A breakout film for the actor who would go on to star in the likes of Universal Soldier, Hard Target and Timecop, Belgian superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s 1988 movie Bloodsport has become something of a cult classic since it was released more than three decades ago.
Read on for some fascinating facts about a film that was far more popular with audiences than it was with critics, making a healthy $50 million from a budget of just $2 million.
25. The film claimed to be based on a true story
Bloodsport casts Jean-Claude Van Damme as Frank Dux, a soldier and highly skilled martial artist who goes AWOL to compete in a secret, ancient fight tournament called the Kumite. As we’re told by several title cards at the end of the movie, Frank Dux is actually a real person. A former US Marine and martial arts teacher, Dux worked closely with the cast on the film’s fight choreography.
The film’s final moments also tell us that the plot of Bloodsport is based on real events, that the Kumite really exists, and that Dux really did compete in it, and of course emerged victorious. Dux (who went on to co-write Van Damme’s 1996 film The Quest) also claimed to hold a vast number of world records for his fighting, which are also listed at the climax of Bloodsport. On top of all this, Dux has also claimed that as well as serving in the Marines, he also worked for the CIA, and was awarded a Medal of Honor for his efforts.
24. The real Frank Dux’s stories have since been dismissed as pure fiction
After Bloodsport was released, it didn’t take long for the claims of the real Frank Dux to be brought into question. According to experts on martial arts, there is no evidence of any event such as the Kumite ever having existed. Reportedly the CIA has declared that Dux never worked for them, and while he did join the US Marine Corps, he was only ever in the reserves.
Bloodsport’s co-writer Sheldon Lettich recalls, “Frank told me a lot of tall tales, most of which turned out to be bulls***. But his stories about participating in this so-called ‘Kumite’ event sounded like a great idea for a movie.” In the years since, there has reportedly been a lot of tension between Dux and the makers of Bloodsport.
23. Dux admits Bloodsport’s love story is fictitious because he would ‘never be intimate with a woman before a fight’
The real Frank Dux still stands by his widely rubbished claims about his martial arts prowess and the existence of the Kumite. However, Dux has long since stated that certain elements of Bloodsport were invented by the filmmakers. For one, Dux insists that when he competed in the Kumite, he did not betray his military superiors in doing so. Regarding this particular plot device, Dux has said, “the AWOL bit was the producer’s idea.”
In addition, the movie shows Van Damme’s Dux getting romantically entangled with American reporter Janice (Leah Ayres). Of this, Dux declares, “As far as the love interest, she did not represent a single particular person… nor would I be intimate with a woman right before a fight.”
22. Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast because he appealed to both men and women
Jean-Claude Van Damme had been slowly working his way up the Hollywood ladder since the early 80s. He made his earliest appearances with uncredited bit parts in Breakin’ and Missing in Action, before playing the bad guy in No Retreat, No Surrender. Bloodsport gave Van Damme his first leading role, and producer Mark Di Salle has admitted the star’s looks had a lot to do with it.
Di Salle said at the time, ”I wanted to find a new martial arts star who was a ladies’ man. Jean Claude appeals to both men and women. He’s an American hero who fights for justice the American way and kicks the stuffing out of the bad guys.” The success of Bloodsport saw Van Damme go on to headline more low-budget action movies in the late 80s, before making a series of larger studio productions in the 90s.
21. Van Damme described his preparation for the film as “the hardest training of my life”
Before going to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune, Jean-Claude Van Damme made waves as a martial artist. Having trained in karate and kickboxing since age 12, Van Damme enjoyed great success as a competitive karate fighter. Van Damme was also into bodybuilding from an early age, reportedly being named Mr Belgium in his late teens (although, like with Frank Dux’s extravagant claims, some have disputed this).
Even so, reports suggested that real-life martial artist Frank Dux wasn’t initially impressed with Van Damme’s physique. To whip the actor into (even better) shape, Dux promptly set him a three-month workout programme. Van Damme later said that the work Dux put him through in preparation for the movie was “the hardest training of my life.”
