Vintage Van Dammage: A Look Back at Bloodsport (1988)

Matty waxes lyrical about JCVD’s classic biff-‘em-up.  

“This motion picture is based upon true events in the life of Frank W. Dux,” states the title card at the end of BLOODSPORT, before detailing an amazing list of accomplishments from a man who was once a covert government operative and the record-breaking champion of a secret martial arts knockout tournament. Allegedly, that is. Because as a May 1988 investigation conducted by the Los Angeles Times quickly revealed, author, ex-soldier, and so-called ninjutsu expert Frank Dux was, in fact, full of the brown stuff. Recent years have only cast further doubt on Dux’s claims, with publications like Black Belt Magazine and Soldier of Fortune, and Bloodsport scripter Sheldon Lettich all painting him as a deranged fantasist at worst and an attention-seeking annoyance at best. Still, as Lettich has repeatedly said, Dux’s tall-tales did make for a rip-roaring movie; as a star showcase, biff-‘em-up, and trendsetter, Bloodsport is god level.

Having learnt of Dux’s supposed achievements via the November 1980 issue of Black Belt (when the mag actually believed the guy’s nonsense), Vietnam vet turned playwright Lettich fashioned them into a screenplay which he pitched to producer Mark DiSalle. Originally broaching Lettich to write Kickboxer (1989), DiSalle was immediately taken with Bloodsport and greenlit that instead, temporarily putting Kickboxer on the backburner. Bankrolled by Cannon to the tune of anything between $1.5 and $2.2million depending on who you ask, the legendary studio initially pegged Bloodsport as a vehicle for Michael Dudikoff, who’d not long set the company’s tills a-ringing as the face of their 1985 classic, American Ninja, and with whom Cannon’s co-owner, Menahem Golan, was then majorly man-crushing on (Golan was convinced Dudikoff would be “the next James Dean”). DiSalle, however, had other ideas who to cast — specifically, a Belgian bruiser by the name of Jean-Claude Van Damme, fresh from Cory Yuen’s daft thumper, No Retreat No Surrender (1986). Despite hesitation from Cannon, DiSalle’s vouching for the martial artist-cum-rookie actor was vindicated with a dizzying demonstration of Van Damme’s skills: lore dictates that Van Damme landed a perfectly executed kick centimetres from an astonished Golan’s bonce outside an L.A. restaurant. The rest, as the old adage goes, is history. Well, kind of…

Kind of because what’s often forgotten is that, upon completion, Cannon hated Bloodsport. Haaated it. Believing Van Damme to be awful, the Go-Go boys opted to shelve the film for over a year while they figured out what to do with it. In the interim, Van Damme briefly inhabited the monster suit in an early version of John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) (prior to being recast with Kevin Peter Hall), and was snagged by Eric Karson for lumpen spy caper Black Eagle (1988) before somehow convincing Cannon to let him and their in-house editorial fixer, Michael J. Duthrie, re-cut Bloodsport and zhuzh up its plentiful scenes of bone-crunching mayhem. Amazingly, Cannon yielded and were happy enough with Van Damme and Duthrie’s tweaking to give Bloodsport a theatrical run rather than dumping it to video as they were planning.

And now the rest is history: Bloodsport went on to generate an impressive $50million at the global box office and shifted a whopping 150,000 units when it hit tape in North America alone. No wonder it (eventually) spawned a franchise and is generally labelled as the film that launched Van Damme’s career. The splits-loving hardman has even returned to Bloodsport’s tournament milieu several times since, with Kickboxer, its remake, and the remake’s sequel; Lettich’s feature length directorial debut, A.W.O.L. (1990); Van Damme’s directorial debut, The Quest (1996); and Ringo Lam’s underrated, prison-bound slugger In Hell (2003) all riffing on its framework.

Bloodsport (1988) (1)

Suffice to say, Van Damme is Bloodsport’s single greatest asset. Balletic martial arts prowess aside, he’s just got a tremendous presence about him, and retrospectively, it’s easy to see why The Muscles From Brussels would transcend his B-movie beginnings and become one of the most captivating and enduring stars in action cinema. Too frequently cited as being stilted — particularly in early work like this — really, Van Damme knows how to use his natural charisma to his advantage. It’s certainly the case with Bloodsport; from his laser-focused look of determination when brawling — a mirror of his own real-life determination to be a Hollywood star — to selling Bloodsport’s half-baked romantic subplot with little more than a boyish smirk, Van Damme’s understated style is front and centre, and it carries the film’s thinner passages (though exquisite entertainment, Bloodsport lacks the emotional complexities of Van Damme’s subsequent, increasingly more actorly turns in Kickboxer, Double Impact (1991), Timecop (1994), Replicant (2001), and Until Death (2007)). Van Damme’s performance isn’t without a sense of humour either. He’s not broad by any means, but a few moments of quiet, low-key silliness do reveal Van Damme’s flair for comedy — notably, a cheeky stop/start sprint through the streets of Hong Kong as JCVD attempts to dodge the two out of shape Criminal Investigation Command officers (Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker) assigned to arrest him.

