Dir. by John Hyams - 1 hr. 31 min.
Red Band Trailer
by Clayton Hollifield
It's not fair to dismiss a movie out of hand, without some perspective. I feel obligated to judge a film on what it's trying to accomplish, and whether or not it did that rather than simply if it's as "good" as "Citizen Kane" or "Vertigo." By the way, "Dragon Eyes" is not as good as either of those films. But that's only half of what is relevant. In this instance, we have a martial arts film, which rises and falls on it's action scenes, the build to those scenes, and the charisma and athletic ability of it's star or general cast. There is probably no instance where this adds up to a classic five-star film; the finest examples in this genre are probably either Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" or Jackie Chan's "Drunken Master 2," and both are fun and very watchable, but only on the basis of individual performances. As a "film," which I take to mean the complete package and product, those examples are fun, and watchable, but not excellent.
In "Dragon Eyes," as with many films in this genre, the story is a wire-hanger upon which excuses for combat scenes to progress from one to another. Hong (Cung Le) is released from prison, where his cell-mate and mentor was Tiano (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Hong shows up in a slum called St. Jude, where he immediately beats up and then infiltrates Mr. V's (Peter Weller) drug organization. Plus, there's a girl, Rosanna (Crystal Mantecon). And fighting!
Since the story is perfunctory, it's super-important that the star (or anyone, really) be someone that will command your attention on-screen. Cung Le is a former mixed-martial arts fighter; a pretty spectacular athlete, but with all the magnetism of a loaf of bread. This is something that might develop in him with some more acting experience, but when he's not kicking the crap out of gang-bangers, he's pretty stone-faced and not very gifted with body language. There's also the odd decision to have him fighting frequently in a baggy long-sleeve shirt and slacks. I'm not saying that Le is on Bruce Lee's level (particularly not in the acting realm), but imagine Lee's iconic fight scenes, but with him wearing a muumuu instead. It just doesn't work; the way this film is set up, the entire thing hinges on Le's fights and charisma. And that ultimately means that you're paying to watch Le physically move, and the amount of grace and explosiveness that he does so with. And that means that whether or not audience members want to admit it, or are comfortable with that awareness (or whether Le and the filmmakers are comfortable with that sort of attention being paid), they're showing up to admire what Le can do with his body. So covering him up, head to toe, and in a formless fashion, hampers the effectiveness of the fight scenes. Le does go shirtless for a couple of scenes, so there isn't a cosmetic reason for this choice, but the whole thing is baffling. If you're selling a film on the basis of Le's martial-arts prowess, the unexpected level of prudishness in Le's wardrobe is counterproductive.
There is one bright spot in this film (and probably the only thing that kept it watchable, despite it being a bit of a bait-and-switch); the mentor/student relationship between Hong and Tiano. Van Damme is not really a co-star of this film (even though he was the only actor listed in the programming guide); he's in it for maybe ten minutes total (I didn't stop-watch it, that's a broad guess). And if you tuned in because of Van Damme, and you know who Cung Le is, you know that you'd really like to see those two go at it. That never happens, at least at full throttle, but there is a tantalizing scene of them sparring in prison that lasts probably less than a minute that also immediately let me know that I would actually plunk down cash money to watch those two fight in a film. Watching Le kick nameless thugs is a short-lived thrill; I've seen Le in MMA fights, and I want to know what JCVD could do against him (or, in the context of a film, what kind of dance they could put together). At least there's the short scene with them sparring, but the big fight "Dragon Eyes" builds to is against some big dork with cauliflower ears and with gold chains who doesn't really talk. There's no real personality conflict between the two (partially because neither have much personality to begin with), and the action isn't spectacular enough on it's own merit to make it worth building to.
So, "Dragon Eyes" isn't a very good movie. The movie punts on plot and characterization, and star Cung Le doesn't have enough personality to make it work on that basis, either. The story doesn't bother to build up any of the people that he fights enough for the fights to matter (and he sure as hell isn't getting into a sanshou battle with Peter Weller, who dresses like a sunburned pimp here), and so it falls flat on that basis, too. There's no real romance angle, even though the cute girl (Rosanna) is included in the story, so there's no real effort to humanize Hong, which would help rally viewers to his side. If you're a big fan of Le, I could see checking this out (it's a short film), but if you're a Van Damme fan, you'll just leave frustrated. I hope that star Le makes another film, but one that doesn't lean on whatever charisma he might have quite so heavily; his athletic gifts are worth watching, but a film that's built around him needs more than just that.
1 / 5 - TV