20. Van Damme helped land the role by almost kicking the head of the studio in the face
Cannon Films boss Menahem Golan might have had his doubts about Van Damme as a movie star, but he knew the young Belgian could do martial arts action. Van Damme got his earliest work as a featured extra on Cannon productions Breakin’ and Missing in Action, but this didn’t put him too high on the radar of Menahem Golan. Reportedly, Van Damme had a very novel approach to getting himself noticed by the Cannon Films boss.
Sheldon Lettich reminisces, “Jean-Claude saw Menahem on the street, did a U-Turn and said, ‘Hey Menahem, remember me? Jean-Claude Van Damme.'” Suspecting that a verbal introduction wasn’t enough to make an impression, Van Damme also “did a kick that missed [Menahem Golan]’s face by like two inches.” Small wonder that in the films that followed, Van Damme’s knack for outrageously high kicks became one of his signature moves.
19. Van Damme does the splits seven times in the course of the movie
Van Damme became a star on the basis of his boyish good looks, his fetching physique, and – of course – his flexibility. As well as his high kicks, Van Damme also soon became renowned for his ability to do the splits. The action star is so good at doing this eye-popping move, it was brought into Bloodsport multiple times.
Van Damme does the splits no less than seven times in the course of the movie. This proved to be such a crowd-pleaser that the actor has kept on doing that move in most of his subsequent films. However, Bloodsport remains the one Jean-Claude Van Damme movie with the highest number of splits.
18. Not a single stuntman was used during filming
Bloodsport was a production of one of the most notorious film companies of the 80s, Cannon Films. Cannon had largely built their brand on action movies, mostly starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris. However, by the late 80s the company were struggling to stay afloat, and were banking on the younger, prettier Van Damme being a box office draw.
Because of their financial woes, Cannon made sure that all of the actors hired to star in Bloodsport were able to convince as fighters. This meant that the notoriously frugal mini-studio didn’t have to hire a single stuntman during the film’s production. The studio’s cost-cutting measures also extended to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s salary, with the future million dollar earner being paid a modest $25,000 for his efforts.
17. Van Damme accidentally knocked out Sadiq Hossein actor Bernard Mariano for real
Making movies as heavily based around fighting as Bloodsport is inevitably a hazardous business for actors. Even with carefully planned and rehearsed fight choreography, there’s always the risk of moves going wrong. Reportedly this happened during photography on Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fight with Sadiq Hossein actor Bernard Mariano.
Van Damme’s Dux appears to have knocked out Hossein, and the referee rules the fight to be over. However, Hossein is still conscious and attempts a sneak attack on Dux from behind – but, thanks to his lightning-fast reflexes, Dux counter-attacks with a reverse elbow to Hossein’s face. Watch the scene closely and you’ll notice that Van Damme’s elbow really does make contact with Mariano’s chin, and it’s said that Van Damme accidentally knocked his co-star out.
16. It is one of only a handful of films to feature scenes shot within the Kowloon Walled City
Most of the key action scenes in Bloodsport take place in the Kowloon Walled City. This was an ungoverned Chinese enclave within the Kowloon City region of Hong Kong, while the territory was still under British rule. Covering ground of 6.4 acres, the Kowloon Walled City had a population of over 50,000 by 1990.
Bloodsport was one of only a handful of movies to shoot within the confines of the notorious area. With its dense population and lack of government, the Walled City was said to rife with drug abuse, prostitution and gambling. In 1987, the year before Bloodsport was released, the Hong Kong government announced plans to tear the walled city down; they would do so in 1993.
15. The ‘death touch’ move doesn’t actually exist
Bloodsport is built around things that the real Frank Dux claims to be factual, but which many critics have insisted are pure fiction. This includes one eye-catching move we see Van Damme’s Dux perform in the movie: the Dim Mak, or Death Touch. This is demonstrated in the scene when Dux carefully punches a pile of bricks, but only shatters the one at the bottom.
