Director: Newt Arnold.
You could be forgiven for always getting this mixed up with Van Damme’s following martial art hit movie, Kickboxer, that was released only a year after Bloodsport. And both films share a number of commonalities, some not so obvious. But it’s undeniable, that this was the film that gave Van Damme his big break, with him literally taking the lead role, only having tiny roles and playing the bad guy, Ivan The Russian in No Retreat, No Surrender until this. But immediately after Bloodsport came a string of rememberable; some iconic, action flicks like Cyborg, Black Eagle, Kickboxer, Lionheart and Death Warrant all within a couple of years. Van Damme was a busy man after Bloodsport.
But I’ll come back to how Van Damme got the leading part shortly. First, let’s talk about how the film itself came into being and the controversy that came along after. It should be no spoiler to hear that this film is loosely based on the true story of one, Frank Dux. An ex US Marine Reverse who claims to had fought and won a string of no holds barred, mix martial art tournaments. It goes back to an article published in Black Belt magazine in 1980, titled “Kumite: A Learning Experience” that was about Dux winning the underground tournament known as the Kumite. A secret and illegal competition where world renowned fighters would be invited to compete. Obviously a story such as this garnered attention from the evolving, western martial art movie industry which was coming into it’s prime, especially Menahem Golan, the co-owner of the famed The Cannon Group.
Though much of this man’s legacy has been the key source of controversy and constantly under scrutiny which have resulted in lawsuits over the years with publications openly accusing Dux of lying or embellishing his stories. Dux was in the US Marine Corp Reserves, is a renowned martial artist and his services was recruited by the CIA; which is covered in his own autobiography The Secret Man: An American Warrior’s Uncensored Story. A book that has since been pulled from publication with even Dux claiming it’s misconceived by it’s readers, conflating his story. He started his own Jujutsu system and dojo during the martial art boom of the 80s in California and reportedly started training a number of celebrities, much like Bruce Lee did in his day. It isn’t hard to find videos on YouTube of Dux teaching his DuxRyu system, including one of him breaking through a pane of bulletproof glass back in 1993 at the Bercy convention in France. So amid all the controversy he most certainly knows something and I wouldn’t want to go up against him in a fight.
Dux wrote the screenplay, obviously the story being from his own experience; but Sheldon Lettich, writer and director of movies like Rambo III, Only The Strong and Double Impact, rewrote story and screenplay making tweaks here and there, much to Dux’s disapproval. Like how Dux first encountered his sensei Senzo Tanaka; the addition of the love interest with an American journalist, with Dux stating he would never engage romantically or otherwise with anyone during a tournament; also where this movie was set. The Kumite Dux fought in was allegedly held in Nassau, Bahamas but the film set it in Hong Kong, possibly to appeal to western/eastern audiences that was a key market back then. And this is where Jean-Claude Van Damme literally walks in to get the part of Dux.
The late Menahem Golan was a respectable name in this genre, making films like Enter The Ninja, Delta Force, Cobra, Over The Top, Superman IV and Masters of the Universe. Jean-Claude Van Damme was just finishing No Retreat, No Surrender and was to return to Europe as he had no more work, but just by chance Van Damme and Golan passed each other whilst entering/leaving a restaurant and Van Damme instantly flick his now famous kick over Golan’s head, impressing the Asian businessman accompanying Golan. Noticing this, Golan gave Van Damme his card and they met a couple of weeks later. The then curious Golan agreed to see him, however, he pointed to posters of Michael Dudikoff and Chuck Norris, using them as examples of what a movie star is, saying that Van Damme is not. But according to Van Damme, Golan took pity and after some deliberation, shouted to his staff to bring him Bloodsport, “You want to be a movie star! I’m gonna make you a movie star!” And this was the start of their relationship securing Van Damme the lead role of Frank Dux and essentially turning him into an overnight sensation.
