The crowd gathered for the not-so-secret Kumite clamors for the next spectacle of Bloodsport. They have already received their first dose of action based on the first of countless waves of montages showcasing fighters from around the world engaged in full contact fighting.
What they receive next is an anomaly of sorts. He stands 6’4”, weighs probably north of 250 and might as well be from Bad Street USA. He sports a Harley Davidson bandana, black sweatpants, and an out of place orange sash that seems mandatory like ties and jackets in certain restaurants. His connection with the crowd is a combination of awe-struck excitement and genuine fear that he might suddenly bring his attack upon them. Similar to the Ultimate Warrior’s energy, running around the canvas, pumping his arms and chanting his name.
Ray Jackson could have come straight out of Vince McMahon’s WWF in the 1980’s. However, his opponent on the other hand, looks like the lead singer of the local Wham! cover band. Meorge Gichael gets in a quick kick that would rattle any other opponent. But of course, Jackson seemingly eats Mario’s mushroom and delivers the super rabbit punch from hell that turns Gicheal’s nose into cherry pie, ending the fight rather quickly. If only this was Ray Jackson’s movie, the fish out of water martial arts comedy we all very much deserve.
Instead, Bloodsport is Frank Dux’s movie, based on the life and likely fiction of the same man. This week marks 30 years since this film brought a mainstream audience to the talents of Jean Claude Van Damme. Here, we have a movie that’s 100% product of its time. It’s pure 80’s from endless montages, synth instrumental beats and reliance on action first, while developing characters and plot later. It brilliantly suffers from painful dubbing, obvious ADR (automated dialogue replacement), and one-take no direction acting by most of the supporting cast. What should also be noted is the most ambitious flashback prologue ever conceived in the history of cinema – Bringing another level of parody from how Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story deconstructed the biopic formula.
But there’s still a reason why it carries a 6.8 on IMDB, and it has nothing to do with any of the above mentioned. Bloodsport succeeds at being exactly what its supposed to be: It’s Rocky IV in a karate gi.
Van Damme’s character might not feel like a real underdog, but he elicits enough sympathy based on his backstory to be a solid protagonist that we all want to root for. And if that wasn’t enough, once Jackson turns into a near dead Apollo Creed at the hands of Chong Li, it becomes vastly evident who the big fight has to be against. Watching them both journey toward that end is quite enjoyable, as Dux executes his martial arts like a ballet or symphony, where as Li dismantles opponents with brute force and styles of other fighters mixed in between.
It’s hard to say whether younger audiences nowadays would care about Bloodsport like the kids in the 80’s and 90’s did, revering Van Damme’s sub genre of martial arts films. It is indeed outrageous to call Warrior a comp to this film, but if the former was made in 1988… it would surely resemble the latter.
Even as it was a product of its time, that didn’t stop Van Damme from trying to remake the movie in the form of 1996’s The Quest. Bringing back the martial arts with an immense budget upgrade, it relied way too heavily on the bathos surrounding his character’s journey through yet another perilous tournament. Bloodsport is brilliant, if you will, in that it has just enough melodrama to check off the box before moving back into more fighting. It knows exactly what it is… and that is its greatest strength.
By William Renken