Enter The Dragon (retrospective)

“Finally! What the hell took you so long?”

I can tell the wait has distressed you.

Enter The Dragon! One of the most famous, beloved, iconic kung fu flicks of all time. Starring Bruce Lee, the man who, via a combination of superb skill, airy philosophizing, fiery charisma and a tragically early death, did more than any one man to bring chop-socky action to the wider world.

Is it a great movie? Good grief, no. It’s strange and choppy and at many times laughable. But is it a great action movie? Well… not entirely. It’s unevenly paced and there’s little suspense, given that the majority of the fights are so uneven. Indeed, this is the failing of most Lee movies: typically, his character’s arc goes from most fights where he is in no danger whatsoever, to the final fight(s), where he is in moderate danger. This is a type of action that’s meant to be enjoyed less for the suspense or excitement, and more as simply a showcase for the godlike physicality (and absolutely magnetic personality) of its lead. The Raid, this is not.

Again, this flick is just packed with fights, many of them small or inconsequential, so we’ll look at it as a retrospective and give each battle a light touch.

1) Lee vs Fat Guy

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Still way less homoerotic than Top Gun.

Enter The Dragon certainly wastes no time getting down to business. Before the title appears and barely after the production company logos have faded, the audience is taken to an open-air duel between two men. Surrounded by Shaolin monks, the pair are for some reason dressed in nothing but speedos, shoes, knee-high socks and light boxing gloves.

The camera immediately and purposefully zooms in on Bruce Lee’s character (simply known as “Lee,” because why not), capturing his focused intensity. Of course even amongst perceived equals Bruce’s physique and persona would stand out, but here he’s faced off against a very unimpressive opponent. Visibly overweight, unimposing and never seeming particularly skilled, Lee’s unnamed foe is laughably doomed from the start. (Apparently this hapless opponent is a very young Sammo Hung, a contemporary/close friend of Jackie Chan and someone who would go on to become a Hong Kong legend both on and off the screen. All of which makes his non-entity appearance here more puzzling.)

As could be easily predicted, Lee wipes the floor with Sammo, taking him down multiple times with quick, powerful blows and skillfully evading all his counter-strikes. Hung performs a nice backflip evasion at one point (one of his career trademarks is how spry he is for such a large man), but he’s no match for the star. In the end, Lee defeats him by curling him up into a wrestling hold and making him tap out.

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“Matte!”

Again, this is all too easy for Lee. It’s also fairly cheesy, full of the HK exaggerated sound effects that defined the genre at the time. Still, there’s a loose, unpredictable energy here that distinguishes the battle from the kind of action both sides of the ocean had been used to, and that’s all due to Lee and “Jeet Kune Do”– the actor’s self-created martial art/philosophy which mandated improvisation and adaptability, rather than other rigidly traditional Chinese disciplines and their limited move sets. (Many argue that Lee essentially created what is now modern mixed martial arts.) You can even see some of JKD’s more explicit influence, such as the wrestling-like move he finishes with, and a foot-punch he pulls off early in the match.

All in all, not a bad introduction.

2) and 3) Williams and Roper

Bunching these two together for brevity’s sake. They’re our secondary protagonists. Before they even got to the villain’s island, we already saw both of them in some quick defensive bits that are too simple to feature here, but very telling as to their characters: Roper beat up some loan sharks on a golf course because he’s a reckless gambler, while Williams knocked out a couple racist cops because he’s an awesome 70s black dude who doesn’t have time for Whitey’s bullshit.

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As you can see, he doesn’t have time for this guy’s face, either.

Williams is played by the late Jim Kelly, a genuine karate champion who parlayed his role in this movie into a healthy stint as a blacksploitation star. Roper is played by John Saxon, apparently another black belt, who would later go on to be better known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Both are apparently world-class martial artists, and have been invited to Han’s secluded island tournament. After a brief demo with spear-fighting, the first match is of Williams against an unnamed western fighter. Williams blocks all the man’s blows with ease, and puts him down twice, the second time for good. Afterwards, he gets some money from Roper, the two friends having an agreement to bet on each other with other viewers and then split the winnings.

