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This movie is the fact-based story of an American fighter, Frank Dux, the first Westerner ever to win the Kumite. The tournament is illegal because opponents have died, so it’s held in secret. Dux developed his own fighting style based on the principles of Focus, Action, Skill, Strategy, Tactics. Dux faces Chong Li (Bolo Yeung) who has a skilled and deadly fighter.
The movie begins with montages of various hopeful competitors training and practicing their fighting techniques. Interspersed with these montages are shots of the arena where the Kumite will be held. The hosts of the Kumite are rehearsing pageantry and preparing the arena for proper use.
Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), an army captain at his base, is summoned to a meeting with his colonel before going on furlough. The colonel has found out he plans to travel to Hong Kong while on furlough, and Dux’s superiors want to stop him from entering the Kumite, in part because the Kumite is an illegal, underground fight. It is not sanctioned by world martial arts organizations, due to its particularly violent nature. Fatalities, though uncommon and frowned on, are considered part of the risk. Dux stages a daring escape from his base, going AWOL to travel to Hong Kong. The Army dispatches two MPs, Helmer (Norman Burton) and Rawlins (Forest Whitaker) to find Dux and bring him back.
Dux first visits the home of his mentor and teacher, Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao). He is greeted warmly by Mrs. Tanaka (Lily Leung), who goes to tell her husband that Dux has arrived. Waiting in the living room, Dux becomes lost in thought looking at Tanaka’s katana (samurai sword). He begins reminiscing about his long relationship with Tanaka: As a youth, Frank fell in with two unruly boys who made him come with them to try and steal the sword. The boys ran at the sound of people approaching, but Frank started to put the sword back on its stand when he was found by Tanaka and his son, Shingo. Tanaka admonished Dux for stealing, and Dux protested he wasn’t going to steal it. Tanaka slices the visor off of Dux’s baseball cap and is impressed that Dux didn’t even flinch. Meeting with Dux’s parents, he convinces them to let him train Frank in martial arts. At first, the young Dux becomes frustrated that he is only learning some of Tanaka’s knowledge while Shingo is being trained far more intensively. Shingo is being groomed to represent his family in the Kumite as an adult. But tragedy strikes when Shingo dies as a young adult. A heartbroken Tanaka, having already lost his first family in Hiroshima, chooses to stop all training, believing his family is ended. Dux makes an impassioned plea for Tanaka to train him fully, to compete in the Kumite on Shingo’s behalf, to honor both Shingo and Tanaka. Montages are shown of this training, becoming more and more intensive, until at the pinnacle, Dux is able to ignore pain and operate while blindfolded as if still fully sighted.
Dux goes to see Tanaka, who is now an old man and showing the infirmities of old age. He tells Dux that when he fights, Tanaka’s spirit will be there, fighting beside him, and in the Kumite, he will need it.
Dux arrives at the hotel where most of the Kumite participants are staying. He meets Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) playing a karate video game. The two play the game together and start to bond as friends and as fellow Americans. Jackson is a big, brawny, beer-swilling brawler with a scruffy beard. Not knowing anything of Dux, he likes the smaller man and treats him almost like a ‘little brother.’
Also at the same hotel, an American journalist named Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) is questioning two men about the kumite. She knows it is being held in Hong Kong over the next three days and is trying to get a story on it. The two men don’t acknowledge even knowing what the kumite is.
Helmer and Rawlins arrive at the Tanaka home to find out if Dux was there and if the Tanakas knew he was going to Hong Kong. Mrs. Tanaka says that Dux came by to pay his respects, but she doesn’t know if he was heading to Hong Kong. Rawlins is sure she does know and tries to press her, but Helmer steps in, simply thanking Mrs. Tanaka for speaking to them.
