Now here’s a story we can all relate to. Teenaged boy meets master of Ninjutsu (Roy Chiao) in the midst of a home invasion, agrees to spar with his son as penance for his misdeed, grows to manhood with considerable ass-kicking skills, pursues a potentially-deadly full-contact fighting contest to honor his master (couldn’t he have just bought him a tie), travels to Hong Kong, befriends beer-loving brawler Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb of “Revenge of the Nerds”) while playing arcade game, makes super-quick enemy of merciless near-mute Kumite champion Chong Li (“Enter the Dragon” actor Bolo Yeung), takes off his shirt, knocks people out, and so on.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t beat yourself up. It’s been a cool quarter-century since “Bloodsport” has graced cinema screens, a badly scripted but somehow entertaining story of an American army captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who pays tribute to his ailing master by entering the Kumite, a clandestine no-holds-barred fighting tournament, a pre-“Fight Club” fight club if you will. At least one of the rules is the same. You do not talk about Kumite, though for a secret competition it seems strangely simple to find and get into. Dux’s love interest in the film, a journalist looking to uncover the truth about the tournament, beds the fighter faster than you can say Cyborg (a strategic no-no before a major battle, just ask Bruce Wayne of “The Dark Knight Rises”) then gains admittance on the arm of…some dude. Worse is the powder-puff rock soundtrack that plays over the film’s fight scenes. “Body’s ready, heart’s on fire. Gonna push it, over the wire.” Where’s Lalo Schifrin when you need him.
Regardless, Bonne fête to “Bloodsport” on its 25th year. For anyone who counts his role in 1986’s “No Retreat, No Surrender,” that means Van Damme has been an action star for as many years plus two. After a quick and grossly incomplete look back at his career then, at least 40 films as of “The Expendables 2” (more aptly titled “Hard to Justify”), I revisited this movie, Van Damme’s first box-office success, looking for clues to his popularity. Like his Western contemporaries, Norris, Seagal and Michael Dudikoff (“American Ninja”), his characters are more or less emotionally challenged until physically confronted. As Dux, Van Damme shows glimpses of star-power when throwing punches and spinning helicopter kicks, titillating female viewers with numerous demonstrations of the full-splits. Unfortunately, the fight scenes in “Bloodsport” will likely fail to thrill today and come nowhere near rivaling the painful spectacle of Donnie Yen (“Ip Man”), the dizzying choreography of Jet Li (“Fearless”) or Sammo Hung (“Knockabout”), or the venous intensity of any Bruce Lee battle. What Van Damme does supply through Dux is charisma, sex-appeal and a good-natured naivete that he’s put into almost every role since, in marginally good (“Sudden Death”), bad (“Kickboxer”) and better (“Timecop”) movies. Like Norris and Seagal, Van Damme is a trained fighter first. The Belgian born Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg began studying martial arts at 10 and is skilled in Shotokan karate and kickboxing. After his last full-contact match in 1982, he moved to America to pursue an even more unreachable goal. Action star.
His abilities don’t quite make up for the shortcomings in this film however, including a staggeringly underdeveloped villain in the form of Chong Li. He hates Dux, and why? Because he broke his record for the fastest knockout. Gee. If this is merely the currency of the low-budget film, which “Bloodsport” was, I’ll submit, but better stories have been told for far less. Happy 20th to Robert Rodriguez’ “El Mariachi” by the way. Estimated budget, $7,000. (On a side note, Chong Li was reportedly based on a real fighter, who did blind Dux during their fight, but accidentally.)
In fact, the more compelling story belongs to Frank Dux himself, the American martial artist whose life forms a blueprint for the Van Damme character and the events in the film. An arguable blueprint as it turns out. Dux openly admits that some of the actual events were changed for smoother storytelling (Dux did not meet master Tanaka while burglaring his home nor did he go AWOL to attend the tournament) but other more material truths have been contested for years, right down to Dux’s claim that he won the 1975 Kumite tourney (in the Bahamas, not Hong Kong as in the film). Feel free to investigate this tug-of-war online, including one writer’s assertion that Dux ordered and paid for his winning trophy himself. The most interesting part of the tale though has to do with his reasons for joining the tournament at all, not to honor Tanaka but as a contract spy. In an excerpt from Martial Arts Magazine (care of www.chasingthefrog.com), Dux speaks:
“My involvement in that tournament was part of a plan, launched in 1975, to infiltrate the criminal organizations that organized the fights. The original idea was to participate in the Kumite tournament and make a few contacts. We initially assumed I would lose, but eventually I became one of the best Kumite fighters to ever participate in the event.”
Why producer-cousins Golan and Globus passed on this alleged part of the story in favor of another simplistic action fantasy I’m not sure. Budget concerns? Faith in Van Damme’s nascent acting abilities? Or something closer to what film critic Leonard Maltin said of their “Death Wish 2”? (“Made by profiteers, not filmmakers.”) I don’t know. All things considered though, “Bloodsport” at least deserves entry into the Noteworthy & Nostalgic file for its undeniable 80s bent and for kick-starting Van Damme’s film career. Wherever your opinion of the actor falls, he has entertained millions, helped sustain a genre, and for some achieved what was in 1988 unthinkable – critical acclaim for his acting (in “JCVD”). Better late than never.