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The Test of Time: Bloodsport (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY NEWT ARNOLD

STARRING JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME, DONALD GIBB, BOLO YEUNG, FORREST WHITAKER

Frank motherf*cking Dux! What else needs be said? Seriously, if you were like I, or any other typical red-blooded American child born and bred in the radical 80s, a certain rite of passage likely went down for you in this chronological order. First you saw THE KARATE KID, and you loved it! Then, not long after, you graduated to ROCKY IV. Adored it! And just when you wore the VHS out on both, just when you felt there was nowhere else to turn for your ferocious fisticuff fix, you somehow stumbled upon what felt like a dangerous, underground piece of combative bliss that you were not supposed to see. Indeed friends, BLOODSPORT took over your life at some point, right around 10-12 years of age, right in that impressionably prepubescent sweet spot. I know it, because I lived it too. We all wanted to be Mr. Muscles from Brussels around this age, did we not? We all wished to become like Jean-Claude Van Damme for at least one single day, if not a full calendar year in our youth. Don't front, you know it's true. Hell, I still wannabe!

And believe it or not, BLOODSPORT actually turns 30 years old this month. Insane, I know. Point blank, this is by far my favorite JCVD joint, always has been and will always remain so. I know a lot of people favor KICKBOXER or CYBORG or maybe even LIONHEART, but not I. BLOODSPORT is where it’s at, right alongside BEST OF THE BEST for 80s fight-film supremacy. Never mind the thick air of homoerotic machismo wafting throughout the film, an overlookable offense in the mind of an asexual preteen and an added bonus as an adult, there’s also a rare quality of cheesiness here that you cannot find on the menu of most movies. Not a stinky, room-clearing cheese. Uh uh, we’re talking about a scarce delicacy, an expensive gourmet cheese. An aged stilton. Those as familiar with the film as we are know exactly what we mean, as this is the indefinable quality that has actually made it as eminently entertaining and constantly watchable as it’s been over the years and even decades.

Question is, is it still? Well, let’s see how JCVD squares up and faces off with Father Time when we put BLOODSPORT to the Test below!

THE STORY: In retrospect, the story of BLOODSPORT is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Billed as being based on true events, BLOODSPORT is the story of Frank Dux, a real life martial artist who, after amassing all sorts of competitive awards, found himself vying for his life in a lethal Hong Kong undergrounding fighting ring. A gentle soul on the outside, a fierce and honorable warrior on the inside, much of Dux’s decisions become dedicated to his fallen sensei, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao). Dux teams up with crass and crude American Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, my man Ogre from NERDS) and the two whisk away to southeast Asia to get their competitive hand-to-hand combat underway. You already know it. The Kumite. As Dux demolishes every mofo in his way, his eventual collision course with the scariest dude on the continent, Chong Li (the infamous Bolo Yeung), comes to frightening fruition. A torch-lit final showdown on a blood-covered ramp in the sand. I’m weepy just thinking about it!

Here’s the truth though. None of this shite happened. At all. Years after the release of the film, it would come to light that Dux was a total liar. A huckster. A first rate fraud. All of the world records held by Dux listed at the end of the film are total bullshit. His military and CIA background have also never been confirmed, as the source of all of these claims comes from none other than Dux himself. So, instead of being called a true story, Dux should have simply been given story credit instead. Hey, however falsified Dux’s story was, it inspired one hell of a martial arts movie, and in turn, was the creative basis behind Midway’s Mortal Kombat videogame in 1992. The game character Johnny Cage is supposedly a parody of JCVD, with his costume, back-story and split-punch patterned after those of Dux in BLOODSPORT. Honestly, I don’t even care if Dux was fibbing, the artistic expressions yielded from his fictionalized account cannot be dismissed!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: The f*cking fighting is what holds serve. Made far prior to the industry standard of phony CG and computerized artifice, these were real hand-to-hand sparring sessions going down on film. It’s so low-tech that it’s hard to depreciate. Much credit ought to be given to director Newt Arnold, who actually served as First Assistant Director on some of the best movies ever made. We’re talking THE GODFATHER PART II, BLADE RUNNER, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE GETAWAY, THE GOONIES, etc. Being around some of the absolute best directors rubbed off on him, and when it came time to helm his third feature, we was well equipped to do so (Arnold’s first two films, both horror, were HANDS OF A STRANGER in 1962 and BLOOD THIRST in 1971). Nailing that golden-ration of cheesy tone is one thing, the stylistic slow-mo stints are another, but for the most part, Arnold wisely steps aside and lets the fighting show and tell for itself.