Dux and Jackson go to check in at their hotel and are told that a Victor Lin is looking to speak to them. Lin (Ken Siu) comes across Dux and Jackson at that moment and introduces himself, saying he is one of the Kumite agents and he’s been assigned to assist them with their stay in Hong Kong. He leads them through the streets of the city to a run-down, seedy part of the city (no man’s land, as Lin calls it), explaining that the Kumite is being held in Hong Kong at the permission of the “Triad,” the Chinese Mafia. At the entrance to a back alley being guarded by several tall, burly, stoic men. Victor speaks to them in Chinese, and the tallest of the guards, their leader, lets them all through with a condescending air toward the American foreigners. Victor leads them through the alley to the secret arena where the Kumite will be held. The first step is to properly register for the Kumite. Participation is by invitation only. As Jackson and Dux present their invitations, the officials stop and are very dubious of Dux, because his invitation lists him as being part of the Tanaka Clan. Clearly they know of Senzo Tanaka and are unwilling to believe, at face value, that Dux is a student of Tanaka’s. They insist he prove this claim with a demonstration of the legendary “Dim Mak” pressure point strike. They show him where several bricks are stacked. To properly demonstrate the Dim Mak, Dux must shatter the bottom-most brick without damaging either of the two bricks stacked atop it. As all the other participants in the arena watch, Dux successfully demonstrates the Dim Mak. The officials accept Dux as authentic and complete his registration. The Kumite participants resume training and sparring, except for one– a large, burly Chinese man (Bolo Yeung) who is not impressed, warning Dux, “Bricks don’t hit back.”
Helmer and Rawlins go to the Hong Kong police department and confer with Inspector Chen (Philip Chan). They give him a photo of Dux, explain that they are trying to stop him from competing in the Kumite, and they ask Chen to contact them if his men learn anything about Dux’s whereabouts. Chen is very dismissive but tells the two MP’s that he’ll see what he can do.
Back at the hotel, Dux and Jackson find an American journalist, Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), trying to get a story on the Kumite from one of the participants, a Mid-Eastern fighter named Hossein (Bernard Mariano). Hossein and his friends are surly and condescending. Hossein is only willing to speak if he can take Janice to bed, a proposition she finds repulsive. Hossein is offended at her defiance and is about to slap her when Dux and Jackson intervene. Jackson is ready to melee, but Dux asks everyone if it’s worth getting ejected from the Kumite over a woman. Despite Janice’s indignant protests, Dux arranges an alternative contest– he puts a coin in Hossein’s hand and challenges him to close his hand into a fist around the coin before Dux can successfully snatch the coin out of his palm. Hossein is amused and overly cocky at the challenge, but the smirk is wiped off his face when Dux succeeds in grabbing the coin. Per the terms of the bet, Hossein and his friends have to leave Janice alone.
Dux and Janice are talking as they take a walk, and Janice tells Dux about her ambition to get a story on the Kumite, which she describes as ‘a cockfight, except with people.’ Dux agrees te speak to Janice, and asks her to dinner in return….
The first day of the Kumite arrives, and the opening pageantry is conducted and the host organization introduces itself, speaking about the traditional background of the contest.
As the Kumite prepares for the first fight, Victor reminds Dux and Jackson that the contests are full-contact, and there are three ways to win–knock the opponent out, knock them off the platform, or force the opponent to shout the word “Matte,” which is a cry of surrender similar to saying ‘Uncle.’
The first-round bouts are conducted, showing several participants standing out as victorious and forces to be reckoned with — a Polynesian fighter named Parades (Michel Qissi), a Chinese kung-fu fighter named Chuan Ip Mung (Dennis Chu), a big and burly Japanese Sumo fighter named Pumola (David Ho), a Muay Thai kickboxer named Paco (Paulo Tocha), Jackson, and Chong Li, the current champion and the one who warned Dux about the bricks. Chong Li exults in hearing the crowd cheer his name, and enjoys finishing his matches by maiming and crippling his opponents. He is notorious for having killed a participant at the last Kumite. Chong Li easily dispatches his opponent, breaking his own world record for the fastest knockout.
Dux’s first opponent is none other than Hossein. The Syrian fighter is eager for a little revenge, but Dux not only knocks him out, but proceeds to break Chong Li’s new record for fastest knockout in so doing– and Chong Li is noticeably angered.
Helmer and Rawlins are eating lunch when Inspector Chen comes to see them. He’s found out the name of the hotel Dux is staying at. Helmer and Rawlins confront Dux in the lounge there as he is talking with Jackson. They pull taser stun-guns and order him to come with them immediately. A football tackle by Jackson takes them down and gives Dux time to run. He leads them on an amusing chase scene, seemingly toying with them before giving them the slip.
Dux meets with Janice that evening for dinner. He tells her a little about the Kumite, but insists she cannot truly understand it without seeing it– and the Kumite doesn’t allow just anyone in, even as spectators– they are especially strict about keeping press out. Janice asks Dux to pull some strings to let her come in and watch. She even sleeps with him as an incentive (and because she likes him). In the morning he kisses her goodbye and tells her that he cannot get her inside. But Janice quickly finds another way of entry, going “undercover” posing as a date to a wealthy patron.
