A fond childhood memory and the film that shifted Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career up from ‘henchman’ to ‘hero’, Bloodsport is a somewhat unusual curio in American action cinema. Throughout the ’80s there seemed more of an appetite for martial arts product in the American market. I suppose the ghost of Bruce Lee still loomed large and a U.S. championed by Reagan certainly loved its heroes up there on the big screen battling the spectre of communism in any and all forms. This film actually does away with the usual communist overtones and it proves a pleasant surprise and one of the few structural elements that doesn’t age the film. Speaking of communism, perhaps the big sign that Van Damme had arrived is not the change in his character’s prominence, moving from henchman to protagonist, but rather the change in nationality that was afforded to him. This is the first film to mysteriously offer him up as a U.S. citizen despite his obviously off-kilter accent. Strangely this film does afford a somewhat plausible explanation for that by stating that he is the child of immigrants though as far as I can tell the real Frank W. Dux was not. It’s not much of an issue here, but for later films it’s always entertaining to see what desperate lengths the script opts for to try and make Van Damme a credible American protagonist (raised by French nuns, Cajun etc.).
The storyline is pretty basic but based (with some degree of debate) on real events. That story is of Frank W. Dux (Van Damme) who enters an underground, full contact fighting competition known as the Kumite (from Karate sparring terms if I’m not mistaken) which takes place every five years in Hong Kong. It draws the best fighters from around the world who face off against each other to see whose chosen martial arts style will reign supreme. Dux skips out on his military duties to partake and is pursued by two agents (one played by a rather young Forest Whitaker). Through an extended, dreamily soft-focus flashback we learn that Dux learned martial arts through a Japanese man named Tanaka whose house he once tried to rob as a child. Dux was taken in by Tanaka and basically used as a punching bag to train his own kid, Shingo. Years later Shingo dies and so Dux convinces Tanaka that he would make a good replacement. What follows are a series of crazy training sequences that involve Van Damme doing the splits a lot whilst getting beaten up by an old man. It’s the sort of sequence that any martial arts fan will have seen a hundred times before.
Of course it would seem that in reality Dux’s passage to the competition (actually held in the Philippines) wasn’t quite so exciting or reminiscent of The Karate Kid but that hardly seems important. I’m not sure if the film’s enemy, Chong Li (played by the imposing figure of Bolo Yeung), has any place in fact either, but it’s probable even more alterations took place. While Bloodsport is actually based on a true story it clearly has every intention of reforming reality so that it looks just like an action movie. Once in Hong Kong Dux meets up with another American fighter, Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) and a reporter played (with much lip gloss) by Leah Ayres. Anyway, to cut to the chase, Chong Li acts like a douchebag to everyone and so Dux has to lay a beatdown on him in the film’s climax… the end.
What makes Bloodsport somewhat unusual, particularly for an American production, is the focus on so many different fighting styles. Some are obviously more stylised than others but, with the real life Frank Dux as fight choreographer, there’s a fair amount of flavour between the various fights. It’s a shame then that most of them are merely snapshots rather than extended or fully fleshed out sequences. If Van Damme or Yeung aren’t involved then the film’s not too concerned with events. It’s also something of a shame that the fights are fairly timid affairs to some degree. Although Bloodsport admittedly does not skimp on the blood (and the fight arena’s floor seems to just soak up the accumulated sloshes of the stuff as the tournament proceeds) it seems that Dux might have been caught between two minds when orchestrating many of them; trying for the high impact, stylised percussive moves that look good on camera while still trying to capture the grit of underground, no holds barred combat. The former most certainly wins out with much of the fighting here only a step or two above your average bar-room brawl regardless of what styles are supposedly being showcased. Though it no doubt would have been equally ridiculous if Dux had gone for total realism and possibly ended up with something more closely resembling a UFC fight (yawn) the fights here seem overly staged, unfocused and lop-sided with fighters generally just standing there and taking a beating from their opponent until they can then respond in kind with their own moves.
