Embracing the weird and wonderful world of Frank Dux, a self-proclaimed record breaker with a rather dubious history
When you see or hear the words ‘based on a true story’, ‘inspired by real events’, or any number of variations suggesting that what you are about to see is real, it’s best to take it with a rather hefty pinch of salt. It all seems pretty legitimate, particularly when a deadly serious voice hammers it home, but even films that are semi-serious in their portrayals are drunk to the eyeballs with artistic licence. The fact is, when it comes to mainstream entertainment, fiction is generally more convenient than true events.
Films also carry the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer, which states: ‘Any unauthorized exhibition, distribution, or copying of this film or any part thereof (including soundtrack) may result in civil liability and criminal prosecution. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.’
This industry-wide precaution came into play following a litigation against the 1932 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film Rasputin and the Empress, which was accused of insinuating an act of rape committed by the titular mystic and self-proclaimed holy man. The real-life Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia sued for libel after claiming that the character subjected to the act, Princess Natasha, was based on her. The financial damages were significant.
From thereon, studios inserted the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer as a way to cover their asses, and despite how it may appear to the casual eye, the ‘based on’ and ‘inspired by’ spiel is no different. It basically tells potential legal teams to forget filing complaints about the content of their movies because they have no intention of sticking to the facts, or even presenting audiences with something that remotely represents the reality of the characters and events involved. Studios can bend the details to a such degree that those portrayed don’t have a say in the matter. It’s like a giant FU to truth and integrity.
It all became so meaningless that different variations were soon inserted to employ irony or satire, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s wholly insincere but creatively inspired ‘The film you are about to see’ opening or The Return of the Living Dead‘s ‘The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations’ disclaimer, but what if the person who the film is based on can’t be trusted with the facts of his own life and achievements? Where does the truth begin? Where does the fiction end? And who should be held accountable?
Certainly not The Cannon Group, a production company not renown for their subtlety or sense of creative decency. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus achieved cult sovereignty with their bottom-rung film model, tapping into Cold War xenophobia with a plethora of action movies that thrilled as much as they offended. There was no real harm intended. In an era of Reaganomics and home video oversaturation, it was simply good business. When I first learnt that a Cannon-produced, low-budget martial arts movie starring a wet behind the ears Jean-Claude Van Damme was based on real-life events, I not only reached for the salt, I wrapped myself up like a slug in a salt blizzard.
Official: [after performing the Dim Mak] We honor your invitation.
Jackson: No shit you honor his invitation.
Chong Li: Very good. But brick not hit back!
Bloodsport‘s post-movie declaration, outlining the achievements of the real Frank Dux, is actually pretty convincing, proclaiming, ‘This motion picture is based upon true events in the life of Frank W. Dux. From 1975 to 1980 Frank W. Dux fought 329 matches. He retired undefeated as the World Heavy Weight Full Contact Kumite Champion. Mr. Dux still holds four world records: Fastest Knockout – 3.2 seconds, Fastest Punch with a Knockout – .12 seconds, Fastest Kick with a Knockout – 72 mph, Most Consecutive Knockouts in a Single Tournament – 56.’ At face value, it’s an astonishing fight resume, but is it the testimony of a noble competitor or the bald-faced embellishments of a blatant con artist?
Dux, who founded the first American Ninjutsu System, Dux-Ryu, is no joke when it comes to martial arts combat, but his self-proclaimed records, to which there are no living witnesses, have been vehemently refuted by multiple sources. In fact, the no holds barred, underground Kumute tournament central to Bloodsport, supposedly undertaken in secret, is believed to have not existed at all. And Dux’s fabled ceremonial sword? He gave it to sea pirates in a failed attempt to free a shipload of orphans. “We have no recollection of such a tournament,” spokesman for the Ministry of Sports in the Bahamas, Kenneth Wilson, claimed. “We would know. No, never. It can’t happen.” Pretty categorical.