The next match, in fact, is more dragged-out gambling joke than an actual fight. The “chump” these two pals are stringing along is a goofy-looking, middle-aged Asian man who inexplicably has a Hitler mustache. In addition to being a big gambler he’s also the most oblivious person alive because he fails to miss the painfully obvious collaboration Roper & Williams are doing right in front of his freaking face.

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“Hey Williams, don’t forget to tell me when I can op-stay owing-thray the ight-fay.”

Basically, the plan is that Roper takes enough punishment to the point where their sucker agrees to tilt the odds/payout ratio heavily against Roper. I don’t really gamble so I don’t know, but this doesn’t strike me as standard betting procedure or even common sense– can you really change the odds in the middle of the contest, and if someone was offering to do that for you when it looks like they’ll lose, wouldn’t you suspect something? Anyway, Asian Hitler doesn’t, and after Roper gets battered enough, he finally goes along with Roper’s hoped-upon 8/3 odds. At a completely un-subtle hand gesture from Williams, Roper gets up and knocks his erstwhile tormentor out with one punch.

Which reminds me: I might have missed something but the rules of this tournament don’t seem really clear. You would think they have a “best of X falls” system, because when any fighter goes down, they both stop fighting and then line up against each other to start the next round. But so far the fights only end when one party is unconscious. Meanwhile, Roper hits the dirt a total of three times before he wins, so if there’s any TKO, it’s some time after three falls. Say what you will about Bloodsport, at least it established some firm rules.

Anyway, of these back-to-back sequences giving us a fuller introduction to our secondary heroes, Williams undoubtedly comes out better. Saxon is indeed enjoyable and his character has a certain lazy charm, but he pales (ahem) in comparison to Kelly’s size, power, and cool-guy attitude. Williams also gets the only thing resembling a real fight, whereas Roper’s is more of a comedy routine (which, arguably, pulls the “rake joke” trick of going so far past tiresome it actually comes back around to amusing).

4) Bolo vs Unlucky Guards

Uh oh. This guy look familiar?

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He’s hard to forget.

Yep, our old pal Bolo Yeung had an early role in Enter The Dragon. Like Bruce, his character has one name but it’s actually not the same as his real name. Yeung was born Yang Sze and is credited that way in this movie; in a strange case of life imitating art, enough people started giving him the nickname “Bolo” because it’s the name of his character in this movie, and eventually it stuck.

Whatever his name is, young Bolo (see what I did there) is just as enormous and creepy as he would later be in Bloodsport, though so smooth-skinned and young-looking he seems almost boyish, like an embryonic Chong Li. But there’s nothing boyish about his hulking physique and the occasionally manic grimaces we’ve come to expect from before, though his rictus grins are more like a rough draft of what we’d eventually see in the Van Damme film.

Anyway, Bolo is introduced in this scene to dispense some very public punishment to four hapless guards who failed to stop an unidentified post-curfew prowler the previous evening (the culprit was Lee, skulking about doing recon, who knocked out or evaded all guards before they could identify him). Han shows he means business by having Bolo basically execute these chumps in front of the tournament crowd.

And an execution is definitely what it is. One at a time, Bolo calmly approaches and dismantles the terrified, smaller men. They try to fight back but their blows are either quickly blocked or calmly absorbed by the quiet killing machine. Bolo tosses one man casually over his head as if he were a rag doll (showing off that crazy strength) and then steps on his face, apparently fatally. After knocking the second opponent face-down to the ground, Bolo pulls back hard on his head from behind until his neck snaps from the pressure. Conspicuously, the third doesn’t seem to receive any killing blow, just a very painful-looking knee to the nuts.

But the final victim gets it worst of all: after being knocked around by the giant villain, he’s cradled in Bolo’s mighty arms almost like a child, and Bolo pushes him together until his spine breaks– he literally folds the man in half. Holy shit.

