One of the movies she introduced me to was Bloodsport. Right then and there at 4 years old, it became one of my favorite films of all time, definitely within my top five. There will be spoilers here, but the plot is relatively simple.
Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a United States Army Captain who sneaks to Hong Kong to fight in the Kumite, a secret underground fighting tournament. Naturally Frank does well, picking up win after win. But several problems plague him throughout the film. For starters, the goofy team of Helmer and Rawlins (Norman Burton and Forest Whitaker) are chasing Frank in an attempt to arrest him and bring him back to America. There's also the love interest – a blond newspaper reporter named Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) attempting to write an article about the Kumite and bang our hero.
Last, but not least, there is the brutal undefeated Kumite Champion, Chong Li (played by the fierce Bolo Yeung) who has a reputation for literally killing men when he fights them. When Chong Li hospitalizes Frank's best friend and fellow Kumite participant Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) and steals his damn bandanna, Frank sets out to get revenge for his friend and win the Kumite tournament by kicking Chong Li's evil, muscled ass. But can he?
Turns out that when he was a bad, stupid kid, Frank Dux and his equally stupid buddies break into Senzo Tenaka's house to steal a sword. When they hear Senzo coming, the other guys abandon Frank, while Frank (who is stupid, but polite) is caught by Senzo as he places the sword back into its proper place. I swear, Frank is the most delicate, polite burglar I've ever seen. He really cares about his victims. If only the thugs here in Memphis had the same manners. But anyway.
Senzo (who is also a sensei, fulfilling the old wise Asian man trope) slices the visor off of Frank's baseball cap. Frank doesn't flinch, which causes Senzo to remark, “You have fighting spirit.”
Senzo's son Shingo at one point makes a racist comment to Frank calling him “Round Eye.” Jesus, this movie is racist and I didn't quite catch this until now. Years later, Shingo dies as a young adult, so Senzo passes on all of his Tanaka teachings to the determined Frank Dux. Sensei Senzo's methods are no joke. Here are a few.
He kicks Frank repeatedly in the body, which toughens Frank's mid-section.
He reaches his hand into water and grabs a fish, which improves hand speed.
He teaches Frank how to fight blindfolded. In fact, Frank becomes so good at it that he prepares dinner and blocks an attack from Senzo, all while wearing a blind fold at the dinner table.
But it doesn't stop there.
Senzo beats the boy with a stick as he mediates, and Frank doesn't feel a thing. He also stretches Frank's body using ropes, and Frank passes this test, too. Senzo is creating a monster.
Remember that ALL of these techniques will be used later in the film during Frank's Kumite battles.
Anyway, all of this was presented as a flashback. In the present, Frank visits his old sensei as he lays dying. Senzo states the obvious. “When you fight, my spirit fights with you.”
After Frank kicks Ray's ass in an arcade fighting game, Ray reveals that he is fighting in the Kumite. When Frank reveals to Ray that he is also fighting in the tournament, Ray sizes him up and says this.
“Aren't you a little young for full contact?”
Frank's reply. “Aren't you a little old for video games?”
Meanwhile, we meet the two idiot buffoons, Helmer and Rawlins, two FBI agents assigned to capture Frank and return him to the United States. What's funny is that these two don't try to be bumbling idiots, but it just works out for them this way, as Frank easily outsmarts them throughout the film. In fact, you could make a case that they're even dumber than Harry and Marv from the Home Alone films.
Frank and Ray meet Mr. Lin, their scrawny but lovable Hong Kong and Kumite guide. If Ray is the enthusiastic silly best friend that you never had, then Lin is the scrawny motivator that you need to keep you going.
The first thing Lin says when he meets Ray is, “Ray Jackson? You look like a Jackson!!”
Ummm...Ray looks nothing like Michael, Tito or Jermaine. Or even Jesse.
To prove their worth, Ray and Frank both break boards to impress the Black Dragon Boys and officially get entered into the tournament. I'm not kidding. The Black Dragon Boys is the official name for the Kumite judges. Oh boy. Funny.
