Directed by John Hyams
Runtime 88min. - Rated R
2.5 Stars (out of 4)
Dragon Eyes has the makings of an urban western. Cung Le plays a mysterious stranger who rolls into town with plans of wiping out the bad element. His motives are hidden from the locals but shown to the viewers. I dare not spoil those secrets, but they turn this martial arts flick into a redemption story.
The director has a good eye for style. The opening credits are in a font that's reminiscent of a 70's grindhouse film. They appear along side an old hot rod that's cruising down the road. The car is filmed from impossible angles that must have taken some real technical proficiency. The movie is in a slightly desaturated color with some sepia tones blended in to create a unique look.
The action isn't great, but it's adequate. As an MMA fan, it's cool to know that Cung Le can actually use these movie maneuvers in a practical way. Van Damme has always had terrific form, but I've never been convinced he could hurt anyone with those pretty kicks. Cung Le, on the other hand, has video evidence to prove that his kicks are as dangerous as they look. Cameos by MMA stars Gilbert Melendez, Dan Henderson, Rich Clementi and Trevor Prangley also lend authenticity to the violence. Unfortunately the fights are all filmed in a traditional fast-cut style. One 20 second fight probably contains over 30 different angles. That's enough for casual film-goers but it could have been better. Longer takes allow the viewer to experience the geography of the action. They also require top-notch choreographers and multiple attempts. That kind of talent and patience costs money, which may have been in short supply on the production. If you've never seen the kind of long-take fight scenes I'm referencing, try watching Oldboy or Hanna.
There's not much to say about the acting. Everyone does their jobs. Cung Le is always confusing to my ears. He's a bad-ass Asian martial arts superstar who has a totally American accent. I always expect him to sound like Bruce Lee but he sounds more like Bruce Willis. One actor really stood out among the pack. His name is Eddie Rouse and he plays a drug addict named Beach. His character doesn't have much screen time, but he makes the most of it. His big scene is basically just one big drug-induced freak out. But it's probably the most enthusiastic freakout I've seen in some time. He would have fit right in with the meth-addicts in Spun.
What holds this movie back is the writing. There are so many things that make absolutely no sense. One could probably make that argument about any movie, but in this one it's obvious. There's a scene involving two gangs teaming up to take out Hong (Cung Le). With no motivation at all, a few of them turn on each other and start fighting. The others seem not to notice these extra-curricular brawls. The main villain, Mr. V (Peter Weller), has no back-story at all. He is at the top of the criminal totem pole, but we don't know how he got there. A hero is only as good as his villain and this villain is worthless. Tiano (Van Damme) gets a 30 second flashback where that explains how he ended up in prison. Then asks Hong to clean up the town of St. Jude upon his release. Tiano's connection to St. Jude is never mentioned. I have a feeling that a big part of the script was cut out that shows Tiano's son working for Mr. V, but we will never know.
Missing script can't explain the most egregious error in the story. Tiano meets Hong in prison after saving him from a beat-down. Then he turns him into a martial arts master. He passes on both physical knowledge and wisdom. At the end of their training Hong has complete control over his mind and body. I'd be really surprised if any prison allows their tenants to choose their own cellmates. Especially when they plan on teaching them combat skills. I have my doubts on whether two inmates are ever together long enough to finish that sort of training. It's also quite convenient that Tiano has a cell big enough to hold fight practice. It also has room for beds and a work desk. The cherry on top is the fake gun Tiano uses to teach Hong defensive techniques. What prison would be stupid enough to supply a prisoner with a fake gun? These issues really hamper would could have been a really good movie.
I do think this film could be a big hit in the martial arts community. On many levels it delivers the goods. The soundtrack is killer, the fighting is fun and it has bare-breasted women. That's the trifecta for a lot of menfolk. It's not enough to appease the discriminating viewer or any average cinéphile.