RETRO REVIEW: BLOODSPORT (1988)
*Originally written and published in 2004 on multiple sites.
Join me as I travel back to 1988 to look at Jean-Claude Van Damme's cinematic masterpiece: BLOODSPORT! Academy Award nominee in the category of throwin' wheel kicks in slow motion, baby! It's Frank Dux's real-life story of competing in the Kumite! The only tournament, where after surviving death and grievous injury, one man earns a sword and a plane ticket back to obscurity!
STARRING: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung.
RATED: R; For Violence, Nudity, Mullets.
It is the year of our lord, 1988. A truly glorious time. A time where sunglasses were the size of solar panels and t-shirts changed magical colors! A time where all the best parties were in the back, whilst business was always on top. A time where you could wear a muscle shirt (despite having no muscles), a fanny pack and the biggest fucking pair of zebra-striped Zubaz pants you've ever seen in your life, and still not get punched right in the face for being a complete douchebag. It was truly a great time to look ridiculous. No one would dare tell US that our red faux-leather jackets with 60 zippered pockets were not as tremendously cool as we thought they were-- because we were clueless. I mean, we wore pink shirts with Alligators over the big floppy pockets for fuck's sake. What did we really know? Not much, it turns out. For we were sheltered from the harsh realities that were yet to come. Those harsh realities? Well, we all looked like shit for one. That was a given. And despite President Reagan's bold claims on economic reform, the only thing to "trickle down" into mystylin' acid-wash-laden pockets were big balls of hypercolor lint. However, there were other revelations to come, with ramifications so deep that they were like a really witty parable of something being really deep that I can't think of. And they shook my generation to its very neon-jammer wearing cores. It was a scene, man.
For example; as it turns out--get this-- Milli Vanilli--the same two guys who couldn't speak a lick of English without sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger with severe mental retardation--yet, could sing in flawless melodic English accents-- were actually FRAUDS and sang NOTHING. It's true. And despite their unintelligible thick German cries, on this day, the Rain could NOT be Blamed this time.
It was shocking. Almost as shocking as discovering that milky-white rap-meister Vanilla Ice actually had no discernible talent whatsoever. SAY IT AIN'T SO. It was a crushing blow surely for those of us fledgling mullet-heads convinced that he was in fact the "real deal"... and dreamt of a day in which people would utter the name "Ice" with the same clout, reverence and respect as "Sinatra", "Elvis" and "Maestro Fresh Wes".
Not to be.
Heartbreak was all around us, friends. Heroes were falling like dominoes, and not even their omnipresent parachute pants could save them. As the 90's began, it was now a world of mistrust and cynicism. A world where once proud sex symbols like George Michael were soliciting blowjobs at roadside homosexual rest-stops, as people questioned just how a man with a feathered 'do, eye make-up and oft-exposed billowing chest hair could actually turn out to be GAY. You know, before they went back to eating their pureed food for their own safety. It was truly the end of the innocence. The last can of Tab was opened like the proverbial Pandora's Box and nothing but anguish and women's blouses with shoulder pads so huge they'd even bowl over Chicago Bear Superbowl standout Refrigerator Perry spilled out. A new decade was indeed at hand. The party in the back was indeed cut short. Given way to a new age of yellow peroxide-bleached hair, ridiculous doctor scrubs pants and a completely jaded disposition. Who could have possibly seen this all coming, I asked? Everyone on Earth except me? Perhaps.
However, besides frauds, phonies, secret homosexuals, and high fashion that is only kept alive today by clueless Pro Wrestlers, the 1980's were at least a proud a staple of one more phenomenon that has yet to see a full resurgence: THE ACTION MOVIE. Or more importantly, the Martial Arts Action Movie. And leading the charge in 1988 was Jean-Claude Van Damme. The man who single-handedly taught a world of movie goers that in order to truly master your craft, you needed only two things: the ability to nonsensically do the splits and elevate your testicles perpendicular to the ground; and an adversary willing to stand completely still whilst you deliver a completely telegraphed spinning kick in slow motion, set to music. That's it. It's really that easy. Trust me.
This finally takes us to perhaps Van Damme's most well known film: BLOODSPORT. The alleged true story of Frank Dux; the first westerner to win the "Kumite" mixed-martial arts tournament. An honor that got you...something? I don't know. They built this whole fucking thing up, and then all Van Damme got was a lousy sword. Ya, that was definitely worth the in-tournament deaths and broken necks. Shoot for the stars, guys. You could have totally hit up a pawn shop, saved the crippling of loved ones, and been back stateside, blemish free, to honor your shidoshi.
