Sunday, March 25, 2018

Review: Black Eagle

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Black Eagle
Directed by Eric Carson
Imperial Entertainment / Moonstone Entertainment / MVD Rewind Collection
104 minutes / 1988/2018

When this film was released in 1988, Jean-Claude Van Damme was not the star of it, even if he presumed he was; he was just 28 and not yet well known. The headliner was Japanese martial arts action film star Shô Kosugi, who had been a big draw for a decade, helping create the then-popular Ninja genre.

Let me say upfront that there are two different versions of this film, both available on the disc, which are the 93-minute theatrical cut, and the “Extended” 104-minute version. I went for the latter (sorry, but I’m not watching both right now to compare the 11 minute difference… perhaps some other time).

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sho Kosugi
The plot is pretty bare-boned, but that was quite common in the action genre in the mass market days of the late 1980s. The basic plot thread is that a US classified plane called an F-111 Aardvark (a real, medium-range interdictor and tactical strike aircraft) has gone down into the Mediterranean near the Republic of Malta, and both the Americans and Russians are trying to find it first. On the US (i.e., “good guys”) there’s Ken Tani (Kosugi), and for the Rooskies, there’s Andrei (Van Damme, or JCVD, as he’s oft called in his publicity).

There’s a lot of saywhat moments (now known as WTF, but I’ll keep with the period) in stuff that’s glossed over in the film. For example, in researching Tani, the Russians are able to find him on their computers while at sea, long before Wi-Fi. This is Jules Verne type precognition. The server they use is quite antique even then (it has reel-to-reel memory). But, as Tani tells his young sons, in relating the family’s Black Eagle legend “You have to make it make sense to yourself.” I’m okay with that.

One consistency is that the two leads are kinda hard to understand (especially Kosugi when he shouts), between the Japanese and the Russian-cum-Belgian accents. The best accent is by the head of the Soviet team, Vladimir Kilmenko, who is actually Russian (Vladimir Skomarowsky). Then again, JCVD doesn’t even speak until 20 minutes in, and then it’s just sparingly, I am grateful to say.

The whole point of this type of film is (duh) the action, so oft times the plot revolves around the daring-dos, rather than the other way around. For example, there is the obligatory car chase around the narrow streets of the blazing white and grey Malta. As the cars go speeding by, people on the street don’t even turn around (unless they’re doing an action into the camera in close-up). That leads me to some questions, such as: was most of the action sped up with folly-added car screeches added later, is it that no one there gives a damn, or is this kind of thing so common that it isn’t worth noting? People are walking down the street with shopping bags talking as cars supposedly go barrelling by. It’s quite amusing.

JCVD, Vladimir Skomarowsky, Dorota Puzio
There are lots “action star” activities, such as hang gliding, wall scaling, running after (and away from) people, zip lines, and many fisticuffs. Most skirmishes are quick, but that’s because the real meat of the matter is Kosugi vs. JCVD. An interesting note is that this is late in the career of Kosugi, but early enough in JCVD’s that it doesn’t necessarily mean JCVD is going to win (hey, he’s playing a Russian, do the math). It’s similar to when uber-religious right-wingnut Chuck Norris went against Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon, 1972). However, it’s worth noting how it happens in a way that saves Belgian face.

As I said, the whole point is the final confrontation, but there are actually three meetings between Kosugi and JCVD, each one more intense, though all manage to throw in the “split” that would become JCVD’s trademark (much as Steven Seagal’s breaking arms). Both actors are good at it, there is no doubt about that, but they definitely have a different style, which kind of works for the action, i.e., Kosugi is loose (Asian style) and JCVD is stiff (like today’s Western MMA athletes). I do find it also culturally interesting that at the time Kosugi was the bigger star, but being Asian, even though he is the lead actor, his picture is smaller on the cover than JCVD.

As far as acting goes? Well JCVD comes across as stoically intense (most of his dialog consists of him saying different variations of “Go get them/him!”), neither are really great actors (though excel in stunts). The best actor of the bunch by far is Bruce French, a spy who became a Catholic priest, and who is the de facto sidekick to Kosugi. Being of the clergy, he doesn’t get “the girl,” but both of the leads do just that. For Tani, it’s blonde and big haired American spy Patricia Parker (Doran Clark); for Andrei, it’s the surprisingly sympathetic Natasha (Dorota Puzio).

Doran Clark
Keeping in mind the time period that this was released, it is interesting to see that there is quite a bit of gender politics on various levels. The most obvious is the high testosterone level that was present in nearly all these film. The two female leads (and I only counted three recurring speaking roles in the whole film) are kind of subservient to the males. Parker is basically a high-level CIA agent who mostly babysits and shows off her limbs and hair, and Natasha is totally ignored by Andrei (though he shows affection near the end, beyond the sex). At one point, some ugly dude body shames the very attractive Parker with “Too skinny.”

It’s also worth noting that the two youngsters playing Kosugi’s sons are, well, Kosugi’s real kids, Kane and Shane Kosugi (yes, their real names rhyme). The just-teen Kane gets to show off some nice moves himself (note that he is now a dashing martial arts actor in his own right).

The image of the film is quite clear, something the VHS copies I’m sure lack. This helps make the travelogue-ness of the beautiful Malta scenery stand out quite nice. The music tends to be a mild variation of synth-based, but not as gawd-awful as so much of the 1980’s… nearly everything.

This package has both a version in Blu-ray and DVD, which have the same extras. Beyond the chapter and sound variations, there are a series of short documentaries from 2017. First is the 21:23 “Shô Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend.” It’s a talking head monolog by Shô talking about how he grew up, got involved in martial arts, and became an actor. Nearly half of it is an interview with his now-adult younger son, Shane, who describes his own career and growing up with a famous dad. Did I mention that there is a very strong self-promotion bit for Shô’s book on Eastern Philosophy which borders on infomercial?

After that is a 35:43-minute “The Making of Black Eagle,” which is filmed 30 years after the fact. It opens up with the director, Eric Karson, which is mostly interviews with a whole group of people (one-by-one) including Eric, Shô, Shane, the screenwriter Michael Gonzales, and the two female leads, Patricia and Dorota. It’s interesting, discussing the likes of the relationships with all the actors (including the “pissing contest” between Shô and JCVD) and working with Shô’s accent. It’s keeps the viewers’ attention, though it’s a bit long. One person missing is JCVD. However, he is the focus of the next 19:20-minute “Takes of Jean-Clause Van Damme.” He is known for being both charming and (allegedly) a bit of a dick to other actors and especially women (he’s bi-polar), so I was curious to see this one. It’s also mostly interviews, but of course, JCVD isn’t in it. You get to hear all different aspects of his personality, and how the character of Andrei was essentially created for him, even though it’s so early in his career.

Bruce Friench
As for the 27:21 “The Script and the Screenwriters,” mostly dealing with Gonzales and some of Karson, and well, to be honest, I’ve burned out on how many documentaries I’m willing to watch on this film, considering there are no ghosts, no monsters, no chainsaws, no masked murderers, and absolutely no separated body parts. I quickly scanned through it. The last extra is the 11:16 “Deleted Scenes.” Most of these are already incorporated into the longer version of the film, so it’s nice to know what was added. Oh, I almost forgot that it comes with a film poster folded into the clamshell.

Will the good guys win? Will the bad guys get the transponder back to Odessa? Okay, what do you think? Point is, as I said, it’s the action that more important than the story proper. In that way, this film is a success beyond the acting and writing. And it kept a smile on my face throughout.

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