Cannoncember #10 Bloodsport
Well, folks, we are officially at the end of Cannontober/vember/cember. It’s the not at all self-indulgent project where I watched and wrote about each of the ten movies included in the Cannon box set that was released not too long ago in connection with Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley’s wonderful documentary about the rise and fall of Cannon.
Finishing this project entailed watching five, count em, five, vehicles for hirsute denim enthusiast Chuck Norris: Missing in Action, Invasion USA, Delta Force, The Hitman and Hellbound. Watching these movies I quickly came to the realization that while Chuck Norris is very good at growing facial hair and wearing sensible jeans-based ensembles, he’s very bad at acting and also unconscionably boring.
Perhaps out of necessity, I managed to find something compelling about Norris’ macho tedium, something very Cannon and Reagan and American about his meat-and-potatoes brand of ass-kicking action cinema. His banality intrigued me, or maybe I had to find something interesting about him to keep from going insane given that I had to watch five of his movies, or six, once you factor in Sidekicks, which I masochistically decided to feature as a Control Nathan Rabin option.
After alternately suffering through, and guiltily enjoying, my deep dive into Chuck Norris’ filmography it was a goddamned pleasure to replace the deeply un-interesting Norris with the excessively interesting Sylvester Stallone, star of the wonderfully and perfectly titled Over the Top and Cobra. Cobra in particular was a gaudy, giddy, campy delight.
I then moved onto Stallone’s Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren and Masters of the Universe and now I’m closing things out with another big 1980s/90s action star with a special place in Cannon’s history and the hearts of bloodshed-loving neanderthals, Lundgren’s Universal Soldier co-star Jean-Claude Van Damme and his 1988 star-making vehicle Bloodsport.
I like Van Damme as an actor and as a person and as a weird ass dude. I did a great Random Roles with him back in the day and I’ve always appreciated the ways he’s deviated from the action-hero mold. He is the only action star I can think of who is more revered for being beautiful than strong.
Action heroes tend to be cartoons of conventional masculinity, particularly those preferred by Cannon. But Van Damme is beautiful in an androgynous, delicate, almost feminine way. He's all about balletic grace, eery stillness and preternatural flexibility. He is a master not of the punch but of the split. He’s seemingly as much a gymnast and a dancer as he is a fighting machine.
Van Damme is a weird fucking dude and Bloodsport is a weird star-making vehicle. There’s something unexpectedly dream-like and convoluted about its opening structure, as the story unfolds like a bizarre macho Russian nesting doll of sequences recording how Westerner and American soldier Frank Dux (Van Damme) became a master of Eastern martial arts.
It’s flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks within montage sequences within flashbacks. The cross-cultural melodrama is overwrought and fascinatingly confused: a scowling father. A white man of Destiny. A son who dies before entering an illegal, high-stakes, no-holds-barred international martial arts competition known as Kumite.
It’s a confused jumble of elements shamelessly purloined from The Karate Kid and Enter the Dragon but refashioned for the unique charms of a male-model looking European whose signature move is doing the splits. Incidentally, Bloodsport overlapped even further with The Karate Kid when Pat Morita appeared in Bloodsport's first two sequels and Karate Kid screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen wrote the script for a Bloodsport reboot that has spent the decade in development hell.
There are some gloriously 1980s montage sequence set to gloriously terrible 1980s music before the action shifts from the murky waters of Frank Dux’s confusing and more or less completely fabricated history to a dramatic winner-takes-all death match, a bloodsport as it were, where warriors from all over the world battle for supremacy.
In Hong Kong, Frank at first appears likely to butt heads with Ray Jackson, an American good old boy street fighter played by crazy-eyed Donald Gibb, who portrayed the role of “Ogre” in the motion picture Revenge of the Nerds. He was one of the bullies, along with John Goodman and J.D Salinger’s kid. But the two quickly bond over a game of Karate Champ (presaging both Van Damme’s later appearance in the Street Fighter movie and Mortal Kombat’s extensive borrowing from Bloodsport) and being white and become fast friends. Fast white friends.
These two large men connect on such a profound emotional and spiritual level that when Ray is pummeled by glowering bad guy Chong Li (Bolo Yeong), Frank vows to get revenge on his friend’s behalf. To be honest, however, Ray kind of had it coming. He’s on the verge of beating Chong, but instead of finishing him, he turns his back to him and begins prancing about in an oblivious, extravagant, woefully premature victory dance so you can’t really blame Chong Li for wanting to whoop his ass extra hard.
Nevertheless, it falls upon our great white hope to avenge the big white dope and Frank climatically takes on, and defeats Chong Li. Meanwhile a pair of military cops are on the AWOL Frank’s tale, one played by a young Forest Whitaker, but even they clearly admire this God masquerading as a man, even if what he’s doing isn’t technically legal.
The Wikipedia entry on Bloodsport includes the wonderful caveat, “The film is partly based on unverified claims made by martial artist Frank Dux.” That’s true of most great films, from Rules of the Game to Black Swan and Bloodsport plays like crazed self-mythologizing (Dux worked on the film training Van Damme) oddly dream-like and arty even as it delivers the action movie goods in abundance.
In Blood Sport, there’s a love interest of sorts in the form of journalist Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), who is doing a story on whether or not the Kumite is too violent. Her conclusion? Pretty much.
But Van Damme is the one who is relentlessly sexualized. When the two make the beast with two backs, the film skips to the aftermath and it’s of course Van Damme’s naked ass it ogles while he puts on his skimpy underwear.
Blood Sport is winningly peculiar to the very end. The movie’s weird homoeroticism takes an unexpectedly tender, emotional turn when Frank and his American friend/comrade in arms end the film by professing their love to each other. This being an action movie from the 1980s, I waited for the smart-ass, homophobic reversal/snarky punchline but it never comes. This movie legitimately ends with its hero and his gorilla-faced sidekick exchanging platonic but otherwise very heartfelt “I love yous.”
The movie concludes with a series of proclamations as bold as they are almost assuredly fictional. We’re told we’ve just seen a story based on the true life of Frank Dux, who went on to accomplish an incredible series of martial arts achievements that make Bruce Lee look like a rank amateur by comparison. Hell, the movie stops just short of listing, “Beat Bruce Lee’s ass so bad he went running home to his mommy like a little baby” to the list of Lux’s incredible, albeit non-existent achievements.
If Lux’s heroics seem too good to be true, that’s for a very good reason: they’re bogus. This is a heavily fictionalized story of a dude who appeared to be both a hopeless braggart and a compulsive liar. In that sense, he’s the perfect man to peddle his story to Cannon. They sure weren’t going to do due diligence to ensure that this roguish self-styled martial arts legend wasn’t making up stories out of thin air and an infinite capacity for shameless self-mythologizing.
Cannon were bullshitters clearly willing, even eager, to be bullshit themselves if it suit their purposes. They were undoubtedly complicit in Dux’s deception, but that’s show-business. Don’t let a boring truth get in the way of an absolutely epic lie. That’s Dux. That’s also the Cannon way.
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