After being smeared all over the promotional material for creaky, low-budget, face-kicker No Retreat, No Surrender – despite being the villain – Belgium muscle bulger Jean-Claude Van Damme was poised to spring (probably in slow motion) into a starring role in the action genre but an unavoidable question remained; who on earth would possibly bankroll a leading man who’s most noticable feature – despite his fondness for doing the splits – is an inpenetrable accent? Enter subtlety-free, super-studio Cannon, who had built their early output on unnaturally sustaining the careers of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and had eyes on the not-at-all-bullshit claims of truth stretching martial artist Frank Dux – a man who’s tales of fighting in secret tournaments seemed tailor made for the far-fetched realms of face breaking cinema.
“American” soldier Frank Dux decides to go AWOL, suit up in an upsetting fashion combo of low cut muscle shirt and a very high trouser line and head off to Hong Kong to participate in a secret martial arts tournament that everybody seems to know about. There he bonds with the guy who played the bully in Revenge Of The Nerds, a fellow fighter whose special abilities seem to be that he’s just a thug with a weakness for Harley Davidson apparel, and the two sign up a prepare to do battle. Dux’s whole reason for entering is to avenge the death of his mentor’s son in the tournament a year earlier at the hands of the mountainous Chong Li (played by the impassive human brick wall known as Bolo Yung whose pecs are so large it looks like he has the heads of Right Said Fred grafted onto his chest) and bring back some family honor for the ailing old mentor.
As fighters from all around the globe start dealing out contusions and concussions like they’re free gifts at a brain damage themed craft fair, Frank has to also deal with the advances of a journalist desperate to break the story of this tournament and the attempts of two officers trying to arrest him and get him back to the army before he hurts himself.
Can Dux woo the girl, evade the police and win the tournament with various slow motion spin kicks in the face of such overwhelming odds or will Chong Li’s worrisome habit of straight up killing his opponents score him the advantage and win him his latest fight?
Crass, immature and racially insensitive, Bloodsport is what you’d expect from a Cannon film in every conceivable way and yet for a film composed almost entirely of flaws, Bloodsport is actually a fucking blast. Long since regarded as an extremely dopey cult flick (and rightly so) Bloodsport has not only become a movie exquisitely ripe for ridicule but it actually has some cultural significance, after all it’s essentially Street Fighter 2 – or at least it’s more of a Street Fighter movie than the ACTUAL Street Fighter movie was – with the varied fighters displaying different styles and techniques and it helped popularize the martial arts tournament movie for a western audience. In fact, sticking with the video game theme, Johnny Cage’s epic do-the-splits-dick-punch from Mortal Kombat was directly lifted from Frank Dux’s identical testicle pulper and if that’s not a mark of immortality then I don’t know what is.
Let’s not kid ourselves here, Bloodsport is no intricately crafted work of cinematic genius and can’t even begin hold a candle to the athleticism seen in countless movies from the Far East. The fights not involving Van Damme are oddly stilted and stiffly choreographed and the plot and dialogue seem like they’ve been jotted on the back of a children’s menu in crayon which is only highlighted by the leaden direction by the improbably named Newt Arnold.
For example, take one of the most clunky flashback sequences in action movie history (the actor playing a young Dux is so bad I genuinely thought JCVD’s character was supposed to have learning difficulties on my first viewing) where we see our hero learning by serving lunch blindfolded, getting pounded on by bamboo and being strung up spreadeagled as if he’d just signed a contract with Christian Grey.
So why the fuck is this thing so watchable? Well for a start, if the concept was any higher it would be Tom Sizemore and secondly, despite his obviously shaky grasp on the english language, it’s undeniable that Van Damme was a star in the making with his natural charisma and impossibly limber limbs more than making up for his inability to string a coherent line reading together. Whether shrieking incoherently with every kick that lands or cheekily avoiding the law (one of whom is portrayed by Forrest fucking Whittaker) with a sense of camp mischief he may not have had Stallone or Schwarzenegger looking too hard over their shoulder but he definitely struck a nerve with audiences.
It also helps that the bad guy of the piece is the legendary Bolo Yeung whose intimidating Statue is oddly aided by the the fact that he’s incapable of pumping his fists in time with the chanting crowds which makes him come across like some gurning, burly, psychotic infant.
Punchy trash in all the best ways, Bloodsport is ugly, stupid and carries all the artistic merit of a farting competition and yet if you team it up with liberal helpings of junk food and alcohol, you have a laugh a minute cheese fest that spectacularly dulls the brain quicker than a roundhouse kick from the king of Van Dammage himself.