They say the body is a temple, and that may well be true. If it is, then my temple is a kind of run down, ramshackle type of affair that someone has converted into a funky eatery. Jean-Claude Van Damme's body on the other hand is a lavish, ornate place with all the bells and whistles, gold leaf, bas reliefs, and tapestries galore. There's no greater example of Van Damme's temple in action than 1988's Bloodsport, the movie that established JCVD as a major action star and catapulted him into the vaulted category with Stallone, Arnold, and Segal. As Jean-Claude stretched, punched, and kicked his way to the top of an underground fighting tournament, the Muscles from Brussels is far from the vulnerable actor he portrayed in the self titled JCVD. This is the young Van Damme who would just as well punch you in the face as impress you with his painful looking splits. Paired with the "true life" story of Frank Dux (pronounced Dookes), Jean-Claude made one of his best action features ever, and a great addition to National Blood Donation Month.
Frank Dux (Van Damme) goes AWOL from the Army in order to travel to Japan to take part in the Kumite, an underground full contact fighting tournament. He travels there to honor his teacher, Senso Tanaka (Roy Chiao), who taught him the way of martial arts after the Senso's own son tragically died. Once in Japan, Frank finds himself to be one of the few Western fighters, and he soon makes friends with Ray (Donald Gibb), a rough and tumble redneck looking to start trouble at the Kumite. Ray taunts champion Cong Li (Bolo Yeung), a decision he would come to regret, and one that pits Frank and Cong Li on a collision course. As the tournament progresses, Frank continues to climb through the single elimination bouts while romancing a journalist and being pursued by American agents sent to bring him back to uncle Sam. Needless to say, he's a busy fellow, but he has time enough for a few montages, a chase sequence to one of the worst songs ever, and to bring his whole body and face into the performance.
This was not Jean-Claude's first film. He had appeared in a number of small parts, sometimes un-credited, in movies like Breakin' and Missing in Action. Bloodsport is really the movie that made JCVD a household name, and it also should have brought his facial acting skills to the fore of every conversation. I don't know that I can even adequately explain how expressive Van Damme is with his face, and I'm not just talking about when he'd fighting. Surely then he makes tons of grimaces and Bruce Lee-eque poses, but what I'm talking about is in his downtime. Before he even starts a line, he contorts his face into the emotion he's about to deliver. This is very handy if you're watching the film with the sound off, and you might as well. Bloodsport is an action packed film that fun to watch, but if you signed on for plot advancement that doesn't involve someone getting smacked around, then you're going to run into some difficulty here. The lack of plot really doesn't hinder Bloodsport, but it is very interesting to see how bare bones the plot (and Jean-Claude's acting) was compared to later films in his oeuvre.
Bloodsport was the last film directed by Newt Arnold. He was primarily a second unit or assistant director for films like The Goonies, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Alien Nation, and he had not directed his own feature since 1971's Blood Thrist, a Manila based horror tale. I found the style of capturing the action filmed by Arnold and cinematographer David Worth (Never Too Young To Die) to be perfect for actually seeing the fights. One of my big criticisms of modern action films is that the violence is always films from so close up that it is impossible to tell what is going on. Arnold fills his movie with wife shots and well placed close-ups. Sure there were a number of occasions where the angles didn't do the choreography any favors, but the blows that look like they landed home convinced me well enough that I don't want to do any full contact fighting. It also made me long for the olden days of MMA before that became all about sweaty dudes laying on a mat. Back then you could see a Sumo go up against a Muey Thai fighter, and it was awesome. That's truly one of the best parts of Bloodsport. Who doesn't want to see the guy fighting like a monkey get bear hugged til he passes out? Who doesn't want to see a Kung Fu fighter brawl with a redneck? Commies, that's who.
Donald Gibb is perhaps known best to folks as Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds films, but I really enjoyed seeing him take on a character with a bit more personality. Plus, in his first scene, he plays the old school Karate Champ game with Van Damme, and that is just cool. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Leah Ayres as Frank's journalist gal pal. The love story is extremely wedged into the story, and Ms. Ayres makes no impression in her few scenes. Other than the fact that she's just about the only woman in the movie, I couldn't see a reason that Frank's character would go for her. I needed her to be a bit more Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall in Big Touble in Little China) and less of a wan love interest. The two other actors who really make an impression are Bolo Yeung and Ken Siu. Yeung looms large, literally, over the proceedings as Chong Li, and his presence gives the film some real teeth. Ken Siu has only a minor role as Victor Lin, but his giant glasses and Asian mullet are hard to forget. I should also mention that Forrest Whitaker also has a small role as one of the agents sent to get Frank Dux back. He's barely in the film, but anytime he was, I couldn't help but think about a throw-down between JCVD and Ghost Dog.
Bloodsport is a great example of where '80's action went right. It wasn't convoluted with jingoistic anthems like many of the Chuck Norris movies. It wasn't teeming with guns like Stallone's flicks. It didn't take a science fiction or supernatural bent like Arnold favored. It was a straight up flick about a martial arts tournament done right. It had that same headlong feeling that I get watching Enter the Dragon. From stem to stern, Bloodsport goes for the jugular, rips it out bare handed, lets it spray all over the room, and it dares you to not have a good time. While much of Van Damme's other movies are hit and miss, these early movies like Bloodsport and Kickboxer show a martial artist who is desperate to show the world what he can do. Now that often seems to mean the splits, but it also means some very real kicking ass.