From 1975 to 1980, Frank W. Dux had 329 matches. He has retired undefeated as the Heavyweight class Kumite champion. He still holds records to this day. Quickest knockout: 32 seconds. Quickest punch in a knockout: 3.2 seconds. Fastest Kick in a knockout: 72 MPH. Total knockouts: 92.
I was young when I first watched Bloodsport, and I remember thinking it was the greates martial arts movie I had ever seen. It was also the first time I had ever seen a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie who still holds up today as my second favourite action star of all time. But I don't feel that I can say Bloodsport still hits my all time favourites list any more. Of course, this is partially because the gimmicks wear off after watching Bloodsport four times when the film is such a low budget guilty pleasure
Based on the alleged true story of Frank Dux, Bloodsport is not a film which really pretends that it has much of a story. The tale surrounds the Kumite, an illegal underground fighting tournament where there are no holds barred. Any attempts to put plot points in are essentially just action and sports movie tropes passed off as being part of the Frank Dux's alleged life experience. How much of the story is true is ambiguous and finding out the truth is clearly going to be a challenge as many of his claims have been reputed over the years, as well as the fact that the underground nature of the kumite makes it a challenge to look into. Either way, the film makes its statement as a low-budgen 1980's martial arts film more than anything, and with its cheesy script and predictable plot points it certainly adheres to everything one should expect from a movie released under the Cannon Films label. However, the one good thing about the story which stands out is the fact that as a film about the kumite which is about bringing together fighting styles from all over the world, the diverse collection of fighting style depicted in Bloodsport give it a lot of credibility and creativity in the action.
But as anyone can tell you, a $1.5 million martial arts film does not succeed on the credibility of its screenplay. The success of Bloodsport rests solely on the value of its action. Since the action is all about close combat martial arts fights with actors bringing in different styles from all over the world, there is creativity afoot. There are a few moments where the choreography is a little stiff or the editing may have poor continuity, but most of the time there is a lot of of powerfully versatile techniques thrown in there by a strongly dedicated cast. It is all captured with strong cinematography which shows the spectacle of two men fighting from a distance or the power of their techniques up close with editing that puts the occasional spin of slow motion on it all to emphasize their strength. The slow motion can be a little much at times, but it does emphasize some amazing moves which is what really matters. There is plenty of action in the film, and it has an occasional touch of blood to it without being excessive as well as a little deadpan comedy in sporadic moments. The fight scenes in Bloodsport are awesome, and it proves the potential for how much one can do on a low budget when they will push the physical capabilities of martial artists.
The technical values of Bloodsport are pretty good for such a low budget film. The cinematography always manages to capture the Asian landscape of the film very nicely with smooth movements, while the musical score adds a gentle sense of atmosphere to the film in terms of its 80's feeling and Hong Kong location. The musical score in Bloodsport is notable awesome mainly because it has a distinctive song called "Fight to Survive" which plays during the montage scene of the film. Anyone knows that a good 80's sports movie comes with a solid montage song, and the fact that Bloodsport boasts one is awesome.
And though the acting in Bloodsport is certainly not revolutionary, the cast certainly bring their own assets to the experience.
The focus in Bloodsport all rests around the performance of Jean-Claude Van Damme as it is his first leading role in a film, and within few seconds of being on screen, Jean-Claude Van Damme immediately exercises a clear foreshadowing of everything else to come in his performance. He displays a very thick Belgian accent which means he struggles to articulate all his words clearly, and this proves consistent over the course of the film as his charisma is fairly laughable at times. However, more importantly he is seen displaying magnificent fighting skills. His first technique to show off his his amazingly flexible ability to deliver high kicks against a speedball, and this is just the first of many tricks he has up his sleeve. As the film progresses, his talents become all the more clear as he fights with simulated blindness and delivers his iconic helicopter kicks with fighting passion. Bloodsport is also notable for some unintentionally hilarious moments where Frank Dux freaks out as a reaction to being temporarily blinded by a salt pill or when he lands his techniques with firm power and screams as a response. These scenes bring out the most intense facial expressions in Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they are a hilarious touch. Essentially, the story of Frank Dux will forever remain a mystery as its facts and fiction are difficult to discover, but Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakthrough effort as a martial artist on the film clearly pays tribute to the man incredibly well.