Frank is impressive while breaking bricks using the death touch. The judges honor Frank's invitation, to which Ray remarks, “No shit you honor his invitation!!”
Lin yells out, “Son of a bitch!” Man, I wish I had best friends like these guys. Frank has it made.
Unimpressed, however, is the Kumite Champion Chong Li. Ugly but fierce, he looks at Frank and says, “Very good, but brick not hit back.” He then gives Frank the “I'm going to kill you” glare, a look we will see quite often in this movie. To further intimidate, he does the Jason Voorhees idle breaths. So now we know for sure that Chong Li is a truly frightening individual on the Jason Voorhees level. Fun.
At the hotel, reporter Janice Kent is desperate for a Kumite story, but not desperate enough to sleep with an unruly participant named Hossein who wants to exchange sex for an interview. Hell, let's just call it rape. He wants to rape her, no matter how nicely he tries to word it.
Just then, Frank and Ray arrive. Frank uses his quickness of hand to snatch a coin out of the thug's hand before he even realized it. (Remember the fish trick from earlier in the movie? I told you we'd see these techniques later). Hossein agrees to leave her alone, and Frank and Janice predictably fall for each other. Janice could have been attracted to Frank's good looks or his thick accent, or maybe it was because he was one of the few Americans around. Or perhaps she'd prefer to sleep with him for an interview. Take your pick.
Regardless, Frank doesn't really give her any information or even tells her why he wants to fight. Playing hard to get will only make her want to get into his pants even more, and I think he realizes that. Smooth operator.
Anyway, we're finally at the first night of the Kumite. Our scrawny motivator Lin breaks down the rules and three ways to win – Knock your opponent out, make your opponent submit by saying “matte,” or “throw the fucker right off the runway.” Those were his exact words. “Throw the fucker right off the runway.” You can't help but love this guy.
Ray Jackson fights in one of the openers, quickly brutalizing his opponent with one solid smash. Just after the knockout, he bravely (and foolishly) taunts Chong Li by pointing at him and declaring, “I'M GOING TO KILL YOU, MAN! YEAH, YOOOU, MAN!!!”
Chong Li responds by looking like a lost squirrel. (see GIF below)
As they mop up his opponent's blood, Ray then shares his enthusiasm with Frank. “Look at him, buddy! Yeah!” Gotta love the "bromance" between these two.
Next, we get an evil synthesizer chord, signaling that Chong Li will fight next. The crowd immediately starts chanting his name, and Lin and Ray appropriately educate Frank on the champion's history.
“That's Chong Li, the current champ,” said Ray.
Then Lin chimed in. “He's never been defeated. He holds all the records, including the fastest KO. He killed a guy during the last Kumite.”
Ray added to the somber story. “Yeah, he kicked the poor bastard right in the throat. Guy died right there on the platform. Chong Li stood there and watched him die.”
So now we know that Chong Li is a mix of Jason Voorhees, a lost squirrel, and Max Baer, a heavyweight champion during the 1930s who killed men in the ring.
Chong Li made his way to platform and we hear that dreaded synthesizer note again. I guess it's his unofficial theme music, although it's limited to one note. Maybe it's all they could afford. I assume the producers ran out of money at this point.
Chong Li plays with his opponent and feints as if he's going to kill him by gripping his neck, but instead knocks him out. The whole thing takes 14 seconds, and could have been quicker if Chong Li didn't pose so often for the crowd. With this victory, Chong Li sets a new record, breaking his old one.
Chong Li sits and looks pissed as his brand new record has been smashed already. It took Frank 12 seconds to get the win. New world record, less than four minutes after Chong Li just set his previous one. This is already getting personal.
Ray jumps up again, more excited than anyone else in the damn arena. “HIS FIRST FIGHT IN THE KUMITE AND HE BROKE THE FUCKING WORLD RECORD!!”
He then playfully shoves another on-looker and points at Frank. “That's my buddy!”
Chong Li just sits there looking mad. He now realizes that Mr. Frank Dux is a legitimate threat to him.
