DRAGON EYES could’ve been my most anticipated DTV movie of the year, but After Dark Films had to go ruin it by releasing it theatrically. A little bit, anyway, as part of their After Dark Action thing next month. I hope it does well.
In the UK, though, it came out on DVD and blu-ray this month, so I ordered it. The cover says it’s “FROM THE PRODUCER OF THE MATRIX AND SHERLOCK HOLMES,” because it’s co-presented by Joel Silver (I didn’t notice his name in the actual credits), but to our people it’s FROM THE DIRECTOR OF UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION, the reigning champeen of DTV action. So it’s a big compliment to say that for most of its running time it lives up to my hopes for the next John Hyams movie. It has many seriously hard-hitting fight scenes, strong atmosphere and continues to show Hyams’ strength for finding the best ways to cinematically showcase non-actors. It turns out he’s also good with the real actors. Go figure.
It’s been called an update of YOJIMBO, but it’s not a straight adaptation like A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS or LAST MAN STANDING. Hong is a mysterious stranger that drives his badass car into St. Jude, one of those small towns that seems to be populated by about 45 criminals and 5 elderly civilians. At first it seems like an accident that he gets into it with the two shakily-truced gangs that run the place, but then he starts infiltrating their warehouses wearing a ninja mask and it seems like maybe he knew what he was doing when he got there.
Sure enough, he didn’t just drift in. There are flashbacks explaining where he came from and why he’s there. He doesn’t strictly play one side against the other – it’s more complicated than that – and he has less humor than Sanjuro or The Man With No Name. That’s not a direction I want to see most action going in, but it’s okay here since it makes him stand on his own and not have to be compared as much to two of the greatest and most influential characters in the history of Badass Cinema.
There’s no equivalent to the scene where Sanjuro tells the coffin maker how many coffins to make for him before a fight. I guess that would be hard to update. Maybe he would be ordering them online using his smart phone and then he changes the quantity in the shopping cart.
Hong is played by Cung Le, the Vietnamese-American MMA fighter who was the Strikeforce Middleweight Champion, gave it up to pursue acting, now is fighting in the UFC. He’s been in FIGHTING, PANDORUM, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, TRUE LEGEND and has already filmed parts in Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man movie THE GRANDMASTERS and RZA’s THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. This is his first starring role other than the unreleased BLIZHNIY BOY: THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER (probly not very good, but I want to see it for that b-movie dream cast).
I’ve seen some of those movies and some of his fights, but he has more screen presence here than I realized. In interviews he seems really friendly and funny (immediately after one of his fights he announced plans to eat a whole bag of chocolate chip cookies), but by keeping him stoic Hyams takes advantage of his tired eyes, his pout and his sort of wide, rectangular shape. He strikes a nice balance between the naive-foreign-farmboy archetype the gangsters first assume he is and a more physically imposing individual. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from Jet Li to Oleg Taktarov.
As different as this is from US:R, you can tell it’s by the same director, partly by the strong attention to sound design and music. I love the way he creates atmosphere with the surprisingly high quality hip-hop-by-artists-I-never-heard-of soundtrack drifting out of cars passing through or parked in the neighborhood, at one point overlapped by the noisy metal preferred by the Russian Devil Dogs gang to illustrate the dangerous closeness of their territory. At other times (like when Hong is training, meditating or mourning) it’s more of an intense, John Carpenterish keyboard sound or eerie, echoey, scraped metal and feedback soundscapes.
There’s definitely a modernized spaghetti western type filmatism, especially in the two big face-off scenes that happen on an open block where drug deals take place but that might as well be a western set. Wide shots of Hong walking through, zoom-ins on the faces of tattooed thugs as they watch him, ignoring them as they yell racist shit at him, contemplating what they want to do to him. The bombastic beats and horn samples coming from the car fade into background noise and give the sense of a tense quiet before the inevitable storm. From the opening scene on it’s all about long buildups to sudden explosions of asskicking. Hong just scowls and silently takes the abuse until they go too far (touching his car) and then he beats them.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers you get the idea, but this is a movie with some savage, raw street fighting shit, where the hits seem so hard they might be super-powered. The popular choreographer Larnell Stovall is the stunt coordinator, but Le actually choreographed the fights himself. I like his style. Even though this guy was supposed to be taught by Van Damme his kicks seem more about power than grace. They look painful. Fists tend to send mists of sweat, saliva and blood upon impact. There are Superman punches. Lots and lots of heads and bodies smashing through walls, windows, furniture, cars. He rarely takes it to the ground like he might in a professional fight. It’s more punching, slamming, clothes-lining, some choking. But mostly going for knockouts, not tapouts.
And when he’s done with them there’s a hero shot looking up at his face, and he could top it off with a one-liner. Instead he exhales.