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Is… is this even possible? Holy shit.

Not very exciting, of course; just a nice bit of focused cruelty. Even young, rookie Bolo Yeung is plenty entertaining, even if his move set isn’t much more complicated than what we saw in the rather simplistic Bloodsport fights. But this is all a lot less stiff.

5) Lee vs O’Hara

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Finally, Lee shows up to work his mojo. (It only took, what? A little over an hour?) His designated opponent is one of Han’s top men, O’Hara, played by martial artist and veteran actor/stunt coordinator Robert Wall. The fight is a personal one for Lee, since it was O’Hara’s pursuit of Lee’s sister (who had been investigating Han) which ended with her killing herself to avoid capture. He got that ugly scar in the same encounter.

Lee simply gives one of his trademark smoldering glares, but his opponent opts for a more ostentatious approach, smashing a wooden board he’d brought along just for show. Lee is not impressed, uttering his famous “boards don’t fight back,” maxim. They line up, wrist to wrist, for the opening blow, and Lee scores it immediately, his fist striking out with blinding speed and intensity to hit O’Hara in the face and send him to his knees. Then he does the exact same thing again. The third time, his foe is able to block a bit, but Lee still gets him on the follow-up. (Again, any kind of “points” system in these matches and what indicates when they will take breaks from the fight to line up again is quite opaque.)

Eventually, O’Hara gets unhinged and desperate. He tries to grab Lee’s foot from the ground, which only earns him a backflipping kick in the face. When he tries to charge in with a powerful jumping kick, Lee simply ducks underneath him and puts his foot right where O’Hara’s nuts will land.

owowowowowowowowowow...

owowowowowowowowowow….

Rather improbably for a man whose genitals just had an unfortunate encounter with Bruce Lee and gravity, O’Hara can still continues to fight, though he only gets sloppier. Lee, however, only gets more worked up: at the beginning of the fight, he only moved to attack, but soon enough he’s bouncing around energetically, bobbing & weaving in the combat space.

Lee repeatedly puts O’Hara down with strong, single strikes, to the point where the audience even stops applauding since it’s not even a contest anymore. Lee puts O’Hara down harder with a strong kick to the chest he executes from very close, sending him into the audience.

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Ooooooh that’s a lot of straightening for his leg to do.

It certainly seems like a finishing move– it’s even in slow motion and everything– but O’Hara can’t seem to get enough. Over Han’s objections, he breaks two random glass bottles nearby him and tries to take Lee out, barfight style. Lee doesn’t exactly say “wow, seriously?” but it’s implied. He easily disarms O’Hara and knocks him on his back. He ensures it’s the last time when he leaps onto the man’s (not shown on camera) body with a look of deranged intensity.

Some sort of doctor confirms it afterward: he’s dead, Jim.

This is an improvement from a lot of what we’ve seen before, but still not too great. For all his stature and build-up as the villain’s right-hand man, O’Hara is reduced to a stumbling ox for Lee’s swift, flawless strikes– basically a walking punching bag. Bruce is, as ever, fantastic and graceful in his almost-too-quick-to-see attacks, but this barely seems like a workout for him.

6) Williams vs Han

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Having been shamed by O’Hara’s disgraceful behavior, Han cancels the rest of the day’s matches, and calls Williams in to his office for a private meeting. Han, played by longtime Hong Kong star Shih Kien (and whose voice was dubbed by Keye Luke), is a major criminal mastermind and drug trafficker. He holds these tournaments every three years as a covert way to find new talent and connections for his organization. He’s pretty much a straight-up supervillain, “right out of a comic book,” as Williams himself says in this scene. Dude even has a white pet cat he carries around sometimes.

He tries to get Williams to play ball by asking him who he saw snooping around last night, but Williams doesn’t have time for that jive crap. The confrontation turns ugly and Han calls in several guards, who the hero of course defeats easily.

