It’s the quintessential martial arts move, with a charismatic lead, excellent fight choreography and cinematography. But are we talking about Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, or Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport? The only way to find out is to listen to our latest episode! Or, y’know, have a functioning brain.
Full show notes at https://www.fudsonfilm.com/enter-the-dragon-bloodsport/
The last film of the legendary Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon is probably the seminal martial arts film. Certainly, it’s difficult to think of one more well-known. For that reason I am going to keep this introduction particularly brief before we go on to discuss it, but I suppose I should at least give you a brief rundown of the plot.
Hong Kong, 1973. Highly skilled Shaolin fighter Lee (Bruce Lee) is approached by British Intelligence and asked to go undercover for them in a martial arts contest being held on the private island of Han (Shih Kien). Mr. Han-man is a bad man, but the authorities lack the critical evidence of his drug and human-trafficking activities to convict him, and it this evidence that Lee is asked to obtain. To add motivation for Lee, Han-man’s right-hand man, O’Hara, is also a very bad man, and is responsible for the death of Lee’s sister, man. Fighting in the tournament during the day, Lee sneaks out at night to find the evidence he needs, and eventually finds himself facing off against Mr. Han-man, man.
In a film like this plot is, of course, fairly inconsequential, but here it is solid, if uninspired (it’s very easy to imagine almost exactly the same plot in a Bond film of the same era), and Bruce Lee is a very engaging presence in and out of action, and he acquits himself well throughout. He’s given strong support from Jim Kelly and John Saxon as fellow contestants Williams and Roper, and Bolo Yeung is a suitably menacing opponent.
The sounds of Enter the Dragon are famous (the film was shot silently, so everything was dubbed in afterwards), and the sounds of Bruce Lee fighting his opponents are the sounds of martial arts films. His fighting is also endlessly watchable, and the fights are suitably crunchy, in many ways matching up to the visceral impacts of more modern fare like Ong-Bak or The Raid. And few martial arts stars, indeed, few actors, are, or were, capable of portraying the sort of haunted anguish seen in Lee’s eyes and face when he kills O’Hara, and the man also had an absolutely killer stare.
If you have any regard for martial arts films at all then, presumably, you’ve seen this already. But if not, rectify this forthwith.
Because Bloodsport is, well, Bloodsport, I’d either not noticed or not cared prior to this about the text appearing at the end of this film, claiming it to be a true story, based on the real life exploits of Frank Dux. That holds up in as far as this is an accurate portrayal of what Frank Dux claims he did, although, at the risk of legal action, Frank Dux is an inveterate liar to the point that if he told me water was wet I’d assume the opposite on instinct.
Here Jean-Claude Van Damme inhabits the persona of Dux, as we’re introduced to him training in some no-doubt top secret army facility that totally existed, before ducking out to meet his sensei, Senzo Tanaka. Dux has been chosen to enter the Kumite, a top-secret international underground fight tournament that totally happens, as this documentary will tell us. It’s also one of those top secret underground things that literally everyone knows about, apart from one reporter.
But before we get to that, we need to flash back to a young Dux and how he convinced Senzo to train Dux in the art of ninjutsu alongside his Senzo’s son, an unheard of honour. Perhaps the most notable thing about this segment is that they managed to find a kid actor that’s more wooden than Van Damme was at this point in his career, which scientists had previously determined to be theoretically impossible.
Senzo’s kid had previously also been invited to a Kumite, but he did not survive the tournament of death. Something something reclaim honour something something vengeance. So off Dux goes, with two military investigators on his trail trying to stop him, one of whom played by a young Forest Whittaker, which always surprises me. And then I’m surprised that I’m surprised, because, really, who devotes brainspace to memorising Bloodsport?
Dux heads off to Hong Kong, running into fellow fighter, American brute / half-wit Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, it’s good to see the Bee Gees branching out) and Victor Lin (Ken Siu), who becomes their chapperone in the fight club scene. Dux also runs into journalist / exposition cipher Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), also the love interest for the irresistably charismatic and beautiful Frank Dux, at least as Frank Dux tells it.
So the tournament begins, with the combatants punching and kicking each other in various combinations, leading to a fight between Dux and the nefarious end boss Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, who is a big dirty cheater. And also a murderer, but it feels as though the film thinks throwing chalk in Dux’s eyes is the bigger crime. At least as Frank Dux tells it.
Obviously, this film is not a patch on Enter the Dragon in any aspect, but judged along side its contemporaries in the glut of Western-backed martial arts action films that ruled the eighties with an iron fist, this is resolutely okay. Director Newt Arnold actually has quite the reference list as an assistant director, and I don’t think any of the problems with the film are necessarily of his making.
Van Damme’s fight choreography is fine, although not his best – Kickboxer being substantially better a year later, if memory serves, but it’s serviceable. However, anything outside of the Kumite arena is like watching a, well, a bad actor. Couldn’t think of a simile there. Apologies. He’d later go on to show some charisma, and even range and ability in the likes of JCVD and Jean-Claude Van Johnston, but here, not so much, which makes most of the non-punchy-kicky sections kind rough.
Some of the stuff with Donald Gibb is goofy enough to be ironically enjoyable, rather than actually enjoyable, I guess, and Bolo Yeung does make for an imposing antagonist, so it’s not a complete bust. In fact, although it’s several cuts below any of Bruce Lee’s work, I still like Bloodsport at least a little. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re choosing between this and Enter the Dragon, for some reason I can’t possibly imagine, do not hesitate for a second to pick Enter the Dragon. But this world is big enough for the both of them, and if you’ve any interest at all in kung-fu flicks, Bloodsport is worth watching at least once – if only to see how much yarn Frank Dux can spin.
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