It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that this move was captured on film by way of practical special effects. It’s not a move that would work in reality either, as the Dim Mak has also been dismissed by martial arts experts as fictitious. The mythic move entered the popular consciousness in the 60s, when bogus ads in comics and martial arts magazines promised that readers could learn the move by purchasing an instructional manual.
14. Jean-Claude Van Damme received a Golden Raspberry award nomination for his performance
Bloodsport brought new action star Jean-Claude Van Damme a lot of attention – not all of it positive. While audiences flocked to see the film to the tune of $50 million in ticket sales, the critics weren’t especially kind. Bloodsport received largely negative reviews, with the Los Angeles Times describing the film as a “jungle of cliche and reservoir of bad acting.”
Jean-Claude Van Damme’s performance saw him nominated for the Worst New Star Golden Raspberry Award, an annual ceremony that celebrates the very worst films from the previous 12 months. Luckily for Van Damme, he was beaten to this award by – er – Ronald McDonald, the fast food mascot having been nominated for his cameo in the notorious Mac and Me. Van Damme wouldn’t win a Razzie for another decade, when he and Dennis Rodman were named Worst Screen Couple for Double Team.
13. It is one of Donald Trump’s favourite films
During a 1997 profile in The New Yorker, it was revealed that Bloodsport is one of Donald Trump’s favourite films. The businessman, who had not yet moved into politics at the time, is said to have called Bloodsport “an incredible, fantastic movie.” It was also reported that Trump preferred to fast-forward his VHS copy through all the plot and get straight to the action.
The New Yorker quoted Trump as saying he wanted to “get this two hour movie down to 45 minutes.” (Bloodsport is actually 92 minutes long.) Since Trump’s single term as President of the United States, a lot has been made of his reported love for Bloodsport – although the matter of whether it’s truly his all-time favourite is disputed. On other occasions, Trump has said that his favourite movie was Citizen Kane, as well as Harrison Ford’s President-on-a-plane movie Air Force One.
12. It inspired the character of Johnny Cage in video game Mortal Kombat
Bloodsport’s popularity revitalised the American martial arts movie – and as a knock-on effect, the film also proved highly influential on the video game industry. In 1991, designers Ed Boon and John Tobias were assigned by their bosses at Midway Games to develop an adaptation of Van Damme’s movie Universal Soldier. Although this project was ultimately abandoned, Boon and Tobias hit upon the idea of making a fighting game in which Van Damme himself was a playable character. Initially they hoped to make an official video game of Bloodsport itself, but when this fell through they instead developed fighting game Mortal Kombat – which proved to be one of the most popular video games of the 90s.
The character of Johnny Cage was modelled directly on Van Damme, and stealing a few of his signature Bloodsport moves – most notably when he drops into the splits and punches his opponent below the belt. Interestingly, Van Damme was later offered the role of Johnny Cage in the 1995 Mortal Kombat film adaptation, but decided to play Guile in 1994’s Street Fighter instead.
11. A planned remake could still see the light of day
For over a decade, there has been talk of a remake of Bloodsport being in the works. Word first broke on the film back in 2011, with director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Salt) and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (The Karate Kid, Taken) were linked to the project. Rumours suggested that the story would see a US Afghanistan war veteran taking part in a fighting tournament in Brazil.
By 2013 director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) was attached to the project. Things have gone extremely quiet around the Bloodsport remake since, but it might not be dead yet. It was recently reported that John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were interested in helming the project.
10. Cannon Films wanted American Ninja’s Michael Dudikoff to play the lead
Jean-Claude Van Damme became a hot new star for Cannon Films in the late 80s, but this almost didn’t come to pass. Cannon boss Menahem Golan was not convinced of the photogenic Belgian’s star power, and didn’t want him in Bloodsport at first. Instead, Golan was pressing the filmmakers to cast another up-and-coming martial arts star, Michael Dudikoff. Dudikoff had made a name for himself as the lead in Cannon’s 1985 movie American Ninja and its 1987 sequel. (Five American Ninja movies would eventually be made, although Dudikoff isn’t in the last one.)
