Brutally '80s: 'Bloodsport' Review
Do you ever sit down to a movie and find yourself feeling like you know every moment by heart, despite never having seen it in your life? It’s an equally eerie and transcendental experience, but it’s one built on an often-maligned foundation: tropes. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, artistic metaphors are inescapable. When used well, they’re shorthand for development and emotional responses; but when used poorly, they’re a groan-inducingly blatant cheat. These elements aren’t directly ripped from the aether, however: they have to have been instituted somewhere. If you need a crash course for what one of these nexus points looks like, you need search no further than 1988’s Bloodsport.
Supposedly based on the real life experience of the fight choreographer, Frank Dux (a claim which is wildly suspect), this 80s martial arts mix-up follows a group of contestants in an underground gladiatorial championship directed by a shadowy group in Hong Kong. Jean-Claude Van Damme takes up Dux’ mantle, aiming to take the title from the legendarily vicious Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). With the US army trailing him, Dux must evade capture on one end and death on the other as he claws at victory and honor.
Virtually any 80s action standby you can think of is used to its utmost in Bloodsport. Young white, American boy trained to be a fighting champion by an Asian man who is equal parts relentless sensei and surrogate father? Check. Is villain bristling with bloody bravado? Check. A superfluous subplot that merely exists to “add tension” and just make the lead out to be more of a badass? Check. Hard-working, career-minded woman whose interest in the hero’s world makes her put it all aside to be his lover? Check. Rowdy best friend who can be used to set the stakes for the climactic fight? Check. Training montage with a peppy “rock” song? Check, and you get a free Fighting Montage with your purchase! Nothing in Bloodsport feels original, but perhaps that’s just a symptom of going back to the roots so many years later. While the whole venture may seem trite now, it’s likely that it was at least new enough in its time to make waves that push against us even today.
The real failing here, though, is with the fight scenes. They’re supposed to be epic and brutal, but they’re choreographed and framed in such a way that the come off as limp, even to the lesser-trained eye. Sure, there’s a substantial use of squibs and exaggerated sound effects, but it’s clear that only 5% of the strikes even have a chance of landing, and the reactions from the receiving party vary wildly between woefully understated to the ridiculous. Hell, I noted at least a pair of punches that sent their target reeling towards the direction they were hit! That’s like Fight Choreography 101, people!
Perhaps I'm unfair to Bloodsport. It’s got some heart, and there are little glints of fun and genius, but I think I’ve just seen so much better and newer that this oldie just gets buried. It really might be that this is one of those films you had to see in its day. Congrats to the team for inspiring the Mortal Kombat games, but I didn’t find much that made me feel fulfilled after running through the full 90 minutes. The acting is nothing to write home about (Forest Whitaker, though young, is dreadfully above this schlock), the plot is just downright stupid, and, worst of all, the action scenes aren’t even that great. This is one of those films that’s better for its legacy than for any of its actual content. If you’re really that interested, go YouTube the Kumite fights and take a gander at just how much of a pretty boy Van Damme once was. Otherwise, get your licks someplace else, folks.