He has undeniable charisma. There’s no questioning his considerable athleticism. And yet, he has always struggled to deliver a natural performance.
Jean Claude Van Damme movies all suffer from the same problem. They allow him to talk. Whether it’s his thick Belgian accent or forced delivery, he loses you the second he opens his mouth. Not that he’s ever given great material to work with.
In Bloodsport, his breakout feature from 1988, he plays the real-life Frank Dux (pronounced “dukes”, not “ducks”), a military man determined to spend his furlough in Hong Kong against the wishes of his superiors. (They’re worried about him getting hurt.) Behind the Walled City is a secret dojo where a dangerous, long running tournament, a kumite, is about to be held.
Early on, we meet some of the international competitors quietly invited to participate, not through their mostly non-existent personalities, mind you, but by the objects they break. There’s the defending champion, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), who can destroy big blocks of ice with his bare foot and elbow. Some white guy who can obliterate pieces of wood with his foot and knee. And some African guy who can leap onto a tree branch (not impressive with all the edits) and split open a coconut with a single chop (ok, that’s cool).
One of the few somewhat developed characters is Ray Jackson (a sometimes legitimately humourous Donald Gibb from Revenge Of The Nerds), a masochistic, scuzzball American who befriends Dux over a karate arcade game (which means they’ll never fight each other in the dojo) and is eager to add some scars to his face as badges of honour for surviving this ridiculousness.
For indeed, Bloodsport is all kinds of stupid. At one point, Dux checks in with an old friend who is apparently dying of my favourite cinematic disease, the one that has no name. You know he’s dying because he’s laying down. And he’s old. One goofy camera zoom leads to an unintentionally hilarious flashback where we learn that Dux was pressured by his dopey friends to break into the man’s house and steal his precious sword. (The kid who plays him as a young teen is so bad I laughed at everything he said. His dialogue sounds dubbed.) Inevitably, Dux is the only one who gets caught. The man’s son gives him a stiff kick to the gut. (And yet, later on, he’s easily bullied at school. Consistency!)
Instead of being reported to the cops, they make a deal. Dux will be a punching bag for his son during his martial arts training. But he also wants to learn. Reluctantly, the man trains him as hard as Stu Hart broke in wrestlers in his famed dungeon, albeit with a lot more silliness. (Breaking free from the splits while tied to a tree is supposed to accomplish what exactly?) The man’s son hopes to honour him by entering that kumite in Hong Kong. He never makes it because he dies. And no, we don’t know why. Guess he had the disease that has no name, too.
At any event, Dux is eventually given the sword he almost stole because he earned it and he convinces his grieving mentor to allow him to represent the family in the kumite. (The officials won’t accept his entry until he breaks a brick (not the one at the top of the pile, the one on the bottom) with his bare hand. No problem.)
It takes a full half hour before the first fight even starts, but by God, it is not compelling. In fact, none of these overly choregraphed encounters are all that gruesome or memorable. (At least pro wrestling is entertaining.) Yes, there is blood but not a lot of brutality. And the constant use of slow motion feels oh so pretentious and cheesy. Not helping at all is Chong Li’s constantly bulging eyes which provoke much laughter, not terror. Van Damme’s repetitive grunting is just as goofy.
You can pretty much figure out where everything is going. Dux has to have some reason to want to knock out Chong Li beyond just winning the tournament, so the defending champion does a number on an overly cocky Jackson and that’s all the motivation he needs. Well, that and the fact Li also kills his semi-final opponent. Literally.
The kumite is spread out over three days which gives Dux enough time to romance a nosy reporter (Leah Ayres) who he rescues from another presumably (and badly) dubbed performer, an Arab combatant named Hossain with rape on his mind. She complains that it’s impossible to get information about the tourney which is strange considering the sheer number of spectators who are allowed to attend and place bets without signing non-disclosure agreements. Her lapsed ethics eventually allow her into the building undetected. (Curiously, no one pays attention to her talking into her tiny tape recorder.)
One of the few joys of watching old movies like this is seeing famous faces before they became major stars. Granted, Forest Whitaker was not completely unknown at the time (he had a memorable supporting role in Good Morning Vietnam the year before) but Bloodsport was out long before he firmly established his reputation with later films like The Crying Game, Panic Room and The Last King Of Scotland (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar). How unfortunate, though, that he’s saddled with such a dumb character here. (He plays one of Dux’ relentless military pursuers. Gotta dig that giant tazer.) Whitaker doesn’t embarrass himself, thankfully, a testament to his talent even when he’s playing someone so hopelessly inept & overruled.
Bloodsport is about as suspenseless as an action film can get. There is no doubt how it will end. It’s that underwhelming. With the rise of MMA three decades later, its fight sequences today feel very dated, too noticeably staged and just flat out hokey. I laughed far more often than I cringed. (The brief details about the real Dux’s life as an undefeated fighter, displayed as freeze-frame graphics in the final shot, suggest a far more intriguing film.)
However, its artistic failure in no way cancels out Jean Claude Van Damme’s movie star appeal. He’s long passed Gene Siskel’s simple test. He always looks great in close-up. But just imagine how much better he could’ve been his entire career if he exercised his right to remain silent.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 24, 2016