Before we specify some of the spars though, let’s first get into that gnarly Dim Mak scene. Translated as “Touch of Death,” Dux is challenged to a brick-chopping challenge unlike any other. He’s not just tasked with shattering the entire stack, oh no, dude has to crush just the bottom rack while striking only the top and keeping the upper-racks intact. Of course, the ease with which JCVD obliterates the rack is one thing, his ludicrous facial expressions and the way Arnold frames the action in hilarious slow-mo is another thing altogether. Again, none of this happened to the real Frank Dux, but it’s easily one of the coolest and most memorable moments in the movie. Similar can be said for the grueling training sequence, even if it does qualify as the longest flashback in any movie ever (roughly 11 minutes).

Dux Vs. Pumola – Using his newly mastered move, when Dux faces off with Pumola – the Chinese Andre The Giant – JCVD overcomes his drastic size disadvantage by first breaking into his trademark splits. But then he Dim Mak’s Pumola plum in the nuts, after striking a blow to his gut as well, which makes the big mofo stumble backwards and tumble over. Still badass after all these years!

Dux Vs. Paco – In one of his first really vulnerable moments on the mat, I always loved the way Paco lures Dux in with those raised fists. After a dirty cheap shot is struck, Dux gathers his bearings, takes Paco down with a lower leg-kick before psyching him out, egging him on to continue landing kicks to Dux’s side. All rope-a-dope action for Franky, who speeds up his pacing, outkicks Paco in a multi-strike combo before round-housing the sumbitch clean in the neck. Down goes Paco. Still a powerful bout!

Chong Li Vs. Jackson – Ah yeah, now we’re upping the dramatic stakes. As if Dux didn’t have enough vengeful determination on behalf of his sensei Tanaka, now he’s doubly dedicated to besting his ultimate foe for what he did to Jackson. Indeed, Chong Li left Jackson hospitalized in bloody tatters. After prematurely celebrating a Chong Li takedown, the blood drawn from his lip only amusing him, Jackson is brutally waylaid. First with a flying neck kick, a nard shot, three more face kicks and then a final face-stamping that damn near takes Jackson’s life. Harrowing shite then, still remains so! Dux vs. Chong Li – F*ck it, let’s skip to the main event.

Dux Vs. Chong Li - Van Damme Vs. Bolo. A legit heavyweight martial arts bout…and frankly, 10 minutes of pure cinematic ecstasy! The fight alone speaks for itself, two legendary real life martial artists doing their thing in the ring on film. But add to this the fact that Dux calls back his to his training, necessarily so after Li blinds him with that powder he throws in Dux’s eyes. Frank summons the inner-strength, honoring his late master by focusing on all those blindfolded training sessions. He conjures the zen-like spirit of his sensei and proceeds to kick the ever loving shit out of Chong Li with zero eyesight. Say what you want about JCVD’s acting in the film, this sequence he sells quite well. You believe he cannot see, which makes the odds that much more appreciable when he does eventually bring Li to his knees. The entire finale – the music, the action, the choreography, the slow-motion accentuation, it all culminates – like THE KARATE KID, ROCKY IV, BEST OF THE BEST before it – in pure celebratory splendor. 30 years is nowhere near enough to efface the legacy of BLOODPSORT!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I mean, considering what a tremendous, Oscar winning actor he became, looking back, this is a pretty terrible throwaway credit for Forrest Whitaker. I swear, this dude rivals only Michael Caine for being such a good actor that appears in more than his fair share of atrocious movies. Of course, we can damn Van Damme’s acting chops all we want, but let's be real, it's so innocent that it actually lends to much of the movies charm. Nah, if you loved BLOODSPORT back in the 80s, you’re bound to love it even more now. If you hated it then, well, have fun f*cking right off then won’t ya!

THE VERDICT: Just as it was when I was a kid, BLOODSPORT is still my favorite JCVD joint. Nothing about has deteriorated to the point of changing my mind over the past 30 odd years. If anything, the movie has only grown in its nostalgic import. And as bummed as I am about the cancellation of Jean Claude Van Johnson at Amazon, nothing can take away from the feeling BLOODSPORT gave us all as wee 10 year olds. Nothing!

STREAM BLOODSPORT HERE

GET BLOODSPORT ON DVD HERE

GET BLOODSPORT ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Who'd win in a fight: Frank Dux or Lyon (LIONHEART)?
Source: AITH

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