Bloodsport Is Peak Van Damme.
In 1988 Cannon Films would finally unleash a movie upon the world that had been sat on their shelves gathering dust for a couple of years.
The movie in question starred a young, thickly accented Belgian martial artist in his first leading role as well as a veteran, monosyllabic Chinese bodybuilder as the main villain and would be set within the walls of an inhospitable no man’s land ruled by gangsters and bootleggers.
That movie was Bloodsport. To say Cannon didn’t have faith in the movie would be an understatement, in fact, they came within weeks of scrapping it altogether until the movies young star, Jean-Claude Van Damme took it upon himself to re-edit the movie and coax the b-movie legends into releasing it.
Thankfully, for everyone involved, they did just that and by the end of 1988, Bloodsport had become the company’s most successful movie of the year and instantly propelled Van Damme to action movie stardom. Now, 30 years later we take a look back at the cult classic and discuss why, all these years later, it is still Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ultimate magnum opus.
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10. It has Forest Whitaker in it
I think most will agree that action movies get a bad rap when it comes to the acting stakes, so the fact that Bloodsport has a future Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe winner among its ranks certainly lends weight to its claim as being one of the best action movies ever. Forest Whitaker plays Rawlins, the rookie to Norman Burton’s grizzled Helmer as the bumbling taser wielding CID officers tasked with bringing Frank Dux back from Hong Kong.
As you can probably guess, this was a fairly early movie role for Whitaker coming at a time when he was transitioning from television work to films. Having spent most of the eighties appearing in walk on parts in shows such as Diff’rent Strokes and The Fall Guy, Whitaker’s career was on something on an upswing by the time he appeared in Bloodsport coming off the back of appearances in Hollywood smashes The Color of Money, Platoon and Good Morning, Vietnam.
His quality as an actor is evident throughout Bloodsport, displaying great comic timing and some brilliant slapstick moments as he and Helmer are foiled at every turn by Dux. Whitaker’s career would of course come on in leaps and bounds as the nineties hit and today he is considered one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, which makes it even more of a guilty pleasure seeing him chasing Van Damme through the streets of Hong Kong and cheering along with the rest of us at the movies climax.
A lot of actors could have played Rawlins as a stock heavy, but it took an actor of Whitaker’s quality to find the charm and humor in the role and in turn taking a generic character and making him a memorable one.
9. That soundtrack
Let’s face it, when it comes to soundtracks and scores, the eighties owns all other eras. The rise of the synth brought a whole new sound to movie soundtracks and they are used to full effect all over Bloodsport by composer Paul Hertzog.
He manages to capture the mood of the movie perfectly throughout ranging from dark mysterious pieces to far more airy and light themes during the movies reflective moments. Okay, that might sound all a bit arthouse-y, but I dare you to listen to the soundtrack and not be transported back to Hong Kong in the late eighties, he really does smash it here.
However, I think for most the highlights probably come with the three signature tracks, Steal the Night by Michael Bishop and Stan Bush’s Fight to Survive and On My Own. All three are perfect slices of eighties power pop and will have you singing along after just one viewing and let’s face it, when a basically unknown song (let alone three) can do that, you’re onto a winner.
Hertzog would also return the following year to score Van Damme’s Kickboxer as well as Breathing Fire in 1991 starring none other than Bolo Yeung giving him a long lasting legacy for Bloodsport fans and actors alike.
8. Ken Siu as Victor Lin
Ken Siu’s acting career was something of a flash in the pan, lasting just four years over the course of five movies but in Bloodsport he stands out as one of the most memorable characters by far.
As the fast talking bespectacled Victor Lin he acts as the interpreter and guide to Frank Dux and Ray Jackson in Hong Kong and is the man who helps get Dux into the Kumite, admonishing officials with the line ‘what’s the difference if Bruce Springsteen is his shidoshi?‘ when they question Dux’s training. Throughout the movie he pops up with pieces of sage advice and at times, savage sarcasm making him highlight every time he’s on screen.
However, it was off screen that Siu’s career was far more prolific as a director, assistant director and writer in his own right and we find him pulling double duty here too as the assistant to another legendary assistant director, Newt Arnold in one of the latter’s few directorial roles.