Now Frank Dux wasn’t out of the picture entirely and it would seem he worked closely with the film in some capacity whether that technical advisor or fight choreographer; it’s never really clear. It’s said that upon meeting Van Damme, he wasn’t initially impressed saying he wasn’t fit enough to play himself, putting him through a rugged fitness regime which earned Dux’s only official credit as Special Trainer to Van Damme. They would eventually work together again with Dux actually being credited as Fight Choreographer on Lionheart, but to add to the controversy, Dux took out a lawsuit against Van Damme for not crediting him or stealing his script that would eventually be Van Damme’s directorial debut, The Quest. Claiming that Van Damme owned him a sum of money for writing the film. Dux lost ultimately due to lack of evidence, but he remains credited as writer of the story on the film.
Now back to the movie. Frank Dux out of respect of his sensei, goes absent without leave from the marines and ventures to Hong Kong to face the greatest hand-to-hand combat fighters in the world. There he meets a fellow American brawler, Jackson and their native guide, Victor. Hot on his high-kicking heels though are the military police trying to bring him back to duty and a cunningly American reporter trying to “un”cover the main event. We follow the tournament as each fighter faces off against each other until the ultimate showdown between our obvious hero and fearful Chong Li.
Newt Arnold isn’t your everyday director, nor is he the most recognisable name, even within this genre; with this being his final film out of the total three he solely directed. But he does have an impressive filmography where he’s worked as First or Second Unit director on a number of massive movies, such as Blade Runner, War Games, The Last Action Hero and The Abyss. Yet his talent as a supporting director does show here with poor direction and a real lack of any flare or artistry. Though, having said that the over dramatisation in some areas like the lengthy dreamy flashback and the climatic final fight, is so corny it’s what makes the film shine.
But what’s more corny than anything in this movie is the script which has some needless and cringeworthy moments that’s only exacerbated by the equally weak performances. It’s Van Damme’s first major role, so we’ll give him that and for what he lacks in acting, he certainly makes it up with his great athletic ability. But just watching Donald Gibb play the obnoxious American fighter Ray Jackson and hearing the broken English from Ken Sui’s Victor is really off-putting. With the attitude Jackson portrays in the film, he deserved a good ass-whooping from Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, otherwise known as the Chinese Hercules or the Beast from the East in his prime. You should recognise the Chinese bodybuilder from Enter The Dragon and another Van Damme vehicle, Double Impact; but he’s been on the scene since the early 70s after winning the title of Mr. Hong Kong back in 1967; yet some would consider this was also his massive breakthrough as major star in the Martial Art pictures, especially typecasting him as a badass, nose-blowing villain which he does perfectly well. Iconically the best performances beside the physical requirements come from the smaller roles; a young Forest Whitaker as one of the military police officers in pursuit of Dux as he’s gone A.W.O.L. and the written in love interest, Leah Ayres, who plays the American journalist trying to sweep kick the story of a lifetime.
What really works here is Paul Hertzog’s synth-riddled score that’s became so synonymous with 80s action cinema. But he does well to capture and fuse the vibe of the orient along with some triumphant and empowering pop-rock tracks “Fight to Survive and “On My Own - Alone” that he wrote with Shandi Sinnamon and performed by Stan Bush and “Steal The Night” from Michael Bishop.
It’s certainly not your classic Kung fu flick and the fight sequences are often rigid and obviously staged but it’s all entertaining nonetheless. It was always among the popular choices of the mail order catalogues and has become that essential cult classic of 80s pop culture; especially within it’s genre, that quite possibly helped Hong Kong, Kung Fu and Asian cinema reach a wider, more international audience. Despite all it’s flaws and the controversy, it’ll always remain one of Van Damme’s most iconic roles, and essential viewing regardless of the quality. It’s pure B-Movie gold at its finest.
Next fight: Kickboxer.
Running Time: 7
The Cast: 5
Job Description: 7
Extra Bonus Points: 5 For being that great stepping stone for Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a pivotal point for Martial Art Cinema.