Bloodsport (day 1 of 3)

Now I show you some trick or two.

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Ugh, darn ambiguous titles never tell me what to expect.

Bloodsport, a movie SO painfully & gloriously awash in the 80s. It was a different time: when American pop cultural masculinity turned more aspirational than representational and was thus typified mostly by impossibly glistening strongmen with indecipherable speech patterns (often foreign). Possibly because what they said mattered so much less than what they did, and what they did was… well, just about anything. Action stars in the 1980s were not just heroes but gods: invincible, noble supermen whose physical prowess defied all logic, and who could only be threatened by treachery rather than being outright defeated.

Only in such an environment could one such as Jean-Claude Van Damme thrive. Although a bad actor (to be fair, he has slowly gotten better), like his contemporary Arnold Schwarzenegger he has a strange charisma & innate watchability, even apart from his athletic abilities. And despite all the instances of choreography which favors vanity over believability (why do opponents just stand there stupidly while he does a 360-degree jumping spin kick?), Van Damme’s skills are legitimately amazing: he was a national karate and kickboxing champion before he ever set foot in Hollywood. And even to this day, he can still rock those splits like nobody’s business. God bless you, JCVD.

"You're welcome."

“You’re welcome.”

Bloodsport, from 1988, was hardly Van Damme’s first movie but it was definitely his big break and first starring role. The movie is a special kind of ridiculous because it’s the Hollywood-embellished version of a story that was almost certainly made up in the first place. That story being the wild exploits of Frank Dux, who announced to the world many years back that before he was 30 he’d already been a super soldier and super spy when he wasn’t busy being a no-shit American Ninja Warrior who won the hell out of secret tournaments that no one else has been able to verify the existence of. Don’t you feel under-accomplished now?

Anyway, Bloodsport the movie is the story of (again) Frank Dux, who goes to compete in the “Kumite,” a secret full-contact tournament featuring the best martial artists around the world. Dux competes to honor his master, a Japanese immigrant who had taken Frank under his wing many years ago. In-between competition days he also has to dodge two Army CID goons (one of whom is Forrest Whittaker) who have been sent to keep Dux from getting hurt because he’s too valuable to Uncle Sam. Yes, really.

This entry is about halfway between a usual series and a retrospective (I first attempted to make it the latter). Every fight scene takes place under nearly identical circumstances, but some are much shorter than others or are not even shown in full. With the tournament unfolding over three days, the movie divides all its action into three large chunks, and that’s how we’ll tackle them all.

But still, we’ll be covering things pretty quickly. This is a relief because not only are there a lot of fights in Bloodsport but they can also get quite bland & repetitive; there’s not much to say about a lot of them. The film was definitely made during a strange time in American martial arts history, and gets by now on a combination of nostalgia and its own corny energy. Not to mention Jean-Claude’s hypnotically swaying legs.

[Note: I’ll list the names of the fighters and actors when I can, but sometimes they’re simply not provided.]

1) Sen Ling vs Suan Paredes

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The Fighters:

  • Sen Ling, apparently some sort of karate user. Actor not listed in the credits.
  • Suan Paredes, who seems to be a kickboxer. Played by Michel Qissi, Van Damme’s longtime friend in real life who would later play the villainous Tong Po in the movie Kickboxer.

The Fight: The very first match in the Kumite, actually, so it basically serves as our intro to the proceedings. It’s…. not bad, but not really great either. Beforehand, Ling and Paredes size each other up all macho-like, and as a final “reminder” (in reality for the audience’s benefit, as the characters would already know this), Frank & his pal’s escort explains the way the tournament is played: single-elimination, no body parts off-limits, and matches only end via submission, knockout or ring-out.

The two fighters are a bit tentative at first. Suan is pretty agile and skilled with some high kicks and knees.

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A good series of blows puts Ling down, including with a slow-mo shot (the film is never shy about its slow motion) showing blood fly from his mouth, prompting Frank’s buddy to utter the kumite’s “bloodsport” nickname that gives the movie its title.

