Based on true events in the life of martial arts champion Frank Dux, Newt Arnold’s 1988 action classic BLOODSPORT marked the breakout debut of Belgian actor Jean Claude Van Damme. It was apparent from the beginning that the kid from Brussels possessed a special charisma and style that made him perfect for these kinds of roles. He had previously played a small part as “Ivan The Russian” in the low budget No Retreat, No Surrender, and stood out even in that but his work in Bloodsport was what really made him an overnight sensation.
We are first introduced to Capt. Frank Dux (Van Damme), a military officer as he is training and getting ready to travel to Hong Kong for a secret underground fighting tournament known as The Kumite. Dux’s superiors refuse to let him leave but showing his rebellious side he escapes from their armed guard and takes off for the Orient. Before he leaves, he visits his ailing Shidoshi (master), Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao) and his wife. We learn from a series of flashbacks, just how Frank first met the Tanakas. In his teens, Frank and his friends tried to steal an ancient samurai sword from their home but Frank was caught and his parents were notified. Intrigued by the mysticism of the sacred sword and the art of Ninjitsu (which Tanaka taught his young son Shino) Frank decided to become a student himself. Tragically, Shino died in his teens, so Frank became like a surrogate son to Tanaka. Through his fierce determination, even against Tanaka’s wishes, Frank forced Tanaka to teach him the ways of Ninjitsu and over time became a master himself. Years later his competing in The Kumite is Frank’s ultimate homage to his wise old master and friend, and he wants to win using the traditional skills he’s learned.
When Frank arrives in Hong Kong he runs into a loudmouthed, burly beer drinking guy named Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) who actually turns out to be a fellow competitor in The Kumite. The two hit it off and become pals as they play each other in an arcade video game. Frank and Jackson later meet their contact/guide for the tournament, a hilarious, fast talking man named Victor Lin (Ken Siu) who takes them around the city. They finally end up at The Kumite’s guarded entrance (“OK USA!”) and are then led through an underground tunnel deep beneath Hong Kong’s seedy block tenements to the secret location.
While out on the town, Dux meets a pretty young reporter Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) who he rescues from a fellow contestant in the Kumite who tries to pick her up. This sequence is really comical as Dux bets the goon that he can grab a coin from his hand using his super fast eye-hand coordination. Luckily for Janice, Frank wins but she uses this as an opportunity to try to get him to talk about the tournament. Frank, being an honorable martial artist, refuses to give up any info, knowing its long legacy must be guarded. He does however take her out to dinner and sleeps with her, so it all works out for him.
Frank discovers the reigning champion of The Kumite is Chong Li (Bolo Yeung) a villainous thug who lives to break his opponents like so many chopsticks. When Frank must prove his talents to the Kumite judges by performing the secret Dim-Mok technique (which allows him to break bricks with his hand) Chong Li looks on and sarcastically replies: “Very good, but brick no hit back.” This comical response is actually a homage to a line Bruce Lee used in Enter The Dragon which Yeung co-starred in.
The tournament sequences in Bloodsport are equally action packed, intense and humourous and we get to see a myriad of international fighters do their thing, from traditional Chinese martial artists to bizarre African tribalmen that do monkey style techniques to Thai kickboxers. There seems to be no specific rules in the matches except to beat your opponents to bloody pulp. As long as they’re down for the count, it’s all good. Meanwhile, Chong Li seems unimpressed and bored by the guys who step up to battle him, the only time he seems alive is when he breaks their neck or stomps them into the canvas.
After Jackson takes on Chong Li using his highly developed “beer brawl-fu” and is nearly killed (because he wasn’t paying attention) the rivalry between Dux and Chong Li takes on an element of revenge and the stakes are raised even higher. Dux must also contend with two bumbling federal agents (played by Forrest Whitaker and Norman Burton) hired by the U.S. Military to bring him back at any cost which makes things more complicated for him. They add a dash of Keystone Cops humor to the movie as they constantly chase Dux around Hong Kong but are constantly thwarted by his defenses.
Jean Claude Van Damme is a true dynamo as Frank Dux and this was the perfect film to showcase his trademark helicopter kicks as well as his famous leg splits (ouch!). After the film was released he soon became a superstar following in the tradition of Bruce Lee. You could tell by watching his own onscreen persona that he was inspired by him.
In 2012, Bloodsport might be looked at by serious film scholars as “just an action yarn from the 1980s” but it’s also one that stands the test of time as an entertaining cinema experience that you can view over and over again, which is actually an important aspect if you love movies. Sure, it may have been a lower budget picture from Cannon Films but there’s no doubt it hit all the right notes with its humor, action, drama and heart and remains a treasure of its genre.