Bloodsport may not strictly be a sports movie, but the word “sport” is in the title so that’s close enough.
I previously reviewed the crapfest that is The Next Karate Kid, which was a pretty standard representation of Americanized martial arts movies, but Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1988 opus veers more into mixed martial arts territory than Hilary Swank’s teenage dojo dweller ever dared and this classic B-movie guilty pleasure buries the critical needle so deep it reappears on the great side of things.
If you have never born witness to JCVD’s breakout role interpreting the real life exploits of martial arts master Frank Dux (more on that below), strap in bucko because you are in for a freakin’ treat.
The story starts off looking like an amalgam of ’70s martial arts movies and ’80s pornography as several international mixed martial arts warriors show off their moves much the same way naked people would in a skin flick. The narrative then begins to focus on U.S. Army captain Frank Dux (JCVD), who goes AWOL in an attempt to participate in Hong Kong’s mysterious and highly barbaric fighting tournament known in secret circles as the Kumite.
Upon eluding federal agents (one of whom is played by Forest Whitaker, thus making this even more of a classic sportsball movie contender), our hero has several flashbacks which explicate his reasons for becoming a punching and kicking powerhouse who wants to win this secret international form of Mortal Kombat and honor the family of his dying ninjitsu mentor/father figure.
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Dux befriends fellow American and behemoth brawler Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, aka Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds film series) after the two bond over the classic arcade version of Karate Champ. The narrative then establishes Dux’s suaveness when he rescues damsel in distress/undercover journalist Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) from the unwanted sexual advances of another Kumite competitor (you can tell he is a villain because he wears an Arabian headdress and has a gold tooth) before trying to discourage her from covering the inevitable carnage of the Kumite competition.
From there it gets pretty formulaic. After the introduction of the reigning champ/big boss named Chong Li (Bolo Yeong), who destroys all who oppose him (including the partially-shaved Chewbacca surrogate Jackson), Dux both beds Janice and advances to the final round of fighting, where the bad guy cheats by throwing crushed salt conveniently stored inside his silky fighting trunks in our hero’s eyes. Dux must draw on the tutelage of his ailing ninja master to save the day.
I realize the cinematic oeuvre of the great JCVD has its many critics, but VanDammeit if Bloodsport isn’t just a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, the acting is one-dimensional and the plot is wafer thin, but anyone sitting down to watch it should know they are basically going to get the celluloid equivalent of the Street Fighter video game (which JCVD would later actually commit to film with Raoul Julia) and simply enjoy Bloodsport for the escapist ’80s entertainment it delivers.
The finale may be predictable, but the slow-motion martial arts sequences never overstay their welcome and practically beg for the much inferior sequels that followed.
If you’ve already experienced the greatness that is Bloodsport, allow me to share with you the jaw-dropping backstory chronicled far better than I could ever attempt. Many films may claim to be “based on a true story,” but apparently some of this stuff may have actually happened since there actually was a real-life Frank Dux who held a plethora of punching and kicking knockout records in international mixed martial arts competitions before such things were brought to the forefront via the Ultimate Fighting Championships and other MMA bouts.
Some may deride the macho martial arts excess that makes up most of this film, but I beg to differ. While this is by far not JCVD’s best performance (in my opinion, that would be the bizarre blend of bio pic that is JCVD) it does define who the “muscles from Brussels” would become to millions of his fans. It even has some snappy training montages which make it an excellent addition to Blooperman’s celluloid sportsball hall of fame.
Bloodsport may not be the film you sit down and watch with a significant other for some quality alone time, but then again you pretty much know what you are in for from the title alone. Brutal bubblegum may not be nutritious, but it can be something to occupy your time between meals of more substance. Either way, it’s Kumite time, baby, so accept no substitutes.
Director: Newt Arnold
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Bolo Yeong, Leah Ayres, and Forest Whitaker
Running time: 92 minutes. MPAA rating: R, for blood and martial arts violence