Bloodsport

(1988)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

Bloodsport ostensibly exists to dramatize the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux (played in the film by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but it actually exists to show us 70 minutes of martial-arts fighting with 15 minutes of filler like plot and characters. As a stunt sequence delivery system, it succeeds admirably. As a film, it doesn’t quite hang together the way it should.

The film is front-loaded with backstory to ease the burden of having to explain anything later on. Through convoluted circumstances involving a youthful break-in, Frank is assaulted by martial artist Tanaka (Roy Chiao) and decides he wants to learn from this master. Instead, Tanaka uses Frank as a human punching bag to train his son, Shingo (Sean Ward). Shingo’s lifelong dream — instilled in him by his father — is to fight in the Kumite, a secret, illegal fight where men of all nationalities and fighting arts gather together to beat the hell out of each. Eventually, he comes of age and receives an invitation to the Kumite, where he’s killed almost immediately. Distraught, Tanaka finally offers to train Frank — so he can restore honor to the Tanaka name and get vengeance for Shingo’s death.

For some reason, Frank joins the Army after training with Tanaka, so he has to go AWOL in order to fight in the Kumite. This exists mainly for an oddly superfluous subplot in which two investigators (played by Norman Burton, doing his best John P. Ryan impersonation, and a young Forest Whitaker) track Frank to Hong Kong in order to bring him back to face a court martial. Soon after arriving in Hong Kong, Frank meets Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, sadly best known as Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds movies), a competitor of imposing stature and surprising friendliness. They run afoul of a handful of foreign competitors and decide to stick together.

Their chief rival is Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), a menace whose rippling muscles and fierce posturing would seem a lot more threatening if not for the pinched face and fish lips that make him resemble Garry Shandling more than the ultimate fighting threat. Chong Li mostly beats people up, flares his nostrils, and glowers. Unfortunately for the film, Chong Li never brings any personal stakes for Frank. Frank never liked Shingo — whose frequent “Roundeye” taunts don’t endear him to the audience, either — so the closest it gets to personal is when Chong Li hospitalizes Ray. Frank swears revenge, but he lacks the adversity that would make him a compelling protagonist.

Van Damme actually does a pretty good job in the role, playing Frank with a wide-eyed naïveté appropriate for a guy who thinks he’s the greatest fighter in the world and suddenly finds himself a tiny fish in a very large pond. However, Frank is the greatest fighter in the world, so he tears through his assigned opponents with infuriating ease. Nothing’s ever difficult for Frank — even after Chong Li blinds him by throwing sand in his eyes — which simply isn’t very compelling dramatically.

One of Hollywood’s most irritating aphorisms is “raise the stakes,” usually a phrase uttered when someone in a position of authority has nothing constructive to say. Despite my disdain for the phrase, Bloodsport is a film that gives “raise the stakes” real meaning. Maybe I should be praising the film for not falling into the usual traps to cheaply force jeopardy — those military police never arrest Frank, his newfound journalist girlfriend (Leah Ayres) never gets kidnapped, and although Tanaka is seen on what’s presumably his deathbed, he’s never shown actually dying. In short, nothing fills Frank with fear or causes a crisis of confidence, which is as refreshing as it is boring.

Drama requires conflict, and conflict (especially in action films) comes from adversity. Frank faces no adversity, which means Bloodsport has no suspense. It’s simply a film to watch if you enjoy oiled-up men beating the shit out of each other. (It’s also enjoyable for the oddly homoerotic farewell scene between Frank and Ray — it’s telling that the film takes this relationship much more seriously than the one between Frank and the journalist.)

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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