Now, Bloodsport is remembered as a classic...by me...and maybe only me; and well, upon 2nd viewing 20 years later, I'm starting to think my mother secretly embedded my breakfast cereal with chips of lead paint. I don't know what I was thinking. Not much, if my crooked 12 year old haircut was any indication.
Now, as for the movie itself. It's simple. Bloodsport is just your basic grown man with a small child's haircut who speaks with a thick Belgian accent despite living 95% of his life in America, honoring his Shidoshi's dead son by pretending to be Japanese and learning to do the splits and serve tea blindfolded, and then using his blind butler skills to win a tournament by ultimately kicking a giant Chinese dude with a mullet in slow motion for apparently no reward whatsoever. You know, that same old story.
Now, I could give you the straight movie blow-by-blow, but holy shit that'd be tedious. It'd read like "then Dux kicked this guy with black pants. Then he kicked this Arab guy named Paco (His Iraqi cousins "Jorge" and "Ricardo" must have not been available). Then he kicked a fat Japanese guy with a porn mustache. Then he kicked a bunch of other guys! Then he got blinded by a guy. Then he kicked that guy, too. And then he went home." So, ya, I think I'll just give you the quick and dirty version.
The story starts off with young Frank Dux and friends breaking into a Japanese house. (and there's definitely a lot of bamboo/paper houses in southern California! Ahem). The trio grab a sword from a stand, then they flee, leaving Dux holding the sword and the proverbial bag. This brings in the owner of the house, Master Tanaka, and his young son, who proceeds to kick the shit out of Dux, despite his claims of innocence and not even trying to run or fight. Ya, lot of honor young Tanaka has there. I THINK ONE DAY I WILL HONOR HIM BY RISKING MY LIFE. Eventually, Tanaka agrees to train Dux, but basically uses him as a punching bag for own son. That is, until Dux saves young Tanaka from bullies at school. Which of course draws the question of how could Dux gets his ass kicked so severely by this diminutive Oriental boy every day, then suddenly have the moxie to run off the bullies that were in turn beating on the same kid who so regularly hands him his own ass? Ya.
We next fast forward to Dux's adulthood where he visits Master Tanaka. It turns out Tanaka's son is dead. They don't say how. I hope it's AIDS. I don't even know why. This turn of events saddens Master Tanaka, as his hope to force his small son to compete in a death tournament for no monetary reward has now been quashed.
OR HAS IT.
Because, Dux volunteers to take his place! Tanaka is immediately disgusted, spewing the same visceral anger that the Korean grocery clerk does in your local Bodega when you try and read the magazines in the display. "You're not even Japanese!" Tanaka cries, to which Van Damme answers "It's Ok; I can't act for shit either, but that didn't stop people from casting me for 20 years! It'll all work out! Trust me!" I might be paraphrasing here. Soon, Tanaka warms to the idea, after Dux says he wants to finish his training to "honor him". But I really think it's so he can bum some of Tanaka's silk pajamas. I know it'd be that way for me. I don't think I've seen this Tanaka in one pair of slacks this whole movie. What a swanky motherfucker. He's like a really angry Japanese Hugh Hefner. Only he ties your legs to trees and beats you with sticks, instead being surrounded by gorgeous nude women and a few middle-aged bald guys who live in your cave pool and never seem to leave the property.
Tanaka then begins Dux's training, which, as alluded to, sees him be tied to two trees, leg first and stretched; so, in the event one of his opponents in the tournament have some rope and two palm trees, DUX WILL SO BE READY FOR THAT SHIT IT'LL NOT EVEN BE FUNNY. Bring it on, motherfuckers. Also, it has to be said, Tanaka's training methods, like Mister Miyagi in Karate Kid, are somewhat suspect. As they too involve THANKLESS CHORES with the thought that by doing these meandering jobs, somehow this'll teach you a level of martial arts mastery no kind of physical contact EVER could. In this case, unlike Miyagi with car waxing and house painting, Tanaka has Dux serving he and his wife breakfast blindfolded. I'm really starting to think these old Japanese guys have a scam going where they hornswaggle young people into free manual labor in exchange for "secret training". It's just like every other old person out there, only way more clever. "After you're done waxing my car, and thus learning Karate, cut the grass...and then you'll know Kung-Fu! Ya, that's it!"
Anyway, years have passed, and Dux, now enlisted in the military, wants to go on leave to compete in said Kumite tournament. The brass in charge obviously refuse. Perhaps if he hadn't made it so clear that he was competing in a SECRET ILLEGAL DEATH TOURNAMENT, they may have warmed up to the idea. I guess "I'm going to go visit my sister in Wyoming" never crossed his mind. So, needless to say, Dux has to go AWOL, and sneaks out the shower-room window, easily escaping the ONE guard on the base, and fleeing the entire place without being seen. Note to Terrorists: If you're looking to plan an assault, you might want to try THIS base. If they have their entire crack security unable to stop one naked Belgian dude running for the hills, I don't think they're going to be none the wiser to your plots. Call it a hunch.
