An American martial artist leaves behind his service in the military to compete in the dangerous tournament at Hong Kong where people fight to the death.
Director: Newt Arnold
Writers: Sheldon Lettich (story), Sheldon Lettich (screenplay)
Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres
Chinese martial artists had been going shirtless for decades. For the most part it wasn’t meant to draw attention to their physique (most of the Oriental stars weren’t excessively muscular to begin with) but to show martial arts movie connoisseurs more precisely and unhindered, the movement of the upper body and limbs, in all their glory. That way movie fanatics were able to better appreciate the prowess of upper-body movement in a fight sequence.
Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chia-Hui-Liu were the more famous of these Chinese/Oriental/Asian martial artist actors who indulged audiences in this fashion - gloriously, unashamedly, repeatedly shirtless in the 1970s and 80s. Remember Enter The Dragon when John Saxon kept his shirt on even while Bruce Lee defiantly didn’t?
One of the most dramatic tools in martial-art movies is the stripping of the upper garment. Humbly accepted by movie fanatics as a sign of serious intent. The fighter isn’t just telling his rival that he’s been provoked beyond measure he’s telling his audience. A sort of physical (rather than verbal) “Now you’ve done it! And you’re going to pay for it!”. Unsurprisingly those sequences had movie fans sitting up in their seats, salivating at the very thought of the metaphorical “no-holds barred, all bets are off” sequence to come.
“White/Western” (as opposed to Oriental/Asian) on-screen fighters were in this sense, used to “keeping their shirts on”. If anything the upper body was fully covered. Witness full-sleeved shirt and large collar and bandana and cowboy hat in the typical “Western” hand-to-hand fight sequence.
Just before the 1990s, Bloodsport (1988) changed all that.
For the first time a martial artist actor from the West, until-then “unknown” Belgian Jean Claude Van Damme goes shirtless for long and crucial fight scenes. Not just that, Van Damme had the sculpted muscles to make those scenes count, showcasing - including to lady audiences - a little more than speed and power. And he brought to the screen, fight moves and steps that no Western actor before him had. His legendary full split, while in training, has to be seen to believed. And his kicks were higher than high. Bloodsport went on to become a cult film in the martial arts genre.
Unsurprisingly those sequences had movie fans sitting up in their seats, salivating at the very thought of the metaphorical “no-holds barred, all bets are off” sequence to come.
Centred around ‘’Kumite” an underground fighting championship, Bloodsport quickly shrugged off the need for an elaborate plot or story and got straight to the action. Fans loved it because it needed no plot excuses for fight sequences. There were simply various rounds in the ring with a range of fighters from around the world. The fight scenes were unadulterated tributes to the power of the human body with the camera devoted to the fighters, the sheer range they brought to the ring through their size, strength, speed, agility, resilience and style.
There’s one particularly gripping sequence where Van Damme is temporarily blinded. Momentarily beaten back he pauses, withdraws into himself to find the stillness needed to beat his rival simply by sensing when and where the next punch or kick is directed, almost pre-empting attack. Fans loved it because it harked back to lengthy training sequences earlier in the movie that saw Van Damme practising his moves blind-folded.
That the plot was based loosely on a real-life “Western” martial artist, Frank Dux made it that much appealing globally to fans used to seeing Oriental/Asian lead actors. That Dux was trained in Japanese (not Chinese) martial arts added to the diversity of movie fare especially for fans used to a diet of Chinese kung-fu. This was Van Damme's breakthrough film and showcased not only his martial arts expertise but also his grace that no other Western martial arts actor has bettered - surprise, surprise Van Damme had trained for years, in ballet as well. In years to come Van Damme would star in movies fully covered, not just with clothes but with machine-guns too. More action-thriller than martial arts movies. Not one of them comes even close to matching his unforgettably scintillating performance in Bloodsport.