Time for a fight montage with kick-ass 80's synth pop music featuring a poor man's Bruce Springsteen on vocals. (No disrespect to Stan Bush, who performed these songs. He gave it his best shot). But again, the producers likely ran out of money and since they couldn't afford the real Springsteen, they hired Stan Bush. Hey, do what you gotta do.
The fighting is awesome enough on its own, but the music enhances things so much more.
That evening, Frank eats dinner with Janice who quickly confirms what we already knew. She outright begs the man not just for an interview, but to sneak her in to the Kumite. Then she adds, “I'd really like to get to know you (in bed).” OK, I added the “in bed” part, but let's be real. That's what she meant. Then she says, “After all, we have all night.” She's obsessed with banging this man.
Well she got her wish, and the two wake up together the next morning. I would assume that Frank should abstain from sex while fighting in this tournament, but what do I know?
Before the fights begin at the Kumite that night, a bystander awkwardly approaches Frank and utters my favorite line in the movie. “Good. You're good fighter. You...good.....good.” Frank apparently feels just as awkward as I did watching it. He then spots his girlfriend Janice, who snuck into the Kumite with the awkward loser guy.
Chong Li is fascinated with Frank. He never says anything, but he often nods in approval as Frank fights. One scene that had me crying and hollering like a little bitch when I was a kid was when Chong Li broke another fighter's knee cap. To this day I either skip that part or look away, but I don't cry anymore about it anymore. I'm a man now.
Janice pulled out a (huge) tape recorder and spoke verbal notes to herself. As a reporter myself, I find this funny. My voice recorder is digital and tiny, but back in those days journalists had to carry around these big, bulky cassette recorders. How the hell did she hide that thing? It was about as big as her purse!
OK, time to see how well you pay attention. Remember Pumola, the sumo fighter? He has a fight with Richardo Morra, the monkey-boy. Ugh. Anyway, eventually Richardo's guile and speed are overpowered by Pumola's gorilla strength and Pumola brutally breaks his back in a bearhug. It's so scary that Janice grabs her throat in horror and Frank looks at Ray with a real look of concern.
One note about Chong Li. Before he finishes most guys, he'll close his eyes and do this “Hallelujah Jesus!” wave at the crowd, as if he's feeling the Holy Spirit before crushing his opponent. This, and his wild facial expressions, are my favorite things about Chong Li. He's the villain, but a part of me always roots for him.
Frank's kicks and attacks have no effect on this monster, and he is eventually overpowered by his strength and pulled into his bearhug finisher. Frank uses his hard head to headbutt Pumola and escape. Thinking fast, Frank hits him with the dreaded “Death touch” that he used on the bricks much earlier, and then does a split and uppercuts the big sumo square in the nuts.
It was over, and Chong Li looked horrified. His anxiety increased when the crowd started chanting “DUX! DUX! DUX!” Now the champ was losing his fans to this American upstart.
Chong Li got to take out his frustrations on Frank's best buddy, Ray.
Before the fight, Frank tries to warn him. “Go for the gut. He's soft there. Chong Li's weak in the gut. That's how Parades surprised him...go for the stomach and stay away from his right leg.”
If only Ray had listened. But then again, if he had, we wouldn't have the major plot twists coming up.
Ray actually took Frank's advice about avoiding Chong Li's right leg, blocking a kick and overpowering him and dropping him with a hard blow to the head. But instead of making sure the champion was knocked out, Ray started boasting prematurely like a dumbass.
The music turns sinister as Chong Li recovers and uses his vaunted right leg to kick the shit out of Ray and then stomp his head, knocking him cold. The champion then steals his bandanna.
Janice and Frank argue at the hospital while visiting the injured Ray, and Lin comes out of nowhere to literally grab and shake Frank while giving one of his motivational speeches.
Cue the music video for On my Own, one of the highlights of the movie. This is the song on my i-pod that throws people off. Friends have been like, “AJ, you really listen to this?” Hell yeah! Cheesy '80s rock music rules! It's also cool to remember how many singers back then did their damnest to sound like The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. The whole scene I just described is in the clip below.
