Friday, May 11, 2007



"Proudly plotless in a way that other low-budget actioners ought to emulate more often." - Luke Y. Thompson, NEW YORK TIMES


When Frank Dux learns his sensei Tanaka is dying, he goes AWOL in order to honor Tanaka in the only way possible; by traveling to China to participate in an unsanctioned full-contact martial arts tournament and beat the living spit out of every man there. Once in China, Frank must rely on help from his new best friend, fellow fighter Ray Jackson (Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds), in order to dodge the two military officers sent to bring him home. As the contest proceeds, it seems inevitable that whoever makes it to the final round will have to face reigning champion Chong Li, a sociopath who already killed one man in the previous tournament. Can Frank achieve ultimate victory and bring honor to the house of Tanaka, or will he fall to the mat like so many others?


Back in January, The People's Choice Award for favorite male action star went to Johnny Depp. Read those words again before going any further; Welcome to the new millennium I suppose. I mean, he's a good actor, he's in good physical shape, he can swing a mean sword, but in the end, he just doesn't scream action to me. Maybe it's because once the cameras stop rolling and the special effects are turned off, he looks like someone you could hold your own against in a fight. Sylvester Stallone recently said, "When an individual can step into a latex suit bulging with muscles and Velcro himself into an action star body, we knew the times they were a-changing." The "times" he was referring to was, of course, the late 1980s. Back then, there was a breed of "actor" who could walk off the set and STILL look like he could punch a hole through your skull.

Welcome to Bloodsport, the low budget 1988 hit that launched the career of one such living action figure, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bloodsport! Where the acting is atrocious (Including one of the military officers who is inexplicably played by Forest never-remind-me-I-did-this Whitaker.), the script is pre-pubescent in its simplicity ("You broke my record, now I'll break you!"), and the 80s fashions are downright frightening (Van Damme wears sweatpants, a snakeskin jacket, and lipstick[!] through most of the movie). You could go on ad naseum about this movie's faults. And yet you would still have a hard time finding someone who actually hates it. It's just too goofy to take its shortcomings seriously. For instance...

When Frank arrives in China, he immediately bonds with the enormous Ray, not by sparring or discussing martial arts philosophy, but by winning at the video game Karate Champ. This bond is so strong that a mere three days later the men embrace in a tearful farewell, boldly declaring their undying man-love for each other. In contrast, Frank's lady friend for the weekend gets nothing more than a formal bow as he boards the plane for home.

Also, just like in a video game, each of the invited combatants has a special style of fighting. There's a sumo, a kick-boxer, a good old-fashioned street brawler (the big ugly American, of course), practitioners of judo, karate, tae kwon do, etc. There's even, unbelievably, an acrobatic black guy who bounces around on all fours and acts like a monkey. (I know, I almost feel like I'm insulting everyone in creation just writing that, but it's in the movie. He even makes it to the top eight.)

And just look at the main bad guy! When Chong Li takes off his shirt he looks like 5 feet of chest (in all directions) with little muscular appendages glued to it. I'd be afraid to let this guy give me a friendly pat on the back for fear my lungs would shoot out of my mouth. And he's EEEEEEVIL! First he dishonors the competition by purposely killing a helpless opponent. (Bizarrely, the officials do not remove Chong from the tournament, they just turn their backs on him.) Then he enrages Frank more by nearly doing the same thing to Frank's new hetero-lifemate Ray. (He even steals Ray's Harley Davidson bandana, the fiend!) And when Chong finally starts to lose, he cheats by throwing powder in Frank's eyes. Frank's expression becomes so twisted with rage at this point it makes that whole Richard Gere "I got nowhere else to go!" scene look like a Hallmark moment in comparison.

One thing I really appreciate about Bloodsport is the fact that anger never becomes a real factor for Frank until the very end of the film. It's atypical in this genre for the impetus of the drama to be anything other than revenge for a dead relative, a kidnapped lover, or some such similar device. In Bloodsport, however, Frank is primarily acting on his desire to fulfill the dying wish of his teacher, a wish that has no bloodlust or vengeance attached to it. Frank's distaste for Chong doesn't cross the line into anger until the villain clearly steps outside the acceptable parameters of the Kumite. (Incredibly loosely defined parameters I might add, but apparently they are there.) In a weird way, Frank comes really close to being the model for the proper Christian approach to anger.

