’80s revisited: bloodsport (1988)

Opinion by Tony Frame. Warning – contains spoilers.

Bloodsport (1988) is one of my comfort movies. It made an impression on me, in my teens, when I saw it in 1990 on VHS where it subsequently paved the way for Jean Claude Van Damme being one of my first role models.

I loved martial arts movies and Van Damme’s films always had good production values compared to the others of the genre in the ’80s.

The story of Bloodsport follows Frank Dux, a military operative who goes AWOL to honour his Shidoshi by fighting in the Kumite – a full-contact martial arts tournament that is held in Hong Kong every 5 years.

Images courtesy of IMDB

The film claims that is based on a true story and back then I believed that. Factually, Frank Dux is a martial artist who established his own school of ninjutsu called Dux Ryu Ninjutsu (circa 1988). He did indeed serve in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1975 to 1981 – that much is true.

However, his story surrounding the events portrayed in Bloodsport and the real life kumite have been dismissed over the years due to the lack of credible evidence.

Not only is there no evidence that he even won the tournament, there is no conclusive proof that such an event even existed as it was allegedly held in secret by the Triads – the Chinese mafia.

In the movie, Bolo Yeung plays Chong Li; the film’s bad guy – a monster of a Korean who has never been defeated in the Kumite and who has already killed previous opponents in the ring.

There is a small love story for Van Damme with co-star Leah Ayres, who plays an undercover reporter, and there’s a nice friendship added into the mix with Donald Gibb playing the loud-mouthed, beer-swilling, Harley Davidson brawler that is Jackson.

Images courtesy of IMDB

There’s also good support and humour from Forest Whitaker and veteran actor Norman Burton, playing the military personnel trying to apprehend Dux from partaking in the Kumite, although it is never fully explained why they, and the military, have such a special interest in keeping him out of the tournament.

On researching this it appears that Frank Dux claims he was a CIA operative and this is the reason for the military’s diligence in the movie. Being that he is a super-spy of sorts, they’d hate to see him get badly injured in the Kumite, thus endangering his espionage capabilities in the field.

The CIA denies this, quashing Dux’s credibility once again, but even if it were true, they would deny it by default as it would technically be classified information anyway.

Ultimately, it seems Frank Dux’s story and the events surrounding Bloodsport and his exploits are somewhat stuck in a paradox of being true and untrue at the same time.

Either way it adds an element of mystique to him and the movie and it’s probably one of the reasons Bloodsport is somewhat of a cult movie.

The film has got all the ingredients needed for a classic martial arts movie; revenge and honour as well as a love story, but most importantly – a great bad guy.

Bolo Yeung’s ominous presence as the formidable Chong Li really does amplify the danger that the fighters face in the kumite, especially when they come up against him.

Images courtesy of IMDB

Yeung’s role in Bloodsport focuses on all his strengths as a seasoned martial artist and avoids the biggest mistake that a lot of martial arts movies in the ’70s and ’80s made when casting professional fighters in motion pictures – their inability to act. Or to be more precise; to act effectively and convincingly enough for the role they were cast in.

By the time Bloodsport came his way, Bolo Yeung had already been in over 60 movies and was an established actor and martial artist in his own right.

Even with that in mind, director Newt Arnold and writer Sheldon Lettich made a pivotal decision in writing and casting the part of Chong Li by giving his character very few lines of dialogue. This not only benefits Yeung’s on-screen persona, it avoids showing up the lack of range he would have had if the part was bigger.

It also makes the character of Chong Li almost superhuman and plays to Yeung’s strengths, much like the role Schwarzenegger had in The Terminator (1984) where he only had a few lines of dialogue.

The great thing that Yeung gives to the role of Chong Li outwith his fighting abilities are his facial expressions in the ring – they really add to his performance, especially when he finishes off one of his opponents and he shakes his head wide-eyed, like a craziness is revelling within his psyche, taking pleasure in the pain he has just inflicted upon his opponent.