Bloodsport screenwriter Sheldon Lettich recalls, Golan complaining of Van Damme, “This guy’s never gonna make it… He’s a loser, he’s a terrible actor… Michael Dudikoff is a movie star! Jean-Claude is poison!” Eventually the Cannon boss was persuaded to change his mind, in part out of necessity as – despite Golan’s reservations about Van Damme – the actor was signed to a three movie contract with the company. (The other two movies wound up being 1989’s Cyborg and Kickboxer.)
9. Van Damme thinks Bloodsport’s soundtrack is better than the movie itself
Bloodsport features a couple of original tracks by 80s singer-songwriter Stan Bush, including the film’s theme song Fight to Survive. Stan Bush’s guitar and synth-driven rock music has come to personify the 80s sound, not least because his songs were used in a few much-loved films of the era. Prior to Bloodsport, Bush had composed iconic 80s rock anthem The Touch, memorably used in The Transformers: The Movie (and later in Boogie Nights).
Bush has said that he once met Van Damme at one of his shows, and the action star told him that “the music was better than the movie” on Bloodsport. Nor did Bloodsport mark the last time that Stan Bush provided original songs for a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Bush would later write a number of tracks for Van Damme’s 1989 movie Kickboxer, including that film’s anthem Never Surrender.
8. Forest Whitaker is actually a karate black belt in real life
Bloodsport features a relatively early supporting role from esteemed future Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. Aged 27 at the time, Whitaker had several TV and film roles to his name at the time, including small roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Color of Money. Bloodsport casts the actor in a comic relief role as Rawlins, one of the hapless military police officers sent to bring Van Damme’s Dux back to the US.
Whitaker is one of the few actors in the movie not to display any fighting prowess – but this is not reflective of the man himself. In reality, Whitaker holds a black belt in Kenpo Karate, and has utilised his martial arts ability in some of his films. Most notably, Whitaker got to show off his skills in 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
7. The film was almost released straight to video, until Van Damme helped re-edit it
Because of Cannon Films’ financial woes, and company boss Menahem Golan’s lack of confidence in Van Damme, Bloodsport almost didn’t make it to the big screen. Fearing a box office flop, Golan originally wanted to cut his losses and avoid wasting money on distributing Bloodsport theatrically. Writer Sheldon Lettich reflects, “Menahem said, ‘No, I’m not gonna release it in theaters. That movie’s terrible; I’m putting it straight to video.'”
To avoid this, Van Damme himself worked with Cannon’s in-house editor Michael J. Duthie to produce a leaner cut of the film which really emphasised the fights above all. This was enough to finally convince Cannon’s top brass that the film could do reasonable business; and this turned out to be a smart move, as Bloodsport wound up Cannon’s highest-earning film of 1988. Van Damme would go on oversee editing on many of his later films, and not always with the director’s approval: the actor would clash with John Woo over the final cut of Hard Target.
6. Donald Gibb’s Ray Jackson doesn’t perform any identifiable martial art
Bloodsport has sometimes been cited as an early inspiration for what became the UFC, as it shows fighters of different disciplines going head-to-head. One such fighter in the movie is Donald Gibb’s character Ray Jackson, the hulking, all-American brawler who befriends Van Damme’s Frank Dux. Gibb had previously played pro-football, and took a number of similarly hulking roles in other movies including Revenge of the Nerds.
We know that Ray Jackson must be considered a world-class fighter, otherwise he wouldn’t have earned an invitation to the Kumite. It’s never actually made clear what fighting style Ray has mastered, however, as none of the moves Gibb performs in the movie originate in any established martial art. Instead, the character mostly behaves like a pro-wrestler. Gibb would be the only Bloodsport actor to return to straight-to-video sequel Bloodsport II. He also appeared in the Revenge of the Nerds sequels, and made uncredited appearances in Stripes and Conan the Barbarian.
