18 October 2007

Gloriously Bad Movies: Bloodsport

When the idea for this blog was percolating through my head, one of the ideas I was most excited to write about was the Gloriously Bad Movie. You've seen them really late at night on FX or TBS, or all day on The Sci-Fi Channel. You may have taken part in a drinking game surrounding a Gloriously Bad Movie, or at least stumbled drunkenly home after a party, you and your friends about to tear into some fast food as you refuse to go to sleep while still buzzed, gleefully watching one.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about guilty pleasures. We all have movies that we're ashamed to like, that we enjoy even though we know we'll get ridiculed for it. I really dig Ronin, despite the cardboard cutout characters and a plot that's both byzantine and simplistic at the same time. It's a bad movie. But the car chases rock. They are sublime in their badassness.

The distinction is this: We like guilty pleasures in spite of their badness. We like Gloriously Bad Movies because of their badness. We revel in how awful they are. We cannot believe the low-rent acting or the do-it-yourself special effects or the fact that it was obviously shot without permits behind the liquor store down the street. The suckiness of these films is so entertaining that we just can't contain ourselves.

First and foremost, Gloriously Bad Movies are not about the details. At least, not the right details. Common utterances during a typical viewing include: "Wait, what?" "No way!" "Did that just happen?" and "Oh, my God, that was retarded!" If it's a truly glorious Gloriously Bad Movie, then you might even start doing the Mystery Science Theatre bit and speak overt, sexually explicit dialogue on the characters' behalf.

The inaugural entry into the Gloriously Bad Movie database: Bloodsport. Featuring that stalwart of Gloriously Bad Movies, the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. It doesn't fit the mold of bad, it IS the mold. Watching this is watching every sports and action movie cliche from the past thirty years. And those are the good parts.

If you haven't had the good fortune of seeing it, the movie revolves around a secret, full contact martial arts contest in Hong Kong called the Kumite (KOO-mi-tay). A song plays during several fighting montages during which "Kumite" gets chanted in faux-hypnotic fashion. Remember, this is a non-John Hughes 1980s flick, which means the music is at a truly abominable level of cheesy synthetic shame. Jean-Claude plays an American soldier named Frank Dux who's representing his surrogate Japanese father who's dying but isn't dead. And never actually does die during the course of the story, so who knows, maybe he just has the flu.

"Wait, what?" Frank Dux. Surrogate Japanese martial arts master father. Wait, it gets better. In a really awful way.

Again, these bad flicks are about the wrong details, and Bloodsport is a prime example. Why is Dux an American with a Belgian accent representing a Japanese master in a secret Chinese martial arts contest? See, early on in the film, Van Damme visits the Tanaka home. Van Damme stares and stares at a sword before looking up into space for a prolonged beat, probably wondering why it's taking so long for the flashback to kick in. Then it kicks in, showing a young Van Damme first being beaten up by, then coming to the rescue of, Tanaka's real son. Tanaka takes Frank under his wing, but then the real son dies. We are not told why, but clearly it's because Frank needs to say to Tanaka that he's been treated like a son. Which happens a few minutes later.

Does any of this matter when the fighting starts? Is Frank's manhood or family ever questioned? Not so much. Anyhoo...

The flashback sets a good and proper tone of unintentional hilarity for the rest of the film. Rather than going with a kid who has a natural accent to match Van Damme's, the filmmakers cast a completely insecure stiff of a boy who may or may not have Down Syndrome. Watching the poor kid half-heartedly put up his dukes during a fight scene just about made me wet myself. It's important to note also that during this extended flashback/training sequence, the film keeps cutting back to Van Damme in the present day, still looking up into the air and wondering just how the hell long this damn flashback is.
Probably the biggest running unintentional gag is the secretive nature of Kumite. Time and again, the characters refer to the underground event as a sacred, honor-bound club. And time and gain, these conversations happen in public. At full volume. With other people around. In hotel lobbies. On the street. At restaurants. The police station. This is the worst-kept secret in the world. Less secret than Marilyn Monroe's affair with JFK. Less secret than Britney Spears' vajayjay. Everyone in all of Asia knows about Kumite. Except, of course, the requisite love interest: the hard-talking, career-driven female reporter who, nevertheless, falls in love with our hero.