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Once Williams has awesomely dispatched those punks, Han springs into action personally. The American is immediately caught off-guard when his opening strike gets blocked by what turns out to be a heavy iron prosthetic replacing his left hand. Besides that, Han turns out to be a surprisingly agile and canny fighter in his own right, dodging most of Williams’ attacks and making excellent use of his handy (heh) advantage.

There’s some nice camera work here, such as alternating POV shots as the two trade blows, and a brief view of both characters’ silhouettes as they battle behind a paper screen. And a fun bit of background detail: after a stray blow from Han’s hand breaks open a bird cage, the occupants of which fly around the room and at one point into Williams’ face.

The fight spills through the wall into some kind of disco-themed opium den, where several slave girls baked out of their minds laugh uproariously at everything they see.

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“Talk to the hand!”

An ignoble place to die, and too bad because the fight’s pretty much over for Williams at that point. Increasingly tired and beat up, he admirably continues to rise and gamely fight back, but Han is able to take him down for good with repeated iron blows to his back. Brutal.

This marks the unfortunately too early departure of Williams from the film, leaving us with the less interesting Roper as the sole secondary protagonist (and we all know why). But at least he goes down fighting, and in a scene which proves that the movie isn’t afraid to kill the guy you like halfway through. Not a bad fight, either, especially in the beginning. So long, Jim.

7) Lee vs Everybody

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This is the big one, the centerpiece. The legendary sequence. It was even the centerpiece of this movie’s parody in Kentucky Fried Movie.

But here’s the thing: it’s… not very good. It’s not even the best fight in this movie.

“Dude, what are you talking about?” I inevitably hear when I say this. “It’s awesome! That’s the scene where Bruce Lee fights like 50 guys!” Well, that’s true in only the most technical sense. It’s more accurate to say it’s the scene where about 50 guys run right into Bruce Lee’s fists & legs one or two at a time, and stay down after they’re hit once. Less exciting, but more accurate.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Not once does Lee ever seem like he’s in danger here, not just because the individual guards he attacks (setup: after he Metal Gear Solids his way into Han’s underground lair to find evidence and send a message to his MI6 handlers, someone sets off an alarm and Lee has to fight his way out) pose no threat to him whatsoever, but also because there’s barely any sense of scale to the conflict. Only once toward the very end is there an angle showing a large crowd of thugs at one time; otherwise, both because of poor camera-blocking and because Lee encounters the bad guys in waves, you really have no idea how many foes he’s facing at one time. On several occasions, the camera keeps so tightly on Lee you don’t know there’s anyone else in the room at all until one of the hero’s limbs lances out and strikes someone.

The poor execution mutes the concept of what it should be… and again, Bruce Lee is so perfectly invincible in the world of this movie it probably wouldn’t have been thrilling even if it had been shot better. Look at more recent scenes like the dojo encounter in Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon or the famous hammer hallway rumble in Oldboy if you want to see this sort of scenario done right.

As ever, the entertainment value is just in watching Lee’s dazzling speed and power. He strikes with sudden wild ferocity of a coiled snake (incidentally, Lee did use a poisonous cobra as an improvised stealth tool just prior to this scene), taking down each thug with ease. Eventually they start coming in with weapons, but he simply disarms them and uses them himself.

"Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!"

“Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!”

First a bo staff, then two smaller sticks, and finally Lee’s signature nunchaku. Curiously, he spends more time twirling those around to scare a bad guy than he does actually using them to take down opponents. Considering his remarks about O’Hara’s board-related antics, Bruce is oddly hypocritical when it comes to showing off.

The only other bit of interesting incident is when the fight wanders down to where Han’s prisoners/experimental subjects are being held behind bars. They provide Lee with some help by seizing guards who get too close to their cells, but it’s not like he needed it.

The fight ends when Lee is trapped between several slamming steel doors. Lee sits down resignedly to await his fate.

"I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml"

“I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml”

You always have to wonder about what guys through the minds of henchmen in movies like this: “Hmm, I just saw this unbeatable superman mow through 30 of my colleagues, should I rush in at him too? Sure! One of us HAS to get lucky and it might as well be me!”

