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Thursday, July 6, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Black Eagle (1988)

It's not uncommon for future action stars to begin their careers playing second fiddle to established performers. This has been true since at least the days of Chuck Norris getting his ass kicked by Bruce Lee. In 1988, Jean-Claude Van Damme was ready to become a leading man. “Bloodsport” had already been filmed and was awaiting release. Before that movie would truly make him a breakout star, he played the bad guy in “Black Eagle.” The film would have Jean-Claude facing off against Sho Kosugi, one of the then-leading stars of ninja-related cinema. Despite such a distinguished lineage, “Black Eagle” is not discussed often even by action fanatics.

Over the Mediterranean Sea, a jet carrying a high-tech and top secret radar system is shot down by the Soviets. A race is on between the two super powers over who can retrieve it first, both forces basing themselves in Malta. The Russians have Andrei, a uncompromising and deadly agent who unexpectedly finds love on this missions. The Americans have Ken Tani, a Japanese spy who is code-named Black Eagle. While in Malta, Ken finds his two sons endangered as he works to recover the tracking device, stop the bad guys, and save the day.

Considering the stars and premise, you're probably expecting “Black Eagle” to be a super cheesy, over-the-top action flick. Weirdly, it seems director Eric Karson had something more sophisticated in mind. “Black Eagle's” pacing is relaxed, the action scenes sparingly spaced out over the run time. The film is a little more focused on genuine espionage, even featuring a Bond style casino sequence. Truthfully, way too much of “Black Eagle” is focused on Ken's family life.  The relation between Tani and his two sons – both played by Sho Kosugi's actual sons – takes up way more time then you'd expect. Ken feels bad, sacrificing time with his boys to go spying and killing. He worries about the effect his line of work will have on his offspring. He attempts to keep his espionage life a secret from his sons but this only further hammers a wedge between them.

On one hand, I admire the ambitions of the filmmakers behind “Black Eagle.” Making a movie about a spy balancing his dangerous profession and his home life was probably a worthy idea. Yet “Black Eagle” is way more entertaining when it focuses on the fight scenes. There's a decent rooftop chase, Kosugi being pursued by Russian attackers across the scenic Maltese skyline. An encounter in Kosugi's hotel room features some decent tumbling and shooting. Naturally, the fights between Kosugi and Van Damme are the best. The two are on equal footing, trading spin kicks, tumbling through flaming barrels, and generally beating the shit out of each other. To be totally honest, Van Damme seems to be a better fighter than Sho, making the hero seem like more of an underdog.

Though not technically a ninja movie, Sho Kosugi still does plenty of sneaking around and assassinatin'. When streaking his face with black warpaint, covertly slashing enemy's throats, or trading blows with Van Damme, Sho does fine. However, the script also calls on Kosugi to be a role model to his fictional-and-actual sons. He even dresses up like an accountant, wearing colorful shirts and wire-frame glasses. This is a bit of a problem, mostly because of Kosugi's thick Japanese accent. He's sometimes hard to understand, frequently switching his Rs and Ls, which is sometimes humorous. Due to this, Kosugi never seems entirely comfortable in the role. It's an awkward vehicle for Sho, to say the least.

Sho might be the star but Van Damme steals the show. You'd expect Andrei to be another snarling Russian baddie. Jean-Claude had already played one such character in “No Retreat, No Surrender.” However, the script gives Andrei a little more complexity. Both spies are presented as loyal to their causes, honorable in their own ways. Andrei even gets a love interest of his own, romancing a girl on the ship. Following the climatic fight, Andrei sacrifices himself to make sure she's safe! Aside from giving the villain some heroic qualities, Van Damme is clearly the physical superior to Kosugi, outperforming the star's not-inconsiderable skills. The Belgian peppers his performance with the splits, roundhouse kicks, and shirtlessness you're expecting too. Honestly, “Black Eagle” probably would've been better if it focused on Andrei over Ken Tani.

“Black Eagle” is kind of interesting, willing to be a little more insightful and character-oriented than most films of this stripe. Yet I can't imagine this approach pleased fans expecting a typical eighties action flick. Yes, there's punching, kicking, shoot-outs, and explosions. But you're going to have wait for them. The film drags a bit and isn't Sho Kosugi's proudest hour. For Van Damme fans, it's more rewarding. The soon-to-be-star shows off his growing charisma and martial arts skills. “Black Eagle” is worth seeing for his scenes alone. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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