Thursday, April 14, 2011

Film Review: BLOODSPORT (1988, Newt Arnold)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb (REVENGE OF THE NERDS, STRIPES), Leah Ayres (THE PLAYER, THE BURNING), Forest Whitaker, Roy Chiao ("Lao Che" in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM), Philip Chan (HARD BOILED, DOUBLE IMPACT), Bolo Yeung (ENTER THE DRAGON, DOUBLE IMPACT), and a supposed bit part by Victor Wong (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS). Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Music by Paul Hertzog (KICKBOXER, STREET JUSTICE). Cinematography by David Worth (director of SHARK ATTACK 3 and KICKBOXER). Written by Sheldon Lettich (DOUBLE IMPACT, RAMBO III), Christopher Cosby, and Mel Friedman (who worked on the editorial staff of POLTERGEIST and GYMKATA). Directed by Newt Arnold (assistant director on THE GODFATHER PART II, BLADE RUNNER, and THE ABYSS).
Tag-line: "Based on the real story of the Great White Dragon."
Best one-liner: "He's the American shit head who makes tricks with bricks!"

Thank you, Golan. Thank you, Globus. Thank you, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Thank you, Donald Gibb and Bolo Yeung. Thank you, guy in the back waving all that money around.

I love you all.

BLOODSPORT is a gift.

Happy Kumite! To: The World. From: Cannon Films.

BLOODSPORT. Often is the question asked: Is BLOODSPORT the best fighting tournament movie of all time, or is BLOODSPORT the greatest movie of all time? I don't know if I can answer that. Many have discussed BLOODSPORT, and I don't necessarily want to cover ground that has been better covered by others; ground like Van Damme's ambiguously Belgian-American accent, the fact that BLOODSPORT has more per capita montage sequences than any comparable film, the idea that it's based on a true story, or all the splits.

Er- nevermind, I lied just there at the end. I will be talking about the splits.


How could I not?

In a Cannon Film, the beauty is often in the details. Sure, you sign up for it because of Bronson, or break-dancing, or the desire to see a guy with a flamethrower taking sweet, sweet revenge. But plenty of unwatchable movies might possess those broad characteristics, so what makes a Cannon film a canon film? The minutiae. The little things that lesser film companies would overlook (or not overlook, as it were). A little bit of bad dubbing here, a jazz-dancing henchman there. A wonderfully insane synth riff by George S. Clinton here, an absurd Bronson line-reading there, homoerotic eye contact out of nowhere, and a killer on roller skates when you least expect it. The element of unpredictability fuses with a real, medium-to-low-budget moxie. Anything could and will happen. These films are never allowed to settle into mediocrity because you know, just around the corner, something throwaway but totally schweet is going to cause you to do a spit-take. And so, in order to properly explain the breadth of my true feelings, I shall outline my 20 favorite facets of the gem that is BLOODSPORT:


#1. "Full-contact." The Kumite (the secret fighting tournament in question) is full-contact, and BLOODSPORT never lets you forget it. "Full-contact" must be uttered on several dozen occasions: "Aren't you a little young for full-contact?" "It's full-contact." "Kumite is a full-contact event." "You sure you up for full-contact?"

And then, just before the tournament begins, our heroes are reminded "Remember, this is full-contact!" As if they might say at this point in the game– wait, this is full-WHAT? I'm outta here!

#2. This wonderful paisley shirt, worn by a random Capoeira combatant in the "parade of international fighters" opening montage.

The guys in the back seem to like it just fine.

#3. This random, shirtless spectator also at Capoeira practice–

His slate is a blank one; he is possibly unaware that a movie is being shot. His head lolls from side to side as he blankly cheers on the senseless carnage. He is us. And we are him.

But wait a minute– is that reclusive, transcendent auteur Terrence Malick?

"I wanted more full-contact in DAYS OF HEAVEN, but Gere wasn't having it."

