Mention the name Jean-Claude Van Damme and chances are most minds will immediately snap to the title of one film: Bloodsport. No matter which way you cut it, Bloodsport has become, and will likely remain, the defining film in the career of the Muscles from Brussels.
And while a good many actors might frown on their first film remaining the one that shines brightest among their body of work, it’s hard to fault anyone for whom Bloodsport is their basis of knowledge regarding Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s a well-made, exceptionally fun film and it also happens to be an excellent showcase for its lead actors unique presence and talents. It’s not difficult to see why Bloodsport was the perfect launching pad for Van Damme’s career.
For the uninitiated, JCVD plays Frank Dux, an American soldier gone AWOL to Hong Kong to seek entrance into the illegal, underground Kumite international fighting tournament. And unlike so many action stars of the time, he’s not just playing a reckless, unstoppable meatbag who waves his machine gun to topple armies and can take out a henchman with a single punch. Frank’s cause is dangerous (the full-contact tournament often leaves many combatants dead) but noble. His recently deceased sensei, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao), spent more than a decade training Frank in the ways of Ninjitsu, and now Frank believes he can best honor Tanaka by competing in the tournament.
Contrasted to the contemporary characters played by the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, it’s a palpable difference. It would also set the tone, in a way, for future roles. Van Damme appears to have a predilection for roles playing a family man or someone otherwise out to protect the ones he loves. Having that sort of emotional motivation took an interesting priority in a way that other action stars of the time rarely seemed to gravitate toward.
It’s also interesting to watch Van Damme’s demeanor in Bloodsport. This was only his second credited role and it shows. Not that he’s a bad actor, necessarily, but there’s a freshness and an earnestness to his presence as he’s on screen that feels markedly different than at any other point in his career. The depth of his capabilities won’t truly surface until decades later, but it’s a charming first-time-out.
But an action star is really only as good as the action they can convincingly perform, and it is clear Van Damme was hungry to show the world what he could do. Bloodsport was the perfect showcase for his physical talents, offering a dependable succession of fight scenes in which he would deftly demonstrate his physical proficiency. One could argue that Van Damme’s bag of tricks never really evolved much from here as he still uses the same style of kicks, splits and split kicks and they’re not necessarily wrong. Still, the man had panache and a style that was identifiably his and pulled it all off quite capably.
As for the film itself, it’s aged fairly well, although the near-constant onslaught of horrible, horrible 80s music that populates the approximately 67 fight-scene montages grates on the nerves rather quickly. Beyond that, though, it’s a rather colorful and fun film. The opening montage showing off the various international fighters training for the Kumite sets the tone well and in some ways makes it feel more like a Street Fighter film than the actual Street Fighter film (also starring Van Damme). **
There are actually two highlights to Bloodsport outside of Van Damme’s presence, the first being Donald Gibb as Ray Jackson. Playing a raucous and arrogant American competitor who quickly befriends Frank after losing to him at a game of Karate Champ, Gibb is a hoot to watch and is clearly having a ton of fun as this brash and arrogant brawler. The second, and arguably best, is Bolo Yeung’s (mostly mute) villain, Chong Li. Yeung plays Chong Li more or less as a straight up ruthless, bloodthirsty cartoon character who does so very much with little more than some flexing and deliciously over-the-top facial expressions. It takes a lot to craft a memorable villain with only a few lines of dialogue, but Yeung is perfect and too much fun at what he does here.
Is Bloodsport the ultimate Van Damme film? There’s plenty of room to argue as such. Kickboxer (in the view of the author) may be the ultimate refinement of the “Van Damme Enters A Tournament Full Of Colorful Combatants” formula, but there’s no denying the impact Bloodsport and its fresh-faced star made and left on fans of action cinema.
Dammage Report Statistics for Bloodsport:
Number of splits: 7
Number of split kicks: 3
Reason for being European: Parents immigrated to the United States.
Best line: “Aren’t you a little old for video games?”