By this point, only the best fighters are left. Frank is summoned first, and his first fight is against the super-talented (but dirty) kick-boxer Paco of all people. Frank can't catch a break, can he? Chong Li winks at Frank, which almost makes me suspect that he had something to do with setting this up.
I love watching Chong Li's reactions to Frank's fights. At first he was leaning in smiling when Paco had the edge, but slowly sat back and looked sad as Frank began to dominate. Frank wisely attacked Paco's legs and then knocks him out with his signature twirling kick. Rawlins and Helmer are amazed and look at each other as if to say, “Well, damn. This dude can fight!” Janice has replaced Ray as Frank's constant cheerleader, and Chong Li rolled his eyes in disgust.
To send a message of intimidation to Frank, Chong Li kills his next opponent, which worries the shit out of Janice. He then points directly at Frank and says the famous line, “YOU..ARE...NEX!!!” Brilliant. Chong Li doesn't speak much, but the three lines he has in this movie are among the most memorable.
Lin states the obvious to Frank. “You can make history here today.”
A lot was definitely on the line here. Frank came along from out of nowhere and broke Chong Li's record, and took his once loyal fans from him too. Frank had also defeated both Paco and Pumola, the two most dangerous fighters in the tournament aside from himself and Chong Li.
Chong Li had never lost and was the champion. Meanwhile, Frank wanted to be the first American to win the Kumite and avenge what happened to Ray Jackson. The pressure was on both guys.
Just before the fight, Chong Li confirmed what I'd been suspecting – he didn't think he could beat Frank Dux. You could get a sense of this throughout the tournament by watching his reactions to Frank's wins, especially against Paco and Pumola. My confirmation that Li lacked the confidence to beat Dux was when his handler secretly placed a pill into his waistband. Uh-oh. He also wore Ray's bandanna around his knee and gave Dux a warm smile just before they stepped on the platform.
“Break my record...now I break you...like I break your friend.” Those were Li's words to Dux just before they squared off. This was beyond personal.
He eventually counters one of Dux's attacks and stuns him, gaining control of the fight. Meanwhile, the bipolar crowd doesn't know who the hell to cheer for, constantly alternating between chanting the names of both fighters at the drop of a hat.
The fight was back and forth for a few minutes, as the producers didn't want the audience to see right away who was better. Eventually, though, Dux begins to hurt Li by repeatedly attacking him in the stomach (remember his “soft gut” comments to Ray Jackson earlier?) and then kicks him to the ground.
With defeat looming, Li crushes the pill and tosses it into Dux's eyes and blinds him. As a boxing fan, this reminds me a lot of Sonny Liston blinding Muhammad Ali in their first fight back in 1964.
Li has the advantage, but doesn't know that Dux has experience fighting while blinded. (Remember the blindfold lessons from earlier in the movie?) Frank makes a comeback, hurting Li with a hard kick to the gut and flooring him with a series of twirl kicks. Li eventually yells “Matte!” and suffers the first loss of his career. Frank Dux is now the Kumite Champion, and Janice damn near has an orgasm as this happens.
Helmer and Rawlins, who spent the whole movie trying to ruin Dux's fun, are now major supporters.
Frank is awarded a sword for winning the tournament. A sword? No money? All that blood, sweat and tears for a sword????? Anyway, Ray Jackson makes a speedy recovery and returns for the sequel. Dux returns to America with Helmer and Rawlins.
Anyway, I'll wrap things up here. This movie is awesome. It's cheesy, but very self-aware of this fact, and that makes it even more fun.
What separates it from the sequels and other martial arts films is that most of the fighters depicted here were real fighters, so the fights didn't look choreographed at all. Everything flowed perfectly. The music only makes things better. I was an '80s baby, so I have appreciation for films like this and the music that accompanied it. This is one of many films that remind me of Madea. Thank you for introducing me to so many movies.