Bloodsport co-writer Sheldon Lettich was just as unconvinced by Frank’s inflated claims, particularly after the fighter’s one and only eye witness to the Kumite and the records forged suddenly turned against him. “I had known Frank Dux for a number of months before I came up with the idea for Bloodsport,” Lettich revealed. “Frank told me a lot of tall tales, most of which turned out to be bullshit. But his stories about participating in this so-called “Kumite” event sounded like a great idea for a movie. There was one guy who he introduced me to, named Richard Bender, who claimed to have actually been at the Kumite event and who swore everything Frank told me was true. A few years later this guy had a falling-out with Frank, and confessed to me that everything he told me about the Kumite was a lie; Frank had coached him in what to say.”
Despite an overwhelming number of reliable detractors and barely a shred of evidence, nothing is impossible, so there’s a slim chance a secret tournament may have gone down that saw Dux break all manner of records (though you have to wonder why no other competitors have come forward to either confirm or disprove those claims). But Dux has a habit of spinning fantastical yarns that goes beyond incognito tournaments, some of which have been officially disproved. In fact, Dux has such a wild history of deceit and self-aggrandizement it’s impossible to take much of what he claims seriously. Even the existence of Bloodsport‘s ninjutsu expert Senzo “Tiger” Tanaka, a supposedly world-famous teacher and descendant of 40 generations of warriors who trained Dux as a ninja in Masuda, Japan as a teenager, has been called into question.
Dux, who would choreograph the fight sequences in Bloodsport, also has a rather spotty military career, one touched upon in the film. While serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1975 to 1981, Dux claimed to have obtained the medal of honour while taking part in covert operations in Southeast Asia, boasting of his combat achievements in various martial arts publications, though freedom of information shows he never received such an accolade, or even served overseas. Dux, who countered such rebuttals by claiming the military sabotaged his service record in an effort to discredit his achievements, was even referred for psychiatric evaluation for what were described as “flighty and disconnected ideas”.
This kind of material, false or otherwise, is pure gold for a studio like Cannon, who thrived on spurious sentiments, impossible feats of brawn and puerile revenge fantasies, all of which feature heavily in Van Damme’s 1988 marquee debut, a film that managed a mouth-watering $50,000,000 on a budget of approximately $2,300,000. Van Damme had landed his first feature role as Ivan Drago clone Ivan Kraschinsky in Corey Yuen’s deliriously ludicrous riff on The Karate Kid, No Retreat, No Surrender, even hogging the film’s promotional material, but the rookie’s screen time was wisely kept to a minimum. Here, the star and his dubious acting skills are let entirely off the leash.
[Frank has just won his first fight in record time]
Jackson: His first fight in the kumite and he broke the fucking world record!
It’s understandably brutal at times, but Van Damme shows enough of that legendary charm to ease him through Cannon’s mercifully simplistic actioner. The actor, who was a recognized kickboxer in Europe but had very little name value in the States, was desperate to break into Hollywood and was fortunate enough to run into Menahem Golan while working as a waiter. Seizing his chance, Van Damme demonstrated a roundhouse kick mid-service in view of a restaurant of wealthy patrons. Most producers would probably have shrugged off such an inappropriate display, but not a hugely impressed Mehahem Golan, who offered the bold youngster a three-movie deal (Bloodsport, Cyborg and Kickboxer) that made the company a combined $160,200,000 dollars on less than $5,000,000. Imagine such a scenario in today’s micromanaged industry. It wouldn’t exist. Not unless Van Damme managed to Game of Death his way through a gauntlet of bodyguards, development girls and personal assistants.
Ironically ― an effortlessly accomplished turn by a young Forest Whitaker notwithstanding ― Van Damme is arguably the best actor in the entire movie, which isn’t as complimentary as it seems. On the whole the acting is next level bad. Particularly Pierre Rafini as Young Frank, a one-shot rookie who not only fails to come across as even remotely natural, but struggles to speak legibly during one of the longest ‘through-a-character’s-eyes flashbacks I have personally ever witnessed, one so crudely edited I forgot all about Van Damme’s involvement in the scene. French native Rafini was obviously chosen to complement Van Damme’s accent, but otherwise he may as well have been picked up off the street. The scene reminded me of a badly programmed video game that leaves huge gaps between dialogue. It baffles me how something that should be second nature can go so horribly wrong. You’d thing it would be easier to get things right.
