Kumite! Kumite! Kumite! Based on one man’s (possibly) insane rantings about a secret martial arts tournament, Bloodsport plays host to one of the most vibrant depictions of machoism in action cinema. Thirty years later, it doesn’t get much better than watching a ripped Jean-Claude Van Damme fighting his way through the Kumite. And while this 80s action film may have plenty of bodies hitting the floor, it rarely loses focus of its moral stance on fighting.
You really wouldn’t know it based on all the marketing Bloodsport has had, but this is not a film that exists just to showcase an excessive amount of violence. The tagline for the movie was “The secret contest where the world’s greatest warriors fight in a battle to the death.” It shows the violence, and it does that really well, but it also maintains this notion of “the fighting spirit.” Even in its sequels (though less so) it understands that just because you have the ability to kill someone does not mean that you should.
Frank Dux (Van Damme) oddly enough runs away from the military (and if you’ve watched any film in the 80s, you know that a soldier would be killing a lot of people) in order to pursue a chance to honor his mentor and master, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao), at the Kumite. This secret fighting tournament takes place in Hong Kong every five years over the span of three days, hidden deep within the recesses of Triad territory. The full-contact event is invitation only, and as Bloodsport sets up, requires a ridiculous amount of training to even remotely stand a chance.
Very quickly the movie introduces its three types of fighters: the honorable one (Frank Dux), the stereotypical American (Ray Jackson, portrayed by Donald Gibb), and the one who only cares about winning (Chong Li, portrayed by Bolo Yeung). Subsequent films in the franchise are more concerned with the way people fight, but the original Bloodsport focuses on the reasons people would compete in the Kumite. The only hyper-violent fighter present is Chong Li, a man who has won multiple times and holds the world record for the fastest knockout. He has also killed a man, and does so later in the film, which leads to director Newt Arnold’s softer gaze upon the world of underground fighting being solidified.
When Chong Li kills another fighter, quickly the crowd and the judges react negatively. It’s not that what Chong Li has done is against the rules of the Kumite, but that murder is not condoned. This is such a compelling stance for the tournament — and subsequently the film — to take, especially when most people who go back to Bloodsport are doing it for the film’s action, but it draws a line in the sand that it actually lets characters cross, vilifying them once they do. Sure, it’s also just an easy way to set up an antagonist, but Chong Li is introduced from the very beginning as Dux’s rival in the tournament. Having him kill someone later is more character development from seeing Dux beat his record and also be on the path to victory. More importantly though, it builds the lore around the Kumite.
This tournament only happens every five years, but it’s huge with co-sponsorship from the International Fighting Arts Association and the Black Dragon Society. And while it may not actually be real — depending on how much you can believe a guy who claims to be so good that he holds a bunch of records in a secret fighting society that no one can seem to verify is real (I’m not going to draw the parallels to the current United States administration, but you can fill in the blanks) — the film does a great job capturing the essence of how an underground fighting tournament might operate.
Bloodsport is a martial arts film first and foremost, but it carries such an interesting vibe to it. Frank is liked by pretty much everyone, is extremely well-trained and could probably kill a lot of people, but he also maintains a control that is frequently promoted during the entirety of the film. When Jackson walks in on Dux doing what would later be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s trademark move — the splits — he keeps trying to interrupt him, but Dux calmly continues and doesn’t relent until he is ready to stop. When he sees Ray brutalized by Chong Li, he doesn’t kill him, but instead tends to his friend and then waits to fight Li in the ring. There’s an unspoken honor that Dux retains even when faced with challenges that would bring lesser men to unrestrained violence.
It’s this refusal by Newt Arnold to go for the full onslaught of violence that helps maintain the illusion of the Kumite. Fighting within this tournament is a privilege and an honor, one that the organizers and hosts expect to be met with similar respect. Whether the real-life character of Frank Dux actually competed in any of this is irrelevant to the movie, and it leaves the “true story” elements to the credits. There is something to be said about a movie that cares enough about its subject matter that it doesn’t even matter if its true. Bloodsport is violent and silly, but it is never to a fault.
It also has the greatest theme song.