Ling rallies a bit and puts a minor hurt on Suan, but the kickboxer comes back with a strong combo that puts the Asian fellow down for good– out cold AND out of the arena.

Bloodsport’s combat scenes tend to be either fantastically ridiculous or stiffly “realistic.” This definitely falls into the latter camp. It’s technically uninspired but oddly notable for its mean, brief ugliness.

2) Ray Jackson vs [Unknown]

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The Fighters:

  • Ray Jackson, Frank’s new pal and the only other American competitor. Despite having polar opposite personalities they built and unlikely friendship, which began with bonding over a few rounds of the justly-forgotten game Arcade Champ after arriving in Hong Kong. A hulking (with an unquantifiable mixture of fat & muscle) biker with no discernible fighting style, Jackson is a cocky brawler rather than a disciplined warrior. Played by Donald Gibb, who most know as Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds.
  • An unidentified fighter, leanly muscled but nowhere near Ray’s size. Like Jackson, he wears an uncomfortably tight pair of sweat pants.

The Fight: Short but sweet. Just as the fight starts, the freshly shirtless Ray calls his opponent an “asshole” for no apparent reason. When the match begins, Mr. Random unloads a good set of blows against Ray, who just stands there and takes it. It culminates in a strong high kick to the big man’s face, making his nose bleed profusely.

Apparently a student of the “nobody makes me bleed my own blood!” school, Ray gets mildly pissed at this, and with one sudden move he seizes his foe by the hair and delivers a devastating overhead haymaker that puts the kid down instantly.

So... it's that simple, then?

So… it’s that simple, then?

Disproportionately jubilant over an easy victory, Ray pumps his arms up to make the crowd cheer louder, and takes the opportunity to publicly taunt Chong Li, the current champion, who seems amused at the prospect. After he resumes his seat, Frank teasingly asks what took him so long.

3) Chong Li vs Budinam Prang

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The Fighters:

  • Chong Li, the film’s villain and the reigning kumite champion. Obviously a celebrity within the martial arts world, Li is a consummate showman. He projects an aura of casual supremacy, and works the crowd after and even during some of his matches. But deep down he’s utterly vicious, cruel and amoral– he already killed one competitor in the last tournament, and that won’t be the last. A man of few words but amazing power, as is immediately evident in his ridonkulous physique. Played by Bolo Yeung, a veteran Hong Kong actor, contemporary of Bruce Lee’s, and former bodybuilding champion (hence the absurd pectorals).
  • Budinam Prang, a wiry & determined fighter. Given his name I’d guess he’s from Thailand. Played by Samson Li.

The Fight: In contrast to the high-strung energy he will channel later in the movie, Chong Li’s debut fight has him acting bored, almost irritated to bother with such a weakling. His cockiness is well-earned, though, because while Prang tries gamely with some spirited blows, Li simply shrugs them off and counters quickly. His second responding move leads to him putting the poor little guy into a simple hold, completely at the villain’s mercy.

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Some kind of distinctive snapping noise is heard, but all Li did was squeeze and Prang’s body doesn’t move in time with the sound effect, so it seems like a needless flourish.

Even without a snapped neck, Prang is helpless. Li milks the moment briefly with the crowd, and knocks Prang out with one brutal chop to the face. All done. The scoreboard say it’s a new record, about 14 seconds or so, but it felt longer.

It’s an odd way to build up your villain. Li certainly does shut down his opponent with little effort so we get the idea that he’s incredibly strong, but it’s done in a very limp way– there’s nothing terribly impressive about the attacks Li overcomes, or the pain he dishes out. Remember in Ong Bak when Ting took out that first chump with a single, incredibly cool knee to the chest? It’s nothing like that. Fortunately Yeung’s considerable charisma & physical presence go a long way.

