Sunday, 19 February 2017

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s - Black Eagle

Despite the video shop real estate given over to the actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme is not the main attraction in Black Eagle. That poisoned chalice belongs to Sho Kosugi, star of umpteen Cannon Group ninja films and one of the more detestable Bruceploitation films, Bruce Lee Fights Back from The Grave. Kosugi is an interesting character though, a Japanese karate champion turned actor who treats this film (and apparently every other one) as an extended opportunity to take his children to work.

Kosugi plays Ken Tani, a CIA super agent able to code-switch between an unassuming, hunched academic and his lithe, knife wielding super-identity The Black Eagle. Tani has completely dedicated his life to protecting the aims and ideals of the United States, asking only that he be granted an annual fortnight of peace and quiet to hang out with his two sons. Naturally Uncle Sam reneges on this promise, packing Tani and his kids off to Malta to visit art museums but also stalk nosy Russian trawlers.

Since the focus is off him, Van Damme only gets a few, brief chances for his Soviet heavy to capture our attention. As ever, the actor is happy to disrobe, performing his trademark splits in various states of undress. As the film trundles on, there's an emerging sense that director Eric Karson doesn't quite know what to do with either actor. Kosugi and Van Damme are shot at arm's length, all the better to capture the holiday destination environments.

Karson and Cinematographer George Koblasa do dream up a few fun shots, their best portraying Van Damme as a kind of muscle piston pumping through a well-oiled routine. His body is pored over and objectified; overpowering brawn glimpsed in a canted, low-angle appraisal. Karson and pals also swipe a few of the tricks Robert Clouse demonstrated on Enter the Dragon, ignoring the moments when stabbing heels meet vulnerable throats to focus on the deranged glee surging over the face of the striker.

Opportunities to delight in this destruction are few and far between though. Black Eagle moves with all the vim of a tourist nursing sunstroke. Malta's blazing Mediterranean heat has been baked into the film, dictating not only the sleepy onscreen performances but also the film's baggy, undisciplined shape. Stakes crash into the film, delivered with all the elegance of a brick being placed into a malfunctioning blender. The film is pitched like a classic 70s Euro thriller, selling adult intrigue with brief blips of adrenalised action. Instead you get an illogical bore that lurches slowly from sequence to sequence, never quite managing to work up a head of steam.

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