A number of Kumite bouts are shown, and Dux, Chong Li, Chuan Ip Mung, Pumola, and Paco stand out, eliminating various opponents. Chong Li fights Parades, whose longer reach lets him land various combination punches that jar Chong Li. But Chong Li adopts a counter-punching strategy and gets inside, landing brutal attacks that leave Parades completely dazed and stunned. Playing to the crowd, Chong Li executes a brutal stomping kick to his opponent’s kneecap, breaking Parades’ leg and presumably crippling him.
More fights are shown, and more fighters are eliminated. Dux defeats Pumola by doing a split to get under Pumola’s charge, and punching his groin. The crowd begins to chant Dux’s name, which really gets Chong Li angry.
Ray Jackson finds himself facing Chong Li. Jackson is remarkably confident, and shrugs off warnings of caution from both Dux and Victor. Dux has noticed a weakness in Chong Li’s fighting style– Parades almost turned the tables on him by landing a stiff punch to Chong Li’s belly. Dux admonishes Jackson to focus on punches to the stomach, and warns Jackson to stay away from Chong Li’s right leg. But Jackson brushes off the warnings and advice, saying he has everything under control.
As the fight begins, Jackson pounds on Chong Li’s head with several hammering blows that drive him to one knee. Jackson then turns away, thinking he has the fight in the bag, and plays to the crowd, trying to get them to chant his name the way they chant Chong Li’s name. From ringside, Dux tries to call out to Jackson to focus on finishing Chong Li, who is still on one knee, nursing his bruises and recovering. But by the time Jackson turns back to face Chong Li, the burly Chinese fighter has risen back to his feet and is ready to show the whole crowd what happens to people who try to make a mockery of him. Chong Li lands a devastating kick that turns the tide of battle in a heartbeat. Not satisfied with merely defeating Jackson, Chong Li lets his rage bubble to the surface and delivers a frighteningly brutal stomp to the head of his prone opponent, as Victor struggles to hold Dux back from intervening. Jackson is unconscious and bleeding profusely from his mouth as Chong Li pulls off Jackson’s biker bandanna and claims it as a trophy, shaking it in front of Dux as a dire warning.
Cut to Jackson at a hospital being examined by doctors. Dux speaks to the unconscious Jackson, telling him he’s lucky to have such a hard head, which saved him from being permanently maimed. Dux vows to get revenge on Chong Li. Janice is there as well, and she is horrified at the personal vendetta. The two argue passionately outside the hospital. Dux points out Janice’s career as a reporter, and she is trying to be the best she can be– Dux is doing the same; to be the best fighter he can be. Seeing she cannot budge Dux, Janice resignedly shouts that she only hopes Dux doesn’t end up in a similar state as Jackson– or even worse, before storming off. Lin goes up to Dux and admonishes him to forget Janice, as well as Jackson’s injury and also about revenge. Dux has the chance to become the first fighter from the Western hemisphere to ever win the Kumite, but he needs to have a clear head.
Desperate to see Dux spared from grievous injury, Janice turns to Inspector Chen. Knowing that the Kumite is illegal under Hong Kong law, Janice hopes to see the police get involved in stopping the competition. Inspector Chen is again dismissive, until Janice gives him Dux’s name.
Riding a bus back to his hotel, Dux is haunted by memories of the bout and mistakenly thinks he sees Chong Li’s reflection in the bus window, glaring at him.
Walking through the back alley for the final rounds of competition, Dux finds he has to fight his way through a gauntlet of Inspector Chen’s police officers. After getting past them, he finds Helmer and Rawlins waiting at the doors to the arena with Chen and Janice. Helmer and Rawlins have their taser stun-guns at the ready. Dux uses a trash can lid to deflect the taser darts and grabs their weapons away. Knowing they cannot take Dux hand to hand, Helmer disgustedly enters the arena with Rawlins and Janice to observe the final bouts, hoping they do not have to scrape Dux up off the floor.
In the arena, the officials are unaware of what is going on outside– only that as a result of the melee, Dux is extremely late in showing up. They are just about to disqualify him when Dux enters.
Dux’s semifinal match is against Paco. As the fight begins, Paco extends his fists, motioning for Dux to touch knuckles with him. Warily, Dux finally does so, and is promptly cheap-shotted by Paco. Recovering, Dux wades into battle and knocks Paco out.