Surrounding all the fighting we have a romantic subplot involving Dux and Ayre’s character of the reporter and also the cat and mouse chase between Dux and the two army men. Both of these seem like afterthoughts to the core of the film and awkwardly distract from the more potent elements. The romance with the reporter serves only to give us a tasteful shot of Van Damme’s behind for the ladies (and men. Let’s be honest, this film doesn’t have to be stretched too far to encompass the headily homo-erotic) and later on an excuse for Ayres to cringe every time Van Damme takes a blow in the ring. Meanwhile the chasing military men are largely just sources of comic relief with their pursuit of Dux (for the rather serious offence of desertion of duty) finally being resolved when the men decide they’d be just fine with watching Dux fight as they would be with successfully returning him back home. There doesn’t seem to be any time limit to catching him or any particular reason for him to be brought home which makes you wonder why the army bothered sending two guys to Hong Kong in the first place.
The rest of the drama is formed in strange elliptical movements such as the extended training flashback and some later scenes that play out like mini music videos and show Dux’s anxiety over his coming battles. There’s really no drama to be extracted from the main core of the film; it just chugs along predictably. Only when things stop entirely and Van Damme sits on a bus, haunted by the visage of Chong Li whilst pounding ’80s synth rock plays in the background, are we really expected to dwell on the emotional conflict within. I suppose a solid dramatic core is more than we could ask from most action films and if that’s what you are after than you’ve undoubtedly chosen the wrong genre. Nonetheless the disconnect between the film’s major storyline and the supposed drama that fuels it is more noticeable to me here than in many other films. I should add that if the lack of an anti-communist narrative thread helps Bloodsport seem a little fresher than some of its temporal peers than the soundtrack definitely places it staunchly in the 1980s. Oh yes, the film is full of rocking songs about succeeding in the face of adversity with awkward widdley guitar solos placed between the second and third verse (I suspect that’s where they go, right?).
There’s plenty to recommend Bloodsport and the film does sport a fairly hefty cult status. Being the film that really launched Van Damme probably plays a large part in that but the film is still a fine example of a certain type of action movie. Its core storyline isn’t particularly outlandish as action movies go and the focus on friendships and personal effort make a nice change from the usual politics of ‘us against them’ that shape so much of action cinema. Still, it’s far from perfect. Obviously the character of Chong Li is just a nutcase and a sadist and he’s afforded no more character than that. Not once in the entire film does he garner any sympathy from the audience and his existence seems solely to give the film a shorthand structure for ‘the cost of winning.’
Sure it’d be just the same if Dux won the competition just by beating everyone else and being the best fighter but it’s much easier to build audience expectations by giving him a nasty asshole to pound in the film’s climax. And having just typed that, that sentence sounds even gayer than some parts of this movie, which is quite a feat in a movie that features quite possibly the most epic groin punch in cinema history. How many movies can you name that involve a man doing the splits and then punching a man in the testicles, all the while screaming epically (all in slow motion)? In a sense that’s what the film boils down to; that and Van Damme just doing the splits everywhere else. We get the message, he can do the splits, but the film seems to enjoy placing him in various exotic locales and repeating the action again and again. Speaking of locales one thing I did like about the film was the fairly real and unadorned photography of Hong Kong. It’s depicted as a bustling, busy and often dirty city; full of life and people. Funnily enough for a supposedly illegal underground fighting competition it seems absolutely everyone in the city knows about the Kumite. Funny how that works out.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Bloodsport but I’d also have to admit it’s not held the same level of punch it had for me as a teenager. The violence is fairly strong and frequent but it’s too staged and lacking in real artistry. The story and the atmosphere are flat and generic and tend to weigh down the other aspects. It certainly showed that Van Damme was capable of leading an action film and holding his own on screen and I guess that’s mostly what makes this film interesting. Everything else is just a little too silly and convenient from the friendships and feuds to the romance that grows between Dux and the sexy reporter gal. I’d still qualify this as an above-average action exercise, but things did get better for Van Damme even if this film holds a special place in the hearts of many action fans.