It's also nice to see Donald Gibb in Bloodsport since the man has a legacy for playing Frederick W. "The Ogre" Palowaski in the 80's cult classic comedy Revenge of the Nerds, making him an actor distinct of that timeframe. Donald Gibb makes himself a welcome presence in Bloodsport by embodying the goofy American stereotype. He is heavyset, cocky and unable to escape the clutches of his alcoholism. Thanks to this, he is the one character who barely has a serious role in the story even though he does stand to serve as part of the motivation for the protagonist to succeed. His persona is easygoing and funny, lightening the mood of the experience and making it more fun. He also puts a good punch into the fight scenes, even though his techniques are a basic form of drunk boxing more than anything. He packs a good punch when bashing up his enemies and is clearly able to have fun with the role since he shares a friendly chemistry with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Donald Gibb does a great job bringing a lighthearted comic touch to Bloodsport with a distinctively 80's nature about him, and he plays an archetype so heavily in the best sense of the word.
Bolo Yeung is also a nice touch. Though he is given little characterization, he plays antagonist Chong Li very well. Like Jean-Claude Van Damme he has some comic over the top moments when he makes intense facial expressions and whenever he speaks his accent seems to come and go with no consistency, but his performance rests on the solid fighting skills that he brings to the film. Though he is a sadistic character, Chong Li proves to be a very competent and confident martial artist who rarely lets his anger get in the way of his fighting style. Bolo Yeung conveys this through minimal changes in facial expression and a tenacious ability to throw kicks and punches at everyone that steps in his way. His sadism is strong and he really throws a mean punch when called upon to fight. And I'll admit that I will always remember his delivery of the line "You break my record, now I break you. Like I break your friend." as being one of the most notable lines in the film. Bolo Yeung proves to make a solid effort in Bloodsport, particularly when matched up against the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Leah Ayres has nothing to hide behind in Bloodsport because she doesn't fight and she isn't use for sex appeal, and that leaves her with the burden of having to actually act. Unfortunately, she is not up to the challenge. Rooted in a thoroughly generic archetype, Leah Ayres has little to do in the role from the start. But as it is, she is just genuinely not that good as an actress. She is melodramatic and whiny, and the film editing even faults her because during the many scenes where she has to react to something the editing cuts to a second before she is supposed to and so the result is that her acting comes off as delayed. Leah Ayres has no real purpose in Bloodsport since she isn't compelling or charismatic.
There are many other strong fighters taking on supporting roles in Bloodsport as well, and the fact that Michel Qissi is one of them is cool. Also, considering that 1988 was the same year that Forrest Whitaker delivered a breakthrough performance in Bird and that now he holds an Academy Award for Best Actor, it is cool to see him so early on.
So Bloodsport has all the conventional issues of a low-budget 80's martial arts movie, but with strong action choreography and a powerful breakthrough from Jean-Claude Van Damme and his jump kicks, there is a lot of fun to be had.
If you're expecting a Bogart, Brando, or DeNiro performance, with a Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, or Kubrick vision, then you're already set up for disappointment. If you think Van Damme is going to deliver an Oscar, then honestly, you really have no business being a critic that's actually being paid to write. Just like everything else in life, context is often the whole enchilada.
This movie is a debut film for a martial-artist, turned actor, not the other way around. Van Damme, despite his critics, was actually a well-accomplished martial-artist, that happened to be good looking, and also possessed some charisma. Another point that I think really gets lost in the fold, is that if you have zero appreciation for martial-arts, the mental and physical training, the spirituality of the art, and the metaphysical properties of the art when practiced at the highest level, then this film will simply fall on your deaf ears and blind eyes.