Rafini’s performance is not the only video game comparison to be made here. Bloodsport is a fighting game come to life, a riff on the original Street Fighter that features thinly-sketched characters from around the world, each with their own easily identifiable characteristics. We have the movie’s main boss, Chong-Li (Bolo Yeung), a steroid-pumped killer who rips off Lee’s famous ‘Boards don’t hit back’ line after Van Damme inexplicably makes a brick explode, gaining him instant admission into the (not very well concealed) secret Kumite tournament. There’s a Thai kickboxer, a sumo wrestler, a rough and tumble strongman and a miscellaneous black contender who hops around the place like a simian and even chops coconuts in half in some unnamed jungle that is really just a tree on some random stretch of grass. That particular character would go down like a lead weight in the 21st century. Even the tournament’s backdrop, a crowd of raucous sadists betting on the lives of human beings, looks like the backdrop of a Street Fighter 2 stage. It’s no wonder Van Damme was later cast in Street Fighter: The Movie.
Technically, Bloodsport has more in common with Midway’s Street Fighter rival Mortal Kombat. In fact, one of the game’s main characters, a cocky movie star name Johnny Cage who brings an element of comic relief to the game’s bloodthirsty Kumite, was based entirely on Van Damme. Midway even attempted to licence Van Damme’s image to utilize in the game’s groundbreaking visuals, which used digitized sprites based on filmed actors rather than traditional, hand-drawn graphics. One of the character’s special movies is even based on the actor’s famous ‘splits punch’ featured in Bloodsport, and you best get used to seeing the Muscles from Brussels spreading his legs if you’re to survive this movie.
Bloodsport‘s plot is so simple it makes the most primitive 16-bit game seem complex by comparison, but that’s the beauty of it. Van Damme’s training ― though again said to be of real-life origin ― has fighting game bonus round written all over it. Dux is subjected to a series of trials designed to sharpen his instincts and test his mettle, like catching fish with his bare hands, fighting blindfolded, DRINKING TEA blindfolded, and, in what seems like something of a (ahem!) stretch, is even tied to a makeshift torture rack, the very same that were designed to dislocate joints and tear out limbs. Van Damme, who is subjected to such nonsense for real, certainly earned his meagre $25,000 fee.
After going AWOL, Dux sets about achieving his goal of becoming the first Westerner to win the fabled Kumite. If Dux is in fact pulling the wool over our eyes, just imagine the ego on this guy. Not only did he concoct the kind of fantasy that seems to defy all logic, he managed to convince someone to document it on film in an attempt to scorch his claims onto the minds of gullible action fans who love nothing more than to bask in extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, especially those shot in super slo-mo. Even if the guy is a fraud, you have to admire the force of his conviction.
It is here that Bloodsport becomes a gloriously watered-down version of Enter the Dragon, a film that was transformed into a caricaturistic James Bond clone following concerns that Lee couldn’t hold a picture on Western shores (John Saxon was famously brought in to take on the quasi-007 mantel). The tournament itself is a carbon-copy save for the fact that it’s indoors secretive rather than taking place on a remote island. It has a Hong Kong setting, a comic relief moment involving sampans (those little wooden boats), the same camera angles and slow-motion techniques used to immortalise Lee, and not one, but two cast members of note playing almost identical roles: Yeung, who played beefy henchman Yang Sze in Enter the Dragon, and Roy Chaio, who plays a fictional mentor to both protagonists.
Van Damme is also given an all-American sidekick in Bloodsport, but despite proving utterly endearing against all odds, he hardly threatens to take centre stage like Saxon. Donald Gibb’s beer-swilling, two-foot-of-butt-crack tough guy, Ray Jackson, lacks the suave and sophistication of James Bond, or even that of the dull-witted henchmen he sometimes comes up against. The character is so dissonantly constructed that he comes across as a straight-up heel when we first meet him, drunkenly harassing a deeply unimpressed native girl on a bus in broad daylight. For a moment, it seems like the perfect heroic gateway for a nearby Dux, but Jackson isn’t embarrassed, reprimanded or even admonished for his cringeworthy display of male chauvinism. In the world of Golan-Globus, that kind of thing is fair game it seems.
