Frank Dux is a lucky man. In an era like today, when fact-checking is almost instant, his rather wild life story would have been pulled apart in seconds; yet, growing up when he did, he was able to become a successful martial arts trainer, friend of celebs and bestselling author.
To quickly break it down – he almost certainly never fought in the kumite (the secret underground fighting tournament), as the address he gave for the organisation was his own home. The trophy he claims to have won was just bought at a local trophy store, as a reporter found the receipt. He almost certainly never trained with the famous ninjitsu master he claimed. His prior military service can’t be verified. Add that to the list of kumite records (a tournament there’s no evidence for the existence of outside Dux’s book) displayed at the end of the film that Dux apparently still holds, and you’ve got an impressive amount of lying.
But who cares? Jean Claude Van Damme is kicking ass! There’s a moderately confusing first ten minutes where he jumps forward and backward in time (the only clue is the hair), a jumble of scenes where he breaks into Master Tanaka’s house, gets his ass kicked by Tanaka’s son then becomes friends with him, gets trained by Tanaka himself, joins the army then comes back to see the dying Tanaka before heading off to Hong Kong for the kumite. This whole bit feels really weirdly edited – Tanaka’s son dies off screen, for reasons never stated, and did Tanaka win the kumite himself as a young man?
The film is basically one big fighting competition with a few little scenes dotted around. Forest Whitaker, already a pretty famous actor by this point, must have fancied a few weeks holiday in the Far East, as he plays one of the two CIA agents tasked with taking Dux home – the only reason being is he’s so amazingly awesome a soldier, they can’t afford him dying in this tournament. Bit flimsy, eh? Then there’s a sexy reporter who wants to get the scoop on the kumite; the great Donald Gibb (“Ogre” from the Revenge of the Nerds movies) as another American competitor; a lot of funny little turns from “locals”, and Bolo Yeung, well-known to anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie, as Chong Li, the no.1 fighter in the kumite.
For most of the first 30 minutes, my wife was insisting we’d seen this before, fairly recently, but the problem was it’s just really similar to a lot of other movies. The montage! The insanely strong villain! The wacky best friend! The love interest! This film does manage to separate itself from the pack by having a healthy dose of racism in it – among a few other references, primarily it’s the chief black fighter doing an impression of a monkey (I guess he’s trying to do monkey style kung fu, but it looks nothing like that). Add a little sprinkling of sexism in there – the reporter is absolutely useless – and you’ve got yourself a 1980s martial arts movie.
This all sounds like I hated it, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s so much fun! JCVD is having the time of his life, most notably in a scene where he evades the CIA agents in a chase through Hong Kong. He’s ripped in this movie like he never was before or since, too, and the camera loves him. The fighting is fun, the styles of the characters does tell sort of a story (when they can be bothered) and the ending is nice and satisfying. I did wonder why Chong Li, a man who’s killed several people in the kumite and cheated in the end, was so popular, but thinking that much about this awesome display of ass-kicking is a fool’s errand.
Rating: thumbs up