#4. From the same montage– is it just me, or does it seem irresponsible to practice martial arts in a space littered with breakables? I mean, these guys live here, presumably, and they're just one roundhouse kick away from destroying the fine china.

...Or is it that we needed fine china on display, so that we'd know we were in China? Hmm...

#5. The possible air of pedophilia which surrounds the young Van Damme flashback scene. I mean, TEMPLE OF DOOM's Lao Che proposes not calling the cops on young burglar Van Damme, provided they make a "deal." Now the last I saw of actor Roy Chiao, he was sending Indiana Jones and Short Round off to a fiery death. And this kid, who nails the Van Damme Belgian "American" accent perfectly, also nails the appropriate feyness. Whether or not he can do splits remains to be seen, but I suppose that's neither here nor there.



I also appreciate that young JCVD wears a ballcap for the San Francisco Giants and a jersey for the New York Giants, thus revealing his dogged devotion to all organizations bearing the nickname "Giants." While the scene does not in fact culminate in pedophila, it does culminate in twenty-odd years of S&M bondage/martial arts training that's a little more HELLRAISER than KARATE KID.

YAHHHHHHHH

#6. Forest Whitaker as a U.S. Army representative trying to stop JCVD from participating in the Kumite. Here, he's having trouble negotiating the use of his chopsticks.

Smack dab in the middle of this Cannonsanity is Whitaker, delivering a sensitive, sympathetic portrayal. Bravo, sir!

#7. The back alley descent into the seedy world of the Kumite. Ominous synth tones courtesy of Paul Hertzog and moody, shadowy cinematography establish the atmosphere with surprising economy.

Victor (played by Ken Siu, second assistant director and non-actor) the streetwise, large-glasses-wearing guide says,

"Once you step out of the sunlight and into the narrow corridors, it's time to protect your nuts, guys!"

Indeed!

#8. Donald Gibb's memorable portrayal of "Jackson."

He's big, he's loud, and he's uncouth. He wears Harley-Davidson t-shirts, trains for the Kumite by drinkin' beers, and tells government officials "I ain't your pal, dickface!"

And despite it all, Gibb builds real, emotional stakes for his character. This movie is sillier than shit, and yet occasionally you will find yourself caring about a character's well-being, which is no small feat.

And who can resist the Karate video game challenge between Gibb and JCVD,


whereupon JCVD's genuine, loopy, childish grin makes possible their international friendship. I mean, American-on-American friendship. Er, I mean, American friendship.

#9. This random Kumite employee who milks his comic, gold-tooth-stealing moment for all it's worth. Sure, the combatant who lost the tooth was a cartoonish, obnoxious caricature, but apparently stealing teeth in this manner goes strictly against Kumite policy as outlined in the Kumite employee handbook.

He lets the audience know that this endeavor requires the utmost secrecy via his eyebrow-indicating and his exaggerated pantomime. Then he goes back from whence he came, just another random Kumite employee, albeit one gold tooth richer. You had your moment in the sun, my boy, and no one can say you didn't make the most of it!

#10. Gleefully oblivious racism. At least Cannon is an equal-opportunity offender. And I think it's fair to say that it's never malicious. No one can watch LAMBADA's portrayal of Latin dance clubs, MISSING IN ACTION's look at Vietnamese city life, DEATH WISH 3's perfectly-integrated street gangs, or RAPPIN's multi-culti hip-hop finale and accuse Cannon of any ill-intent. Cannon is your scrappy kid brother. Sure he took a dump behind the couch, but come on, he's like 3 years old, he doesn't know any better.

Should one dress an ambiguously Southeast Asian in a dime-store Sheik Halloween costume and pretend that he's an Arab? Cannon Films has the answer– because they never actually posed the question!

So what are the odds that there actually exists an African fighting style that involves ape-like clambering, leaping into trees, and karate-chopping gourds? Pretty low, I would guess, but I'm no Kumite expert. Fighting enthusiasts, feel free to expound upon this in the comments section.

