When I was six, my preferred fighting style was bouncing around on all fours, emulating Ricardo Morra, the smallest, most agile, and probably most offensive entrant in the fictionalized Kumite tournament from Bloodsport. I’d gallop crawl ape-style into the living room, leap from one piece of furniture to the next, hop as high as I could in the air and slap my dad on the chest with the side of my hand… before he’d swat me like a fly and ask my mom if I’d met with the school counselor yet.
That changed over the years. By the time I was 21, my physique dictated that I change my style. When my roommates and I held a makeshift Kumite in the middle of a crowded college party, I switched my approach to that of Paco, the broader, angular Muay Thai kickboxer. Of course, our pit fighting tournament only lasted about 15 minutes, and everyone had confusedly left the party within the first five minutes, leaving two stoners and two drunks to dry hump around on the floor screaming “Saaaaaay iiiiIIIIIT!”
I’m sure every movie lover can attest to this: Your first favorite movie is always your first favorite movie.
So, it’s interesting to observe the way my love for Bloodsport has evolved (or not evolved, really) in a vacuum seal, safe from my developed sense of critical approach and analysis. Because of the permanency of its position as my first favorite film, I never want to discuss the way Bloodsport edges out the SNES/Sega game Street Fighter II in providing the most blatantly racist stereotype caricatures of any media from my childhood (Sidenote: Bloodsport edges out Street Fighter II because I’m not aware of any racist Brazilian stereotypes regarding green, electrified flesh; if these exist, correct me and I’ll add an author’s note). I freely disregard the comically stiff Pierre Rafini, whose young Frank Dux is probably the worst flashback performance of all time (Frank Dux would be a Giants fan). Rafini’s segment is just the comic short film that leads into the good stuff, and that’s an extension of forgiveness I would never allow myself to offer to a movie these days. I’ve never questioned why Chong Li doesn’t just knock Dux out during the near full-minute stretch where Dux is dramatically screaming about his blindness. I haven’t bothered to consider the absurdity of Frank Dux falling in love with a woman and a best friend within what seems to be just a couple of days of meeting them. Before a friend pointed it out to me prior to this most recent viewing, I’d never even considered the mathematical impossibility of the Kumite tournament structure: an uncountable number of contestants, one arena, and about three days; thank God for montages. I don’t want to ask any of these questions. What I want to ask is: Which fighter did/do you pretend to be after watching Bloodsport?
But the question I’m tasked with answering here: Is Bloodsport still badass?
For the first twenty times I watched this movie, I thought Frank Dux’s Dim Mak, the “death touch” that allowed him to strike a stack of bricks and only break the bottom one, was an exhibition of telekinesis, like what I read about in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. When the final title screen informed me that Dux held the record for fastest recorded kick at 70+ m.p.h., I devised a surefire game plan where I would just avoid his first kick and allow the inhuman momentum of his whipping appendage to send flying from the ring. To emulate Chong Li’s intimidating credit sequence introduction, I would hang a bag of store-bought ice cubes on the clothesline outside, drive my frail and pointy elbow through the bag, and the belief that my feat was the exact same thing as Bolo Yeung destroying a solid block of ice was the only thing that kept me crying over the elbow bruise. I was a kid and I didn’t know a damn thing about fighting.
I still don’t, really.
Have you ever watched a fight? Not an MMA or boxing event; there’s a precise art and science to that structured fighting and I’d guess 99 percent of our readers don’t possess it. Have you ever watched normal people fight? Do you know what that looks like? It always looks dumb. If you’ve had little or no formal training in any fighting style, you do not fight the way you think you fight in your head. When you fight, you flail like a seizuring clown and your face looks like an overinflated balloon rendering of your normal face. If you’re not trained in fighting and you want to debate me on this point, just stop: I promise I’m never going to be your favorite writer and we can both rest easier if we don’t try to amend that gap. What I’m saying is that the general movie-going public, from Joe Rogan down, isn’t licensed to say, from a pit fighting perspective, what is or isn’t badass.
Frank Dux’s account of his experiences, the alleged true story upon which Bloodsport is based, has been a point of contention since the movie’s release, specifically after the L. A. Times discovered damning evidence to his details. There exists no military record of Frank Dux ever traveling to Asia, the address of the Kumite was the same California address where Dux received his mail, etc.. I think I was 12 or 13 when I discovered this and I still had my autographed Van Damme headshot (with his Hard Target mullet) hanging in my locker. A few years after that, I heard the reputation-smearing anecdote about Van Damme getting knocked out in a fight against Hell’s Angels, the notorious motorcycle gang, in a topless bar. Did either of these tidbits damage my affection for my first favorite movie? No, of course not, for two pretty basic reasons: 1.) Every single film martial artist in history, from Bruce Lee to John Wick, would lose in a fight to Hell’s Angels. While I don’t know much about fighting, I’m pretty good at math. 2.) By my adolescent years, I understood that the cinematic presentation of a thing is not the thing itself. Van Damme wasn’t fighting in Bloodsport any more than Tom Hanks went into space for Apollo 13. The fight sequences are as Frank Dux’s credited Bloodsport role, fight coordinator, suggests that they are: Coordinated. Choreographed. Theater. More ballet than brawling, a dance designed to exhibit the incredible physique of the dancers.
Bloodsport, in a bare cinematic sense, is just a standard underdog action flick starring an inexplicably likable up-and-comer (JCVD) and an all-time great intimidating bad guy (Bolo Yeung). Is it still badass? Honestly, it probably never was. But for a pale, book-obsessed, video game-addicted kid whose primary exercise came from emulating movie characters, and for a cubicle-bound thirty year old whose “fight to surviiiiiiive” consists of not falling over when putting on pants and making sure that he remembers to put the coffee cup in place before turning on the Keurig, well.. it’s about as close to badass as I could ever hope to get.