Van Damme in “I just want the money!”
Van Damme gets prominent billing across Dragon Eyes, despite only being in three or four scenes. That’s almost everything you need to know, really. A by the numbers, direct to DVD action film where the “star” isn’t actually the star.
The focus instead is on Cung Le’s Hong, a man who takes it upon himself to clear out the drug dealers and bad guys who have taken control of a residential neighbourhood. Using the lessons taught to him by Van Damme whilst in prison, Hong takes the fight direct to the drug dealers. Except, he’s not all that good at doing so. Ironic, eh? I suppose the original thought was to portray him as one of these vulnerable heroes in the same capacity as the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films, where every punch, every broken bone, every physical assault has an effect on the chap we’re rooting for.
The plot itself is quite simple, harking back to the old kung fu martial arts films popularised by Bruce Lee and his contemporaries. Hong plays off two gangs of drug dealers against one another, only to come face to face with Mr V, corrupt chief of police and, unsurprisingly, somebody who isn’t keen to have another potential threat to his position and income causing all this trouble.
There’s more fun to be had with the villains, chief of whom is the well dressed Peter Weller as Mr V. He does his usual thing (in other words, exudes excellence) and is the best thing about Dragon Eyes by a significant margin. He might be best known for being the original (and best) Robocop, but he has a knack for playing some deeply unpleasant bad guys. Without him to keep things interesting, Dragon Eyes would dissolve into an almost entirely forgettable experience.
In a distant second place are the action sequences, which all feel like they have weight to them but offer little due to some less than impressive direction. It’s all incredibly by the book, lacking depth or any hint of passion for the art of a well-structured physical fight. It’s a far cry from the martial arts hits of old. They might have been simple in terms of narrative but they delivered where it counted – the fights.
And somewhere far down the list are both Van Damme and Cung Le, neither of whom contribute much in the grand scheme of things. Van Damme in particular comes across as a more serious (and non-mullet wearing) version of his Coors Light advert persona in the five to ten minutes of screen time he graces us with. He’s a stoic presence, that much can be said. He’s a darn sight better than Cung Le, however. He’s so stiff he’s almost a plank of wood which has been given an acting job.
Despite all of this, the final showdown (because it’s inevitable, isn’t it?) is rather good, more than making up for the earlier missteps. If the script and, indeed the final production, had managed to maintain this level of pace throughout, I’d have had far less to complain about. That’s the way the Cung Le cookie crumbles, I guess.