#11. Blindfolded table service. As part of his training, JCVD must serve his shidoshi and his wife dinner while blindfolded.

Instead of looking simply impressed, the shidoshi's wife begins to look curiously turned on.

It's a beautifully uncomfortable little moment. It may also be of note that Golan discovered JCVD waiting tables in L.A. (JCVD impressed him by lifting his leg behind his head without spilling a drop from a tray of soups he was carrying).

#12. The zany chase scene. Zany chase scenes have been a staple of the Cannon diet from the early 80's (EXTERMINATOR 2) to the bitter end (HELLBOUND '94). Here, we have JCVD chased by his army handlers through Hong Kong, pausing frequently to wave to his pursuers and flash his dopey, lovable grin.

And I can't tell you how pleased I am to report that the "80's rule of swimming pools" still applies... to the South China Sea.

Wuh wuh wuh wuhhhhhhhhh... *SPLOOSH*

#13. The reflective "night bus" montage sequence is an experience that reaches even greater heights when JCVD sees the reflection of his nemesis in the window! but thank God, it's just his overactive imagination.


#14. The intrepid reporter/love interest, Janice Kent (Leah Ayres).

From one of her first lines ("I know there's a hidden, full-contact event going on in Hong Kong!") to her undercover infiltration of the Kumite to her burgeoning love affair with JCVD, the audience begins to wonder– what is the purpose of this intrepid reporter? Perhaps she will be kidnapped or used in a blackmail scheme? But around the 49th minute of this fine film, her true purpose becomes known: she is merely an impetus for a gratuitous JCVD ass shot!

JCVD approximately 2 seconds after participating in a gratuitous ass shot.

Before you accuse me of making that up, keep in mind that JCVD's big shower scene was interrupted prematurely by a chase sequence.

Cannon can be sneaky sometimes; you have to fill in the blanks yourself.

#15. Chong Li's (Bolo Yeung) crazy-face.

Surely one of the best villains of the 80's, he furthermore possesses one of the best crazy-faces. Runners-up include Gary Busey in LETHAL WEAPON, James Remar in 48 HRS., Michael Ironside in EXTREME PREJUDICE, and Henry Silva in everything.

#16. Bolo's look of begrudging admiration when JCVD manages to work a dragging split with maximized asscrackage into one of his matches.


"I really like what you did just there."


#17. Additionally, that match in question discussed in #16 may or may not end with another unnecessary JCVD split and a balls grab. So once again, I cement my status as the web's leading authority on brutal ball-squeezing.






#18. Just another random day at the Kumite. I don't know how many Kumites you fellows have been to, but the following images are pretty indicative of what's in store for you. It's about the subtle visual poetry of JCVD jamming his toes into another man's face.

TOE-JAMMIN'

It's about the ethereal majesty of aerial splits and somersaults, and sometimes in unison!

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR A KUMITE

#19. JCVD eye-bulging. Whenever an emotion is called for outside the ring (or off the mat, or whatever), JCVD usually tries his best. We know that he was hired because he can put his leg behind his head, and maybe he knows that we know that. But he's always sincere, and gives it his best shot, sometimes delivering genuine pathos. 

When emotion is called for IN the ring, JCVD does it up the only way he knows how: SCREAMING AND EYE-BULGING!

YAH

YAH-HHH-HHHH-HHHH

#20. "Fight to Survive." Now this is a pretty standard 80's montage song, and it gets to be played once in the movie, and once over the end credits. It's the product of Stan Bush, the songster who has brought us memorable hits from the soundtracks of TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE and KICKBOXER. While the song for the most part is fairly unremarkable:

My body's ready, my heart's on fire
I'm gonna push it over the wire
Perfect timing, tight as a drum, final battle's already won
I'm taking hold of every moment
Given strength by the breath of life (breath of life)
I'm gonna stake my claim
I FIGHT TO SURVIVE

it contains a crucial element that catapults it into greatness.
In short:

KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE!

