R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Maximum Van Damme-age!

So anyone that’s read this column for any amount of time knows that I’m a guy who goes through phases where I obsess about rediscovering the action stars from my youth. Over the last few years I’ve covered a lot of the works of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, and Chuck Norris. For better or worse, I love watching the evolution stars take, especially one’s like Norris and Seagal, whose careers had more severe turns in direction.

Frequently these heroes had similar evolutions, a pattern that could also be found in many of the roles they played on the silver screen. There was their initial discovery, which often times had something to do with awesome physical prowess, whether they were a renowned body builder or one of the most revered martial artists in the world. They next had a breakthrough hit, which gained them further notoriety. Their onscreen battles would get larger and larger, until superstardom would come with that one enormous epic. Eventually popularity waned, and the stars would take more chances with their outings, which often times would actually hurt their stardom. Finally, they’re faced with some sort of career change, and then eventually, there is some modicum of a comeback and a second chance at glory.

It’s amazing how this kind of happens over and over again, and 2010 seems to be the year where a lot of stars are banking on making a lot of their returns. While Stallone has already had two successful revivals to the big-screen with recent trips back into his Rambo and Rocky franchises, Dolph Lungdren and a host of other action stars are set to make comebacks or cameos in The Expendables later this year. Even Steven Seagal, who just had his TV Show renewed, is returning to theaters for the first time since Half Past Dead in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. Lately though, what I’m anxious to see the next step from Jean-Claude Van Damme, who seems to be staying away from these comeback parties somewhat to do his own thing.

Here’s the thing, “The Muscles from Brussels” hasn’t been big in the U.S. for a long time. His last domestic film that had a theatrical release was Universal Soldier: The Return and since then the guy has been almost exclusively doing Direct to Video movies. What I love though, is that while I’ve considered what he’s been doing languishing in the DTV market, it’s possible that Van Damme has kind of been thriving. Yes, a lot the movies are still pretty bad, or worse, examples like Second in Command aren’t just bad, they’re bland. There’s nothing more aggravating than an action movie that’s boring.

On the other hand, as I’ve checked out more and more of these pictures, I’ve realized that Van Damme has kind of been trying to craft a new persona for himself. Unlike Seagal, who has been trying to turn in the same type of performances he always has, Van Damme doesn’t seem anything like “the cocky jerk that we still managed to like” that he always played in movies like Bloodsport and Knock-Off. Quite often in his DTV offerings like In Hell and The Shepherd: Border Patrol he’s a broken man. Some catastrophe has befallen him and he’s just trying to do what he can to survive. It’s actually really interesting to watch the man who used to be known for kicks to the face, gratuitous backside nudity, and ridiculous splits, trying his hand at acting.

What’s even weirder is, I don’t think he’s half bad. Culminating in 2008’s J.C.V.D., Van Damme seems to be trying to right the ship somewhat. He received mostly good notices for his performance in the movie, and since has been trying to keep the momentum up, especially with this year’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which yes was a DTV release, but still might be the best action movie I’ve seen all year. Heck, the last I’d heard this month he’s even going to try his hand at an actual kickboxing match. I hope he doesn’t have to fight Tong Po.

So for the next few weeks, I’m going to be looking at Belgian’s biggest action import. From his rise as action icon and lover of spunky reporters to the more serious current incarnation, Van Damme has seemed to see it all, and I think is poised for a big screen comeback. I’m going to start off with the movie that first introduced me to JCVD, which to some degree is still the best example of early Van Damme pictures were all about; showing off his athletic ability, overcoming the odds, fighting a giant man, and yes, going to bed with an inquisitive female reporter. The movie, of course, is Bloodsport.

Bloodsport Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bolo Yeung. Directed by Newt Arnold

I wonder if the “Based on a True Story” tagline has ever really helped a movie become more of a box office success or if people really tend to pay it no mind, much like I do. As long as a movie brings the goods in the departments it’s supposed to, I could really care less whether it really happened or not. With that said though, in my heart of hearts, I wish deep down that somehow the events in Bloodsport, the tale of real-life underground fighter Frank Dux (as in “Put up your dukes!”), were 100% accurate.

Now, while I know this isn’t the case at all, a guy can dream. Dux’s actual story is one surrounded by a lot of controversy. He states that he started training in the martial arts when he was 13 and that he eventually fought in the Kumite, an underground, illegal fighting tournament where all the greatest martial artists in the world compete to be champion. According to him, he fought hundreds of battles and went undefeated, though many publications have tried to dispute his claims. What is cool, is that Dux was so infamous, that when shooting this movie in Hong Kong, in which he was the fight choreographer, the man actually had to use a fake name for safety reasons.

