I tried to make every film I watched during this marathon come from a place of new experience or deeply entrenched in the vague memories of my youth. However, when I looked over my list yesterday, I realized that I had managed to completely skip a viewing day, leading to a panicked attempt to quickly find something to add and watch. Fortunately, I had made a list of possible alternatives, one of which being a personal favorite of mine, 1988's Bloodsport. I am very much aware that Bloodsport is not a piece of well-respected cinema, nor is it a particularly problem free film from a narrative standpoint, but it is very much a film I have a deep nostalgic bond to and believe to be one of the greater martial arts based films to ever be released. Released at the height of the phenomenon that was Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bloodsport is what the film version of Street Fighter should have been, as well as being a rather wonderful expose into the world of mixed martial arts tournaments, well before MMA pay-per-view events were the thing do for any muscle-bound bro wearing a Tapped Out shirt. It would be one thing if Bloodsport just incorporated a bunch of fight scenes, interspersed with really over-the-top montage sequences (which it does in spades), however, it manages to extend the genre, which at that time had reached a lull, and reinvigorate it with a heavy degree of eighties cool. Between the occasional use POV shots and other experimental camera angles and what goes between being the cheesiest of soundtracks to absolutely thrilling instrumentals, director Newt Arnold makes it expressly clear that Bloodsport exists within its own space, full of stained brutality, much like the ring that figures so prominently into this film. Considering my nostalgia towards this film, it is probably worth acknowledging that I was far too young to have watched this film once, not to mention repeatedly, consuming the bloodied jaws and broken bones that emerge throughout this film. I guess I turned out fine as a result though and I certainly could have been far worse had I watched the far more violent Robocop on a more regular basis. Bloodsport is good to me, because Bloodsport possesses a personal degree of escapism, it is not a great film to most, but it is perfect by my standards.
Bloodsport begins with Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) going on leave from his job in the Air Force, only to be stopped by one of his colleagues who claim that his captain wants to see him, after being informed that he is planning on fighting in the deadly full contact Kumite fighting bout. Knowing that to talk with his superior would mean being unable to compete in the tournament, he leaves by deceiving a lower ranking officer, traveling to train with his master and "second father" Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao). After learning the last series of techniques to become the ultimate fighter, Dux then travels to the seclusive Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, where officials have agreed to hold the dangerous tournament. Aware of the implications of losing one of their most distinguished soldiers the American government hires two agents to track him down in Helmer (Norman Burton) and Rawlins (Forest Whitaker). Prior to the tournament Dux befriends American fighter and beer-chugging gargantuan Jackson (Donald Gibb) and the two cheer one another along in the tournament. It is during the first day of fighting that they are made aware of Kumite favorite and general madman Chong Li (Bolo Yeung) whose infamous nature involves killing a man in the ring. Chong Li clearly takes to disliking Dux and calls him out directly during the tournament. Between a day of fights, Dux meets American reporter Janice (Leah Ayres) who hopes to break into the tournament by influencing one of the fighters. Despite wooing Janice and sleeping with her, Dux still explains that he cannot allow her into the tournament, but given her journalistic guile she still manages to find a way. It is during this day of fighting that Chong Li is pitted against Jackson, beating him down and delivering a near fatal blow to his head, causing Dux to storm the mat in an attempt to exact revenge. Yet remembering the no fighting outside of the Kumite matches rule, he holds back, promising revenge in a later round. This promise is given credence when the two meet in the final match of the tournament, where the two go kick for kick, until Dux exposes Chong Li's weakness in the gut. Chong Li, in rage, attempts to cheat by blinding Dux, who taps into his training by Tanaka and still defeats his opponent, claiming vengeance for Jackson and becoming the first Westerner to win the Kumite tournament.
Again, I am fully aware of the film in all its absurd glory, primarily as a film that suggest that it is some great feat for the Western figure to overtake the Eastern figure, particularly in a physical manner. Post-colonial theory was still making a name for itself in the late 1980's and would have complete rejected such a narrative of "overcoming the odds" in the context of Dux's privileged status. Indeed both he and Jackson move about the film with their Western status being a point of pride and power, very literally for Jackson. At least in the case of Dux he is using the techniques of Eastern philosophy and martial arts to engage with the tournament, so his Western presence is only in a physical sense, as opposed to moral or social one. The closing moments are rather intriguing particularly considering that the narrative suggest the real life Frank Dux created his own fighting style, assumedly a hybrid of Western and Eastern styles by its name alone Dux-Ryu. Over the years the legitimacy of such claims has been called into question, but culturally the figure of Dux in Bloodsport is rather prevalent, therefore, making its existence in the cultural space of film absolutely noteworthy. Another element of this film is the clearly homosocial bond between Dux and Jackson, one that comes dangerously close to taking on a very real sexual element, particularly in the closing scenes of the film, where Dux kisses the recovering Jackson on the cheek, moving his desire from a purely fraternal sense to a physical one. It may seem like a innocent act, but Dux lingers and it is noticeable and quite possibly not accidental. I would actually rank the relationship between Dux and Jackson on a level right below that of the wildly homoerotic love triangle that is Maverick, Goose and Iceman in Top Gun, which was from the same era. I am sure there is a text out there considering these relationships in a variety of action films from the the mid to late 1980s and I would not be surprised if the reading directly ties such occurrences to the hyper-conservative world of Reagan America. Bloodsport, also does interesting things with racial bodies and spectacle, although it seems to remove the Western body from involvement in the diagetic spectatorial gaze, however, there is always the cinematic gaze to consider, which is an entire critical beast all its own.
Key Scene: As wildly cheesy as it may be, the montage before Dux's final fight is awesome. Mostly over-the-top the moment he imagines Chong Li's reflection in the subway is one of the most haunting moments in the entire film.
I love this film and so should everyone else. Nab yourself a copy of the bluray and just ignore that it is double featured with Time Cop.