8) Roper vs Bolo

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After Han captures Lee, he brings him to the tournament grounds, and demands that Roper– who he’d been courting as an employee– execute him. After some hesitation, the cocky American decides there are limits to his sleaziness, and he refuses. Incensed, Han has Bolo fight Roper, instead.

As the hulking fighter approaches, Lee moves as if to help, but Roper gestures him away, preferring to handle this himself. Pretty gutsy, if not suicidally so.

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“You sure about this? I mean, you can see it’s Bolo Yeung, right?”

Their fight is the most entertaining one so far. They have a very solid back & forth, especially at the beginning. But soon Bolo’s strength advantage puts Roper on the ground, and Bolo pins him in an arm lock. Roper resists but he’s held quite tightly, and it looks like only a matter of time before his arm breaks. However, the plucky gambler takes the unusual step of biting Bolo’s leg, which lies conveniently near his mouth. Considering how much pain it puts Bolo in, and how he’s limping a bit after he finally lets go, Roper might actually have chewed some flesh right off.

But an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT

but an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT HA HA

When they both get back up, Roper presses his advantage, but Bolo still comes back strong, at one point throwing him down with an overhead press. Eventually, Roper is able to wear him down with repeated, rapid strikes to the face, and finishes him with a deadly combo ending with a kick to the nuts. Down goes Bolo. Freddy Krueger will avenge him.

This one’s a lot more fun. It’s fairly quick but neither is it too drawn out, and is relatively varied in terms of content. Saxon acquits himself well and all kidding aside, between his performance and the choreography you can actually buy him being able to defeat this massive warrior. Indeed, for most of the fight it seems like either of them really could win at any second– a crucial ingredient in crafting a suspenseful battle.

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the big hulking kung fu fighter who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the quiet villain who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

Bolo’s boss, obviously, is furious about the outcome, so this segues directly into….

9) Free For All

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Han starts barking out orders and having several students attack Lee and Roper at once. This goes about as well as you’d expect, but Han just keep sending in new ones. Hilariously, he keeps picking out random students by name, when it would be quicker and more likely to succeed if he simply said, “Everyone, attack those two!”

Since the heroes are effortlessly mowing down these goons left & right, this is conceptually similar to the underwhelming sequence of Lee in the dungeons, but it actually works a lot better. The camera pulls back enough so that we get a real sense of the number of enemies the heroes are facing, the takedowns are a bit more complex than just one or two blows, and the whole thing is faster, looser, more fun.

Unfortunately Lee & Roper merely fight as discrete units rather than actively cooperating, though they get the job done just the same. The sheer amount of foes might have overwhelmed the pair eventually, but we’ll never know because early into the encounter, a British mole within Han’s organization springs all the prisoners and sends them to even the odds. Now it’s total chaos.

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A MAAAAAAADHOUSE

The film takes a little bit of time, but not too much, to savor in this free-form carnage. We see Lee & Roper continue to stomp away, but director Robert Clouse also takes the time to highlight a few other moments of combat amongst faceless fighters of either side. It’s pretty darn cool.

Eventually, Han decides it’s time to join in on the action, and he gets his bear claw. Not the pastry, an actual bear claw. His iron hand is detachable and can be replaced with several other alternates, one of which is a bear claw with fur and everything. He and Lee eye each other amid the chaos.

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Bruce Lee making this face at you is a more surefire guarantee of your death than seeing the Grim Reaper with a rocket launcher.

10) Lee vs Han

Wasting little time, the two have a great battle outside for a little while, with Han’s uncanny agility actually giving Lee some trouble at first. After the villain takes a fall and loses his bear claw when a missed swing embeds it in a wooden board, Han hightails it out of there while Lee is briefly distracted by a random goon.

