Film Review: Bloodsport (1988)

Release Date: February 26th, 1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Written by: Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: Paul Hertzog
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Norman Burton, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.” – Chong Li

After making notable and entertaining appearances in No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle, it was a no brainer to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own starring vehicle. It was also a good fit, putting him into a loose biopic about the life of martial artist Frank Dux. Granted, this just covers the first Kumite tournament that Dux fought in. However, it’s a more compelling story than what was typical of the late 80s martial arts genre.

In reality, Dux’s claims about his fighting history have been disputed and proven to be false. Regardless, the tale evolved into this movie.

This film was also the first time that Van Damme and Bolo Yeung appeared together. They would also duke it out in Double Impact and have talked about making a sequel to that film.

Alongside Van Damme and Yeung is Donald Gibb, who is probably most known for playing Ogre in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies. Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker play the men sent to Hong Kong to bring in the AWOL Frank Dux.

In Bloodsport, we follow Dux as he leaves the Army and heads to Hong Kong to fight in the secret underground fighting tournament Kumite. He breaks fighting legend Chong Li’s (Yeung) “world record” and thus, paints a target on his back. Li, who is infamous for murdering his opponents, sends a message to Dux when he severely injures his friend Jackson (Gibb). Dux, while evading the military men sent to retrieve him, must step back into the Kumite ring and avenge his friend against the psychotic Chong Li.

Bloodsport is interesting in that it puts a lot of focus on the tournament itself and the fighters in it. It showcases the varying martial arts styles from different regions of the world and when I saw this as a kid, it was the closest thing we had to a live action version of a tournament fighting game. It was like Street Fighter II coming alive on the screen. Well, until Jean-Claude Van Damme made that Street Fighter movie that is nowhere near as awesome as Bloodsport.

The film has solid action but unfortunately, it takes a half hour or so to get to it. Cannon Films usually kicked off their movies with a big early action sequence. Bloodsport differs from that formula but the action it contains makes up for that lack of instant gratification.

Bloodsport is also one of the best films Cannon ever produced. It is also, still to this day, one of Van Damme’s best pictures. This, alongside Kickboxer, are the two movies I use as the measuring stick for Van Damme’s filmography.

Film Review: Cyborg (1989)

Release Date: April 7th, 1989
Directed by: Albert Pyun
Written by: Kitty Chalmers, Daniel Hubbard-Smith
Music by: Lalo Schifrin, Kevin Bassinson
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Deborah Richter, Vincent Klyn, Dayle Haddon

Cannon Film Distributors, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take you to Atlanta, and you’ll give me the cure. And if you don’t, I’ll give you the horror show.” – Fender Tremolo

In the late 1980s, I was a big Jean-Claude Van Damme fan like every red blooded American boy. However, I really hated Cyborg when I saw it and I was endlessly reminded of my dislike for it once it started appearing on cable almost weekly for a span of several years. Out of Van Damme’s early stuff, it just completely missed the mark, even if it did have several cool things that could have made it good.

However, seeing it now, a few decades later, I no longer hate it. In fact, I found most of it to be fairly enjoyable, even if it is incredibly cheesy, full of atrocious acting and looks very dated.

To start, it was put out by Cannon Films, who were responsible for dozens of exciting balls-to-the-wall 80s action flicks. It also starred their new up and coming star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. It had a sci-fi setting and was like an American East Coast Mad Max minus the cool vehicles. This would have been much better with cool vehicles. However, this was a good mixture of good elements to make something great. The film lacks in most regards though and it obviously didn’t have cool cars because it was made for the same cost as a case of discount domestic beer, a couple Koozies and a bag of Ruffles.

Most of the fight choreography is pretty good for what this is. Van Damme has the uncanny ability to throw kicks that don’t just look elegant but seem to look powerful as well. He’s always had a grace with his movements that most likely comes from his dancing background but because of this, he just always looks fantastic when he has to pull off that big roundhouse kick to the face.

