts heads.  What’s not to enjoy?

Bottom line, Bloodsport is one of the true classics of 1980s action, and a must-own for any genre fan.  It’s hard to find a tournament flick more fun than this one.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2012


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