Director – Newt Arnold
Writer – Shelby Lettich
Starring – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Bolo Yeung, Forest Whitaker
There was once a Karateka (Karate student) from Belgium who was relatively successful. After 4 years of training he gained a spot in the Belgian National team training and competing in semi-contact karate, full contact karate and kickboxing. From 1976, until his retirement of competition in 1982, Van Damme had been fairly successful in competition Karate.
In 1975 a new school of Ninjitsu emerged in America: Dux-Ryu Ninjitsu, created by Frank Dux following the teachings he had by Senzo Tenaka. Dux-Ryu was Frank’s form of fighting. Much of Frank Dux’ stories have been disputed and the validity of Dux’ skills and history have also been questioned. Nevertheless, Bloodsport is his story. It’s the story of how a young man with a troubled youth fought in a deadly contest.
If you take the potential controversy out of the equation, you’re left with a solid film. An average story told badly. The essence of this film is the fighting, it’s the choreography that makes it.
Given van Damme’s true and documented history, he’s perfect for a role like this. The 1980s had a trend of using martial arts champions in badly scripted movies to showcase their skills. Numerous stars have been found through this process which acted as inspiration for me to get involved in martial arts.
These films usually have a set ingredient. The formula usually shows some training, a dilemma for the hero and an outcome. The main filling for these movies tends to be fighting. Bloodsport is no exception.
The dilemma in this case recurs. Initially Frank is introduced to training after being found trying to steal, his training is an effort to put him on the right tracks. Following a crisis with his teacher, his training is at risk and then continued. As a martial artist, in particular as a teenager in 1988, training scenes were pure inspiration. The question of how extreme or different something could be with practical fighting use. These films always seemed to try and outdo each other.
Frank decides he wants to honour his teacher and take part in the “Kumite”, a potentially deadly full contact contest with no rules. Avoiding his work for the military he goes AWOL to take part. An added strand of the story is the efforts of the army to capture him and return him home.
Enter the fighting scenes. To the uninitiated within martial arts, they’re all the same. To those who train, different cultures have developed different styles and focus on differing things. Here the choreography comes into its own. Ninjitsu as art encompasses everything, Sumo tends to focus on power based techniques, Muay Thai concentrates on strong kicks using your shin to hurt your opponent. Bloodsport mixes these carefully, demonstrating the main strengths of these and other arts and leaving the observer to see if Frank Dux and his training can deal with a host of various styles.
This film is cheesy, overacted and, for its time, fairly brutal. It’s highly predictable but it’s great fun. The training scenes and soundtrack make it. It’s not something I’d push people to see. If you have an interest in van Damme , Bolo Yeung or Michel Qissi, maybe. If you’re curious about the disputed life of Frank Dux, certainly. For everyone else I’d suggest you watch this if you can but there’s no need to go out of your way to see it. The story has been done and remade in many other forms. Curiously, Jean-Claude van Damme and Michel Qissi pretty much remade this film in the form of Kickboxer (1989). The Quest, van Damme’s directorial debut, is a virtual reincarnation of this movie and many other forms of this story have been put to film over the years.
Gary Dugdale lives in Newcastle, UK and can be found on Twitter @Gary_Dugdale