Though he was at one point one of the biggest action stars on the planet, Jean-Claude Van Damme never seems to quite get the due he deserves. Sure, he never was and never will be the icon that, say, Bruce Willis or Stallone or Schwazenegger are, but there’s something about Van Damme’s output that has always drawn me to it far more than most of the films by the bigger stars of the 80s and 90s.
But as much as I love the man and so many of his films, I’ve never really sat down to write about him and his work and really think about why I love the guy so much. The Van Dammage Report will be my valiant effort to correct that, as well as to fill in the gaps of the films of his I’ve yet to revel in. More than anything, though, I just want to have some fun writing about one of cinema’s most unique action stars. And if you doubt the veracity of that last statement, here’s hoping the Van Dammage Report will help change your mind a bit.
So, with all that in mind, there’s no better place to start this (surprisingly massive) undertaking than with Van Damme’s 1988 breakout film, Bloodsport. His cinematic debut in a lead role (i.e. he’s playing a character more substantial than Gay Karate Man, as he was in Monaco Forever) was two years prior when he was cast as the lead villain in No Retreat, No Surrender, but that film is pretty difficult to come by. Bloodsport helped bring him international attention and quickly set him on the road to becoming one of the world’s most sought-after action heroes.
Revisiting the film for the first time in a few years, it’s not difficult to see why Van Damme quickly rose to prominence. He plays Frank Dux, an American soldier gone AWOL to Hong Kong so that he can fight in 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 tournament is full-contact and there are no guarantees anyone makes it out alive) 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 feels 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, somewhat, for future roles. Van Damme has always seemed to have a predilection for roles that have him 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 never seemed to gravitate toward.
It’s also interesting to watch Van Damme’s demeanor in this as he acts. 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. He’s not a great actor by any stretch, but he’s got a sort of stilted charisma that is unique to himself. It’s charming, really.
But an action star is really only as good as the action he can convincingly perform, and it is in this respect that Van Damme showed himself as hungry to prove what he could do. Bloodsport was the perfect showcase for his physical talents, offering a near-constant barrage of fight scenes in which The Muscles from Brussels could deftly show off 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 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. It opens with a great montage showing off the various international fighters as they train for the Kumite, each with a unique style. It’s still the closest thing to an accurate Street Fighter movie we’ve ever gotten. (Just let the irony sink in on that one.)
There are actually two highlights to Bloodsport outside of Van Damme’s presence, the first being Donald Gibb as Ray Jackson, the raucous and arrogant American competitor who quickly befriends Frank after losing to him at a game of Karate Champ. Gibb’s 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 cartoon character (albeit a ruthless and bloodthirsty one) 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 just too much fun at what he does here.
This isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s great at what it does in giving Van Damme a platform to strut his stuff and get catapulted into bigger things. In the next edition of the Van Dammage Report I’ll take a look at his 1989 film Cyborg.
One final note. Each edition of the Van Dammage Report will conclude with a few vital statistics, such as an all-important tally of how many times JCVD performs signature moves like splits and split kicks, as well as what excuse the script gives for his character having a European accent and surname, as well as the best one-liner Van Damme spouts.
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?”