Democracy in Crisis: ‘Bloodsport’ and our president’s dickpunching politics

One of Donald Trump’s favorite movies has a memorable crotch-punching scene. — illustration by Blair Gauntt
By Brandon Soderberg

That Bloodsport is Donald Trump’s favorite movie is, like so many things about Trump, thinly sourced, apocryphal yet pathetic and regularly reported as fact.

He once praised the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle — a crude tapestry of gnarled battles and quiet-moment scenery chewing about an American’s victory in a Hong Kong underground fighting tournament — in Mark Singer’s 1997 New Yorker article. And that’s about it.

But it makes cosmic sense that Bloodsport — which was released 30 years ago on Feb. 26 — would be Trump’s favorite movie. It says something about political discourse too: The turning point involves its hero, Frank Dux (Van Damme), proudly punching someone squarely in the dick.

Trump is full of it and the real-life Frank Dux was too.

Like Gatsby in a karate gi, West Coast martial arts instructor and veteran Dux turned his life into a grandiose story of covert operations and victory in a fighting tournament called the Kumite, which he recounted to karate magazines not so hot on fact checking. Eventually, his account of those events became Bloodsport.

That’s when the Los Angeles Times exposed its “true story” as a lunkheaded hustle: The Kumite trophies Dux won were from a Hollywood-based trophy manufacturer; a Kumite-related organization’s address was Dux’s own; the “secret” medal of honor he was awarded seemed sketchy; and a few friends only half-assedly corroborated his stories (“If he says it’s true, it’s fine with me,” a high school buddy told the Times).

As for Dux’s underground work in Asia — which included saving orphans from being trafficked by selling the sword he won for winning the Kumite to buy their freedom — it’s hard to prove, Dux explained, because these were “clandestine” missions. It is good mythography and his audience of karate aficionados were primed to embrace it no matter what.

Wakanda isn’t real — as Ben Shapiro, supposedly intellectual, “hip” hatemonger of the Trump era, tweeted recently — but the Kumite isn’t either.

“If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson.” –Citizen Kane

Trump frequently cites Citizen Kane as another favorite, because of course: It’s a massive critique of power and control that flexes and bloviates like the powerful, so it appeals to powerful bloviators, the way rich coke-snorting dickheads like The Wolf Of Wall Street, or man-baby losers love Garden State.

On the campaign trail, Trump often entered events to music from 1997’s Air Force One, a movie where the president does away with all of the separations of power and literally defeats terrorists himself.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Trump’s Bloodsport inclination, meanwhile, is cast as yet another example of how un-presidential he is — a campy 1988 action flick is surely beneath the presidency. Worse, as detailed in the New Yorker, is the idea that Trump had one of his sons fast-forwarding straight to the ass-kicking parts, squashing the movie into a supercut of thrills. Through this, you can learn something about the absurdity of respectability politics that mar political conversation: The problem with Trump is, as always, not his opinion or his point of view so much as how he goes about it. He doesn’t even watch his favorite movie; he races through it like it’s porn. But it’s hard to say whether his love of Bloodsport would be any less icky if Trump had bothered to watch the less hardcore sections, such as the part where Dux rocks a split atop a skyscraper, or the lighthearted Jacques Tati-like scene where army officials chase Dux through the streets to a coiled soft-serve synthesizer score.

Trump’s aren’t the first illustrative presidential movie picks. Bill Clinton, of the infamous 1994 crime bill, claimed one of his favorite movies was High Noon, a Western about a marshall who wants to be peaceful but just can’t because he feels responsible for all the baddies; George W. Bush loved Field Of Dreams, a saccharine baseball movie dipped in nostalgia; and like Trump, Barack Obama apparently loves The Godfather, a lament for a certain kind of criminality, one that’s more decent, respectable — appropriate for 44, who quietly drone-bombed the hell out of many and deported plenty.

“You lose, American asshole!” –Bloodsport

How many people has Jean-Claude Van Damme killed in all his movies?

Trump is all about bloodsport. His reality shows were bloodsport, the business world in which he stomped is steeped in bloodsport, the primaries were all about drawing blood for him and when he offers up proposals like turning teachers into Charles Bronsons so they can get into shootouts with school shooters, that’s bloodsport. Our reality-show president is the totally logical next step after Hollywood actor Reagan — with detours into sub-Kennedy creep Clinton and warmongering dullard Dubya, parts of which Trump also subsumed. Trump eats up the fuck-it-let’s-see-how-it-shakes-out pathology of reality TV.

That New Yorker article said Trump turned off 1996’s Michael 20 minutes in and put on Bloodsport instead, passing over a sentimental John Travolta snooze-fest for a movie where a guy gets walloped in the crotch. As Van Damme drops down into a split, pumps his fist straight up and bops his opponent in the junk in slow-motion, so does Trump pop the hood on reality.

“You want to write that Donald Trump was loving this ridiculous Jean-Claude Van Damme movie,” Trump said to reporter Mark Singer. “But are you willing to put in there that you were loving it, too?” He dared Singer (who admitted to laughing) to embrace Bloodsport and suggests that if he doesn’t, he’s just denying himself a hard truth. This is the typically Trumpian dick-punch: His bullshit detector is strong, though his own propensity for bullshit is unmatched.

“Unfortunately, most thugs and muggers aren’t looking for a fair fight.” –Frank Dux in Self-Defense Against Knives, 1980.

A shabby epilogue courtesy of TMZ (who else): Van Damme, in 2016, holding a small dog, wearing a hat that says “JCVD” (the name of the first of two meta-action projects he has made where he plays a sundowning version of himself), loose as a goose, reedy, hardly the boyish Frank Dux, pacing around a parking lot, praising The Donald.

“You’re talking about the wrong things in politics. Right now, you need a guy like–” Van Damme told TMZ cameras, then stumbled for a second and reset. “I would say, look, I love my brother Muslim. They love martial arts; I love them. I love everybody on earth. Right now, we need Donald Trump.”

Brandon Soderberg is a writer and editor for the Baltimore City Paper. He has also contributed to SPIN, the Comics Journal, the Independent Weekly, Vice, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Village Voice and the Washington City Paper, among others. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 238.