For the sake of this movie, I hope that a lot of Dux’s claims are true. While the movie suffers from having outdated choreography and plenty of 80’s cheese to go around, Bloodsport remains a really good time, a kick ass martial arts story, and shows us exactly why Van Damme became such a breakout star. Whether fabrication or embellishment of Dux’s actual exploits, what really makes this movie work are the tried and true elements of martial arts films of the past and the charisma of its soon to be major action star.

If there was really one essential role from the early stage of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career, it would probably be this one. Van Damme seems to straddle the line between his two most prominent screen personas; the arrogant superman who knows a lot about karate and the naïve everyman who knows a lot about karate. His screen charisma is pretty evident here, and he’s really likeable throughout, but he’s not above being the show-off, especially during a ridiculous chase scene through the streets of Hong Kong.

Helping Van Damme immensely is the structure of the movie, which meshes two martial arts tropes together with the combination of the training storyline and the tournament storyline. It’s hard not to like someone when we see how he came from nothing to obtaining so much skill. A flashback montage shows how he comes to be trained by revered Karate master Tanaka, played by the awesome Roy Chiao, who played Lao Che in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With a short amount of screen time, longtime Hong Kong movie veteran Chiao makes his stamp on the movie, first using Dux as a training buddy for his son, but then eventually turning to Dux to carry on his legacy when his own son is killed in the deadly underground Tournament, The Kumite.

Again, with not a lot of screen time, we’re given a pretty entertaining training sequence for the movie, which I think can go right up there with classic montages from The Karate Kid, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s certainly a step up from anything in Van Damme’s own Kickboxer and has a degree of authenticity to it that I think is lacking in many American martial arts films. Again, this early part of the movie has you rooting for Dux, especially knowing that his path to this tournament isn’t one of glory, but of honor for his family and a good dose of revenge for his fallen adopted brother.

It’s with character firmly established that we finally get a fun-filled adventure with outrageous characters. It’s unfortunate that even though it’s a pretty popular story formula, too often the tournament movie is pretty awful. Video game entries, which should be an easy fit to this formula, are usually stunningly awful (Mortal Kombat DOA: Dead or Alive), and examples such as Van Damme’s own Lionheart are pretty painful to watch. There are really only a handful of these movies that actually work and even in famous examples such as Enter the Dragon the tournament itself becomes sort of this abstract thing instead building suspense around the event itself.

I know this seems to be nitpicking, but when you’ve seen enough of these movies, you tend to be able to pick out good and bad examples, and Bloodsport is a good one. For an American martial arts film, the fight scenes themselves are adequate and Van Damme gets to show off his stuff in a rousing way. The movie is able to establish fun, scenery chewing villains and heroes throughout, and I like how the movie is able to get a wide range of fighting styles in, which harkens back to classic fight flicks such as Master of the Flying Guillotine.

There’s a certain legitimacy that comes from setting this movie in Hong Kong as well. Unlike Kickboxer, which seems to use Bangkok as a generic Asian setting, Bloodsport is all over the streets of Hong Kong, from the beautiful tourist spots to the dangerous back alleys. Hong Kong is the true home of the martial arts flick, as its film industry kept the genre alive for most of the 20th Century, so putting this film here, and even using many of the genre’s stars and character actors, does a great service for the movie and puts us in the right frame of mind in a way that many western Kung fu flicks set in L.A. or New York could never accomplish.

The last elements needed are a boss battle with the awesome Bolo Yeung and a spunky reporter for Dux to sleep with, and you’ve got yourself a classic Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle. Bolo is maybe the most imposing martial arts villain in history with his gigantic frame, and the way the movie establishes him as a killing machine really sets the stage for the movie’s final conflict. The man is terrifying and the movie doesn’t have to do much to make us think he’s invincible, so there’s real drama when Dux matches up with him for the finale.

Again, there’s a very fine line here between camp and general badassery, and with its various flashbacks, over the top villainy, and superhuman heroics this could have very easily fallen toward the former, but director Newt Arnold seems to know his audience, and Bloodsport ends up coming out on top. Sure, there’s cheese to spare and Bloodsport isn’t afraid to throw in moments of preposterousness, but never does this movie hit a note that isn’t fun. The movie made Van Damme a star and gave Bolo Yeung immortality, and for that, it deserves its longevity with action fans.

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