In the interim, the military sends two men to reclaim Dux. One of which is Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, and his lazy eye. He's tried to get it to show better ambition, but some eyes just want to always take the easy way out. What can I say. Get your shit together, eye. You're better than that.
We are now in Hong Kong, and Dux meets Ray Jackson, (Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds movie) on a bus to the Kumite. I'd bring up the incredible unlikely odds that the only two Americans in the competition happened to be on the same bus going to the same tournament at the same exact time, but that'd just be absurd. Almost as absurd as how high Jean-Claude wears his pants here. Seriously, the guy must buckle his belt over his shoulders. Insanity. My guess is that by wearing his pants so high, he renders the possibility of getting hit below the belt negligible. "Ugh! My nipples!" And speaking of wearing pants extraordinarily high, whilst in the hotel with Jackson, he runs into a female reporter in search of info on the secret tournament--Janice Kent-- whom like him, apparently shares a love of pants to armpit levels. They could make some beautiful babies one day. Who'll then suffocate because they're diapered up to their faces. Dux, then interrupts another fighter named Hossein, who is trying to pick up Janice. Hossein, for the record, is sporting perhaps the most unfortunate ears I think I've ever seen. Think that alien that rides shotgun with Lando Calrissian in Jedi. Dux's big solution here is to play a game of chance to see who'll get to potentially violate this sweet blue-eyed mid-western woman/ride co-pilot on the Death Star mission. Well, that sure beats the shit out of Paper, Rock, Scissors, I guess. Anyway, Dux bets Hossein that he can grab a coin out of his hand before he closes his fist, and Hossein of course agrees--and loses. Then he just bows out graciously? Holy shit, apparently the prospect of Van Damme's vaudevillian magic trick was just too much for this poor bastard. Had Van Damme pulled another coin out from behind Mighty Mouse's ear here, dude probably would have forfeited the whole tournament.
That said, to the victor goes the spoils. Dux and Janice got out to dinner where she tries to coax him into letting her into watch the Kumite. "I heard it's like human cockfighting!" she says, and Dux responds "no, we actually wear pants". Ok, he didn't say that, but he should have. He then turns down her request to attend the event, citing that it is for the fighters not the people who read newspapers. "But what if the fighters read newspapers?" I ask, hoping to destroy the constant of the universe through a paradox while looking for a high five that never comes because I'm alone. So very, very alone. Dux however offers her a chance to attend his special CUMite, and despite her objection to his chauvinistic contest earlier, she does the lady-like thing here and puts out on the first date! Who knew that your idiot grandfather's coin tricks could potentially lead to pussy. All I need to do now is incorporate his tales of walking 3000 miles to school bare-foot in snow and she'll probably give the green-light on anal.
Oh, and speaking of the sex, when the film began, I noticed the disclaimer warning "SOME SCENES MAY CONTAIN NUDITY" (May contain?! I need to know for sure!), and once she came into the film I thought "all right, all right, all right, I don't think I'd be against her taking off her clothes as the kids are wont to say these days"...but oh my god, THE HORRORS. There was nudity here, sure, but not a flash of female skin was exposed. Instead, we were subjected to the ever-so-brief shot of Van Damme snapping a pair of bikini briefs over his hairless cornhole. If you had an erection before in preparation for Janice's big scene, it's since relocated to your abdomen, snapping into a roll like one of those plastic snow mats kids used to use instead of toboggans.
TOURNAMENT TIME~! Held in a secret Hong Kong slum...a slum that happens to have a fully lit arena inside with giant scoreboards and electricity and hundreds of chairs. I didn't know that's how slums work. Thank god they've managed to keep this on the down-low. No one living in extreme poverty would ever notice 10 trucks rolling in and unloading millions of dollars worth of equipment and a giant 75 foot canvas half-pipe. Not a chance.
Dux and Jackson arrive and are introduced to their sponsor Mr. Lin and officially sign up...but there's some problems with Dux's clan (Tanaka). Yet, surprisingly they have no problem signing up the big redneck Biker, Jackson, despite him having no clan affiliation. Well, besides maybe Ku Klux. Dux then convinces them to allow him to show the Tanaka trademark "death touch" on a pile of bricks to prove his worth. Man. It's a good thing they had this completely random pile of bricks just stacked there, or maybe Dux would have been turned away! Lucky him! The referee demands he break the bottom brick, which he does without shattering any of the top ones, PHYSICS BE DAMNED. Now, just watch, the guy, despite having this ability, will likely only use it once in the whole tournament, and instead expend needless energy fighting traditionally. It's kind of like how The Undertaker can summon lightning at will, but instead always just wrestles instead of incinerating people. Headlocks > undead magic, you see.