Siu continued to have a long running career as an assistant throughout the nineties and well into the 21st century working alongside Van Damme again in the following years with Kickboxer and in a number of Hong Kong movies as well as Rush Hour alongside Jackie Chan. But it’s a Victor Lin that Bloodsport fans will remember him best with I’m sure many agreeing that it’s a crying shame that we don’t have enough of him committed to tape.
7. The Coolest Fighters
I think sometimes martial arts movies can be guilty of being a little generic when it comes to presenting opponents, not Bloodsport though. Sure, there’s a quite few Bruce Lee-alikes here (it is set in Hong Kong after all), but among them are some of the coolest and most memorable fighters ever committed to celluloid and it’s this variety that keeps you wanting more when it comes to the tournament scenes.
There’s someone for everyone here, whether it’s Joao Gomez whose tactics appear to be win via voodoo curse, the guy who mirrors Dux move for move or future Tong Po, Suan Paredes and his brittle leg, but I think for most the favorites (outside of the main cast) have to be one of the following trio. First up we have Pumola, the giant and deceptively ripped sumo guy, who in my head has always been from Mongolia.
I think he was probably one of the favorites to win the tournament outright, he seems pretty impervious until Dux punches him in the nether regions causing the big man to collapse. It’s a low blow both figuratively and literally and I’m not sure we can really blame the giant for hitting the mat after that.
Next up we have Paco, the Muay Thai boxer with easily the best shorts in the entire tournament. Like Pumola, Paco has to be another tournament favorite as he demonstrates throughout that he is one double hard fighter, none more so when he and Dux have the kick off into each others ribs. In the end it takes a signature roundhouse kick of the highest order to put him down. I’m still waiting for the return fight on this one.
And last but certainly not least, my personal favorite: Ricardo Morra. Okay, so the name might not ring a bell and arguably, doesn’t really fit the character, but if I say Monkey Style Fighter, you’ll instantly know who I mean. How can you not love a fighter who hops around the entire time and trains by smashing coconuts off of branches?
Politically correct it isn’t, but it still makes him the stand out guy for me and he actually fights pretty successfully throughout, leaving me in no doubt that we need a Dux vs Morra fight in our lives. So there you have it. What other movie brings you that kind of diversity and all out insanity when it comes to opponents?
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6. The Dux/Jackson Bromance
A bromance before bromances were cool, Dux and Ray Jackson hit it off instantly as the unlikely couple of the movie and actually share some pretty un-action-like tender moments together. Jackson is as brash as they come and immediately makes you think he’s going to be yet another villain for Dux to overcome, but he flips it instantly to become Dux’s most loyal ally.
Quite what a fighter as unskilled as Jackson is doing in the Kumite is never made apparent but his fascination and support of Dux is endearing and he does prove himself to be a pretty tough dude when taking a beating, so we’ll let him off. The massive Donald Gibb is perfectly cast here. Probably best known for being Ogre in Return of the Nerds up to this point he is the perfect combination of imposing and lovable and it’s due to this that you actually get your heart strings tugged when this great bear of a human finds himself in dire straits.
Since Bloodsport Gibb’s career has mainly consisted of television cameos, where his size and comedic qualities can be utilized to their full effect, however he would return as Ray Jackson in the Van Damme-less Bloodsport sequel, The Next Kumite (1996) making him the only member of the original cast to appear in both movies.
As far as I know Gibbs and Van Damme haven’t shared any screen time together since Bloodsport, which is a shame as they had great chemistry together, however in terms of the Bloodsport universe, let’s hope Dux and Jackson are still sat in a bar somewhere hunched over a game of Karate Champ and arguing over who’s tougher.
5. Montages upon Montages
Every truly great action movie needs some montages and Bloodsport delivers them by the bucket load. Whether it’s flashbacks, training or fight sequences, Bloodsport has you covered. The best and most iconic come when Frank Dux is being trained by his Shidoshi, Senzo Tanaka in place of Tanaka’s late son and Dux’s friend, Shingo.