You see, a chorus of large, presumably sweaty men (and Kumite veterans) incessantly chant "KUMI-TE" in unison for the refrain, and it is fantastic. So much so, that I found myself occasionally chanting KUMI-TE KUMI-TE to myself at home, around the office, and on the streets. I was watching COOL HAND LUKE a few days afterward, and during the George Kennedy/Paul Newman boxing scene, I couldn't help but pull out great reams of Hong Kong paper money, wave it about, and chant KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE, KUMI-TE!

In the end, it's truly a profound, full-contact experience, and another wondrous jewel in Cannon's crown. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dare I say, that was a full-contact review.


KUMI-TE!

GuyR said...

Great review, my day is now enlightened!
I'm still puzzled as to which film is the best : Kickboxer or Bloodsport?
I might never know the answer, but you make very valid points in favor of Bloodsport!

Space Cadet said...

You know how when you set aside a Sunday afternoon to finally clean your garage, and when the times comes there is so much stuff everywhere, un-boxed, unorganized, chaotic, to the point where you’re just standing there, not knowing where to even begin? I’m having one of those moments right now. I mean, it’s Bloodsport . You just reviewed Bloodsport . You’d have been better off reviewing the Bible.

Everyone you win, everyone you choose, everyone you chase, everyone you lose.

Everytime you cry, every time you lie, everywhere you look, they just never know.

Ain't it strange (strange, strange)… when the morning comes…we'll see the light…and when the night returns…we'll steal the night…


Bloodsport makes Citizen Kane look like a movie that’s not Bloodsport .

One thing I love about Bloodsport , aside from all other things, is the absolute immaculate clarity of its storytelling, through narrative, dialogue and visuals combined. An infant could understand this movie. Seriously, there are scenes aplenty rendered with all the complexity of an employee instructional video, or maybe an after-school special. But there is a beauty to it all, by god; a strange kind of ‘Dick-and-Jane-see-Spot-run’ elegance. It’s almost as if the film as a whole is merely an extension of its featured Karate Champ arcade game, what with the binary, no-nonsense premise and visual orientation. Virtually every shot in the film is so rudimentary yet equally efficient: medium-master, actors walk in center frame, exchange lines with teleprompter-like pacing, an occasional steady zoom-in or zoom-out …and the scene ends with zero fat. Nice, simple, succinct.

Fucking taser guns from the ‘80s!

It’s so bizarre to consider that Newt Arnold was an assist director for movies like Blade Runner and The Godfather Part II . Just think how much cooler that makes…Puzo’s adapted mafia epic. I have a projector stored away in the back of my mind that just plays Bloodsport on a continuous loop. It’s a reserve; because Bloodsport is something of a default way of life for me. When all else fails, when my Harvard/Oxford education proves inadequate, I can always resource moments from Bloodsport to overcome any obstacle. Now, I’ve yet to encounter any scenario where I was forced to outwit an Arab pirate. However, one time I tried to return for a full refund one of those clear plastic toy cell phones filled with jelly beans. The dollar store cashier looked it over, saw that it had been opened and thus handed it back to me saying it wasn’t refundable.

“Neither is this!” I growled, and smashed it over my forehead, sending jellybeans everywhere.

“Here, for you.”

I was promptly escorted from the premises. But I’m confident that the right impression was made. Just think about the anecdote that guy got to take home that night and share with his lame-ass girlfriend. That’s the power of Bloodsport – I can catch koi with my bare hands, impress women with my honey-tanned bare ass, juggle my pectoral muscles! Operate heavy machinery while blinded by crushed Alka-Seltzer!! You won’t learn that shit at Oxford, I can tell right now.

Space Cadet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Gill said...

Anon.,

Thank you- writing full-contact reviews is all I can ever hope for.

