Director: John Hyams
Writer: Tim Tori
Producer: Joel Silver
Cast: Cung Le, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Weller, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Luis Da Silva, Dan Henderson, Rich Clementi, Trevor Prangley, Johnny Holmes, Sam Medina
Running Time: 91 min.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” had on the action genre back in 2009. Here was a sequel that no one really asked for, to a franchise that had become mired in direct-to-video hell with guys like Burt Reynolds and Jeff Wincott making regular appearances; nobody expected Jean Claude Van Damme to make a stunning return to form with his third go at the series.
Yet the result was an action movie that was meaner, nastier, and bloodier than anything you could pay to see at the theater – with glorious camera work, including an impressive one-take sequence a la “Children of Men,” and bone-crunching fight sequences sprinkled throughout.
Perhaps making a great Van Damme movie was in director John Hyams’ blood – his father was the man behind the camera for vintage JCVD flicks like “Time Cop” and “Sudden Death.” Regardless, it goes without saying that action buffs like myself were eagerly anticipating whatever Hyams decided to do after “Regeneration.” His latest endeavor, “Dragon Eyes,” was not likely meant to bear this massive amount of hype and scrutiny. If anything, “Dragon Eyes” was designed to offer MMA fighter Cung Le his own starring vehicle and serve as a stylistic exercise for Hyams before he embarked on the sequel to “Regeneration.”
What I mean is, this is a quick and dirty kind of movie – a throwback to the grindhouse era. The colors are washed out; title cards slap on the screen every time a new character is introduced; and the fight scenes come fast and frequent. The light, humorous elements of the movie seem at odds with the style Hyams defined in “Regeneration”: cold, sterile, but seething with violence. As a viewer, it’s difficult to tell if the film’s often silly nature is a result of Hyams expressing his funny bone or the director merely trying to adapt his style to the script.
The story itself is something like an inner city riff on “Fistful of Dollars” – or “Yojimbo” or “Last Man Standing,” take your pick. Cung Le is the stranger who rolls into town, fresh out of prison. It isn’t long before he starts pitting two ethnic gangs against each other, in the hopes of ridding the city of St. Jude of its criminal element and ousting the corrupt police chief (played by a scenery-chewing Peter Weller).
Cung Le has been leaving up the possibility of pursuing his acting career after bit parts in movies like “Pandorum” and “Fighting.” Cung knows how to fight in the ring or in front of the camera, and he certainly makes for an imposing screen presence. But he could stand to brush up on his acting skills; his line readings here routinely fall flat. After watching “Dragon Eyes,” I got the impression that Cung would be better off continuing to play the strong-but-silent bad guy in Hong Kong productions like “Bodyguards & Assassins” and “True Legend.”
“Regeneration” alumni Jean Claude Van Damme shows up for an extended cameo and, for many fans, he’ll likely be the best thing about “Dragon Eyes.” For once in his career, Van Damme gets to play the seasoned mentor. As an actor, JCVD seems to relish the chance to sit under dim lights and espouse philosophical dialogue (“You have two tigers inside you,” he tells Cung Le). The quiet, soulful side of Van Damme is on display here but at the same time the martial arts icon is still looking limber for his age. Don’t worry, Jean Claude gets in a few kicks.
However, putting Cung Le and Van Damme in the same scene creates its own problem since highlights how Cung Le is an up-and-comer – a talent that needs to be shaped – whereas Van Damme is a bonafied movie star. All would be forgiven if “Dragon Eyes” delivered the goods as a piece of pop entertainment but John Hyams’ talent is undermined by a weak script. The dialogue is horrendous, the plot turns implausible. A five minute detour into the lives of two crackheads is so bizarre it feels beamed in from another movie. As I mentioned, the fight scenes are plentiful but – in contrast to “Retribution” – they feel over-edited, frequently sped up or slowed down for added effect.
“Dragon Eyes” may not be the crowning masterpiece some of us expected from a filmmaker like John Hyams, but it’s certainly a decent night’s viewing for fight fans. Cung Le cleans up the hood, one drug dealer at a time, and runs afoul of several Russian mobsters in the process. Everything is set up for the big showdown at the end, as Cung dishes out punishment in an abandoned factory (St. Jude seems to have a lot of those). The movie ends before the audience really has time to catch their breath. Some of us are still holding it, waiting to see what Hyams does next. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” anyone?
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10