Directed by: John Hyams
Produced by: Joel Silver
Screenplay by: Tim Tori
Starring: Cung Le
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Music by: Michael Krassner
Cinematography by: Stephen Schlueter
Editing by: Andrew Bentler
Distributed by: After Dark Films
Dark Castle Entertainment
Release date: April 9, 2012 (United Kingdom)(DVD release)
Running time: 91 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $3 million (estimated)
Box office revenue: (Unavailable)
Hey guys, me again, just doing my usual little preamble before getting to the crux of the review. I've once again been plunging into the depths of the direct-to-DVD bargain bin, and have come out today with the purchases of Mercenaries, Transit and Dead Heads. Judging from other reviewing sources, it looks like a real mixed bag of films. So, along with these, the latest releases in theatres, and a certain film involving found footage of a house party which I will be doing my best to get a look at, there's plenty more on the assembly line, so keep your eyes posted!
Right, so today's movie stepping up to the plate is Dragon Eyes, a new film released direct-to-DVD by After Dark Films, who are do a great job of distributing little-seen genre movies and, regardless of the varying quality of releases, have become one of my new favourite distributors. The fact that they are able to get their films put in supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda is an admirable feat. Anyway, Dragon Eyes is their debut release under the After Dark Action brand, and is a martial-arts action movie directed by John Hyams, who is noted for his work in the genre and making documentaries on MMA such as The Smashing Machine. In Dragon Eyes, St. Jude Square is the residence to numerous drug-dealing gangs, all of whom are working below Mr. V (Peter Weller), who really running the whole regime. Everything is going ship-shape until the mysterious Mr. Hong (Cung Le) arrives in town and begins to shake up the order of things, pitting the gangs against each other and using the martial arts skills taught to him in prison by mentor Tiano (Jean-Claude Van Damme). So, very much an old-school martial-arts film. Let's have a look!
To start with the good, I'll mention the three actors who impressed. Cung Le is a charismatic lead as Hong. It reminded me of what was so accessible about the performances of Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone westerns. I mean, when you consider how successful Jet Li is in America. Jet Li in Hong Kong, yes, but Jet Li in America, no no. Aside from Danny The Dog, Li is in English-language films more wooden than a Mu Ren Zhuang. Cung Le here is engaging and from the evidence presented here, I think that there is certainly a career in this for him outside of the Octagon. Also strong in this is Peter Weller. He plays such a good bad guy here, and has a florid, hypnotic voice that has a way of making you pay attention to him whenever he's onscreen. There's a terrific interrogation scene where you just get the impression of Mr. V not just as a really nasty person, but as someone who is intelligent and charming. One of America's most underrated actors, the naturally gifted Weller is always a screen presence whose occupation of space I enjoy. Lastly on the acting front, Van Damme is good as the obligatory mentor Tiano. It's interesting in that since JCVD Van Damme has been getting a lot of supporting parts lately that find him philosophising on the dark side of human nature, and he's doing it pretty well here, as well as displaying his trademark roundhouse kicks. Also worthy of mention is the script by Tim Tori. It ain't chopped liver that's for sure, but he writes a neatly-structured, straight-up action pictures with no frills or flab on it. Instead of sugar-coating it with subplot after subplot and trying to make it into a piece of social critique, it's a nuts-and-bolts exploitation film script. Finally, the fight choreography is terrific. It was a wise decision by director Hyams to let Cung Le choreograph the film's fight scenes. He has a unique fighting style that mixes Sanda, Kickboxing and Wrestling, and Le knows how to accentuate the positives of the styles that he is versed in. So, not only is the action fresh and innovative, it is hard-hitting and brutal. In that regard, I must also praise the sound designers/foley artists, who have made these visually arresting strikes carry an aural weight to them. Also, the production designers' work has also contributed to the mise-en-scene established around the fight scenes. It's not often I sit there and go "Blimey!" at action-movies, I'm almost immune to violence in film these days, but Dragon Eyes does certainly feature some of the most hard-hitting action scenes in a martial-arts film outside of the work of Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai's Muay Thai Stunt team.
These nice things being said, it is a shame that these individual parts do not make a wholly satisfactory film. Tim Tori's script, which I admire for how forthright it is in it's attitude, is problematic in that the overall story structure has been done so many times before that you can see all of it's machinations, twists and turns laid bare by the time you get around twenty minutes in. Also, Stephen Schlueter's cinematography is dodgy in terms of it's aesthetic. It's obvious that they were going for a certain visual style, but the problem is that the style is at odds with the mise-en-scene and makes the film look really cheap. Furthermore, the terrible lighting ensures that while you also at times have to squint to see what is going, that the filmmakers are trying to cut corners to hide the fact that they are working on a low-budget. Ingmar Bergman never had any issue getting funding for any of his movies not just because they were usually low-budget, but because he had enough ingenuity to be able work around any problems created by budgetary constrictions, and his solutions usually did not involve turning down the lights! This is definitely the worst lighting I can remember seeing since Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Also, the editing is at odds with the bare-bones raw edge that the film is trying to achieve. Introducing each of the characters in typeface that reminded of the Grand Theft Auto series, and little things like this just clash with the overall aesthetic. Finally, as perhaps expected from many of you, I was not a fan of the music, which was pretty unoriginal and more or less has a peripheral purpose, in that it is connected to the film, but not really a part of it, and may as well exist as a perfunctory piece outside the film's diegesis/meta-diegesis. Not quite Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra, but getting there!
Despite being a very flawed movie in many ways, particularly as a technical film, but Dragon Eyes is still a decent watch. Cung Le is a unique martial artist, whose choreography is one of the film's highlights, and he himself is a likeable and engaging screen presence. Also good in a supporting capacity is Jean-Claude Van Damme and in particular Peter Weller, who here plays such a good bad guy. Tim Tori rights a nuts-and-bolts, straight-up script and director John Hyam has made some strong decisions in accentuating star Le; the choreography of the fight scenes is impressive, and the mise-en-scene and sound designers have done a good job in putting over the legitimacy of the film's martial arts spectacle. It's a double-edged sword with much wrong with it, but still a decent watch.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.6/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool (catching up on a month or two worth of Spill.com reviews)