Friday, September 5, 2014

Bloodsport (1988)

Van Damme got blood in my cheese.

If the Cannon logo right at the beginning isn't enough to give it away, Bloodsport is very much an '80s American martial arts movie. In one of his earliest film roles, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Frank Dux (pronounced "dukes"), an American soldier who deserts his post to fight in the Kumite, an illegal, full-contact martial arts tournament. It's supposed to be super-secret, but everyone he comes across seems to know about it.

The first fifteen minutes or so, filled with abysmally bad acting and dialog--holy crap, is it bad--give the impression of a much worse movie than Bloodsport thankfully turns out to be. Van Damme goes AWOL when his superiors find out he wants to go to Hong Kong to fight in the Kumite. 

Why would he have told them what he was going there for? He was already going on leave, he could have just made something up. It makes no sense. And the fact that Van Damme is the closest thing to a good actor in this scene is depressing.

While he visits the house of a Japanese couple, we go to a flashback of three kids breaking into the same house years earlier to steal stuff, and the acting gets even worse. I know I exaggerate a lot, but these might actually be the worst child actors I have ever seen. Two of them leave when they hear someone coming (they were talking so loud that they probably would have managed to get caught even if no one was home). The third hoodlum is--you guessed it--young Frank. Actually, he looks nothing like Van Damme, so I wasn't sure it was supposed to be him until he talked (and even then, I had to strain to maintain my suspension of disbelief--young Frank sounds more like a New Yorker with a speech impediment than Van Damme).

Maybe they judged his similarity to Van Damme on his acting ability, or lack of. (That's mean, Van Damme's actually not bad in this movie.)

A Japanese man and his young son come into the room, and find Frank holding a katana that the other kids had dropped instead of just running off with it when they were already holding it. Stupid ass kids can't even rob a place correctly. The son immediately runs over and kicks Frank in the stomach, but the father takes a different approach. He tells Frank, "You cannot get katana sword by stealing. It is very special sword. You must earn it." Frank tells him he wasn't going to steal it and the man swings the sword and cuts off the front of his baseball cap.

That black thing is the front of his cap falling off.

When Frank doesn't flinch, the Japanese man tells him he has fighting spirit and that he won't call the cops if they make a deal. Cut to the Japanese man, Tanaka, convincing Frank's parents to allow him to study "martial science" so he can help train his son. 

Suspension of disbelief now broken in half. This kid just snuck into the house to rob you, old man, and couldn't even do it right--you don't want your son hanging around with him! The son doesn't even like him--he calls Frank "round eyes." But then we get a goofy, thoroughly unconvincing scene of Frank defending the son from bullies, so of course they become "like brothers."

Flash back to the present, where Tanaka's son is dead, and Tanaka tells Frank a sob story about how he lost his first family in WWII and now he can't pass on his legacy to a son (boo hoo). Frank tells him to continue training him so he can carry on the legacy. Cue training montage, including Van Damme doing the splits, catching fish with his hands, and fighting blindfolded. I wonder if he'll have to use any of those skills later on in the movie? (SPOILER: Yes, he will.)

For a movie with no real character depth, Bloodsport sure lays on some thick backstory, but it's finally time for Frank to head to Hong Kong. Thankfully, we don't get scenes of Frank packing his luggage, getting on a plane, wandering around Hong Kong, etc. Instead, we just cut to Frank on a bus in Hong Kong, where he meets a big, redneck American guy named Ray Jackson drinking a beer and crudely hitting on an Asian chick who is clearly not interested. A little later he challenges Frank to a karate video game match, which Frank wins. Everything seems set up for an antagonistic rivalry between the two, but in the one sort-of surprise in this movie, they quickly become best friends.

Frank and Ray are escorted by a squirrely Chinese guy named Lin to the Kumite. Lin has some pretty funny lines, and the actor knows how to deliver them. The guys signing everyone up for the Kumite want Frank to prove he is a student of Tanaka by demonstrating the 'Dim Mak' death touch, which he does by telling them to select a brick:

Bolo Yeung isn't impressed:

That's right, Bolo is in this movie too. He plays Chong Li, the previous year's victor, infamous for his brutality. He only has a handful of lines and still gets dubbed for some reason. And to all the people claiming Bolo was fifty years old in this movie: Bolo Yeung was born Some Other Name in 1946. Bloodsport came out in 1988. Let me do the math for you: It don't add up.

Frank and Ray come across a female reporter trying to gain information for a story on the Kumite while some other entrants are harassing her. They cannot fight because they will be disqualified from the Kumite. Frank offers them a bet--if he can grab a coin out of the one guy's hand before he can close it, they will go away. If not, they can have the girl. Frank thinks back to catching the fish and snatches the coin, leaving a different one behind.

What if he had failed? What if instead of catching fish like Frank, the other guy trained by trying to keep people from snatching fish out of his hand? You sure are confident in your abilities, Frank.

Even though Frank could have gotten her raped, flirting ensues between Frank and the reporter, and eventually they bang. Not a surprise. What is a surprise for a movie of this type and era, is that the only nudity in the movie is Van Damme's butt. It's still kind of painful the way the 'romance' is shoved in, but at least it doesn't take up too much of the movie.

By the way, in the butt shot you can clearly see the exact point where they said "action." It starts out with Van Damme standing next to a counter with his underwear half off before he pulls them up, but he stands there for a second like he's waiting to do it. I point it out because it's funny that they had him stand there waiting for the shot just so they could have a glimpse of his ass in the movie only to edit it so unconvincingly. Why not have him just lower his underwear and pull them back up, then edit the shot to start with him pulling them up? Or just edit out that half second in the first place? Maybe they did focus tests and people said there wasn't enough ass in the movie so they actually stuck that half second back in. That's why I hate focus groups. People think they know what's best for the movie, but all they really want are more ass shots. But enough about Van Damme's butt.

