It’s hard to argue how better off action stars seem to be with the less frills they have. Viewers didn’t need rambunctious kids around to fall in love with Jackie Chan, and Sylvester Stallone captured our attention not as a muscle-bound quip machine but as an everyman trying to get by. Sometimes, the best recipe calls for just one dude and some other dudes with faces to be recipients of that first dude’s fists, which is where 1988’s Bloodsport comes in. One of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s initial forays into martial arts cinema, this movie should by all accounts not work; the screenplay and its many useless subplots are about as directionless as the characters who fill its pages. Yet by some miracle, Bloodsport entertains regardless, a film of slapdash badassery that knows when to hit hard and when to have a good, cheesy laugh.
For centuries, a fighting tournament has been held in great secrecy. Contestants from all around the world are summoned by invitation to prove their worth, displaying their own individual styles in full-contact, anything-goes beatdown. They call this ceremony…Mortal Kom– no, wait, scratch that. My bad. It’s known as the Kumite, and so important is it that soldier Frank Dux (Van Damme) attend, he ditches the service and catches a flight to Hong Kong just in time for the big brawl. For Frank, the Kumite is the culmination of years of training under his beloved sensei (Roy Chiao), but not everyone is as understanding of his desires. In addition to the government men (Forest Whitaker and Norman Burton) tasked with bringing him back to the States, Frank finds himself shadowed by a reporter (Leah Ayres) hoping to infiltrate the tournament and get the scoop of a lifetime. But all this is nothing compared to the opponents our hero comes to face, a laundry list of fighters who only get rougher and bloodier the closer Frank gets to victory.
Bloodsport is at once both incredibly simplistic and needlessly complicated. It borrows one of the most basic but reliable set-ups in martial arts movie history: the tournament. It comes ready-made with the framework for conflict between Frank and an array of antagonists, not to mention ample space for a wide range of combat techniques to be shown off. Barring a couple narrative gaps to be filled, Bloodsport should’ve written itself, yet the movie goes out of its way to make the finer details especially confounding for no good reason. For the entire film, Frank is driven to take part in the Kumite as a way of proving himself to his master; that’d be great, if the audience was ever told why some super-secret, presumably highly illegal fighting contest filled with scumbags galore meant so much to the old guy. On that note, it’s hard to buy into the mystique of the Kumite — hidden away from the civilized world in a part of Hong Kong that supposedly chews up foreigners and spits them out — when apparently just anyone can waltz in and watch, be it the go-getting reporter or the two G-men who sit in on some matches while no one bats an eye. I realize that ’80s action flicks (especially ones like this from the notorious Cannon gang) aren’t the ones to turn to for bastions of clever writing, but it says something when one of them makes a premise as bare-bones as “sweaty guy clobbers other sweaty guys” too much of a puzzler.
But even with these nagging nuisances making themselves known time and again, Bloodsport still retains an infectiously engaging vibe. It helps that it has a somewhat more realistic bent to its than other martial arts titles with similar plots; the Kumite isn’t held in some grand palace by a mastermind whom you couldn’t imagine being that rich and bored, but rather a skeezy hole in the wall that polite society has left behind. The combatants look like an honestly intimidating pack of hombres, with even the ones who don’t have any dialogue (which covers most of the roster) expressing some kind of personality. There’s the Muay Thai guy, the sumo-ish guy, and so on, all culminating in Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, a force of nature with the nastiest mean streak this side of a Cobra Kai dojo. The fight scenes themselves are exhilarating and well-choreographed, packed with lots of wide shots that nicely capture each contestant’s physicality. As our hero of the hour (erm, hour and a half, that is), Van Damme shows that while his command of the English language was as shaky this early on in his career as it was after he found fame, the charisma and athleticism he exhibits here are undeniably. Some of the expressions he makes throughout the picture have since become the stuff of internet meme legend, but silly as they are, ol’ JCVD sells the hell out of them, performing feat upon feat (including his trademark splits at least a half-dozen times) that never cease to make viewers hurl their Cheetos in the air out of sheer amazement.
It’s so rough around the edges that you could get lockjaw by looking at it, but dadgummit, Bloodsport was a blast. The flick has a gnarly exploitation mentality and a budget just a touch higher than the norm to bring its creators’ vision to life; in other words, it doesn’t look like a snuff film, but it’s not so steeped in overproduced fantasy that the action has no weight whatsoever. As ludicrous as it can be and often is, Bloodsport compensates for its chintzier side with unabashed machismo and a handful of scuffles that sure look like they left their share of bruises.