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Review of BLOODSPORT (1988)

March 5, 2012 15 comments

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BLOODSPORT

Cannon Films/ USA (1988)

Directed by Newt Arnold

Fight Coordinator: Frank Dux

Cast: Jean Claude Van Damme, Bolo Yueng, Donald Gibb

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.”

THE STORY

Frank Dux (Jean Claude Van Damme/ JCVD) is an American martial artist who has come to Hong Kong to enter the “kumite”, the secret illegal underground martial arts tournament, where only the best fighters (different styles and countries) in the world are invited.  During the competition, severe crippling injuries and even death befall many of the competitors.  Frank wins match after match until Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), the defending champion, brutally injures his friend, Jackson (Donald Gibb), leaving him all by himself.  Frank can be the first Westerner to win the competition.  However things are not that easy for him, also in town are Dux’s U.S. Army C.O.’s (Norman Burton and Forrest Whitaker) hot on his tail, and a beautiful journalist (Leah Ayres) determined to get her story about the Kumite.  Will Frank face the ruthless Chong Li and be the first Westerner to win the competition?  Gee, I wonder (sarcastically scratches head)!

REVIEW

I know I am in the minority about this, but I feel this movie was a formulaic “by the numbers” story that just served to justify the action.  However, with that said, this film is much better paced and executed than a majority of the Western martial arts films that came out at that time.   The martial art tournament film also a difficult sub-genre of martial arts cinema to write and make different because of all the required set pieces, character motivations, plot twists, and story procession that are usually required to happen in the story.  This creates a dilemma because it narrows the opportunities for the writer to do anything different from their predecessors.

I also felt there were many technical things wrong with this film that had nothing really to do with the story.  From a martial arts historian’s point of view, the use of the word “Kumi-te” means “fight” is a Japanese word, however Chinese men run the underground tournament.  Also Dux’s character uses the term “Dim-Mak” (Chinese) when he is a student of Ninjitsu (Japanese).   These are common oversights done by insensitive screenwriters unaware of the history of the friction and strong national pride between the two countries.  Also the cross use of terms and techniques from different countries without a care to accuracy were somewhat irritating.

THE FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY

When I first saw JCVD as the villain in “No Retreat, No Surrender”, he proved himself to be very versatile, agile, had incredible form with his techniques, and was exciting to watch. His fights had great timing and rhythm that were very kinetic, and most importantly…he never repeated a technique or combination.

However, in his Western films that followed, the fights got much simpler, nothing too complex, yet very repetitious.  This is a common problem with many martial arts films made in the West, where they unconsciously follow the rules of the barroom brawls you see in John Wayne movies. The rules are the fighters never block anything and each exchange is very short and fairly simple.** Also how many times can we see him throw a spin kick and the drop into the splits (which he does 7 times in this movie)?  The point I am making here is Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee never had a trademark technique that they carried from film to film and they were able to expand and push the limits of the action genre because they kept evolving and had the audience guessing what was going to happen next.

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I feel the set up of Dux using Dim Mak aka “the death touch,” by breaking only the bottom brick from a stack furthest away from him from was a nice set up.  However, the pay off was prematurely wasted when Dux used the technique while fighting the Sumo Wrestler, a secondary and unimportant character, who did not have any character arc or dialogue.  It should have been saved and used on Ching Li, the final villain.

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Since Dux’s character was a black belt in Ninjitsu, there were no real techniques from the style displayed to show a difference from the other styles that were highlighted.  I also felt a lot of the fights with JCVD were somewhat repetitive, had the same timing and rhythm, lacked any type of fighting strategy, and the opponents lacked any type of defensive intelligence because they would often times they would stand flat footed within striking range with their guard down, waiting to get hit.  I never once during this film, did I ever feel Dux’s character was in any real danger during an action sequence.  This is the common problem I have with many of JCVD’s films around this time.  I feel this is a typical case of being caught up and trapped in the minutiae of the technique’s “cool factor” instead of letting it be a part of the non-verbal dialogue.  As a result of everything I mentioned, the fights came off as more of a child or teen fantasy of what a fight would be like in their imagination than a serious physical conflict.

 **Note this subject will be discussed as an in depth article on this blog site.  So don’t send the mad villagers with torches to come after me yet!  Stay tuned- John

FINAL THOUGHTS

Looking back on this film, there are several things that are historically important about this film.  (1) It revived the tournament film genre in the West, first started with Enter The Dragon, (2) made JCVD an action superstar of the day, and (3) made Cannon Films a ton of cash.  This movie also caused a lot of controversy and rumblings within the martial arts community about Frank Dux and JCVD’s credibility as a fighter/martial artist and whether the legitimacy of the kumite was real or made up.

Blood Sport is an emotional favorite for a lot of fans much like original The Karate Kid is to many people.  It has its place in martial arts film history, but objectively looking back at it and for the reasons mentioned earlier, but I feel the film does not hold up today and is somewhat dated.  However, it is JCVD’s charisma and extreme athleticism that was missing from a lot of Western martial arts stars at the time that sells this film.  This is definitely your typical 80’s drive-in cinema, so put your logic on pause, set your willing suspension of disbelief on high, and regress back to your naïve teen years to enjoy this film.

Copyright 2012. All text is the property of John Kreng and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.