“I have a problem with cold-blooded killers.”
As longtime reader Sternshein has been promising me for a couple years now, BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE is some crazy shit – maybe the strangest sequel in a name brand action franchise. It completes the trilogy of BLOODSPORT sequels starring Daniel Bernhardt (ATOMIC BLONDE, NOBODY), but it doesn’t follow the tradition of framing it as a story told to children. Instead it opens with Bernhardt fighting in a tiled pit that looks like it might be a drained fountain, with sicko spectators above chanting “KILL! KILL! KILL!”
He raises his leg like a sledge hammer above his downed opponent – but abruptly stops himself, and turns to address the crowd. They drop silent.
“No! I will not kill this man! This man fought with skill, and dignity, and you would have me destroy that integrity. And why? To satisfy your lust for death?”
He helps the man up, hugs him, pats him on the back.
“There was a time the Kumite meant honor. But I see now that Kumite here is dead. It has become nothing more than a bloodsport.”
(It should smash cut to a giant ‘4: THE DARK KUMITE’, but no such luck.)
Okay, so this is a pretty big deal. The legendary two-time Kumite champion Alex Cardo is openly saying that this institution has lost its way. Quite a turn of events! Except that Bernhardt isn’t playing Cardo. I guess the switch to Eric-Roberts-in-BEST-OF-THE-BEST-hair was meant to signify that this is a new character, SWAT officer John Keller of the UPD (Unspecified Police Department).
Alot can change in a couple years. Parts 2 and III both came out in ’96, this one in ’99, after Bernhardt had starred in FUTURE WAR, TRUE VENGEANCE, PERFECT TARGET and Mortal Kombat: Conquest, and just before G-2. In another four years he’ll have given up the leading man quest, playing Agent Johnson in THE MATRIX RELOADED and kicking off a new career as one of the great utility players of 21st century action. But first he brought the series that launched him to this bizarre conclusion.
Keller leaves the Kumite in his shiny black leather duster with his partner Blaire (Lisa Stothard, who later married Bernhardt and co-starred with him in NATURE UNLEASHED: TORNADO). Meanwhile, a block away, another male-female pair of cops walk into a bar right after a psycho (Stefanos Miltsakakis, LIONHEART, THE MASTER, BEST OF THE BEST 2, BOBBY Z, DEN OF THIEVES) has begun a punching and shooting rampage and taken the bartender hostage. (They both separately yell “Release the girl!” I don’t understand why all women are “the girl” to movie cops.)
Keller seems to call the maniac “Shrek,” but of course this is two years before the animated movie of that title, so it’s not a wisecrack about him being a bald guy bathed in green light at that moment. His name is Schrek, and Keller says he “put Schrek’s ass away six years ago for murder. He was supposed to be executed.” Despite the pleading of his partner, Keller fails to “TAKE THE SHOT!” and Schrek stabs “the girl” with her previously established “lucky pen.” After they bust Schrek, Keller lays his leather jacket over the dying victim and her last act is to stutter, “Should’ve taken the shot.”
Man, that’s cold! But maybe deserved, since in his guilt he later cries “I let that girl die.” Stop calling everybody a girl! It’s like a grown woman in her thirties with children and everything. And he knows her name at this point.
If you had asked me, I would not have been able to guess where the story would go from here. Keller’s commander Captain Anderson (Jeff Moldovan, “Warehouse Guard,” LICENSE TO KILL) assigns him to an undercover mission in a prison called Fuego. So he goes into Schrek’s holding cell and tries to kill him, shooting two cops who try to stop him. It cuts to a stretchy-aspect-ratio closeup of a judge yelling his sentence, then him being dragged away in front of reporters and smiling Blaire, clearly not wearing a bra under her sweater.
This is not the only scene that seems to be a dream sequence but then isn’t. And by the way, as far as we are told by the movie, Keller actually did murder those two cops! If it was all a ruse to get him in prison, why did they bother staging it just for Schrek? Why not just say it happened when no one was around?
At Fuego, Keller is greeted by Schrek, sitting cross-legged and barefoot in his cell, saying, “Welcome to my universe,” and by the warden’s henchman Files (Dennis LaValle, VICE), who shows off by saying “Think of me as God. Screw with me and by sweet sunny Jesus I will use your prostates as god damn trampolines.” He does not ultimately do any such thing, or anything as memorable as that line.
The warden (Derek McGrath, POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL) proudly tells them, “I have one rule in my prison: There are no rules,” and I’m not sure why, as a warden, that would seem like a cool thing to say.