Saudi Goon: She’s coming with me. Upstairs.
Janice Kent: No, I’m not.
Frank Dux: If we have to fight for [Kent], then both of us will be thrown out of the Kumite. Just for her?
Unless, of course, you’re an American woman, because only moments later Dux and Jackson are admonishing the foreign enemy for exactly the same antics. After bonding over a a truly bizarre game of arcade classic Karate Champ (I’m smiling just thinking about it), Dux finally gets the chance to wax heroic in yet another priceless scene draped in Stars and Stripes dogmatism. Here the tables are turned in the sense that our leering idiots are filthy foreigners as opposed to upstanding Americans, (not just filthy, but Saudi headdress-wearing filthy), and the woman being harassed is the American-as-apple-pie Janice Kent, played by The Burning‘s Leah Ayres, which obviously won’t stand.
This particular scene is Cannon at their most irredeemably puerile, the kind of moment that leaves you scoffing at the impudence of not only the film’s bad guy rabble, but our morally dubious protector. Picture this if you will: a gang of miscreants who appear to have stopped for refreshments during a desert war on horseback, approach a high-class American lady in a Hong Kong bar with foul intentions. The leader, who though short on intelligence certainly isn’t short on confidence, demands that the lady ‘go upstairs’ with him and attempts to strike her when she refuses. In steps Van Damme, who challenges this bastard to the kind of bet you’d expect to see on a school playground. If Dux can grab a coin from the man’s hand before he clenches, the girl goes free. If not… well, he can have her. Simple as that. Dux is obviously confident in his abilities, but doesn’t she get a say in the matter?
Originating from the land of the free, Kent obviously protests as much, but a couple of scenes later she’s participating in a ludicrously erotic display of fluid swapping with Van Damme’s quivering mass. Her character is so underdeveloped it’s almost patronising. She’s an undercover reporter with something of a surreptitious purpose, but she’s pure fodder. Even the belchingly moronic Jackson, who turns out to be a big cuddly teddy bear when he’s not cracking heads for the sheer thrill of it, is a veritable Macbeth by comparison.
On the subject of ludicrously sketched characters, the pursuing Criminal Investigation Command officers are all over the place. When not stopping to criticise Asian cuisine (even a nearby dog turns his nose up at their inhuman banquet), Whitaker’s Rawlings and Norman Burner’s Helmer are hellbent on stopping Dux from competing in the Kumite. After Van Damme humiliates them, first by giving them the run-around, then by deflecting a taser with a bin lid and stunning them in turn, they quite naturally have a change of heart. Not only do they concede to Dux’s participation, they support him like a couple of smitten cheerleaders, glibly watching on as Chong-Li casually dishes out the fatalities and sets up the requisite revenge angle after putting Jackson in the emergency room with a particularly nasty blow. It doesn’t matter that the law is gunning for Dux. By the end of the movie all is forgotten, the three of them joking around like long-lost pals basking in their shared patriotism. The film possesses such a childlike innocence you can’t help but smile.
Some of the fight scenes are pure gold. Since the film uses mostly trained fighters, they’re rather good from a technical standpoint. It’s the screenplay’s infantile antics that makes the whole thing so gloriously preposterous. Some of those slow-motion expressions have to be seen to be believed, particularly during Dux’s final battle with Chong-li, most of which he inevitably undergoes blind after Li pulls the old pro wrestling, salt in the eyes bit. Van Damme displays feats of stretchery that are both pleasing to the eye and downright ridiculous, particularly his ‘Johnny Cage’ splits punch and a vertical splits kick over the back of his own head, and those roundhouse kicks are truly something to behold. There’s also a dubiously prolonged moment when a blind Van Damme recalls his training as defeat looks inevitable. Lucky for him, Li is polite enough to stand idly by and wait for him to finish.