Father Joseph F, Delaney writes in The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia that anger "is rather a praiseworthy thing and justifiable with a proper zeal. It becomes sinful when it is [1] sought to wreak vengeance upon one who has not deserved it, [2] or to a greater extent than it has been deserved, [3] or in conflict with the dispositions of law, [4] or from an improper motive." Being an EEEEEEVIL sociopath, Chong pretty much deserves what he gets and since his crimes include murder, it's kind of hard to punish him disproportionately. Frank doesn't kill him though, he merely forces him to "cry uncle", which is in keeping with the "law" of the competition. (This is another welcome departure for the genre. Any other movie would have had Chong suddenly leap back to his feet, forcing Frank to rip out his esophagus or shatter his heart or something.)

It's only on the last point, motivation, that Frank comes up a little short at first. As noted, anger can be praiseworthy, but only in the sense that it is a spark intended to move us to action and then let go. St. Augustine wrote that "anger habitually cherished against any one becomes hatred, since the sweetness which is mingled with what appears to be righteous anger makes us detain it longer than we ought in the vessel, until the whole is soured, and the vessel itself is spoiled." You get the feeling that Frank comes into the final day of the Kumite holding a bit of a grudge over Ray's injury. And though one day might seem like a short time to believe Frank has "habitually cherished" his anger, you have to remember it only took two days for Frank to develop a deep (manly) love for Ray. And doesn't it seem like Frank is in an awful hurry to get that bandana back?

Still, in the end, Frank handles his anger well, even when Chong temporarily blinds him. Oh, he goes bonkers for a minute, makes one of the most hideously contorted faces in film history, and nearly loses the final match. But like St. Thomas Aquinas suggests, Frank never allows his anger to become so strong that he loses the ability to reason. Recalling the lessons of his old teacher Tanaka, Frank releases the anger through a brief meditation and moves on to actually addressing the situation at hand. All in all, he scores about a 3 1/2 out of 4 on the Christian anger management scale. We should all do so well.


Oswald Sobrino over at Catholic Analysis suggests that "when a religious person begins speaking doctrine, even if we agree fully with the doctrine being proclaimed, he is not persuasive if he is angry or on the attack... Angry apologetics or tirades do not make for conversion of those who are normal and retain their common sense and good human sensibilities. If you have Christ, you have Peace. Our words, our ways of speaking, our tones, our gestures, and our faces will give us away, regardless of the theological accuracy of our content."


Wm. said...

No mention of Van Damage? You have dishonored the memory of his career.

EegahInc said...

I know it's unreasonable to expect you to save a life or someone's property every minute, but you my friend may have spent one too many uneventful nights at the firehouse ;)

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Great review. I don't usually expect to hear someone claim Bloodsport as a model of Christian anger management.

Of course, there may be another problem. I'm not sure where I heard it, so maybe you can help me. Has the Church not spoken against public fights for entertainment? I seem to recall the Pope saying something negative about boxing.

EegahInc said...

In the St Anthony Messenger, Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. wrote," There is no sin in training for boxing as long as you use those skills only in supervised, amateur competitions or self-defense. Because of the number of brain injuries and deaths that have occurred in professional boxing, some moral theologians question the morality of boxing at that level. Training for supervised karate competitions is also fine. The skills learned in karate and boxing can be used outside the ring in cases of genuine self-defense or defending an innocent party."

I'm guessing here, but I suppose the possible problem with fighting at the professional level falls under the heading of Respect For Health where The Catechism states "Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good." If you know there's a strong possibility of developing brain damage the longer you fight and the higher level you participate in, then this seems to suggest you shouldn't do it. I'm just guessing, though.

In related weirdness, there was a recent meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Don King where King presented the Pope one of those big boxing belts.