Tasks include fishing goldfish with his hands, blindfolded waiter service and of course the tree splits, because let’s face it, are you really watching a Van Damme movie if no one does the splits? This also gives us some great fight scenes between Dux and Tanaka with Roy Chiao playing the old master perfectly, giving Van Damme a real run for his money and a great bit of background info into why Dux finds himself at the Kumite.
However, the biggest shout-out has to go to Pierre Rafini who plays Young Frank in flashback scenes. Now, I’m sure Pierre is a perfectly nice person, but an actor he was not. I can only assume that poor old Pierre was the only teenager in Hong Kong with anything resembling a Belgian accent because he bears no resemblance to Jean-Claude, appears to have no martial arts skills and even less acting chops.
But still, it adds an unintentional level of comedy that wouldn’t be there otherwise and a couple very quotable moments. He wasn’t going to steal the katana, honest.
4. Location Location Location
Hong Kong is an ever evolving city, with such a dense population certain areas find themselves under constant redevelopment meaning that each time it is committed to film it could be the last time that it looks as it does.
In Bloodsport the city becomes a character in itself, with the neon lights, high-rise buildings and beautiful harbor all playing the perfect backdrop to some of the movies best scenes. However, it is the Kowloon Walled City, where the Kumite is taking place that is the star of the show. Notorious for its crime and black-marketeering the Walled City was as dangerous as it was made out to be in the movie for an outsider.
Still, this didn’t stop people spending their entire lives within its winding corridors and many levels and the city would see entire generations come and go within it. In 1987 (the year after Bloodsport was filmed) the Hong Kong government would announce its plans to demolish the city, but it would take until 1994 for the eviction to be completed, with many unhappy to leave their homes despite what seemed like poor living conditions to outsiders.
The city would also become the setting or inspiration for many movies, books and video games through the years, however of all of those only Bloodsport and Long Arm of the Law actually filmed within the walls, making the footage in Bloodsport of genuine historical interest as a document of some of the final years within Kowloon.
3. Chong Li
If there has been a more imposing movie villain than Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, I am yet to find them. Despite only standing at around 5’6, Bolo’s solid mass and planet sized pectorals make him someone you instantly know you don’t want to mess with. The man just exudes strength and all round menace and he turns this up to eleven to play Chong Li. Brutal and sadistic, Chong Li is the ultimate movie villain who will stop at nothing to break those who dare oppose him.
By the time Bloodsport came around Bolo was certainly no newcomer to the movies, having starred in hundreds of Hong Kong productions since the early seventies and was probably best known for appearing opposite Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (the movie where his Bolo nickname came from) as well as dozens of ‘Bruceploitation’ movies following the great man’s death.
Despite this, Bloodsport is often considered his breakout movie to Western audiences and he would parlay this into a successful B-Movie career throughout the late eighties and nineties opposite the likes of Jahal Merhi and Billy Blanks as well as teaming up with Van Damme again for Double Impact. But it’s as Chong Li that he truly shined and it’ll be a long time before action movies sees a character quite as destructive as the South Korean killing machine again.
2. It’s a True Story, sort of…
The real Frank Dux with Jean Claude Van Damme.
Or, not at all really, depending on who you believe. As it turn out, the behind the scenes story of the real Frank Dux is nearly as interesting and arguably twice as strange as the actual movie. A controversial figure, Dux’s increasingly outrageous claims about his past life has left him a polarizing figure within the martial arts community with many going out of their way to try and debunk him.
Despite this, he still has his supporters (as well as followers of his Dux Ryu Ninjitsu system) and was once considered credible enough to appear in a now iconic 1980 Black Belt Magazine article which detailed his appearances in the Kumite and in a way, planted the seeds for Bloodsport. Away from his martial arts career, Dux has also spoken extensively about his life as a covert military operative, which apparently took him all over the world, requiring him to use his martial arts skills in variety of situations that would make even James Bond flinch.
To this day, Dux continues to assert that his claims are complete fact despite others stating otherwise (perhaps most famously in a 1988 L.A. Times expose) and while it is easy to dismiss what he says as the rantings of a madman, there are just enough seeds of fact there to make you think twice. For a start there’s the infamous receipt that the 1988 story is based around.