Bolo Yeung as Chong Li

One of Yeung’s earliest roles was as one of the lead henchman in Enter the Dragon (1973), starring opposite the great Bruce Lee.

Yeung would later go on to play opposite Van Damme once again in the high-octane thriller Double Impact (1991), in which the muscles from Brussels gave audiences two Van Damme’s for the price of one, by playing twins separated at birth, on a quest to avenge their murdered parents.

The fight scenes in Bloodsport are very well choreographed, even for today’s standards, and there’s plenty of blood and broken bones and a multitude of different fighting styles which keeps the fights entertaining throughout.

There’s also a few iconic moments from Van Damme and Yeung which are amplified with the use of slow-motion photography. One scene in particular is when Van Damme uses his chi energy on a sumo wrestler with a strike to his solar plexus, thus winding him to the point of almost disabling him completely.

Using chi energy

When his opponent comes at him one more time and attempts a bear hug on Van Damme that’s when the muscles from Brussels does one of his signature trademark moves – he does the splits and executes a devastating punch to the wrestler’s groin which stops him dead in his tracks and leaves every male viewer squirming in their seats.

The end fight scene is no let down either and sits up there with the best in martial arts movie history as Van Damme goes through a repertoire of punches and kicks, including his trademark – and iconic – helicopter kick.

Bloodsport is a film in which the main strengths still stand the test of time, despite the other flaws within the movie, like the kid playing the young Frank Dux who is badly dubbed and displays none of the fighting skill or acting ability that his older self has.

And the peril of Dux being apprehended by the military for going AWOL never feels serious enough until the latter part of the movie.

Those shortcomings aside, Newt Arnold does an excellent job in directing, especially in the fight scenes which are aided with excellent cinematography and the use of slow-motion photography.

And then there’s the atmospheric score composed by Paul Herzog which adds some gravitas to the training sequence, as well as the fights in the kumite themselves.

When Bloodsport was released it made a star of Van Damme overnight, grossing $50 million worldwide on a measly budget of $2.3 million.

It helped a dwindling Canon Films add a win to their catalogue, after a series of failed movies, and it also brought about the resurgence of the martial arts movie craze once again, although for a shorter period of time than it did in the ’70s.

Van Damme would go on to make more hit movies up to the mid-nineties and teamed up with Bloodsport’s writer Sheldon Lettich who would take on directing duties with two more Van Damme vehicles: A.W.O.L (1990) and Double Impact (1991), both of which were box-office hits.

What elevated re-watching Bloodsport for me – especially with the fight scenes – was that I watched it on the projector. It is as close as one will get to the same experience as the people who saw it in the cinema in ’87 did.

If you’re into martial arts and are looking for a film that isn’t too cerebral and has some of the best fight scenes ever to grace the silver screen then give it a shot, you may just be surprised at how well it holds up for a film that was made over thirty years ago.

Director: Newt Arnold

Writers: Sheldon Lettich (story), Sheldon Lettich (screenplay) | 2 more credits »

Stars: Jean-Claude Van DammeDonald GibbLeah Ayres | See full cast & crew »

Some facts about Bloodsport

1) Jean Claude Van Damme was working on Kickboxer (1989) when he got a call to be told that the first edit of Bloodsport was terrible. He then immediately flew back to America, from Thailand, to help finish re-edit the film.

He was shown how to use the edit suite by the film’s editor Carl Kress, son of legendary film editor Harold F. Kress, both of whom worked on editing The Towering Inferno (1974).

2) Whilst his movie persona is that of a bad-ass villain in most of the films he is in, Bolo Yeung is actually a gentle giant in real life. He even spent time with his son on the set of Bloodsport.

3) Frank Dux later sued Van Damme over a dispute about story rights to The Quest (1996) which Van Damme wrote and directed. Dux lost the court case.

4) The dim mak (death touch) is a real move in martial arts but is quite unlike what is shown in the film.

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