Forest Whitaker of all people is also in Hong Kong along with some old guy, looking for Frank so they can bring him back to the U.S. Their reason: The Army cannot risk him being injured because they have put so much of their resources into him. They never explain or clarify this to any extant. It's such a lazy and extraneous plot element, I don't even know why it's in the movie. Surely the tournament offered enough action and story. The only thing of value it adds to the movie is the scene where Van Damme outruns them in the streets, taunting them all the way.

Back in the Kumite, which the reporter sneaks into on her own (talking into her '80s tape recorder right in front of everyone), we see lots of fights between people from different backgrounds, with different fighting styles. It's really cool in theory, but only kind of cool in execution. First of all, a lot of the fighters don't have any personality to them. There are actually a lot that do, but for the other fights, it would help if we cared who won. But the real problem is that none of the fights in this movie are remotely convincing. Almost every single move is super-telegraphed, and the opponents will just stand there waiting to be hit (next time you're doubting yourself, just remember: if your reaction time is under two full seconds, you could have made it at least to the final four in the deadliest, most illegal fighting tournament in the world). There are even times that a fighter will get hit and fall in the wrong direction so that their bloody face can pass in front of the camera. Take a look:


Then there are the superfluous rolls that fighters execute at random times to no strategic benefit. There's even a guy that fights with a monkey style that involves him scurrying around on the ground in such a way that he has to tilt his head way back to even see his opponent. It didn't make sense while I was watching it, so it was no surprise to find out that he isn't using any real-life fighting style. The only reason he lasts as long as he does is because his opponents keep throwing punches at normal head level when he is about two feet below that. It's like watching two people who have never touched a video game before going up against each other in a Tekken or Street Fighter. Actually, that still sounds too legit, let's say Bloody Roar II. And the fact that so many of the hits are obviously not connecting even at normal speed is made worse by the fact that so many shots are in slow motion.

At least Bolo's Chong Li makes for a good villain. Of course, Ray is the first to go up against him, and of course he gets destroyed. Movies always gotta be giving the lead a personal stake against the villain. Ray doesn't die though, he just ends up in the hospital. 

Long story short, Frank eventually goes up against Chong Li. The movie would have been a lot better if Chong Li was an honest fighter instead of a one-dimensional villain, but during the fight he throws a powder into Frank's eyes. I don't know how it's supposed to work though, because his eyes are still open the whole time. When we see things from his perspective, it's blurred but you can still make out what you're looking at. Van Damme overacts, stumbling all around and making faces all the while. 

Oh, and yelling.

It's been a while since he directly called on his training from earlier in the movie, so he finally calms down and remembers that he knows how to fight blindfolded.

As a side note, it's funny the way the reporter and the two guys who were after Frank, all of whom tried to keep him from entering the tournament, are cheering him on from the sidelines, even while he's fighting blind. They act excited and happy, like they are at a real sporting event and not witnessing a potential fight to the death.

If Frank could see, I'm sure he'd regret not letting the reporter get raped.

Frank of course wins the match, forcing Chong Li to say ka-goda.

Frank gets a sword as reward for his troubles, along with a cash prize of...wait, no, that's it. Just a sword.

He goes with reporter girl to give Ray the news in the hospital. And then this exchange occurs:

It's never too late to introduce a gay subplot, apparently.

Van Damme then leans over and kisses him. That's not even a joke, he really kisses him. Not on the lips, maybe, but still.


Forest Whitaker and Old Man are waiting for Frank at the plane to take him back, complaining that he isn't showing. Then he pops out of the plane and says, "Hey." (He says other things too, "You coming or what?" etc.) Then reporter girl shows up. I thought she was going to go with Frank, but I guess she already got what she needed for her story. Bitch.

Before the credits, we get some info on the real Frank W. Dux, the inspiration for the movie, who supposedly "fought 329 matches" and "retired undefeated as the World Heavy Weight Full Contact Kumite Champion."

Not only that: 

Impressive, huh? Well, not so much when you do a little research and find out that he is basically the only person who talks about the Kumite and has exactly zero proof to back up any of his claims. Not only is he full of shit, he's pretty full of himself too: 

The Kumite may not exist, but Bloodsport does, and despite it's numerous flaws, it remains an enjoyable movie. Van Damme isn't bad, except maybe when he decides to imitate Bruce Lee and make goofy faces and yell:

These are the actual captions from the movie.

He also does the splits about 125 times in this movie:

Van Damme pushes his body to the limit. Meanwhile, Ray practices being a fat buffoon who drinks beer, while also trying to figure out how to use a bed.

The reporter is boring and Forest Whitaker and Old Man don't do anything, but Donald Gibb turns in an energetic performance as Ray Jackson. Ray is a gruff moron with no fighting ability whatsoever, and he still manages to be likable. He's also hugely overconfident.

Seconds later:

Bolo is Bolo.

'Nuff said.

One other thing to mention: The music. Not the score, but the songs in the movie. 

It's pure '80s cheeze, goofy power ballads about honor and friendship and shit. Then there's the ending song that just seems to repeat "Kumite" over and over again. That one might get stuck in your head.

Fans of American action movies from the '80s will have probably seen Bloodsport already, but even if you prefer to stick to 'good' martial arts movies, you should give this one a shot. It's not good, true, but enough of it works to make it an entertaining viewing.

I'll leave you with a shot of Van Damme doing the splits while making a face and yelling, right after having punched a guy in the balls.


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