A jumping helicopter kick is a maneuver that requires tremendous skill and dedication to pull off, as anyone who can execute the technique will tell you. The same applies to an even greater degree to performing a full chair-to-chair split. It was through Bloodsport that countless people around the world first saw such extraordinary feats, awakening a steadfast inspiration and determination to awaken such abilities within themselves. That’s just one of the many reasons why “Bloodsport” has stood the test of time as an undisputed martial arts classic!
First-time leading man and future action movie don, Jean-Claude Van Damme leads the pack in the role of Ninjitsu master Frank Dux. A much-debated figure in the martial arts world, “Bloodsport” chronicles Dux’s involvement in the clandestine, invitation-only tournament known as “The Kumite”. Van Damme is credible every second that he’s onscreen, but he isn’t alone in his drive to win the Kumite – the merciless reigning champion, Chong Li, proves a serious foe for him to overcome. A villain of such physical might can only be brought to life by the genuine article, and in this case, that’s the Chinese Hercules himself, Bolo Yeung. Donald Gibb handles the role of Dux’s fellow Kumite competitor and close friend Ray Jackson, while Roy Chiao masterfully embodies his mentor Shidoshi Senzo Tanaka, with a host of tremendous martial arts masters making up the supporting cast (including Forest Whitaker, although his martial arts background goes unseen throughout the film, unfortunately).
Frank Dux, Ninjitsu master and captain in the U.S. Army, makes his pilgrimage to Hong Kong for the Kumite – a full-contact, invitation-only, and at times deadly martial arts competition carried out in secret every five years. In doing so, he hopes to honor his dying mentor, Shidoshi Senzo Tanaka, who took on Dux as his disciple to carry on the Tanaka family way of Ninjitsu after the death of his actual son and Dux’s close friend, Shingo. Dux’s military superiors, however, believe the risk of serious injury or death in the Kumite is too great thus sending two agents after him. Nevertheless, Dux’s determination to compete is iron clad – initially refused entry into the tournament, Dux’s invitation is honored after he puts on an amazing display of Dim Mak. Dux quickly makes a name for himself after setting a new world record in his first fight, which unfortunately also angers the previous record-holder and reigning Kumite champion, the vicious aggressor Chong Li.
In the pantheon of martial arts tournament films, “Bloodsport” is without a doubt one of the greats. The opening training montage alone assures the viewer that they’ve gotten their money’s worth with the wide range of styles and training methods on display from Sumo to Capoeira to Monkey Kung Fu. If you can’t tell that Chong Li is the man to beat at the Kumite by who’s playing him, his skill at smashing through blocks of ice will certainly do the trick. We first meet Frank Dux at the end of the opening montage, kicking the life out of a speed bag with a deftly timed, continuous roundhouse-kick-spinning-heel-kick combination and we instantly get what the film is telling us –the fighters attending the Kumite are so impressively capable, that there isn’t a man among them who isn’t capable of killing someone with his bare hands! Well, none that is, except for Ray Jackson, with whom Dux becomes close friends in the competition.
Jackson’s presence in the Kumite is arguably the most glaring flaw in the film – he possess no visible training, which given the talent of the fighters he’s up against, makes it downright miraculous that he lasts as long as he does (though, admittedly, he is on a quest to add “a few more scars on my face”). Moreover, just how and why he is permitted to compete isn’t entirely clear, given the highly clandestine nature of the tournament and the skill-level fighters are required to be at in order to enter…! Nevertheless, Jackson is still a perfectly likeable character and his bond with Dux over the course of the tournament is a refreshing counterpoint to the antagonism characters often have with one another in tournament films.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is a specimen of awesome physical perfection in the film. Indeed, he all but outright screams “Look what I can do!” directly at the viewer every time he spirals through a textbook flying, spinning kick or spreads his super-elastic legs from one chair to another. However, the film is cognizant to show us how Dux got to where he is, courtesy of one of the greatest training montages in history in which he endures the harsh tutelage of Shidoshi Tanaka to prove himself worthy to carry on his master’s Ninjitsu legacy. When the Kumite gets started, the film is a non-stop rush of action, quite literally kicked off by Dux’s first match and followed thereafter by yet another unforgettable montage sequence set to Stan Bush’s “Fight to Survive”, a true classic among martial arts fans if ever there was one. Among the more memorable matchups in the Kumite itself is Dux’s duel with a Japanese Sumo wrestler, where the viewer gets to see Van Damme’s kicking skills and flexibility along with the earlier demonstration of Dim Mak that got him into the tournament all put to use in combat.
Later, Dux goes up against a Muay Thai master, played by the great Paulo Tocha, a highly esteemed real-life Muay Thai champion, with their duel calling upon Dux to summon all his power to take hits as well as dishing them out – it truly hurts to look at how many roundhouse kicks to the ribs each of them takes here! However, the main event is, of course, Dux’s challenging of the Kumite throne against Chong Li. If there’s any shortcoming to be found in “Enter the Dragon”, it’s that the audience was ultimately deprived of what would have surely have been a tremendous duel between Bolo Yeung and Bruce Lee, but “Bloodsport” does not go down that same path. The final fight is a clash of two respective legends of martial arts, and a true monument to the eye-opening abilities of the film’s two lead stars. The added bonus of (are you listening, modern action filmmakers?) is the complete absence of intrusive editing and extreme close-ups!
“Bloodsport” is easily one of the best martial arts tournament films ever. Launching Jean-Claude Van Damme into superstardom, it flawlessly merges expertly executed action sequences with several of the greatest training and fighting montages ever put to film. A review of “Bloodsport” just doesn’t do the film justice without closing on the soundtrack of its most famous montage and bringing it to life enjoy!
- The real Frank Dux served as the film’s fight choreographer, and put Jean-Claude Van Damme through an intensive training regimen in preparation for the film. Van Damme would later describe this training as the toughest he’d ever experienced.
- In the show “Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors”, Van Damme revealed that he frequently worked 20-hour days while making the film, and the final fight with him and Bolo Yeung was filmed in an unusually fast, half a day!
- The “Mortal Kombat” character Johnny Cage was modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme. His appearance in the first game in the series closely resembles Van Damme’s portrayal of Frank Dux, with the black shorts and red sash, and Johnny Cage’s groin punch move while performing a split is taken directly from “Bloodsport”.