Cyborg doesn’t have great cinematography. However, there are a few shots that do look amazing and hold up well today. Most notably, the scene where a thug walks into a dark sewer corridor, looks up, and there is Van Damme, above his head, doing the splits while holding a nasty looking dagger. The lighting, the panning and the overall shot was just beautifully done and certainly stands out among the rather drab cinematography.

One thing that significantly hurts this picture is the music. The score sounds like some toddler slamming away on a small Casio keyboard with his sippy cup. The score is so bad that you never get used to it and it sticks out like a sore thumb through every major action sequence.

Cyborg could have been a much better movie, it had some things that worked, but ultimately it was like it was out to sabotage itself. For some reason, there are two sequels to this, neither of which star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maybe I will watch them someday if I really want to torture myself.

Film Review: No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

Release Date: May 2nd, 1986
Directed by: Corey Yuen
Written by: Keith W. Strandberg
Music by: Paul Gilreath
Cast: Kurt McKinney, J.W. Fails, Ron Pohnel, Kathie Sileno, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Kent Lipham, Jean-Claude Van Damme

Balcor Film Investors, Seasonal Films, New World Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“L.A. karate… I’m impressed.” – Dean Ramsay

For some reason, I liked this as a kid. I mean, I had a pretty strong cinematic palate, even as a child, but I must have been cracked out on Jolt Cola and Smarties candies because this thing stinks to holy hell.

Sure, Jean-Claude Van Damme is in it but this is a few years before the classics Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Also, he is barely in it. He is in the opening brawl and then doesn’t reappear again until the very end where he takes on all the top fighters in Seattle because Manhattan karate is better even though he is a commie Soviet hired by evil Manhattan businessmen trying to conquer America’s dojos for some bizarre ass reason.

That was a run-on sentence but this is a run-on movie where a bunch of concepts get thrown around for no apparent reason and are supposed to be some sort of coherent story. But let’s talk about that.

Essentially, this film is a mashup of The Karate KidRocky IV and The Last Dragon. All good movies on their own but not when you stuff them into an 84 minute package with even more shit thrown on top of it.

In regards to The Karate Kid portion of the film, we follow a teenage boy, who gets beat up a lot, mostly by bullies of a martial arts school. He has to train and get tough to show those guys, especially the one who has his eyes on the same girl the hero has his eyes on. Except the jerk in this movie isn’t as cool as William Zabka’s Johnny. The bullies also aren’t as cool as the Cobra Kai. One of them is this fat guy that smears food all over himself every time he is on screen. It’s pretty gross, actually.

From Rocky IV it steals the evil commie Soviet bad guy. While Jean-Claude Van Damme would prove his superiority over Dolph Lundgren years later in Universal Soldier, it is pretty clear that Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a much better villain than Van Damme’s Ivan Kraschinsky. But at least they are both jacked up and oiled up Soviet monsters named Ivan.

What it takes from The Last Dragon is the most blasphemous thing I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. They take the hero’s love of Bruce Lee and give it to the audience in the most disrespectful way possible. Not only do they film scenes at the legendary martial arts superstar’s grave, they also have some actor appear as Bruce Lee’s ghost to train our hero. So we basically have an American Brucesploitation film of the worst kind.

Also, the hero kid claims he knows everything there is to know about Lee yet he calls him “sensei”. Lee was a “sifu”. “Sensei” is Japanese, “sifu” is Chinese. But then again, the hero is a karate master that is being taught by the ghost of the creator of Jeet Kune Do. Anyone who actually knows anything about martial arts will probably find this confusing. Also, from a competitive standpoint, everyone is doing kickboxing. Granted, karate moves are used in kickboxing but the style allows for a broader range of attacks.

The film also has a lot of homoerotic moments. In fact, this may have more gay innuendo than A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. That is a hard movie to top in that regard but just watch the relationship between our hero and his bestie R.J., especially the workout montage. To be clear, I don’t see this as a negative, I think it’s awesome in the same way I think the gayness of Freddy’s Revenge is awesome.

