Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Bloodsport

The charms of a movie like Bloodsport (1988) - and really a lot of martial arts movies - lie somewhere between cheesy goofiness and hey-that-was-actually-pretty-cool.

The first movie starring Jean-Cleade Van Damme, Bloodsport mixes bad acting, a minuscule plot, unintentional hilarity, 80s power ballads, and overblown macho posturing with admittedly intense, physical fights and impressive athletic displays. This is perfectly encapsulated by the main musical theme, which is as awesome as it is stuck in the 1980s.

Van Damme plays Frank Dux, an "American" invited to Hong Kong for the Kumite, a martial arts tournament featuring the best fighters in the world. Defying his military superiors, he flies off to prove himself and compete for the honor his ninjutsu mentor, Senzo Tanaka. Along the way, he avoids government agents sent to bring him home, befriends a fellow American fighter, romances a journalist looking to get the inside dirt on Kumite, and heads to showdown with the current champion, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung).

A lot of Bloodsport is goofy.Van Damme has never been much of an actor (although the young actor playing Dux as a kid makes Van Damme look like an Oscar contender). His delivery is awkward, and the intense faces he makes during fights are impossible to take seriously. But still, as a physical specimen, he's really something. In motion, whether it's kicking some guy in the head or doing the splits, he has a great presence and looks like he can legitimately kick some ass.

The plot mostly serves as an excuse to get to the next fight scene. If you want to see a bunch of muscled-up and shirtless dudes pounding each other in the head until they bleed, this is the movie for you. After a somewhat slow beginning (featuring a flashback showing how Dux acquired his skills), the movie almost never lets, depicting one fight after another. Sure, the romance is boring and the pursuit by the feds to bring Dux back amounts to nothing (other than showing Forest Whitaker in an early role that likely won't be included in his career retrospective montage), but most of the running time is devoted to fighting and matches.

For the most part, the matches are pretty well done, vicious, intense, requiring a fair amount of athletic ability to pull off. A lot of these guys look like legitimate martial artists who can do more than flail their arms around. The contests are physical, sweaty, and bloody with the occasional bit of obvious Hollywood trickery to destroy the illusion, like the overuse of slow motion. Maybe it's just me, but personally, I like to see to physical feats on camera done in real time; slow motion tips the hand that something's been staged.

Sometimes, there's a genuinely funny moment, like the guy who swipes a golden tooth off the mat after its original owner loses, and Donald Gibb (aka Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) is terrific as the only other American in the tournament who befriends Dux and is really a swell guy when he's not wailing on other dudes. Other moments are unintentionally funny, like Dax's facial expressions during the final fight after he's been blinded.

Bloodsport is not a movie I can take seriously. There's too much goofiness and cheese factor for that, but it's still fun. The fights are cool, the plot is nonsense, and Van Damme does all right for himself, just so long as he doesn't speak.

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