It's essentially impossible to make an Underground Pit-Fighting Tournament Movie that's not worth watching. The genre can support so many different interpretations, from beautifully shot middlebrow Hollywood striver story (Fighting) to all-flash juiced-up exploitation (Never Back Down) to foreign Oscar bait (Rust and Bone). And yet even the shittiest and least thoughtful of these will still somehow be fun enough to sit through, largely thanks to the inexhaustible novelty of seeing fighters of different backgrounds haphazardly thrown together and loudmouth villains finally overcome. Even more than its closest cousin, the Rich Guy Kidnaps the World's Best Fighters and Forces Them to Kill Each Other Movie, the Underground Pit-Fighting Tournament Movie is the rare genre where you can throw on any random selection and be reasonably assured of 90 minutes well spent. But the crown jewel of this particular genre is 1988's Bloodsport, the movie that gave Jean-Claude Van Damme his first starring role.
Van Damme was kind of a goober when he made Bloodsport. He had no particular grizzled authority, and his relative lack of acting experience was perfectly evident. He's supposed to be playing a U.S. Army captain, and yet his Belgian accent is thicker than at any point since. (That's not really an issue, though; it gets by on the same weird quality that makes Schwarzenegger movies more enjoyable when he's supposed to be playing a small-town sheriff or whatever.) His line-readings are just apocalyptically stiff.
But this movie still managed to capitalize on everything that was, and is, great about Van Damme. His physical grace here is just ridiculous: He's absolutely shameless about showing off his body, and about doing the splits as often as possible. (Those splits even become a plot point during one of the movie's later fights, when the sumo wrestler guy grabs Van Damme's leg and drags him halfway across the ring, forcing Van Damme to compensate via splits. Good thing all those seemingly useless hours practicing splits paid off!) Van Damme's strikes don't look particularly brutal, but they're fluid and visually impressive. And his facial expressions, especially the open-mouthed silent scream that he sometimes does after punching someone, are just incredible. All the better that the movie pits him against Bolo Yeung, one of the great facial-expression guys in the game.
Yeung was a longtime heavy in Hong Kong action movies by the time he turned up in Bloodsport, and he was a legend forever thanks to Enter the Dragon. But his role here as Chong Li, the bulging deadly kumite champion, might be his defining work. Chong Li isn't a criminal mastermind or anything; he's just an asshole who's extremely good at martial arts and near-impossible to beat. He wins all the time and pushes things way too far when he does, snapping a guy's bone so it pokes out of his leg when he'd clearly already had that match won. But when he puts Van Damme's friend, the guy who played Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds, into the hospital, it's not like he had to cheat to do it; Ogre made the classic pro wrestling idiot move of celebrating way too much after executing one good move. When Chong Li finally does kill a guy, the people in the audience stand up and silently turn their backs on him. A few seconds later, they're back to chanting his name. I'd prefer to think this isn't just sloppy storytelling at work. I'd prefer to think it's just because Chong Li is a hard man to hate.
There is, of course, plenty of sloppy storytelling in Bloodsport. The younger version of Van Damme, from the early flashback scenes, is maybe the worst actor ever to participate in a widely beloved movie, beating even the "two fighters against a star destroyer?" guy from The Empire Strikes Back. The blonde-reporter-lady love interest has absolutely no reason to exist, even as a viewer surrogate. The movie even uses its best actor in its least interesting plot line, as future Oscar winner and Ghost Dog Forrest Whitaker has the thankless task of being an Army criminal investigator trying to track down the AWOL Van Damme.
But if you loved this movie as a kid, and you're afraid to learn it doesn't hold up, rest easy: Where it counts, this is still an iconic piece of work. And where it counts is the fighting. Bloodsport builds a whole fantasy world out of imagining these different fighters all over the world, all training to take each other on in the kumite every year, knowing full well it could get them killed. Even before we meet Van Damme, there's an opening montage of auxiliary bad motherfuckers in training: sumo guy throwing around heavy bags of rice, monkey-fighting guy smashing coconuts. The whole movie exists within a context of bad-motherfuckerdom.
And we see most of these fighters at work without learning anything about their real lives or their motivations. We just see their fighting styles, and that's somehow enough for them to create memorable characters, like the Muay Thai guy with the twirly mustache, or the aforementioned monkey guy. The fights are obviously staged, but they're dramatic and fun. Van Damme's match against the sumo guy is a story within itself, one with peaks and valleys and a truly satisfying ending. The final match against Bolo Yeung is even better, an escalating epic where Yeung has to lower himself to cheat without anticipating that Van Damme spent a lot of time training blindfolded.
The kumite, the actual underground pitfighting tournament in the movie, may not even be illegal. We see Hong Kong police and Forrest Whitaker trying to stop Van Damme, but that's because he's AWOL, not because he's a pit fighter. (Apparently, it's OK to beat up Hong Kong police as long as you agree to go back to America after your tournament is over.) The fight is shrouded in mystery, but it has a decent-sized crowd. A reporter can't find anyone to tell her about it, but she somehow materializes at the fights anyway. The kumite of Bloodsport has the seedy brutality of the best pit-fighting movies, but it also has a sense of proud tradition about it, too. It's the underground pit-fighting tournament that other underground pit-fighting tournaments wish they could be. Same deal with the movie.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
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