Playing the purported Dux, Van Damme has absconded from the US army to partake in The Kumite: a clandestine, quinquennial fighting contest in which the finest combatants in the world thrash it out to see who’s the best of the best. Previously an accomplished and award-winning assistant director, serving as Sam Peckinpah and Francis Ford Coppola’s second in command on The Getaway (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), and firmly within Cannon’s ranks thanks to his second unit post on Invasion USA (1985), Bloodsport helmer Newt Arnold amplifies the mystic air that surrounds The Kumite with Paul Hertzog’s enchanting and rousing score, and his snappily paced opening stretch offers an insight into the prestige of the competition. In it, a gaggle of hungry grapplers finalise their brutal training — Dux’s hulking, loudmouthed ally, Jackson (Donald Gibbs), and the film’s big bad, Chong Li (the brilliant Bolo Yeung), among them. It’s a parade of strength and agility, but, in a move that lays the groundwork for the themes Van Damme would gravitate towards in later projects, it’s Lettich and his co-scribes Christopher Cosby and Mel Friedman’s notions of honour and valour that Arnold focuses on — a delicious irony considering Bloodsport is built from Dux’s distincinctly dishonourable porkies.

Flagrant hypocrisy notwithstanding (which, in fairness, isn’t Lettich et al’s fault: in their defence, none of Bloodsport’s writers needed to question the uber-persuasive Dux until his house of cards started tumbling), these values have been instilled into the idealised movie version of Dux by his mentor, Tanaka (Roy Chiao). In the present, Tanaka is ailing and Dux wants to enter The Kumite to honour both Tanaka and his achingly stoic sensei’s late son. An awkward, extended flashback details Dux and the Tanaka family’s relationship and veers dangerously close to parody. Yet as saccharine and as accidentally comical as it is, the flashback succeeds as a dramatic device. It vividly illustrates Dux’s discipline and commitment to martial arts; emphasises his resilience; and underlines the mutual admiration and respect that grows between Dux and Tanaka — a fella who essentially accepts him as a second son. 

Shot on location in Hong Kong and brimming with local colour, the city’s rhythm and flavour seep into Bloodsport’s grandest sequences — which are, of course, the rollicking smackdowns at The Kumite itself. The real-life Dux’s bogus accolades might be horse-pap, but, as Bloodsport’s fight choreographer, the Walter Mitty of ninpō does deserve praise for his superb staging of the film’s scuffling (interestingly, Dux would do the same on A.W.O.L.). Evidently bolstered by Van Damme and Duthrie’s tinkering, Arnold and cinematographer David Worth (who’d go on to wield the megaphone on the equally mighty Kickboxer) capture Dux’s bollock-knottingly conceived displays of different styles and techniques with unflinching vitality. Each fight is exhilarating and electrifying to watch, chiefly the scraps that involve the raw, brute force and showboating of the boorish Jackson; the elegance, precision, and jaw-dropping athleticism of Van Damme’s Mary Sue — sorry — Dux; and the terrifying, ruthless aggression of the wicked Chong Li — The Kumite’s current champ, and a vicious, ignoble thug who just wants to hurt people. 

It’s a monumental villainous portrayal from the imposing and awesome Yeung, and the very definition of iconic. Indeed, the part of Chong Li effectively led to a whole cottage industry of projects for Yeung, and the bodybuilding, former Enter the Dragon (1974) heavy pretty much earned his whey money from appearances in the wealth of straight-to-video knock-offs that Bloodsport inspired. Witness: Bloodfight (1989), Shootfighter (1993), and other dusters like Ironheart (1992) and Tiger Claws (1992) which all cashed-in on Yeung’s post-Bloodsport value in video circles (but it’d be Van Damme and Lettich who’d give him another career-definer by casting him as the terrifying, milk-eyed henchman, Moon, in the ace Double Impact (1991)). In Bloodsport, Yeung and Van Damme’s final clash is astounding. You’ve seen the memes, and their argy-bargy is ingrained in pop culture for good reason: the fight is literally one epochal martial arts vista after another. Poses, rolls, slo-mo kicks and punches, faces frozen in battle cries — Yeung and Van Damme’s exchange is a pulse-pounding rollercoaster that grips like a constrictor, and it only lets up when Van Damme manages to pulverise the bastard into submission.

Bloodsport (1988) UK Quad

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