He flees back up to his office, where Lee quickly catches up to him just as he’s attaching an even more deadly claw: an all-metal one with four knife blades. Lee is unfazed by the Wolverine-wannabe and coldly informs him “You have offended my family, and you have offended a Shaolin temple.” SICK BURN. The melee continues outside unabated but no one else has followed them to this odd little office/trophy room. Now it’s just Lee against Han, solo.

Lee mostly sticks to long-range attacks here and doesn’t follow up most of his successful strikes, in order to stay away from the claw. Still, Han gets in a few slashes on his face and torso, though they’re mostly just on the surface and Lee is clearly the superior. He’s able to pull off this classy move where he doubles Han over, puts him in a headlock, and delivers a scorpion kick to his head. It’s almost as painful as it is insulting.

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He also gives Han a close-up view of his butt. Rude.

Even crazier, Lee executes this wild double-trip thing where he slides his whole body in to attack one of Han’s legs, then, while Han is off-balance, Lee pivots his whole body and kicks Han’s other leg from the other side. It’s completely bonkers and I love it.

Knowing he’s losing, a dazed Han seizes a spear from a nearby statue, but it’s of little use and only ends up embedded in a nearby wall. Said wall turns out to be a revolving door– a hidden entrance to Lee’s private hall of mirrors where their showdown finally ends.

This is the other iconic part of the movie and it’s just so weird. Why does Han even have this place– did he have it built for just such an occasion? If so, that’s amazing. Also, I don’t think I’ve even been to a normal, non-supervillainous, funhouse hall of mirrors– are they as disorienting as the movie makes them seem?

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Yeah, that’s definitely a stuntman as Han and not Shih Kien.

It certainly is plenty disorienting to Lee, almost cartoonishly so. He advances cautiously everywhere he goes, not knowing which Han he’s seeing is real and which is the reflection. The hero’s confusion defies believability at a few points, because he does manage to stumble into the villain a few times and nail him, but then somehow can’t find him again a mere second later. Is Han disappearing into the mirrors somehow, like by magic or something? It almost seems that way.

Also triggering your “come ON!” alarm is the point where Han is able to sneak right up behind Lee and rather than deliver a killing stroke– he really does have him dead to rights– instead opts for a light slash on the back of his shoulder. Maybe next time aim for an artery, dumbass.

As with the big underground brawl, this is a great concept but somewhat underwhelming in execution, not to mention repetitive and overlong. There are only so many times you can watch a dozen refracted images of Lee sidling forward an inch at a time while a dozen refracted Hans sneak up behind him.

The whole thing comes to an end when Lee remembers his master’s advice about an enemy using “illusions” to win battle (a piece of wisdom that seems suspiciously apt for the bizarre uniqueness of this encounter), and he smashes every mirror he can reach. This allows Lee to easily find the Freddy-wannabe and kick him hard enough to impale him on the spear he’d left sticking through the wall.

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Schwarzenegger would have found a great way to make a “seven years’ bad luck” pun here.

Bye bye, Han.

In the end, though Enter The Dragon is highly flawed and disappointing, it’s hard to hold that against it. Since the film was such a breakthrough in so many ways (not the least of which was it being the first Hollywood production of an authentically Chinese martial arts film, a clash which accounts for much of its awkward sensibility), it pioneered a lot of what was to come. Earlier I compared the dungeon fight unfavorably to similar battles in more recent films, but without the success of Enter The Dragon and Bruce Lee’s legacy, it’s doubtful the scale of action would be where it is today. It’s the perfect example of a movie that needs to be seen primarily within the context of its time, and, in what’s recurring lesson here at this site, proof that movies are more than the sum of their parts.

There were no grades given for the ten fights in the movie; it seemed unnecessary. But the top three worth truly singling out are, in order: the final Lee/Han duel, Roper vs Bolo, and the wild brawl which happens between the two. Strangely those happen to be the last three fights to happen– a rare treat for such a succession of excellent bits to happen one after the other. Wataa!

Coming Attractions: It’s time to go back.

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Bloodsport (day 1 of 3)

Now I show you some trick or two.

Bloodsport-Logo_2024x1012_17572633

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