GuyR,

Thank you, sir! The KICKBOXER/BLOODSPORT conundrum is one oft-discussed by film scholars. I hope to clear it up in a forthcoming KICKBOXER review.

Space Cadet,

I thank you for sharing your lengthy BLOODSPORT testimonial! Your comments on the sheer simplicity and economy of visual storytelling are spot-on; a baby COULD 'get' BLOODSPORT. Perhaps we ought to beam BLOODSPORT into space as a universal language of sorts?

J.D. said...

Now, THIS is a review worthy of BLOODSPORT. Didn't they do a sequel? I have fond memories of watching this my buddies as a young lad with tons of junk food as a sugar high is one of the best ways to enjoy this silly action film. So much fun and makes a good JCVD double bill with CYBORG. Ah, the memories...

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Great work Sean. Just wanted you to know. Exceptional job! Best, SFF

Mike B. said...

I appear to have stumbled onto your blog during a golden age of reviews! Bloodsport is easily in my top 10 most viewed movies ever, something that is only helped by the fact that that insipid Spike channel runs it on pretty much a continuous loop these days. As usual, you nailed it, but there is one question: how did the "Okay USA" guy not make the cut? He practically needs his own separate article! That scene spawned one of the greatest reactions I ever saw from one of my high school buddies, it went like this:

(me and a couple guys watching Bloodsport on VHS, about to hit the "Okay USA" scene)

Okay USA guy: "Okay USA!"

My friend: "Jesus Christ USA! Did you see that guy?"

Sean Gill said...

J.D.,

I'm glad you enjoyed! There are indeed four BLOODSPORT movies, though the latter three star Daniel Bernhardt, who seems to be a very poor man's JCVD. I haven't seen any of these, though I am tempted by BLOODSPORT 2 which apparently sees the return of Donald Gibb as 'Jackson.' The sequels seem to possess a kind of internal continuity with James Hong playing the kumite mentor. I'll at least check out part two one of these days, even if it's just for Gibb alone. And I gotta see CYBORG again one of these days!

Sci-Fi Fan,

Thank you for the kind words, my friend!

Mike B,

Thank you! As for Okay USA Guy, you make some valid points and I must admit my oversight. Okay USA Guy deserves our respect, hell, maybe he even deserves his own spin-off film.

Kyle said...

I just wanted you and future readers to know that i found this review by searching for "bolo crazy face" in google images.

KUMI-TE.

Sean Gill said...

Kyle,

That really warms my heart- and hopefully somewhere Bolo's as well. KUMI-TE indeed!

PrimitiveScrewhead said...

I think I'd place Van Damme second to Arnold in my list of greatest action stars of Hollywood. Sure, the majority of his films are fucking awful. But they're also extremely enjoyable. Even STREET FIGHTER was cheesy as hell. But it was bad. Van Damme is the most consistent star after Arnold, IMO. Seagal fell off the face of the Earth somewhere after THE GLIMMER MAN into DTV shit. Stallone's films are incredibly inconsistent. Every other one seems to be a piece of shit, and every other other one is entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Et cetera. I dunno. I've always been a Van Damme fanboy. The new UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION was a hundred times better than THE EXPENDABLES. And JCVD pretty much proved to the world that, yes, he could act.

But I mostly just wanted to comment on your piece itself, sir. Your writing is funny as all hell. That Terence Malick bit had me laughing my ass off. Keep up the good work, sir.

Sean Gill said...

Screwhead,

Van Damme is pretty consistent. Though Bronson and Norris' 80s runs at Cannon Films are pretty damn fine as well. You're right about Seagal, too. And thanks for the compliments!

Dax said...

That was a great review, Sean. I was thinking of doing Bloodsport for my blog, but I don't think I can do better than this one. You really did the splits and punched it in the balls, sir.

Sean Gill said...

Dax,

Thanks, man, I appreciate it! Though I would never want my review to dissuade anyone from waxing poetic on JCVD ball-swatting...