Dir: Newt Arnold
Original Release Date: 26 February 1988
Bloodsport is, in short, a great film. A late-eighties kung-fu/action classic if you will. Unlike most of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “greatest hits” (pun fully intended) – hilariously bad, badly hilarious, but heart warming for action fanboys all the same – Bloodsport would actually place pretty high on any sensible all-time action list. A nostalgic remnant of my late-nineties/early-noughties Saturday morning youth, when I’d get up to watch television or a film at 7am and wonder why no-one else in the house was ever awake until 9, it’s one of those pictures I can sit back and enjoy no matter what point it happens to be at when I flick on to it. Catching it on television or being prompted to watch a clip on YouTube almost always results in me sitting through at least a hefty chunk of the remainder, if not all of it. So despite being terrible in theory but somehow oh-so-awesome in reality, what exactly is it about Bloodsport – released in 1988 and JCVD’s breakout lead role following his debut in 1986’s No Retreat, No Surrender – that continues to provide genuinely loving and satisfying macho entertainment almost twenty years on?
Many of the answers can be summed be up in a single a scene – probably my favourite, just ahead of one of the classic training montages of the 70s/80s kung-fu boom – Frank Dux’s demonstration of the Dim Mak, or touch of death.
Everything about such a scene screams western-made action/kung-fu perfection. First off, there’s our lead character, Dux, portrayed by JCVD, sporting the highest waistline of the decade and based on a real life chap of the same name who claims all of this actually happened (and can rightly be considered the ultimate WUM seeing as he had a motion picture made out of his tripe), our sidekick, Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb), probably the largest, hairiest man ever, and our main villain, Chong Li, played by the equally imposing Bolo Yeung of Enter the Dragon fame. Elsewhere the film features the always-welcome Forest Whitaker and Hong Kong legend Roy Chiao (who plays Shidoshi Senzo Tanaka), one of the finest cinematic orators in history, but the three overall key players are front and centre during the Dim Mak sequence. As is tradition, all three are quite ridiculously clichéd. Dux is the calm, confident, in control hero, Jackson the brash, brutal, complete opposite chum of our hero with a heart of gold, who of course ends up being sacrificed so that Dux can ‘take revenge’, and Li, a psycho of the ‘classic action movie threats in limited, broken English’ persuasion (see Ivan Drago, Tong Po et al.). Even the hectic Chinese guide with the phenomenal mullet and the doubting judges fit so well into this era of nonsense kung-fu flicks, with epic one-liners (“What’s the difference if Bruce Springsteen is his Shidoshi?!”) and glowering looks respectively each abundant here.
Resulting from this banter is the main event. Sceptical of Dux’s Ninjutsu training and abilities, the judges challenge him to perform a Dim Mak, using a convenient pile of bricks (a must in any martial arts-related movie environment). A quick bit of research reveals that, in variation, the Dim Mak is actually a real, recorded thing. There are even YouTube clips of over-the-top, mouth breathing martial arts exponents demonstrating something similar to what is shown here. However nothing in real life will ever come close to the sheer coolness of cinematic kung-fu shit like this. With each character of note present and correct, the build up begins. Set to smash the fuck out of the top brick and show the judges what’s what, Dux is halted and told simply, “bottom one!”. As a kid this is where your eyes widen and you move closer to the screen. As a nostalgic adult it’s where you lean back in your chair and emit a knowing ‘ah yyeeaahh’ – shit is about to get real. The score kicks in, tingling with so much shimmering energy that it’s as if a flock of hibernating fairies are stirring for the first time. The other competitors gather around, allowing for establishing shots of basically every stereotypical opponent Dux will face later (Arab bad guy, freakishly large bad guy, the really bad guy), and simultaneously cranking up the pressure as they stand in silence, eager to see if this gwai lo is going to put up or shut up. Dux meditates (note the quiet, controlled breathing YouTube martial art bellends). All those years of training, for the moment, have come down to this. A quick cut to Jackson, looking both bemused and excited, almost licking his lips in anticipation, like someone’s just placed one of those Southern USA eating challenge steaks in front of him. The tension is palpable. You can cut it with a knife. *Insert third clichéd description of proceedings here*.
Dux doesn’t disappoint, fucking up that bottom brick in a big way. A nice, appropriately exaggerated slow motion low-angle shot conveys the final execution, with a crunching bang of a sound effect to boot. Jackson of course loses his shit, as most normal people probably would have had they witnessed such a technique, before the judges grudgingly honour Dux’s invitation as a representative of the Tanaka clan.
As the rest of the fighters trudge off to continue their background training tactics, there’s still time for the audience to be treated Chong Li’s thoughts on of Dux’s performance, echoing Bruce Lee’s sentiments fifteen years prior in the film they worked on together, Enter the Dragon, by stating, “Very good, but brick, not hit back!”. Now while this is of course a classic, kung-fu throwback fully intended to do little more than further drown the picture in wink-wink clichés, it has to be said that when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. Bruce Lee called O’Hara out on the board he broke not being able to hit back as the bloke basically held it up in front of him and smashed it as a sign of strength – an intimidation technique. Dux was made to perform the Dim Mak or he wouldn’t be able to enter the tournament – quite a big difference. However Chong Li is an arsehole, so giving him any old antagonising dialogue to set the tone kind of works regardless. Either way, this is far too deep a thought for something so shallow, so I’ll stop.
Imitated, but never bettered by either its straight-to-video sequels or JCVD’s own attempts at a remake (though 1996’s The Quest, co-starring Roger Moore, is certainly worth a watch in its own right), Bloodsport is one of, if not the finest training/tournament/vengeance kung-fu flick to come out of the west. Whilst it will probably always mean more (and almost certainly be more bearable) to those who first saw it young, I encourage martial art and action movie fans everywhere to dig it out and give it a watch. If only for Ray Jackson. Seriously, he is ridiculous is an almost epic sense.