Dir. by Newt Arnold
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb and Bolo Yeung
Captain Frank Dux goes AWOL from the U.S. Army to represent his ailing martial arts instructor at the Kumite, an invitation-only underground fighting tournament held in Hong Kong. There he befriends both a fellow competitor and an American reporter attempting to cover the tournament, and has to evade two military police officers sent to retrieve him.
I remember hearing about this movie several times before I eventually saw it. I know I didn’t actually watch it until after I started taking Tae Kwon Do, so probably some time in early high school would be my guess. Yet again, it’s one of our many VHS tapes that didn’t make the transition to DVD, though I have seen it a handful of times in the last decade or so.
I’ll admit to actually having a bit of a soft spot for his movies, especially cheesy yet enjoyable crap from the mid-90s like Timecop and Sudden Death. This, however, might be his best performance from an action standpoint. He was still close enough to his fighting days to be in amazing physical condition, and it shows in the moves that he’s able to pull off on-camera (when he does the splits with his feet suspended on chairs in one scene, that’s not a camera trick. Another character even remarks “That hurts me just looking at it”). While he would learn to relax and be better in the dialogue scenes as his career went on, here they’re all kind of hard to watch. However, most of the scenes outside of the Kumite are pretty much filler, and it doesn’t really distract from what you’re here to see.
Speaking of filler and the plot, this movie is basically just an extremely clichéd fighting tournament movie, the sort that any martial arts movie fan has seen a hundred times. It’s tempting to compare the movie to Enter the Dragon, but the Bruce Lee movie actually has a more complex plot than Bloodsport. There’s no undercover mission, or evil supervillain, or revenge angle to the plot (well, not initially, anyway). It’s just “man enters tournament, man’s bosses try to stop the tournament.”
No, the closest comparisons I have to this movie are actually two properties that came after, and in fact were inspired by, Bloodsport: Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It’s got the secret, invitation-only tournament, the international cast of fighters with widely differing styles, and the villain who really likes killing people mid-fight. Those styles, in my opinion, are what elevate this movie above all of the other low-budget tournament movies I’ve seen. It’s not just all kung fu, or karate, or judo, but a mix of styles from all over the world, which keeps the fights fresh and interesting to watch.
However, this does open the movie up to some criticism for the portrayals of the fighters, most especially the token African and Middle Eastern competitors. Hossein, the Arab fighter, is played by a clearly non-Arab actor, and is introduced making unwanted advances on the love interest for the movie. And the African fighter, who is never named, is shown jumping around in trees in the training montage and hops around like a monkey in the ring. For all I know it’s an actual style (it’s not capoeira – that I can recognize), but it looks pretty racist to me on first glance.
The relationship between Dux and the reporter, Janice Kent, is also a prime example of time having definitely moved on in the thirty years since the movie was made. Dux meets her at the same time as Hossein does, and “rescues” her by effectively wagering her in a (rigged) contest of skill with Hossein. Yes, Hossein gets his ass kicked by Dux in the tournament the next day, and Kent proves to be more than capable of getting herself into the no-press-allowed Kumite audience without help from Dux. However, I don’t think that a sexual relationship with someone who’d actually been betting someone over who’d be allowed to take you up to his hotel room 24 hours earlier would fly in a modern movie.
The movie’s very, very 80s, with jokes about 8-bit arcade games and many montages (seriously, there’s like two 3+ minute montages separated from each other by barely a minute). But if you can get past that and the pretty bad dialogue and acting, there’s actually a lot of good martial arts action in this one. It’s fairly easy to see how JCVD’s action movie career got started from this one.
-Another reason a lot of people think Enter the Dragon: the movie’s villain, Chon Li, is played by the same actor who played Han’s large, memorable henchman from the Bruce Lee movie.
-Yes, the younger of the two Army agents trying to apprehend Dux is an extremely young Forest Whitaker, only a year removed from his breakout role in Good Morning Vietnam.
-This movie bills itself as a true story, based on the exploits of the real Frank Dux. Dux is indeed a real ex-Army officer and martial artist, but he’s also a well-known teller of tall tales and none of his claims about the Kumite can be verified at all. Therefore, it’s wise to assume that the events of Bloodsport are pretty much entirely bullshit.