There is something sincere and authentic about this film that resonates with me each time I watch it. I feel this movie knows it's not just about the fighting, but also the mental and spiritual side of martial-arts. If it feels a bit Hollywood, that's because it is. This is not a training video on martial-arts, it's a big-screen movie, so it has to be entertaining to all, and not just the martial-arts enthusiasts. To me, the acting is irrelevant. Bloodsport does it's absolute best in trying to capture the essence of world-class martial-arts in the competitive arena. Statistically, the fighting scenes comprise a fairly small section of the film, although the scenes are memorable. The film is really about a guy honoring his shidoshi (trainer and mentor) while he (the shidoshi) is on his death bed. The significance does not lie simply in someone going to fight full-contact to honor someone. The significance rather, is contained in the fact that Dux was not Japanese, yet became a master of something inherently sacred to the Japanese culture. The film really is about transcendence across cultural boundaries. Van Damme may be awkward in many things, but the seriousness never wavers when the martial-arts are concerned. There is an intense focus going on, that captivates the audience, unless of course, you're still waiting for foi gras on that street taco.
This film is all about contrasts, yet bridging that gap in the end. The foil for that whole concept, aside from Dux, is the guide Mr. Luu (the guide into Kowloon City). The guy is Chinese, through and through, yet he speaks english with correct colloquialisms, and is very in tune with Western culture; and that is what makes his character so memorable. He's a hodgepodge of cultures that identifies with many.
However, despite Dux's clear mastery of martial-arts, given his "Dim Mak" rendition and his fighting prowess, he never oversteps with hubris. That is a critical point for the films' significance (much like Luu's). Dux masters an art from the East, but still remains humble in that mastery. That is why this film carries significance, and is in fact a quality film. Bloodsport knows what it is, and never tries to pretend it's something else. Van Damme is unapologetic, because he stays within the realm he knows, which is why the training, fighting, and meditation scenes are always so serious and sincere. There is a clear reverence for martial-arts throughout the film. Ironically enough, a western film taking on an eastern art, purposefully makes fun of those whom think martial-arts is all about the flash of knowing how to beat someone up (with the Jackson character). Jackson is a "beer monster" (to reference another review), that is crude and untamed. Although Jackson is a tough opponent in the arena because of his size and the twinkle of crazy in his eyes, he ultimately loses because of his lack of humility and honor for the martial-arts. He could easily have beaten Chong Li, and probably fought Dux for the title, but-for his premature celebration when fighting Chong Li. Thus, the movie reinforces it's original stance of a reverence for all the elements of martial-arts, and not just the fighting aspect. It is this idea that makes Bloodsport such a good movie, for what it's trying to be.
The true value and merit of this film is exacerbated by juxtaposing the rest of Van Damme's career. Van Damme tries to become more of an actor, and less of a martial-artist. For obvious reasons, his career deviates from the core theme of Bloodsport. Despite his staggering commercial success, Van Damme's career is probably more on par with the overall critic's rating of Bloodsport. I applaud Van Damme for his overall success, however, the rest of his movies, outside of Kickboxer (just the first one), were mostly laughable. Bloodsport however, is an exception. It's not a coincidence Van Damme's best work was his earliest. The people who don't like this film probably think martial-arts is all about the fighting. If it was all about the fighting, Bloodsport would be an action film, and not a martial-arts film. I don't blame them for that, but why bother watching/reviewing a martial-arts film, if you have such a superficial grasp on the topic? One does not have to rationalize everything about this movie to appreciate it, they simply need to calibrate their expectations to what the movie set out to do.
Unlike many other action films, Bloodsport really emphasizes and reemphasizes the complete scope of martial-arts, and not just the glamorized fight scenes. This is what sets Bloodsport apart from most, and why this film has such a divide between the critics score and the audience score. Bloodsport is not just a guilty indulgence such as Roadhouse. There is substance here, you just need to know where it's placed, and not where the low-hanging fruit is typically found.