Oh, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this was the first time we see the film's antagonist Chong-Li, played by Bolo Yeung. As it turns out, Bolo was actually FIFTY here. I had no idea Bolo Yeung was so Bolo Old. HOLY SHIT, PUNS. Chong-Li is impressed by Dux's brick shattering, but utters his first of three pieces of dialogue in the film : "Very good. But bricks not hit back!" I'd have hit him with a brick just to confuse the situation and perhaps make him reconsider his stance, myself. But hey, that's just me.
The tournament has started~! The rules are as follows: a winner is determined by knockout, submission, throwing a man from the platform, and in the case of a tie, a spirited inner-city dance off. But the things is...you won't know what kind of music you'll be straight steppin' to, and you know the girl from the opposite side of the tracks that you have had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with? Well, she will likely be your partner. Her Julliard moves and your street hustle! As one! But don't worry, love will blossom and dance will prevail, and her father will begrudgingly accept you! Oh shit, I think I changed the channel by accident. Umm, just the first three.
A myriad of fighters then go at it, with only several obviously being meant to stand out. One of which is this really annoying hunched-over bobbing-and-weaving African bushman. I love how this guy had the wear-with-all to obviously charter a plane from Buttfuck Africa, but can't walk upright. Good times.
We then learn that Chong-Li holds the fastest knock out record, so of course Dux has to break it. And Dux's first opponent? HOSSEIN, who is still reeling from the sleight of hand the previous night. Hossein is of course as adept at fighting as he is, umm, closing his hand, and gets knocked the fuck out in under 10 seconds. NEW WORLD RECORD. Chong-Li is not pleased. And later he takes his rage out on his opponent, killing him. I'm guessing his Dojo doesn't have a great new customer turn-over. Call me crazy. Jackson, next, then gets Chong-Li's dander up further himself by calling him out after destroying his own opponent with a BRAIN CHOP~! "I'm coming for you, man! Ya, you!" says Jackson. Before planning a hostile takeover of the Tri-Lamda house. Chong's reaction is initially hilarious, reading like the school fat girl being asked to dance by the cutest boy in her class, then getting spurned. His face immediately turns to unadulterated festering hate. I love this man, his bitchin' mullet/headband combo, and his impossibly disturbing pectoral muscles.
With the first day wrapped up, we next see the MP's coming for Dux, who give chase through Hong Kong. The whole thing views like a Mentos commercial:
During day two, we see more fights in a quick musical sequence. I'd go into it more, but holy shit this tune is catchy. KUMITE. KUMITE. KUMITE....
We now continue and, wait, holy shit, is that Grace Jones? Blade? The black D.A. from early Law & Order? Jesus, what a high top! Attacking this dude's head would probably work out as well as axe-kicking a hedge maze. The tournament is in full swing from there, with Dux soundly defeating several fighters. Oh, and annoying African Bushman gets destroyed by an angry mustachioed Sumo. Makes sense. I mean, really. If all native Africans were this bad ass, there'd never have been slavery! AMIRITE. We'd all be bringing them water on our heads over there right now!
From there, some more random dudes advance, and Jackson gets maimed by Chong-Li, who gets handled by Ogre early, but he doesn't finish. Chong then takes the big man's knee out and curb stomps him. "YOU. ARE. NEXT." This upsets Janice, who has since snuck into the tournament as an escort. Man, for a woman who so desperately wanted to get into this fucking thing, she sure gets revolted easily. What did she think Roosters did again in Cockfights?
Anyway, she's so disturbed, she later tries to orchestrate a plan with the MP's to capture Dux and send him back to the U.S., so he doesn't get hurt. But in true Three Stooges fashion, the duo accidentally taser the Hong Kong cops that attempt to assist them, and Dux beats the fuck out of them with his NINJA DUFFLEBAG OF DEATH. Seriously, the guy's fucking dirty laundry just took out about 8 people. Holy shit, this whole movie isn't exactly a glowing tribute to our armed forces.
On the bus ride home, Dux can't stop thinking about Chong-Li, and even hallucinates he's on the bus with him! Fucking hilarious. Super villains tend to lose their mystique when you picture them in everyday situations. I mean, what's next, Chong-Li spotted haggling over the price of fruit at the Super Market?