Bloodsport is based on the life and livelihood of Frank Dux, a source of gradually diminishing credibility. He was, as he tells it, an undefeated martial arts champion and the essential catalyst for a wide-spread 1980s interest in ninjutsu. While much of this has been debatable to say the least, it’s the sort of hook — slightly preposterous, vigorous and flamboyant, and bearing little realistic corroboration — that appealed to Cannon Group producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Keen to jump on any and seemingly every fleeting fad (see not one but two breakdancing films, both released in the same year), Golan and Globus saw the box office possibilities in Dux’s tall tale, which they could shrewdly exploit in happily diverting fashion.
Written by Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, and Sheldon Lettich, Bloodsport takes bits and pieces of Dux’s story and compiles it into a compressed vehicle for Belgian-born newcomer Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, more popularly known as Jean-Claude Van Damme. As Dux, a surname opportunely rhyming with “dukes” — as in, “put ‘em up” — this was Van Damme’s first significant role, and the clean-cut, baby face star was ideal for the part, demonstrating genuine talent and bankable good looks. Like their recurrent story choices, Golan and Globus had a sharp eye for the superficial qualities of their leading men, from Van Damme to Cannon mainstays Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris; even if these action icons couldn’t act their parts very well, they looked convincing enough in the process.
Dux is a United States Army Captain, though the extent of his service is decidedly marginal, and as Bloodsport begins, he is ducking his patriotic duties in order to enter the storied Kumite tournament, a martial arts extravaganza where he will battle it out against the world’s finest fighters. Before he can make the trip, though, the cursory source of Dux’s passion is established in a lengthy flashback, where young Frank awkwardly befriends a neighboring Japanese boy, who soon thereafter, and rather inexplicably, passes away, leaving Frank to nevertheless remain under the tutelage of the boy’s father, sensei Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao). Having previously been caught trying to steal Tanaka’s katana sword, the adolescent Dux is taught that such an item must be earned, a functional assertion to initiate Bloodsport’s pronounced reverence for its ostensibly consecrated material. The “fighting spirit,” Dux is told, is achieved when mind and body are in perfect harmony, so he undergoes an elaborate training course, honing his mental and physical discipline. It’s the sort of idealized, posturing presentation of martial arts seen throughout the 1980s, where the practice’s various guises and offshoots were treated as something of tremendous significance but were rarely afforded an accurate representation, overridden as they often were by the requisites and platitudes of entertaining genre cinema. In any event, these preparatory proceedings are intensive and convoluted, if compelling, and are filled with gimmicky, incongruous movements that will, of course, later prove useful in combat. Besides, as his backstory otherwise reveals scant detail of where Dux is coming from as an individual, this exercise primer essentially defines his character.
Once in Hong Kong, Dux meets several standard types, including an intrepid female journalist named Janice Kent, played by Leah Ayres, who supplies short-lived romantic interest as she investigates this secret, “unnecessarily brutal,” event. Which it is, and that’s exactly what draws a fighter like Ray — “I love anything full-contact” — Jackson (Donald Gibb), a bearded, brutish, and beer-swigging American, who is, as such, brash and overconfident (two factors to hasten his downfall). Although there is some slight antagonism outside the ring, with a motley crew of competitors representing a range of races, ethnicities, and fighting styles — all in illustrations as broad as possible — the opposition ultimately falls to the defending champ and requisite one-dimensional villain, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). Early in the film, Dux is shown to be quite skilled at a combat arcade game, an amusing nod, in retrospect, to Van Damme’s turn in 1994’s Capcom Entertainment production of Street Fighter. But it’s also an apt preview of Bloodsport’s elemental narrative, which itself resembles the advancing structure of a video game, where the chosen hero engages in a series of obstacles and faces progressively difficult adversaries. Rather by necessity, then, these fighting sequences are undeniably the film’s foremost feature. It’s a varied mélange of brute force, seasoned skill, and maneuvers and mannerisms beyond comprehension, staged against a raucous underground backdrop and performed atop mats soiled with increasing quantities of blood and sweat.
Van Damme, the so-called “Muscles from Brussels,” cuts a mighty, somewhat exotic figure, with a peculiar English language delivery that lingers to this day, and Bloodsport’s Hong Kong setting makes for a nicely expressive location, eccentric and dangerous in all the right places. And while the film has some of the most atrocious acting of any Cannon feature, it also contains some of the firm’s most emblematic dialogue: cheesy, hard-bitten, and delivered with the utmost strained intensity. An example, from local guide and Dux ally Victor Lin (Ken Siu): “Here it comes, man, the Walled City. Not a place for outsiders. You are in Hong Kong, but you are about to cross an invisible border into mainland China. No joke, man. It’s a run-down piece of no-man’s-land in the middle of a tourist paradise. … Once you step out of the sunlight into the narrow corridors, it’s time to protect your nuts, guys.”
Directed by Newt Arnold, who had a brief career as director but counts Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Blade Runner (1982) among his assistant director credits, Bloodsport relishes in the decade’s devotion to body-centric spectacle, slow motion masculine overdrive, and the begrudgingly effective repetition of montage sequences scored by a chintzy-catchy soundtrack of effusive, often themed, power ballads. One such passage involves a Looney Toons pursuit between Road Runner Dux and two bumbling Wile E. Coyote officers (one of them played by Forest Whitaker) who frequently pop in and out of the film to feebly thwart Dux’s efforts. A reason Bloodsport has become an iconic/ironic cult classic, though, is its overt seriousness, in that it treats its subject matter and its characters with an absolute weight of consequence. As ridiculous as so much of it now appears, the eclectic array of action is effectively accomplished. Characters shatter blocks of ice and slabs of wood and pound coconuts into oblivion; Van Damme smashes stacks of bricks and performs countless splits. And yet, even though it spawned three lackluster sequels — Bloodsport II: The Next Kumite (1996), Bloodsport III (1997) and Bloodsport 4: The Dark Kumite (1999) — none of which appeared in theaters or starred Van Damme, there is nothing particularly surprising about Bloodsport, nothing innovative or unexpected. It was, as with so much Cannon fodder, an expedient means of meeting basic expectations before moving on to the next production. But it must be said, this late-‘80s entry remains one of the company’s more memorable stops along the way, and sure enough, by the end of 1988, Bloodsport was Cannon’s most profitable film of the year.