The character of Janice is introduced with a shot of her legs, a short skirt being the outfit of choice for caucasian investigative reporters on the prowl in Hong Kong. Her investigative techniques are direct and to the point, "Hey, tell me about the Kumite. Where's the Kumite going to be? Come on, tell me about the Kumite!" She could have gone Jan Brady and screamed, "Kumite! Kumite! Kumite!" at the top of her lungs in public. Since everyone and no one knows the secret of Kumite (sssshh!), the effect would have been the same.

The film isn't really interested in Janice. There's a tremendously dumb scene where Frank, trying to explain what Kumite means to him, asks her why she's a reporter. "Well, my father was a reporter and I was a good writer and it seemed like a good fit." Um, okay. Frank practically goes into a spasm since this answer doesn't help him make his point. Janice eventually gets in on the arm of a gambler, sits ringside, and whispers illicit notes into a monstrously big tape recorder in full view of the rest of the crowd. By the way, if Kumite is such a secret, who are these peasant spectators? And how exactly does betting work when you're simply standing and holding up money? Oh, nevermind.

Above all, this is a movie of sheer manliness. The fighting stuff is actually pretty cool, although all the cliches of movie fighting are there. You know, if your opponent surrenders and you turn your back, he's gonna try and get the jump on you. Or the bad guy using some illicit substance to either pump himself up or blind the opponent (Van Damme gets blinded). The various fighting styles are in fine form, though sometimes the film is a little too manly. In fact, homoeroticism is taken to absolutely fabulous heights. When Frank beds Janice (after a scene of not-so-subtle innuendo), the filmmakers go out of their way to cover the naked Janice with a bedsheet. She looks offscreen at her lover, and the reverse shot is of Jean-Claude stark ass naked. This after a scene in which Van Damme meditates while doing an elevated split between two chairs in his underwear. The creme de la creme of latent gayness? The resolution in which a victorious Van Damme visits his injured comrade in the hospital. He's won the tournament and avenged his friend's defeat. He's got the girl at his side. He looks deep into the eyes of... his ravaged buddy. "I love you, man," says Jean-Claude. They hug. The girl stands off to the side wondering why she never filed her Kumite story.

I've not even mentioned Forest Whitaker as an FBI agent chasing Van Damme. Oh yeah, Van Damme is an AWOL soldier forbidden from fighting in the Kumite (because, see, EVERYBODY knows what the Kumite is, even United States Army officers.) For some reason, Whitaker and his elder partner want desperately to bring Van Damme back, but only they know why. And after all is said and done, they're waiting at the airport for Jean-Claude, who hasn't shown up. They curse his wily ways. Then Jean-Claude emerges from the plane with a smirk, "Hey, what took you guys so long?" And this point I uttered, "Oh, my God, this is retarded!" But it wasn't finished yet. Oh, no, Gloriously Bad Movies are bad to the last drop.

See, Jean-Claude turns and sees Janice waiting on the tarmac. She brings a fist into her open palm and bows like a fighter. "Did that just happen?" I asked myself. Jean-Claude returns the gesture. The music is coming up. I'm grinning from ear to ear at this silliness and I say to myself, "Please, Dear God, end with a freeze frame. This movie needs to end with a freeze frame." And just as I'm saying this -- BOOM! -- the image of Jean-Claude's bow goes still. The closing credits roll.



Juan Roman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juan Roman said...

Ooops to the above. Guess you can't edit a comment??

Anyway, Ronin was awesome. Frankenheimer can sure shoot a car chase. And, sure, the scene where the veterinarian guy is explaining his diorama of the samurai that ultimately ties in the movie's title was *sorta* random, but, damn, the car scenes are so bad ass...plus DeNiro and Jean Reno...what more do you need to know?

Getting back on topic...if you're going to talk Van Damme, you've got to immediately move on to Steven Seagal. Under Siege: Now that is a gloriously bad movie.

Francisco said...

I actually think Under Siege is a legitimately good movie with a gloriously bad star. I mean, it's pretty straightforward. At the very least, there's no surrogate Japanese father...