If you were born in the 1980s like I was, and you were a kid that was into action films, then Jean-Claude Van Damme was the man. Stereotypically speaking, many guys see doing the splits as painful and somehow not athletic. Van Damme made it look cool. He was also able to bridge the gap of martial arts stars between Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973 and the next wave of such screen giants to come in the late 1990s led by Jet Li. Most of his movies are kind of silly, unless you are an adolescent who cares more about how awesome a kick is rather than whether or not a story makes a lick of sense. One of the slightly more serious ones is Bloodsport (1988).
Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is an officer in the American army, and he is introduced to us straightaway in Bloodsport with his famous high kicks knocking a speed bag (a device typically used by boxers) back and forth. His dream is to travel to Hong Kong to take part in the infamous Kumite fighting tournament bringing in martial artists from around the world. Unfortunately for him, the army is not keen to let their “asset” go overseas and potentially get his brains beat in because they somehow know of his intentions. Thus he has to sneak off the base, but before he leaves he stops in to see his Shidoshi (martial arts instructor), Tanaka (Roy Chiao). While there, we are treated to one of the longest flashbacks in cinematic history. Okay, that is hyperbole, but Franks stands motionless in his teacher’s living room staring at a sword for what must have been an uncomfortable amount of time had anyone else been in the room while he reminisces about the life that led him to his training. Tanaka is sick in-bed, and Frank vows to his teacher that he will fulfill his goal of being a Kumite champion. Once in Hong Kong, Frank meets other competitors, namely the beer guzzling, hulking form of Jackson (Donald Gibb), and they become friends. The rest are, to put it nicely, standoffish. At their hotel, he also encounters Janice (Leah Ayres), a reporter determined to get a scoop on the Kumite tournament, for some reason. Frank and Janice begin a romance after he saves her from other fighters staying at the hotel who want to, um, take advantage of her? Filling out the essential cast of characters here are a pair of American agents, Helmer (Norman Burton) and Rawlins (Forest Whitaker), of some undetermined ilk, tasked with trying to prevent Frank from taking part in the fights and to bring him back to the United States. Oh, and I cannot forget Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), the current champion and main antagonist. As this is a martial movie, I will let you make understandable assumptions about the rest: punch-punch, kick-kick, Frank sticks in the tournament, faces Chong Li in the final, and becomes the next Kumite champion. This is also apparently based on a true story, so there is an extra layer for you.
Sort of like Ip Man in, well, Ip Man, Frank in Bloodsport is a pretty humble dude. He knows he is skilled, but he does not flaunt it. There is a quiet confidence to him that is admirable. And while I do not necessarily condone such brutality, his purpose for fighting in the Kumite is a noble one. He wishes to honor his teacher, the father figure who taught him karate, and I believe there is a commandment to that effect. What I feel most akin to in Frank is his dedication, his single-minded purpose. When Jesus was on Earth, he knew that he must go to His death on the Cross because it was for this pursuit that He was ordained to be in the world in human form. In the time leading up to this moment, in various ways, He revealed his plan to his friends and disciples, but was met with incredulity. For example, Peter goes so far as to rebuke Jesus when the full plan is told to him. Jesus likens Peter in this moment to satan, and tells the rock upon which the Church is built that he is acting as an impediment to God’s plan. One can look at this exchange and believe that Jesus was truly angry with Peter, though a little more reflection and the rest of Salvation History will tell you that was not the case. Jesus knew (and knows) the human mind and heart better than we ever can, and thus understands why people might react unfavorably to such an awful destiny. I kind of see this in how Frank handles the doubts cast upon him by the agents and Janice. They cannot understand why anyone would want to put themselves through such punishment. But when you have a vision, particularly a strong one, nothing will be right until it is fulfilled.
Also like Ip Man, Bloodsport is not one for the whole family, although it is not as extreme as one might think. There are other Jean-Claude Van Damme films that are actually more over-the-top with their violence and sexuality. There is the suggestion that Frank and Janice spent an “adult night” together, although the worst thing you see from it is Van Damme’s butt the next morning. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the killer 1980s film montages that pad out the length. Without them, this movie would probably clock-in at about an hour. But when you think about it, is any film complete without mega-rock chords being played over a string of scenes where our main characters look wistfully into the distance or run from the authorities?