JCVD does his best to upstage Sho Kosugi, succeeds
Fascinating to behold, and yet simultaneously quite boring by today’s standards, 1988’s Black Eagle features Sho Kosugi at the height of his star power (such as it ever was) and an ambitious young Jean-Claude Van Damme bogarting the spotlight out from under him throughout. Billed as a rough and tumble spycraft drama, Black Eagle morphed to fit the desires of its stars and ends up being totally unsure of what it wants to be. At times it’s a cut throat espionage story, and then all the sudden Sho Kosugi’s character Ken Tani is having a picnic with his real life and on screen sons (Shane and Kane Kosugi), or touring around a museum with them. Then there’s Jean-Claude Van Damme. Placed in the film late in the game by the producers due to his rising star, he’s one of those “right hand man” heavies who simultaneously doesn’t need to be in the movie at all because he’s not the main villain, but also steals the entire show out from under not only the totally forgettable lead villain, but also every other person in the entire cast and crew. He’s like a tractor beam that draws all eyes to him.
In theory, this is a movie about a downed fighter jet off the coast of Malta and the political machinations of the USA and Russia to secure the top secret assets found in the wreckage of that downed plane. There end up being lots of scenes featuring bureaucrats speaking mutedly behind closed doors, a few sequences of undercover aliases and trickery, and a whole bunch of scenes that seem to exist only to feed the stars’ egos. It offers very little in the way of a fresh approach to spycraft or even action. What it does offer is exotic locales from shooting on location in Malta, and a glorious peek at action movie cinema in an exact place and time that will never be duplicated.
Sho Kosugi is a truly remarkable leading man. Not particularly gifted at acting, he was the right man in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the ninja craze of the 1980s. I genuinely love watching his films and couldn’t be happier that there was a time and place where he headlined action movies. A genuine Japanese leading man in Western cinema! He just sort of comes across like the Japanese version of Chuck Norris: an actual martial artist who brought true action to the screen without a lot of the charisma or latent acting talent of a movie star. That he brought his kids along for the Hollywood ride is endearing, and also basically derails the movie as well.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is kind of the anti-Norris. Bringing legitimate martial arts talent to the screen, JCVD also brings charming good looks, bulging muscles, and enough ego to spare. Van Damme was ready to rip the spotlight out of the hands of its operator and shine it brightly on himself.
The Chuck Norris comparison is an apt one, as Black Eagle director Eric Karson had previously directed Norris in The Octagon, and would go on to produce later JCVD star vehicle Lionheart. Karson comes off as being totally bowled over by both his stars and his producers on Black Eagle (at least this is how he comes off in the bonus features). But he, too, seems to have been at the right place at the right time to discover the star power of JCVD and capitalize on it for the excellent Lionheart.
Black Eagle offers literally nothing new to the espionage or action genres except for its fresh young heavy. It’s remarkable as a time capsule and little else. 1980s action fans should jump on this release, but it’s far from essential for casual fans.
I couldn’t be more thrilled about this physical media release. I’ve long felt that the action genre gets short shrift when it comes to collector’s editions and high def upgrades. Tons of niche companies like Vinegar Syndrome or Blue Underground have been resurrecting B and C grade horror films for a modern audience, but meanwhile action films languish on VHS. MVD is doing the Lord’s work with this fun special collector’s edition packed with new bonus features and retro cover art and slipcase. The rental store aesthetic on the packaging is particularly appealing to me as a kid who vividly recalls renting this very movie from my local video store growing up. There’s also 2 different cuts of the movie. I watched the extended version as I’d seen the theatrical cut many times over the years. Big mistake. The extended version is more excruciatingly boring than the already plodding original cut. Featuring modern interviews with the director, writer, and many of the stars (sans JCVD, though he looms large as a topic of discussion), the bonus features here are potentially more entertaining than the feature itself and make this disc well worth a purchase for die hard Kosugi or JCVD fans.
All that said, this isn’t a particularly polished or refined release. The menu screen is glitchy and occasionally forces you to wait an entire cycle before clickable icons appear on the screen. The audio on the bonus features is also quite rough. These are nitpicks and I am thrilled that MVD is going this hard with bonus content. I’d simply be remiss not to mention the issues I had.
- Blu-ray + DVD
- Theatrical Cut + Extended Edition
- Sho Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend Featurette
- The Making Of Black Eagle Featurette
- Tales Of Jean-Claude Van Damme Featurette
- The Script And The Screenwriters Featurette
- Deleted Scenes
- Theatrical Trailer
- Collectible Poster
And I’m Out.
Black Eagle Special Collector’s Edition is now available from MVD Rewind Collection