It turns into a mental hospital movie, introducing a few other convicts and their eccentricities. The most over the top one is Coke-bottle-glasses wearing Dr. Rosenbloom, who carries a little hamster or something in his palm, yells gibberish about penguins and is played by the film’s director, Elvis Restaino. Also there’s Bible-clutching Billings (David Rowe, LEONARD PART 6, CAGE II), who was busted by Keller so he gives him evil smiles and protects him from other prisoners because “he’s mine.” And there’s Winston (Michael Krawic, SOUR GRAPES), the regular friendly guy who’s later revealed as another undercover agent. (I wonder if he had to kill two cops?)
To get info to the outside, Blaire visits Keller disguised as a nun and tells him dirty jokes. I guess he has a thing for her, because he hallucinates about her straddling him when the warden sends his moll Regina (DWELLER IN THE DARK) to have sex with him. He accepts the offer – it’s not every martial arts movie sequel that has dizzying camera spins around its hero humping a lady (in her underwear) on a fancy bed in, uh… the Pope’s bedroom?
Though the plot is similar to DEATH WARRANT, it’s still a BLOODSPORT movie, so it turns out the warden is running “black market cockfights” in a boxing ring in a little gym (looks kinda like PENITENTIARY, but the ceiling is higher). But then they drag him out of his cell and say he’s being executed. It’s another “is this supposed to be a dream?” type scene with Files holding a wall clock for some reason.
And Keller’s sex partner Regina watches the whole thing like it’s turning her on, gives an evil smile, and then kisses the window?
Somehow word gets to the commander that Keller has been executed (I feel like like this would raise some questions) and it seems lik the movie wants us to believe that 54 minutes in our hero has been killed off. Which would be a bold choice! Instead he wakes up in a hospital bed at the palace of the Kumite’s evil mastermind Justin Caesar (Ivan Ivanov, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER).
When Keller asks “Where am I?,” the warden is there to say, “It ain’t Club Med, I’ll tell you that.” (Man, Club Med was such a popular reference in the ‘80s and I guess still at the end of the ‘90s. I don’t know why.) Billings, Winston and Schrek are all there too, so I guess alot of fake executions happen in that prison.
They’re there to fight in Caesar’s “humble little home” full of mammoth tusks, thrones and stained glass windows. The fighters watch from cages. This is the first tournament movie I’ve seen where the fights are preceded by some kind of circus performance and where there’s a still life style vase-and-fruit-bowl tableau on a little table next to the ring.
A funny thing about all of the main prison characters being in the tournament is that Billings (as the scary enemy), has enormous muscles, but Winston (being the traditional “pal who shows him the ropes”) is a regular skinny bald guy who Keller is forced to fight. It’s brutal.
The fight against Schrek is pretty good, and has a great ending that – despite the warden’s claims that there are no rules – follows the rule of threes.
- 1: Schrek kills that hostage at the beginning with her lucky pen.
- 2: When Keller arrives at Fuego, Schrek taunts him by clicking a (the?) pen. The warden takes it from him and puts it in his shirt pocket.
- 3: When Keller seems to be losing the final fight, the warden leans over him and says “Now you die!,” so Keller reaches up, pulls the pen out of his pocket and stabs Schrek in the head with it! Then he does does a flying kick to pound it into Schrek’s head like a nail. Lucky indeed!
There’s a good amount of fighting – in the prison, in the ring, in the mansion. Jeff Moldovan (KARATE WARRIOR 2) is credited as fight choreographer, with additional choreography by Schrek himself. Keller does an armbar and a chokehold, and Savate is mentioned – I wonder if this reflects the rising influence of UFC (which was on Chuck Liddell’s first televised appearance, UFC 19: Ultimate Young Guns at that point). There’s some pretty good camerawork during the fights, little injections of handheld zoom-ins on faces and stuff that give it some energy (credit to cinematographer George Mooradian, KICKBOXER 2 and 4, the NEMESIS series, MEAN GUNS).
It’s not only the plot that makes it weird. Absolutely everything about everything is odd. Captain Anderson, with his long pony tail and his yellow polyester collar poking out over his pin-striped vest, looks more like a bookie than a commanding officer. Lead villain Caesar looks like a Ben Franklin impersonator who switched into his Vegas clothes, and he lives surrounded by models who form a chain to pass the phone down the stairs to him.
That stairway seems to be his/their main living area. When he gives an audience to the warden it looks like Rob Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM had a baby with the lobby of the Standard Hotel.
And when the warden leaves the meeting he walks right up to the camera, nervously hyperventilating and fogging up the lens.