Other than the fabulous gay innuendo, No Retreat, No Surrender is really a pile of crap. I should definitely run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. Aha! The results state that No Retreat, No Surrender is a Type 5 stool, which is defined as “Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).” Well, if you say so, machine! It didn’t pass that easily but maybe it did have a clearer path due to being worn down by the movie’s gayness.

Film Review: Street Fighter (1994)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1994
Directed by: Steven E. de Souza
Written by: Steven E. de Souza
Based on: Street Fighter II the video game by Capcom
Music by: Graeme Revell
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, Ming-Na Wen, Damian Chapa, Kylie Minogue, Wes Studi, Miguel A. Núñez

Capcom, Universal Studios, 102 Minutes

streetfightermovieReview:

The Street Fighter video game series is still one of my favorites. It is the premier fighting game series of all-time, in my opinion. At the time that Street Fighter II was the current game on the market, the world was experiencing an obsession over the franchise. That obsession created mania and that mania created a slew of Street Fighter knockoffs. Some of them were good and created their own long running franchises. That mania, however, also gave birth to this film.

I saw the cinematic Street Fighter the day it came out in 1994. I had just turned sixteen and it was the first film my friends and I drove to ourselves. In fact, we drove to the theater after each blowing through twenty bucks or so playing Street Fighter II at the arcade close by. We were pumped. And in our defense, we all loved Van Damme back then (I still do).

Our experience ended up being a massive disappointment.

At the time, we were baffled by how wrong they got most of the characters. We were also distraught over how awfully cheesy it was. We expected a darker, more serious tone – similar to how all the Street Fighter animes played out when they were released after this movie. What we got was a daft and insipid cheese fest!

Street Fighter solidified my fears. It was the next film in the growing genre of video game movies that didn’t even come close to representing its source material. It rounded out an awful unofficial trilogy that included a couple unrelated video game pictures: 1993’s Super Mario Bros. and 1994’s Double Dragon.

Over twenty years later, despite my teenage broken heart, I finally decided to give the film a second chance.

Now that I know what the movie is and how badly it turned out in relation to the property it is based on, I have had a lot of time to process all of that and move on. I wanted to go into this fresh, without emotion and I did. I gave it an honest and pretty much unbiased viewing.

Well, I’m glad that I did.

To start, Street Fighter is absolutely ridiculous. It is a collage of everything good and bad about the 90s. It is also kind of magical in a weird way. Sure, it isn’t Street Fighter, at its core, but it is a fun movie with a ton of odd characters capped off by an intense and ludicrous final showdown between Jean-Claude Van Damme and the incredibly talented Raul Julia.

In fact, I didn’t appreciate it in 1994, but Raul Julia is actually pretty amazing in this film as the villainous M. Bison. He delivered his lines with a gusto and confidence that were unwavering despite the awful script he probably shook his head at when the cameras weren’t rolling. The scene where he is trying to woo Ming-Na Wen’s Chun Li is almost perfection.

Van Damme was bizarre as the American bad ass Guile. Sure, he was great in that JCVD sort of way that always makes him great but here we have an American colonel with a strong Belgian accent. Not to mention an obviously fake American flag tattoo on his shoulder.

Ming-Na Wen as Chun Li was decent but mostly because it was cool seeing her as a serious ass kicker two decades before her role as Agent May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Kylie Minogue was passable as Cammy and quite cute. Wes Studi was a convincing Sagat but I have always appreciated his work. Jay Tavare played Vega and looked the part more than anyone else in the movie. But props goes to Miguel A. Núñez, who knocks every role out of the park. That’s mostly because I adored him in Return of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning.

Street Fighter is still a pretty dumb movie but it is an enjoyable dumb movie. It never gets boring like a bad movie should. There are a lot of poorly developed characters but most of them provide enough material to keep you engaged from scene-to-scene. Also, almost everyone in the film is fairly likable, even the bad guys.

Street Fighter is just a weird mixed bag. But it is a bag I have come to enjoy with age and without feeling like an angry teen whose heart was stepped on.