RE:View – Blood Sport

RE:View – Blood Sport

Recently a friendly acquaintance of mine posed a question on Twitter.  

Has there ever been a movie that was better than the book it was based on?

I offered the original Mark of Zorro (1920). 

While that was an accurate answer because the Curse of Capistrano was nothing but a standard pulp and the Mark of Zorro invented the superhero, it was too truncated to be any kind of in-depth answer.

Some books that have been made into movies are so different they are essentially separate stories. Like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep versus Blade Runner.  Other times the narrative is accurate, but the structure of the book is completely incompatible with a visual medium like film.  The very first example I can think of is Frankenstein, although Time Machine is in the same boat.  The resulting film is too different to be compared to the original work.

Then there are books that are so godawful that any kind of visual interpretation is going to be an improvement. 

Frank Dux’s The Secret Man is a masterpiece of utter and complete Bullshido but the cheap B-movie version of it is a ludicrously influential Eighties classic. More on that later.

Frank Dux’s “biography” was loaded with tales of covert operations intrigue, martial arts supremacy, and world record-setting athletic achievements. They had to be real.  I mean who would claim to have had “56 consecutive knockouts,” if they actually didn’t? It’s too completely retarded to be fake, right?

Dux’s career in martial arts fanfic started because the one-time editor of Black Belt magazine, John Stewart, needed some filler that month and bought an article where the writer claimed that; “After the outbreak of World War II, The Kokuryukai renamed the Parade of Death the Kumite (free sparring), and since 1950, the secret society’s descendants have hosted the quasi-illegal international tournament every five years as a no-holds barred human cockfight. Its patrons, of course, tend to be fron (sp) the criminal element, and its participants enter only by invitation.” (1996:250, paragraph 2)

Okay, the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society) actually did exist and yeah, they were into Martial Arts but what they mostly were was a covert operant of Japanese Imperialism.  They were into clandestine paramilitary operations, not clandestine sporting events. And they were dissolved by MacArthur after Hiroshima got turned into glass.  Nonetheless, Dux claimed to have been the Kumite Champion from 1975-1980, but sorry there is no documentation on any of that because it’s all secret.

I’m only scratching the surface on this guy, I don’t have anywhere near enough time to do a comprehensive anti-biography of him but plenty of other guys have done exactly that.

So, I’m switching to JCVD.  Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg was born in 1960 and raised in Brussels Belgium.  At ten he enrolled in a karate class and became a black belt at 18. He had a fairly decent career in kickboxing, placing second in the Challenge Coupe des Espoirs Karate Tournamen where he had 25 wins but eventually lost to his teammate Angelo Spataro. He also studied ballet and took up bodybuilding. 

He eventually moved to the USA to pursue a film career in 1982.  He starved for a few years but made the connections he needed to.  When Arnold hit it big in the mid-eighties there was suddenly a market for foreign body builders with a funny name and a thick accent.  Jean-Claude had been doing the usual struggling actor things with such credits as “Gay Karate Man.”  He got his first real break as a Russian assassin in Black Eagle.  It put him on the map enough so that in 1987 he got the title role in Predator.  In the original iteration, the Predator was supposed to be a svelte ninja-like assassin.  But the suit looked terrible, Arnold, Jesse, Bill Duke and Carl Weathers were all way too imposing physically to make the match-up work.  Van Damme for his part was wearing an unventilated rubber suit in the jungle so he was happy enough to get fired.  

It was about this time that he struck up a friendship with Frank Dux and Van Damme had the connections to get his “biography” pitched.  The screenwriter later claimed he could smell the bullshit coming off of Dux’s book a mile away but he had had some idea about a rip-off version of Enter the Dragon and a bio-pic let him do that without anyone pointing out the similarities.

Shooting in Hong Kong was cheap enough, so Golan and Globus greenlit the project.

This is the kind of movie where being cheap actually helped it.  It gave the whole film a gritty tone that helped sell the idea of this semi-illegal martial arts tournament being a real thing.  The film started with a montage scene of an arena being prepared, intercut with shots of martial artists from around the world practicing or competing for a spot in the tournament.  The last one we meet is Captain Frank Dux, US Army.  He’s going on leave to head to Hong Kong but apparently, his colonel got wind of it, so Frank being a rebel, goes UA.  

Or not. In the late 1980s, so long as you already had your leave papers with you could get away with avoiding a canceled leave, so long as your CO didn’t successfully get word to you that your leave was shitcanned. Or at least an enlisted man could get away with it, an officer would be covered legally but his career would be toast as soon as his next fitrep was signed. 

We also meet Jackson, played by Donald Gibbs.  This is Gibbs’s second most famous role, he is best known for being Ogre in the Revenge of the Nerds movies.  Jackson is clearly just a pit fighter who gets by more by strength and ferocity than any real skill.  

And it worked in this movie because Director Newt Arnold showcased as many distinct styles of martial arts as he could manage. Each of the fighters was portrayed as having something unique they were bringing to the party, these were deliberately divided up by nationality.  You can spot Brazilian Capoeira, French Savate, Thailand Muay Thai (okay, it looked a lot more like Muay Boran but who cares), and there were several  Kung Fu schools in evidence (big shock; this was shot in Hong Kong).  This was one of the first films to try and do that instead of the usual Chop Sookee Karate you’d seen in films in the 60s and 70s. That said, there were some made-up martial arts like the African with his Monkey Fu or whatever the hell that was supposed to be.  

