Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: CIA Military Operative Frank Dux travels to Hong Kong to fight in a secret martial arts tournament, known as The Kumite, to honour his dying master. Along the way, he meets fellow American fighter, Ray Jackson and a reporter investigating the tournament.
It’s hard to write objectively about any Jean Claude Van Damme film, especially his first major starring role, Bloodsport. It’s a film I discovered as a kid and fell in love with, like many of my generation. The 1980’s martial arts craze offered something violent, exotic and exciting – something every young boy craves. Looking back, even with rose-tinted nostalgia, it’s also easy to see Bloodsport for what it is – a cheap bit of action exploitation.
The film was produced by Cannon Films – a studio that excelled in picking up cheap scripts and produced them on minimal budgets for a respectable profit. The studio was responsible for numerous Delta Force and Death Wish films as well as fuelling the decade’s obsession with ninja. During the decade, they released a variety of schlocky titles like American Ninja, Enter The Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja. After a string of small parts, JCVD lobbied hard for the role and wowed one of the Cannon’s owners with a plethora of martial arts moves (most likely including the splits).
Based on the apparent (i.e. unsubstantiated) life of martial arts and CIA agent Frank Dux, Bloodsport had everything an 80s blockbuster needed – action, comedy, romance and a soft rock Stan Bush soundtrack. It didn’t matter if Dux was the only person who claimed the Kumite tournament actually existed – true or not, it was a good tale to tell. In a pre-internet era, the audience lapped it up, especially with a new martial arts star in the making to root for.
Whilst it’s a low budget film (approx $2.3m) it was a hit with audiences, raking in $65m worldwide, making it Cannon Film’s most profitable hit of 1988. It was a star-making turn for Van Damme, as he got to show off his acrobatics, sex appeal as well as a sense of humour (including a cringe-worthy slapstick chase scene that looks like it was filmed over lunch). All were factors that would help him stand out from rivals like Seagal, Norris and Dudikoff.
All we need is a montage…
Like all good sports films, it’s about an underdog – a white Westerner in a foreign land, trying to honour his dying master/surrogate father. The film manages to borrow quite heavily from benchmark classic Enter The Dragon, yet at the same time, would itself prove an inspiration. The makers of the classic fighting game, Mortal Kombat, happily admitted they took a lot from the film, especially the character of Johnny Cage, a doppelganger for Van Damme complete with a signature splits punch move. The film would also go on to heavily inspire JCVD’s own directorial debut, The Quest (1996).
The film would also prove to be the template for many a JCVD film going forward like Kickboxer and AWOL (Aka Lionheart). From the extensive and intensive training montages, the presence of an eccentric trainer/mentor character or the motivation of vengeance(usually in the form of an injured/murdered male friend/brother) all being recurring themes.
Looking back, the film’s low budget roots and charisma of the main cast provide the charm. Lengthy flashbacks (so long, there are flashbacks within flashbacks) come with a heavy smear of Vaseline soft focus. Frank Dux is a hero you’re expected to root for. Yes, he may have gone AWOL (hmm there’s an idea….), on the run from the military police (including none other than Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker!) but he’s honouring his dying master and protects women from sleazy Middle Eastern men…..
Which leads me to my next point, the films dubious handling of race. From the opening montage, we see the African fighter (called Morra according to the credits) who fights like a monkey and shimmies up a tree to fetch coconuts. I’ve already mentioned, the sleazy (and badly dubbed) Middle Eastern fighter Hossein. The Hong Kong locals aren’t treated any better, from the stubborn police captain, a sleazy bookie and the janitor who steals the gold tooth – with the latter two being mainly played for laughs.
Overall, for me, this film is the purest form of a guilty pleasure. It’s cliched and badly acted but also a lot of fun with some decent fight choreography (for its time). Like your local Italian restaurant, Bloodsport is cheap, cheerful and leaves you pleasantly satisfied.
All together now, “Kumite! Kumite! Kumite!”
Alternative Title: The Mighty Dux
Coulda Woulda Shoulda – None – there’s only one JCVD!
Fun fact: Van Damme does his trademark splits a total of seven times during the film.