Most of the fights have alot of cuts, not long takes. There are some stylistic devices that I don’t like, including the dreaded “freeze frame with name of character” and some of the digital sucking-out-of-color I’m so sick of. I think there’s an over-reliance on speed-ramping, but at least that does a good job of showing off the choreography and how real the hits look. For me none of these are dealbreakers, and the fights are so well staged and relentless that it’s hardly relevant. It can’t compete with THE RAID, but it’s a more hardcore blast of bonecrushing hand-to-hand combat than the vast majority of action, especially in the U.S.
One aspect that threw me off at first, but that I loved after I picked up on it, was Hong’s knack for Fight Brotherhood. He beats the shit out of somebody, next thing you know they are his ally, no explanation offered. He must just gain their respect by being such a tough motherfucker. At one point 6th Street Kings leader Dash (Luis Da Silva, Jr., FAST FIVE) busts into Hong’s apartment and tries to shoot him. There is alot of property and structural damage before Hong is standing with his boot on Dash’s throat. Cut immediately to Hong laying down a new set of rules for the gangs and Dash standing beside him yelling for the others to “Shut the fuck up when the man is speaking!” Some guys have to save an enemy’s life to make them their friend; Hong just has to smash their heads and use their bodies to break a bunch of wood and glass.
The supporting cast in this is really good. Most of the gangster characters have a charisma that seems kinda down to earth and not actorly, bringing personality to roles that aren’t all that developed. Dash is a funny kind of twitchy, paranoid guy, and Eastsiders leader Antoine (Edrick Browne, who’s gonna be in DJANGO UNCHAINED), is funny just looking disgusted by Dash’s stupidity.
But the man in charge is Mister V, played by Peter Weller, and he gets to ham it up. I think he’s the chief of police, but he wears a fedora and tacky suit to show that he’s from another time. His character is kind of cool because although he’s the lead villain and mastermind of the town’s corruption he has a good side, or at least a practical side. When Hong tries to institute some new policies to protect civilians from the gangs Mister V decides to back him on it and seems to like doing something good for the town. At least until his money gets stolen.
There’s one really standout scene with this character Beach (Eddie Rouse), a crackhead who Hong is supposed to kill. He’s sitting on a couch with a more reasonable junkie named Tony (Andrew Sikking) and freaking out about a tiger painting on his wall, and they get in an argument about it. This is here just as setup for Cung Le to sneak in like a ninja, but the two actors in the scene are so great I wanted their conversation to go on a lot longer. I looked up Rouse to see who he was, he’s in alot of stuff but one of his first was in Seagalogy introduction writer David Gordon Green’s first movie, GEORGE WASHINGTON.
For some reason the movie it kept reminding me of was GHOST DOG. It’s way more of a straight-forward action movie than that, but it has that combination of dry, quiet scenes and little unexpected bits of personality here and there like Tony’s “Bassmasters” jacket, the Eastsider who wears a “D.A.R.E. To Keep Kids Off Drugs” t-shirt, the young cop who keeps trying to offer his opinion but gets shut down every time.
Van Damme fans should know that he’s basically a guest star. I liked seeing him as Tiano, Hong’s mentor, but honestly his part seems added on as a favor to Hyams to bring more people to the movie. On the other hand JCVD does have some of his regular team involved, including producer Moshe Diamant and his son Kristopher Van Varenburg as Sgt. Feldman, a part maybe even a little bigger than his own. They’re supposedly gonna make a DRAGON EYES 2, and producer Courtney Solomon once claimed Van Damme’s “in 50%, 60% of the movie,” so we’ll see if they get him out of the joint in that one.
My problem with the movie is that the ending is unsatisfying to me. After such skeleton-jangling action earlier on it feels kind of weak to just have a bunch of people pointing guns at each other for the climax instead of trying to stage the best and most personal fight of the movie. But Mister V is not a martial artist, and they have to bring the conflict between all the gangs together somehow, so that’s fine. But I don’t think it quite works emotionally.
I think I get what they’re going for. Hong gets them all to kill each other but still loses an innocent life. He’s doing all this to try to make up for killing an innocent person in the past, but his solution just leads to more pain and suffering. In the last shot he’s literally the last man standing, everybody else is either laying down dead or kneeling in mourning.
But I don’t know, man. I know it’s different, but I don’t really like seeing a bummer ending like that on a movie like this. I want to see him get back in Tiano’s badass ride and roll off into the sunset. I’m not sure the depressing ending is earned.
Still, DRAGON EYES is a very good low-dialogue exercise in style and punching, full of simple pleasures and a few more subtle, unique ones. It’s a good vehicle for Hyams as a director and especially Le as an action star. I look forward to more from both.