4) Frank Dux vs Sadiq Hossein

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The Fighters:

  • Frank Dux, our protagonist. Odd that it’s taken so long to finally see him fight, even if we did see him endure a lengthy training montage flashback earlier. Dux is the ideal hero: quietly noble, supremely capable, effortlessly handsome; navel-gazing viewers who prefer the profoundly flawed protagonists of the 70s and the modern era will have a hard time watching Bloodsport. Frank uses a style of “ninjutsu” (i.e., very flashy karate) taught to him by his mentor, Senzo Tanaka, after Tanaka’s own son & martial arts heir died young. Played by, of course, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
  • Sadiq Hossein, a Syrian fighter of unknown discipline. He already had a hostile confrontation with Dux the night before when the hero intervened to save a plucky female reporter from Hossein’s lecherous advances. Between his misogyny, cowardice and dishonorable fighting tactics, the character doesn’t exactly push back against Arab stereotypes. Played by Bernard Mariano.

The Fight: It’s even sillier than Chong Li’s. Hossein taunts a bit but can’t walk the walk. The Syrian tries a simple punch, which Frank seizes and then smacks Hossein a few times with his free hand.

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He tries a kick and Dux does the exact same thing. Hossein goes down, and Frank holds a fist over him menacingly. Sadiq takes the hint and feigns unconsciousness as a tacit surrender in the fight. The referee declares Dux the winner, but Hossein suddenly decides he doesn’t like being chumped out, and tries to attack Frank from behind. Effortlessly, our hero blocks him, then takes him down with a couple elbow strikes. Now he’s really done. To top it all off, Dux has just barely beaten Li’s still-fresh speed record.

Just as with Chong Li, it’s an odd way to establish how good one of your leads is– in this case, putting him up against a complete chump.

5) Montage I

Ah, the beloved 80s montage. Bloodsport wisely elides over many of the intermediate matches so we can spend more time with the leads, but still lingers on enough colorfully distinctive tertiary fighters so that we remember them as they recur and eventually face off against some of the bigger names. Ironically, some of the best and most complex fighting in the film happens in these fleeting matches full of characters we never get to know. This first montage is set to the film’s signature tune, the ever-catchy “Fight To Survive” by Stan Bush, who has both the touch and the power.

There’s a sort of Blah matchup between a white guy in shiny blue pants and a nondescript kung fu dude. The most notable thing about it is how the white guy falls down to his left after being kicked on the left side of his face. Sometimes I think this movie’s choreographers missed the part of choreography school where they taught choreography.

There’s a hilarious, recurring “monkey fighter” named Ricardo Morra who we see in a training montage that opened the movie (his “training” consisted of climbing up a tree and smashing coconuts) up against a generic white karate man. He’s known by the vaguely offensive “monkey fighter” name due to his frankly ape-like fighting style: he constantly squats low to the ground and moves around very quickly in a bouncing manner. While it’s unpredictable and fun to watch, it’s not any real or practical martial art that I’m aware of; it certainly must be murder on the quads. Anyway, Morra pretty thoroughly kicks the white guy’s ass by repeatedly going for his legs, then jumping on his back while he’s down and going to work on his head.

Two Asian kung fu guys present the best traditional Hong Kong martial arts moves in the whole movie, going at each other with a fast & complex exchange. Sadly they have little personality and are given marginal screen time.

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A distinctively Muay Thai fighter (a Westerner who the boards will later identify as “Paco”) fights an acrobatic man in a karate gi. His opponent is fast but ends up getting beaten badly by the kickboxer’s deadly feet and knees.

A sumo-looking man named Pumola also makes an impressive if brief debut. Even more so than Jackson, Pumola is a thick wall of muscle and fat, and although skilled lets his size do much of the work. Here all we see him do is pull a Bane and crack some poor fool’s back over his knee. Hardcore.

We also get quick glimpses of Dux, Chong Li and Jackson cleaning up more competition. Ray’s brief inclusion is the funniest: he simply flings one poor kid right out of the arena like a television bouncer. No ticket!

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Not everything’s great, but it moves so quickly it’s a lot more fun than the stand-alone fights have been so far.

And with that, Day One is over. Again, it’s silly but not lacking in its own awkward charm. The stakes will increase both physically & emotionally soon enough, but the first day of fighting is a solid introduction to our principal characters and what kind of combat we’re in for.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Day Two!

In which we learn the deadly Wheelchair Technique

In which we learn the deadly Wheelchair Technique

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