Newt Arnold’s Bloodsport wasn’t the first martial arts tournament movie, but it is one of the most influential entries in that particular sports/action hybrid subgenre. Not only did it spawn a series of DTV sequels and hordes of imitators, but it also helped inspire many a video game, including the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat* franchises. Not bad for a low budget Cannon Films offering!
Bloodsport also set the tone for at least the first decade of star Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career. While Van Damme sat out the eventual follow-ups that arrived years later, the Muscles from Brussels still went on to star in a number of other similar films, from Kickboxer to Lionheart to The Quest. In his first leading role, Van Damme isn’t playing some badass warrior strutting into the picture to save the day. That element is there, as he is set-up as both a (presumably special forces) U.S. soldier and a martial arts master, but it is grounded in Dux’s sense of love and honor.
Trained from childhood to be a martial arts champion, Dux enters the tournament not for glory or to prove that he is the world’s greatest fighter. Instead, he simply does it to honor his teacher/father figure Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). He does so to help carry on the Tanaka family tradition after the death of Senzo’s son, Shingo, and to keep those teachings alive by competing in the deadly Kumite, a secret underground full contact tournament in Hong Kong. Entering in the tournament also requires Dux to go A.W.O.L. from his current military post, thereby risking a dishonorable discharge and imprisonment, but he doesn’t care. Paying respect to the dying Tanaka by competing in the Kumite means more to him than his military career.
This goes a long way towards humanizing Frank Dux as a character. Paired with Van Damme’s natural charisma and happy-go-lucky charm, it’s easy to see why Bloodsport instantly launched him as a force to be reckoned with in the action genre. Van Damme might lack the movie star bravado of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the introspective vulnerability of Stallone’s best hero roles, but he makes up for its with his sincerity and signature delivery. You truly believe that Dux just wants to do right by his teacher and his friends. There’s not a malicious bone in his body, even when he is staring down the cartoonish evil of the film’s chief antagonist, the brutal South Korean fight Chong Li (Bolo Yeung, Double Impact).
Speaking of Yeung, rarely has a tournament movie villain been played with such diabolical relish. Chong Li might be a role with very few lines, but Yeung manages to chew the ever-living hell out of every last scene he appears in. Van Damme himself has always had a wild array of memorable expression that come across his face, particularly mid-fight, but Yeung takes the cake here. Whether he’s glaring at Frank Dux or letting loose as frighteningly enthusiastic grin as he pumps up the crowd, Chong Li is one of ‘80s action cinema’s most memorable foes and it has everything to do with the energy that Yeung brings to the role.
Donald Gibb (Revenge of the Nerds), playing Dux’s Kumite brother-in-arms Ray Jackson, also makes his mark. Gibb is tasked with playing the typical over-confident American fighter who thinks he can just get by on sheer size and strength. Such a role usually comes off as loud and obnoxious, but Gibb manages to be so likeable as he plays out both that you’re still rooting for him whenever he enters the ring. He ultimately comes off as a big cuddly (but violent) teddy bear of a supporting character, which is no small feat given the material Gibb was working from.
Bloodsport is not one of the greatest films of all time, nor is it one of my all-time favorite Van Damme offerings. Still, despite some awful power ballad tunes peppered across its running time, it’s a damn good movie. Between the above performances, some great fight sequences, and perhaps the world’s longest flashback training sequence, it’s reputation as an ‘80s action classic is well-earned.
Bloodsport is an original martial arts action film based loosed upon fibs told by Frank Dux. It was directed by Newt Arnold, from a screenplay by Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, and Sheldon Lettich. The film was produced by Mark DiSalle, Yoram Globus, and Menahem Golan. It stars Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Bolo Yeung, Leah Ayres, Roy Chiao, Norman Burton, Forrest Whitaker, Ken Siu, Michel Qissi, Philip Chan, Sean Ward, and Pierre Rafini.
* – Even moving past the fact that Johnny Cage is based on Van Damme and his original look is ripped straight from this film, you still have the death matches, a “test your might” sequence, and the Black Dragon criminal society. Such things are not mutually exclusive to Bloodsport, but the connection is still undeniable.