5. It was followed by three straight-to-video sequels
As Bloodsport was a decent-sized hit for Cannon Films, it was inevitable that sequels would follow. However, all these sequels would go straight to video – and none of them starred Van Damme. By the early 90s, Cannon had finally gone out of business completely, whilst Van Damme was an established big screen movie star. The sequel rights to Bloodsport were then snapped up by another film company, and the films that followed had no real connection to the original.
Bloodsport II: The Next Kumite was released in 1996, starring Daniel Bernhardt. The sequel shared one actor with the original in Donald Gibb as Ray Jackson. Bernhardt would return in 1997’s Bloodsport III and 1999’s Bloodsport 4: The Dark Kumite (although bizarrely he played a different character in the final film).
4. Bolo Yeung’s dialogue features a callback to Enter the Dragon
The big bad guy of Bloodsport is Chong Li, played by the imposing Chinese martial artist and bodybuilder Bolo Yeung. Originally known as Yang Sze, he adopted his stage name after his breakthrough role as Bolo in 1973’s classic martial arts movie Enter the Dragon. As in that earlier film, Bloodsport also sees Yeung play a brutal and remorseless fighter with a knack for crushing his opponents.
Yeung also delivers a line in Bloodsport which is a direct callback to some memorable dialogue from Enter the Dragon. After Van Damme’s Frank destroys a brick with the fabled Dim Mak, Chong Li remarks, “very good – but brick not hit back.” This is a nod to the moment in Enter the Dragon, when an opponent breaks a board in Bruce Lee’s face – to which Lee coolly replies, “boards don’t hit back.”
3. Bloodsport writer Sheldon Lettich went on to write and direct several more Van Damme movies
Prior to Bloodsport, Sheldon Lettich had served in the military in the Vietnam war, and broke into writing in the 80s, eventually co-writing Rambo III with Sylvester Stallone. Lettich got on well with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the two men have worked together many times since. In 1990, Lettich made his directorial debut on Lionheart (alternatively known in some territories as AWOL).
Similar to Bloodsport, Lionheart casts Van Damme as a soldier who abandons his post to infiltrate an underground fighting ring. Lettich would go on to direct Van Damme in 1991’s Double Impact, 2001’s The Order and 2006’s The Hard Corps. Lettich also worked on the scripts for 1996’s The Quest (which Van Damme himself directed), and 1998’s Legionnaire.
2. The filmmakers almost made Kickboxer first
Bloodsport got off the ground thanks to an enthusiastic pitch from screenwriter Sheldon Lettich. Lettich had been invited to meet with producer Mark Di Salle, who wanted the screenwriter to pen a new project entitled Kickboxer. However, when Lettich told Di Salle Frank Dux’s story (which he still believed to be true at the time), the producer agreed this was a far more compelling idea.
Because of this, Bloodsport went into development immediately, whilst Kickboxer was put on the back burner. Kickboxer would eventually hit screens in 1989, again starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and produced by Mark Di Salle. Like Bloodsport, Kickboxer was a big hit with action fans and spawned a series of sequels.
1. Van Damme’s mentor Roy Chiao was also in Enter the Dragon
In addition to Bolo Yeung, Bloodsport boasts another connection to Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon in Roy Chiao. The Shanghai-born actor Chiao stars in Bloodsport as Tanaka, who trains Frank Dux in his family’s martial arts style. Prior to this, Chiao makes an uncredited appearance in Enter the Dragon as one of the Shaolin abbots in the film’s opening fight scene.
The actor will be more recognisable to many viewers for his brief but pivotal role as Chinese gangster Lau Che in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Roy Chiao had 114 acting credits to his name when he passed away in 1999 at the age of 72. Now there’s an underrated actor!