Bolo Yeung was playing the Korean, Chong Li, but didn’t bother to fake any of the Korean schools because he was Bolo Fucking Yeung and damn well didn’t need to sell his role.  Yeung was 53 at the time Blood Sport was filmed and was still an absolute unit. Without Bolo they wouldn’t have had a movie. 

I suppose I should mention the love interest, Janice. There was a love interest named Janice. Played by Leah Ayres.  There, I mentioned it.

Captain Dux and Jackson the biker brawler strike up a friendship as two Americans on their first trip to Hong Kong. Do you remember how I said this movie was gritty? Yeah, this is one of the few movies ever to have interior scenes of Kowloon City.  They have to have stolen those shots because there is no way in hell the British authorities would have ever allowed a filming permit for that humiliating shithole.  

Kowloon City was both an accidental arcology and the worst slum on Earth. The Chinese demanded that it be demolished before they took over control of Hong Kong.  Gibbs and Van Damme are clearly unnerved while they are walking through those very narrow corridors, and I don’t think that was acting.  It added to the verisimilitude of this setting of a semi-illegal competition.

Jackson calls out Bolo’s Chong Li during the tournament and Chong Li just smiles in contempt. Gibbs was perfect for Jackson, a not too bright but very strong, Bravo male.  Gibbs specialized in playing lovable brawlers.  I’ve run into several people who are convinced he was Mongo in Blazing Saddles when he would have still been playing college football.  He was great at portraying a likable brawler and that was exactly what Jackson needed to be.  Gibbs dominated every scene he was in. 

Chong Li almost losses to Jackson but the biker is too busy trash-talking to the crowd to notice that Li has recovered.  Li not only defeats him, he destroys him. Frank is Big Mad about that.

After that fight the movie had to pretend it had a plot for a while.  There were two agents pursuing Dux, don’t ask me why because nobody ever does that for somebody who is UA, let alone someone who has legitimate leave papers.  Although, I was shocked to see one of them was a very young Forrest Whittaker. Dux also bangs the girl. Fine it’s required 

During the semi-finals, Chong Li kills his opponent and everyone but him thinks it’s going a little too far.  It did its job it showed he was nasty.  Although, it also had to be demonstrated that he was a dishonorable cheater not just a murderous bad sport.  Which he did by throwing salt in Dux’s eyes temporarily blinding him but because of Dux… (sigh)… Ninja training,* he is still able to defeat Chong Li. Thus, winning the tournament. 

It did have a denouement but seriously, who cares?

It also had three sequels, and nobody cares about those either.

Blood Sport had a budget of $1.5 million and turned in $50 million at the box office.  A very respectable ROI and one that kept the lights on at Canon Films just a little while longer. 

But this cheap movie with the thumbnail plot, based on a fanfic “biography” had a ludicrous effect on pop culture.  

Street Fighter had been released before Blood Sport but Street Fighter II was nearly a tribute band to that movie. Mortal Kombat, even more so, Johnny Cage was originally supposed to be Van Damme, but JCVD decided to pass.  That said, no one has ever forgotten and the new version of Mortal Kombat will feature a Jean-Claude Van Damme skin for Johnny Cage.

That was just gaming.

You can find any number of pro-mixed martial arts guys who happily admit that if it hadn’t been for Blood Sport they would have been cooks or bus drivers. 

While there had been plenty of full-contact martial events before Blood Sport, they had all been segregated. But after it was released, there was suddenly a demand to see matches with a “mix of martial arts styles.” The early days of MMA were indeed only semi-legal matches where the participants signed waivers that would never stand up to the “wanton disregard” test in any court today.  Those were the ‘blood and teeth on mat’ days, and that is frequently what happened.  Now these matches did exist before the movie, but the audience for them grew exponentially afterward.

Enough money was getting made that it was time to clean things up and put these matches in real arenas instead of abandoned parking lots.  On November 12th 1993, UFC 1 took place in Denver.   

There’s something ironic here.  MMA killed the martial arts as a superpower fantasy.  Oh, it took a while, throughout the 1990s you could still run into masters of the Iron Retard Technique who firmly believed that there was some Shaolin monk living on a mountaintop who hadn’t heard about this MMA thing and would eventually enter the octagon and mop the floor with entire Gracie family.  They gradually died of embarrassment and guys like Frank Dux started running into an enemy, they couldn’t Dim Mak to death; the internet.   

And now we reach the primary question of any RE:View. Does Blood Sport hold up?

Surprisingly, yes.  If you control your expectations and it didn’t become too spectacular in your imagination then sure, it’s still worth a watch.  The music by Stan Bush** adds a lot to the combat montages.  Bolo Yeung pretty much carried the movie just by being Bolo Yeung.  It all still works.

Today the cultural impact of Blood Sport far outweighs the book it was based on.  The whole is greater than its component parts.  

And Blood Sport is still a good way to kill an evening with a friend who is the right age to remember when Bruce Lee was the coolest human being in all existence.

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*Okay, Frank Dux says he is a Ninja master.  He claims to have studied under Senzu “Tiger” Tanaka.  If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because you first heard it in You Only Live Twice.  Dux claimed that Fleming stole the name of a real Ninja grandmaster who is so good at being a ninja that he has successfully evaded any and all efforts to prove that he exists.  Dux learned Dim Mak from him.  If you believe in Dim Mak, you are completely retarded.

**I think somebody else did the vocals in the movie.  It didn’t sound like Stan.

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