It seems to take place in the U.S. – maybe somewhere southwestish, because they mention Yuma and Interstate 62 – but it also doesn’t seem like anyone tried to hide that it was filmed in Bulgaria (specifically the Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, which were state owned at the time, but purchased by Nu Image/Millennium Films in 2005). The architecture, weather, faces and clothes are unmistakably European. I mean, check out these PADDINGTON-2-ass prison uniforms:
They also have winter coats with the same striped design. (These scenes were filmed in a real Bulgarian prison with real inmates as extras, so presumably they really got to have those coats.)
The warden’s office is a lush palatial living room with a throne, candelabras and a fireplace, almost as fancy as Caesar’s place. The staff all wear leather jackets over black turtlenecks, like Eurotrash henchmen in a Seagal movie.
One of the numerous odd touches during the tournament is the arc of the lady who introduces the Kumite, who it only now occurs to me might be Regina in a wig? If not, she only has a couple lines, but there are many shots of her watching the fights lustily, or kissing Caesar’s hand, then at the end she gets shot (this is the only BLOODSPORT to end with a big shootout). Keller checks her pulse/caresses her neck and says, “You’re gonna be okay.” She says, “Maybe I’ll see you in another life” and dies.
At least that’s alot nicer than what the other lady that died in his arms said to him! And it at least comes closer to making sense now that I realize this may not be a random extra who Keller hasn’t previous interacted with. That would be cool if they did a part 5 and she played a different character who fell in love with Alex Cardos, like they really are in another life.
Of all the things that are strange and interesting in this one, I have to admit that the one that brought me the most joy was just the accident of the villain having the same name as a cartoon character. There are scenes where you just can’t help but picture that they’re talking about the green farting ogre. I was in tears laughing at some of those discussions. Lines like:
“You want another crack at Shrek? ‘Cause it’s clear to me, John, you have a hard on for that psycho.”
“Shrek was being transferred to a state facility somewhere outside of Yuma when the van blew a tire. He killed three guards and a driver.”
“Where was the transport heading when Shrek escaped?”
“I don’t know exactly. And no records indicate a transfer. Shrek was officially executed one month ago. Now he turns up alive and lethal in my jurisdiction, and that pisses me off.”
But most of the other crazy stuff seems purposeful. Obviously I appreciate when something like this happens: the third sequel in the BLOODSPORT series, of all things, seeming to be made by art school students trying to see what kind of weird shit they can get past the producer (in this case Part 2 and III director Alan Mehrez). With a b-movie like this there’s not usually much information available about the filmmakers or the production, so it remains somewhat mysterious how it happened. In this case we can speculate a little based on writer/director Restaino’s filmography. He only directed one other movie, SEE DICK DIE, a drama also released in ’99 and that has a villainous character named “Dr. Schreck.” But he worked for a decade as a production designer and art director, including for Chris Nolan!
(Not Christopher Nolan. Somebody named Chris Nolan who did I KISSED A VAMPIRE ).
I think that background explains why there’s so much energy put into the look of the unusual settings. And in a 2018 interview about writing and acting in the 1998 Mehrez production SINBAD: THE BATTLE OF THE DARK KNIGHTS, Restaino jokes that he had to dress everybody as ‘50s gangsters because those were the only costumes available in the Bulgarian prop houses. That makes me think some of the weird choices here came from just trying to use whatever they had available. Whatever they used was gonna be strange, so why not lean into it?
Restaino seems to now work mostly as an interior designer. His websight has tons of examples of fancy bars and stuff that he’s designed. They’re really cool and honestly many of them look like more sophisticated versions of the settings in BLOODSPORT 4. It absolutely makes sense that they come from the same mind. I’m trying to wrap my head around this amazing one described as a “pre-fabricated structure ‘bar in a box’ available to be shipped anywhere.” (Okay – but how much is the shipping? Can I get that Media Mail?)
In 2010, Restaino designed Gerard Butler’s 3,300-square-foot, two-story loft built inside a former manufacturing warehouse in the Chelsea district of New York, which was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest.
“I wanted something elegant and gorgeous and at the same time rather masculine and raw,” Butler said. “I guess I would describe the apartment as bohemian old-world rustic chateau with a taste of baroque.” (Sounds exactly like something Mike Banning would say.)
“We re-created things that came into Gerry’s life – from his travels in Europe or even from an old coffee shop in New York,” Restaino said.
The loft reportedly includes “massive columns supporting limestone lions,” which sounds like something that Caesar would have in his place too. But none of the articles I found specified if Butler ever employed underwear/hat women to sit on the stairs and pass the phone down to him.
Seven years later Butler put the loft on sale for $5.99 million. That’s about four times the budget of the original BLOODSPORT, so I think we can assume that the loft was a bigger production than THE DARK KUMITE. I’m glad Restaino stopped and made a BLOODSPORT sequel on the way to his real calling.