Allegedly the proof that Dux bought and commissioned the Kumite trophy himself the receipt contains numerous factual errors ranging from the misspelling of Dux’s name to a completely different description of the trophy in question, it was later dismissed as inadmissible evidence in court. Then there’s a certain U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alexander Martin who listed Frank Dux as one of a number of covert military agents while under oath, something which Dux used in yet another court case, this time against Soldier of Fortune Magazine.
Then finally we have the aforementioned Senzo Tanaka, the mysterious elderly Japanese man who apparently taught Dux all he knows. Long since dismissed as a figment of Dux’s fruitful imagination (and perhaps inspired by Senzo ‘Tiger’ Tanaka in the Ian Fleming novel You Only Lived Twice) due to the apparent fact that no Senzo Tanaka lived in California at the time, modern internet family history records have revealed that there was in fact indeed a Senzo Tanaka living precisely where Dux claims and who died in 1975 at the age of 87. Coincidence?
Possibly, but like a lot of the claims around Dux’s life, these things are just as impossible to verify as they are to refute. Whichever side of the fence you land on, the fact remains that Frank Dux is an accomplished martial artist who at the very least is a great story teller and who without, Bloodsport wouldn’t be the cult classic it is today.
1. The Muscles from Brussels
Well, who else could really have topped the list? This might have been Jean-Claude’s first leading role but it’s virtually impossible to think of anyone who could have played Frank Dux better. To many, it would have seemed like Van Damme became a star overnight, but after a successful martial arts career back in his home country he had actually been in the United States since the early eighties with friend (and Bloodsport co-star) Michel Qissi doing part time jobs while they tried to gain the attention of Hollywood.
His quest for stardom had seen him make a few appearances as an extra in various movies (most famously alongside Qissi in Breakin‘) as well as a stint as a Soviet villain in Corey Yuen’s No Retreat, No Surrender. His big break looked to have come when he was cast as The Predator opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, however production issues and costume changes ultimately saw him replaced by the giant Kevin Peter Hall after just a few weeks in the jungle.
He was soon back on the job hunt and the story goes that Van Damme met Cannon head-honcho Menahem Golan in the street and impressed the Israeli mogul by doing some of his trademark kicks right there in front of him, thus landing the role of Dux. The slightly more mundane reality is probably closer to the fact that producer Mark Di Salle wanted an action star with sex appeal (see gratuitous slow pulling up of underwear) but that could also kick ass, Van Damme simply fit the bill.
He and Qissi would soon be signed to deals with Cannon and Bloodsport would be the first in a series of movies for the legendary schlock merchants. Unbelievably, Bloodpsort was actually shelved for some time which in the meantime saw Van Damme take the role of another Soviet villain, this time in Black Eagle before Bloodsport was eventually given the greenlight (after being re-edited by Van Damme himself) and in turn gave Cannon their newest action star.
The movie would eventually gross over $65m worldwide and would propel Van Damme into the A-List of action stars for most of the nineties, becoming one of the most profitable martial arts stars ever in the process. However, as successful as he became, very few of his films produced the instant charm and sheer entertainment value that Bloodsport contained and that is why, 30 years later it is still the Magnum Opus in the career of the Muscles from Brussels. Kumite, Kumite, Kumite!
Article by Will Carter – B-Movie obsessive and record shop employee living in Yorkshire, England. Contributor to Retro Cool and The Gravel Crew and long suffering car enthusiast. Genuinely believes there’s never been a better contribution to movie history than Bloodsport. Let us know what you think in the comments!
Michael Young wants to know, Kickboxer or Bloodsport?
Good review. Succinct. Just saw the movie for the first time. I remember when it was at the theaters, but had no interest in Jean ATT, and am glad I waited. I appreciate it more probably for its innocence of the time.
I know Golan’s ex-wife pretty well. She told me the kick “audition” is true. Jean waited for him, introduced himself and then did a super-kick but stopped inches from Golan’s face. He nearly shit his pants, she said.
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