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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.

Review of DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993)

March 4, 2012 3 comments

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DRAGON- THE BRUCE LEE STORY

Universal Studios/ USA (1993)

Directed by Rob Cohen

Fight Choreographer: John Cheung

Cast: Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly

“I’m no bastard, I’m Bruce Lee!”

THE STORY

The bio-pic of the martial arts legend and film star, Bruce Lee mainly focuses on the inter-racial relationship between Bruce (Jason Scott Lee) and his girlfriend/wife Linda (Lauren Holly).  The film starts with Bruce as a juvenile delinquent in Hong Kong fighting British Sailors, his coming to America to start a fresh new start, dealing with racism in the 60’s, teaching kung fu to Westerners and the resistance he gets from traditional Chinese martial artists who do not want “their secrets” taught to them, and his struggle to show the martial arts and his Chinese culture to mainstream Hollywood.

THE REVIEW

Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce) does a great job bringing to life Bruce Lee’s essence to the big screen.  The filmmakers made a very wise decision to choose a well-trained actor who has the skill and experience to give Bruce’s character the much-needed depth and life.  Because of this, the film gives the audience a much easier willing suspension of disbelief, rather than casting an incredible martial artist overcome the insurmountable obstacle of trying to act along with the pressure of being able to carry a movie.  We’ve seen that happen countless times over the decades where films have failed because of rigid wooden acting skills from talented and gifted martial artists who don’t know what to do with themselves when they were not fighting.  This is one of the main reasons (besides a good story) why movie critics and the general movie going audiences do not take the Western martial arts film genre seriously at all.

While watching this film, I have always felt torn because as a screenwriter, I understand that you have to condense storylines and combine characters to keep the story simple and not confuse the audience.  Screenwriters Ed Khmara, John Raffo, and Rob Cohen did an admirable job in condensing Bruce’s dense, rich, and inspiring life into a briskly paced 120 minutes, which is not an easy task.  The filmmakers were smart to focus on the romance aspect between Linda and Bruce to attract a wider audience.  But as a Bruce Lee Historian, the film was somewhat of a glossed over fairy tale or Hollywood’s multi-million dollar version of a Bruce Lee exploitation film.  Gladly, this film is leaps and bounds and nowhere near the cheesy Grindhouse classics from the 70’s such as Bruce Li in New Guinea or The Clones of Bruce Lee.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY

Having listened to Director Rob Cohen’s audio commentary on the DVD, he says that he felt Bruce’s style of fight choreography was boring and much too straightforward.  So he hired John Cheung (a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team) to choreograph the fights.  His reasoning was “Jackie’s style of fight choreography” was the current trend at the time of filming the bio-pic.  The problem with this theory is he mistook a film fighting style for a trend.  The reasoning is, Jackie created his style of fight choreography in the late 70’s with “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master” because every Asian film production making a kung fu movie was still looking for “the next Bruce Lee,” recreating fight scenes the way Bruce would have done it- serious, intense, and to the point with varying degrees of success.  In order to be different and separate himself from the pack, Jackie would do everything that was the opposite of what Bruce Lee would do.  He came up with the reluctant/wise ass hero who gets into trouble but knows he cannot beat the villain by going toe-to-toe and is forced to find creative and funny ways to get out of the situation.  This was a style that would create Jackie’s film career, redefine martial arts movie fights, and would also spawn countless imitators.

As a result, I felt the fight scenes were disjointed from Bruce’s personality of meeting challenges head on and his philosophy towards the martial arts.  What I feel would have been much more interesting is to show the physical and emotional differences between the real life street fights, skirmishes, and death duels he encountered and contrast them with his kinetic and dynamic style of fight choreography for film.  However, you do see a little of the absurdity in the re-creation of the Green Hornet TV series but it was not exploited other than that small and brief fight scene.

FINAL THOUGHTS

For a man that lived for only 32 years, it still amazes me as to how much Bruce Lee has achieved in such a short life.  In order for the audience to fully appreciate the Little Dragon’s life and achievements, filmmakers will have to turn his life story into a mini-series.  This has been already done several times in Asia, but with varying degrees of success and none of the productions could not get away from being cheesy and/or exploitative.  The other reason is the unfortunate actors who portrayed Bruce had a huge task in portraying a real life person that is now larger than life and also made poor acting choices by mimicking his gestures and not delving any deeper, making their portrayal of the legend look very shallow and cliché.  So far the only portrayal of Bruce that has not gone over the top and did not coming across as a shallow one dimensional caricature was Jason Scott Lee’s portrayal of Bruce in this film.

On a positive note, it is nice to finally see Hollywood pay homage to a true legend and pioneer in action cinema and the martial arts world.  I also feel this movie was not made for true hard-core fans of Bruce Lee (like me), but more of an introduction for a newer generation of fans who were not alive or aware of his impact in the world of action cinema and hopefully pique their interest making them want to read the books he has written, the countless articles, documentaries, and biographies about him, and hopefully see his movies.  Because of that, I feel the movie has admirably done its job.

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.