As impressive as a young Van Damme is, according to self-proclaimed, multiple record breaker Dux, the star’s acting skills were not the only thing that needed sharpening. “He was very stiff, Dux would recall. “He had a karate background. But, I mean, he couldn’t do a forward roll when I first got him. He frickin’ landed on his head, in front of all my students. Are you kidding me? I mean, he couldn’t do a throw. You try to get him to do a judo throw and he couldn’t throw anybody. He was good at boxing. He was good at stiff karate moves, but that was it.”
Ray Jackson: Who the hell are these scumbags?
Rawlins: Stay out of this, pal.
Ray Jackson: I ain’t your pal, dickface.
Naturally, egos came into play. Sensing his choreographer’s disappointment, Van Damme became somewhat hard-headed, refusing to do things Dux’s way, which (apparently) almost led to the kind of fight that wouldn’t look out of place in the wildest corners of Dux’s imagination.
“On Bloodsport, we got into it during one of the fight scenes,” Dux would claim. “And I said, ‘Jean-Claude, that’s bullshit. Fights don’t go down like that.’ Then he said, ‘It’s my movie too and I want what’s best for the film! I’ll show you a fighter and I’ll fight you on the roof of the hotel!’ And we did. He actually challenged me to a fight. And I said, ‘Okay, after dailies, I’ll meet you up there.’ So he met me on the roof of the Victoria hotel. We’re 60 stories in the air, I’m not kidding you. And I walked out on the ledge and I was waiting for him because I knew he wasn’t going to come alone. And I was right: He came with [Bloodsport actor] Michel Qissi and two other guys. And he showed up and said, ‘I see he didn’t show up.’ And I said, ‘Hey, asshole, I’m right over here.” When he saw he had to walk [across] an I-beam to me, and I threw a jumping spin heel kick on the ledge of the building there, he goes: Holy shit.’ I said, ‘Real Kumite fighters, we fight here. You want to fight, let’s fight?’ And he just started laughing and he says, ‘Frank, you’re crazy. You’re craaaaaaazy.’ He says, ‘I love you. Okay, okay, you made your point. We do it your way. I buy you dinner tonight.’ And he did.”
Despite a great relationship early on, Dux and Van Damme would ultimately bang heads, leading to a high-profile lawsuit in the late 90s. In true Dux style, the martial artist claimed to have co-wrote Van Damme’s box office blunder The Quest, suing him for $900,000 in damages. Dux, who was unable to prove as much, claimed the only evidence he had of his involvement ― a tape recording of him and Van Damme collaborating on the screenplay ― was buried “under three tons of concrete” after a rather unfortunate earthquake. The judge, who smelled the familiar scent of bullshit, ultimately ruled in favour of Van Damme. What a scam artist!
Despite his seemingly endless fabrications, it’s difficult to dislike Dux on any serious level, and if any film had to immortalise him, I’m glad it’s Bloodsport. Like a circus ringmaster, Dux thrives on fantastical deceit like a bright-eyed boy attempting to impress a schoolyard crush, and his fingerprints are all over this movie. There was a boy I knew growing up who was very much the same. Weaned on a diet of action fodder, he often told tall tales of high-kickery, none of which anyone ever played witness to. They were wild stories too, particularly one in which he took on a rude chip shop owner with multiple roundhouse kicks. You’d think only a kid would be capable of such fantasies.
Is Dux full of it? Probably. But I applaud him for what he’s achieved. Like the biggest success stories, he’s a shameless self-promoter who almost seems to believe his own tales of heroism, and there’s something so endearing about that. It’s not easy to sell such a fantasy, the kind so entertaining it becomes a $50,000,000 movie. Would we still be talking about Frank Dux if he’d led a sane, pedestrian life? I very much doubt it. And what’s wrong with a few fabrications if they’re not doing anyone any serious harm, especially if we have a spectacularly bad, laugh-out-loud movie to show for it? One thing I think we can all agree on is that Dux and Golan-Globus were meant for one another, and his legacy, however fickle, is a damn entertaining one.