Chong Li’s semi-final opponent is Chuan Ip Mung. Chuan gives Chong Li the stiffest resistance he’s encountered in the Kumite, but even he cannot withstand the power of Chong Li’s blows Chong Li has Chuan supine and barely conscious on the ground, and starts to play to the crowd. But then, looking to send a message to Dux, Chong Li grabs Chuan’s head and brutally snaps his neck. The crowd falls completely silent as the referee feels for breath and looks at Chong Li in appalled shock. Chuan is dead.
The officials all stand and turn their backs to Chong Li, facing the wall and bowing their heads in a moment of silence. To Chong Li’s disappointment the whole crowd, including Helmer, Rawlins and Janice, follow suit. Chong Li warns Dux that he is next, and Dux just glares back before joining the rest of the crowd in the moment of silence.
As Chong Li prepares for the final bout, his trainer (Wilson Lee) carefully and stealthily slips a small chunk of a chalky substance into the waistband of his trunks. (Hinted to be cocaine but not stated definitively)
Dux and Chong Li step onto the platform for the final bout to determine the Kumite’s champion. Chong Li points to Jackson’s bandanna, which he has tied around his calf, saying he plans to break Dux in return for Dux’s breaking his record. Dux stares back unafraid.
The bout begins and Dux quickly seizes initiative. He takes control of the bout, following the advice he tried to give Jackson, focusing on repeated punches and kicks to Chong Li’s stomach and watching for kicks from Chong Li’s right leg. He knocks Chong Li down, staggering him. On one knee, using his body to shield the action, Chong Li carefully removes the chalky object from his trunks and crushes it into a powder in his hand. Rising to his feet, he throws a punch that falls well short of his mark but, unseen by everyone else, flings the powder right into Dux’s eyes. Aside from his vision being completely clouded over, Dux appears to fall into a near stupor. The tables are turned and Chong Li takes the opportunity to enjoy beating Dux from pillar to post.
On the mat, screaming in frustration, Dux suddenly clears his mind and appears to go into a meditative trance. Flashbacks are shown of his training with Tanaka, including training where he is blindfolded and learns to operate through his other senses as if he were fully sighted. Dux blocks a punch to his head and throws a ground side kick to Chong Li’s stomach. Rising to his feet, Dux begins to step carefully around the arena, but always able to fend off Chong Li’s attacks and land more blows to his stomach. Chong Li tries to throw Dux off by pushing the referee into him, but Dux, with only a touch, recognizes the ploy and carefully eases the referee behind him. He takes control of the match, hammering Chong Li’s stomach and then going up to the head with leaping, spinning wheel kicks that knock the burly Chong Li completely for a loop.
Dux refuses to settle for a mere knockout. He needs to establish absolute dominance– meaning even Chong Li himself must declare it to the whole crowd. Dux grabs Chong Li’s head and gradually twists his neck, shouting, “Say it!” He twists Chong Li’s neck harder until it is clear that his neck will snap if he doesn’t comply. With his very life on the line, Chong Li defeatedly shouts ‘matte,’ and the crowd goes wild as the referee gestures to signal Dux’s victory.
The closing ceremony shows the officials presenting Dux with a beautifully crafted Japanese katana with words of praise. The whole crowd, including Helmer, Rawlins and Janice, applaud as Dux looks up to the ceiling and says quietly, “This is for you, Shidoshi.”
Dux and Janice visit Jackson at the hospital. Jackson has regained consciousness and is convalescing. He is notably impressed as Dux’s victory– forcing Chong Li to submit, no less– but jokingly warns that Dux might have to fight him next time. Dux and Jackson give an emotional handshake, their bond having strengthened to near blood-brothers.
Helmer and Rawlins are waiting at the airport in front of a plane to take Dux back to the United States. They wait, and finally they are convinced that Dux has given them the slip yet again. Suddenly they hear a whistle behind them and turn to see Dux just inside the plane’s boarding doorway, telling them to hurry up. The two MP’s are grudgingly amused as they board the plane.
Just as Dux is about to re-enter the plane, a cab pulls up and Janice steps out. Looking up at Dux, she gives him the Chinese covered-fist salute. The camera freezes on Dux returning the salute and bowing his head to her. Captions proceed to give Dux’s career fight stats in the Kumite over several years, saying he established four records that were still standing at the time of the movie’s release, and that he retired undefeated, before establishing his own martial arts school. Fade out as the credits begin to roll.