Some movies are great because their level of originality and execution are so high that they continue to inspire and amaze to audiences of any age, and from any background. Some movies are great because we know they are not terrific works of art but they make us happy, and that’s okay. And then there are some movies that are great because we first saw them once upon a time when we were too green to know better and over the years, our memories of how much we enjoyed them overwrote any accurate recollection of the movies themselves. That third category is the phantom zone where dwell movies that seemed impossible not to like in high school but 30 years later are the thing you either admit to with embarrassment, or you go all in and name your kids after. Guess which category Bloodsport is in?
The story feels like it was penned by whoever wrote the copy of those comic book ads offering to teach you secret martial arts techniques. Army Captain Frank Dux—secretly trained in the art of ninjutsu since childhood—is given an opportunity to compete in a secret martial arts tournament to honor his elderly master. The Army won’t let Frank go, so he dusts them off and books a flight to Hong Kong anyway. Once there, he befriends fellow competitor Ray Jackson and romances Janice Kent, a beautiful journalist looking to uncover the secrets of this fighting competition. But that all goes out the window once the fighting starts, and Dux works his way through successive rounds of brutal martial arts battles as he ascends to a showdown with the reigning champion, the evil Chong Li, a guy with pecs the size of throw pillows and who doesn’t mind killing his opponents or throwing salt into people’s eyes. Fists are clenched, kicks are thrown, blood is spilled, and at the end of the day, this thing ends exactly as you think it would. Come on. What did you expect?
This was the breakout film for its star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, a guy destined to be a martial arts superstar with enough brawn to appeal to guys and enough good looks to appeal to the various wives and dates who get dragged out to see martial arts movies in the theater. Right off the bat, the movie hits you with a brilliant knuckleball of suspended disbelief: the entire time you should be scoffing at the ridiculous montage of Dux’s childhood training sequences, you’re still trying to wrap your head around the idea that somebody, somewhere decided that a character who grew up in California would sound like a guy who would grow into Van Damme’s accent. By the time your brain comes to peace with that paradox, we’re off to Hong Kong, with a few Army CID guys in hot pursuit. Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re off to fight evil in a secret kumite, alright? Nobody just blows off Uncle Sam.
We don’t care that a scene where characters playing each other on a video game actually features the single-person version of said game. We don’t care that journalists don’t really jump into the sack with the first source they find when they have traveled halfway around the world for a story. We don’t care that in a tournament featuring martial arts from around the world, the token guy from Africa basically shows up to dance. (Okay, maybe we do care about that one. Really, guys?) And we don’t really care that Jackson guy has all of the technique of a drunken biker who thinks he’s actually in an arm wrestling contest.
Because when you get right down to it, this kind of movie is just the thesis statement for Van Damme as a martial arts star. Are you willing to watch another 20 years of movies starring this extraordinarily muscled dude who can performing flying roundhouse splits, has an accent that can kill children and whose good looks are marred only by a Quaato-like lump on his forehead? And the answer to that is: yes. Yes, we are.
Much to his credit, Van Damme had to suffer though a couple of pretty awful grunt roles to get his way into Bloodsport (including turns as a background breakdancer, a mute Russian nemesis, and most famously as the guy who would not become the Predator). Before that, he had a distinguished career as a bodybuilder, championship martial artist and professional kickboxer. He is the kind of guy who didn’t just admit that he took ballet during this time but would gladly get in your face for it, because it’s the toughest sport he ever trained in. And all that comes together in Bloodsport, where he comes off as the kind of high-kicking superhero that people tend to imagine when they know nothing about the martial arts. This is a movie that told its audience, look, you don’t need to be born in China to be the next great martial artist. Look at this nerd from Belgium. Now go find a dojo and get your white belt on, kid. Those flying roundhouses don’t happen by themselves.
For all of the finely choreographed mayhem that fills Bloodsport, the moment of truth is an interlude when Dux must outrun the CID agents who are after him. He leads them on a merry foot chase through the back-alleys of Hong Kong, eventually across a flotilla of junks in the harbor that ends, predictably, with both agents losing their balance and falling into the water like the utter simpletons that they are. All this, while Dux offers the kind of earnestly smarmy fare-thee-well that could only come from a daffy European uncle. It’s the kind of scene that is so delightfully awful that some mad genius out there turned it into a Mentos commercial. But the fourth or fifth time you watch it is when it finally dawns on you: That’s Forest Whitaker. What the hell is he doing here?