Let’s get one thing straight: This is not a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Although his face is front and center on the DVD artwork, the big guy’s role in the film is very small. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows former MMA champion Cung Le to flex his considerable muscles. “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” director John Hyams’ immensely satisfying action epic “Dragon Eyes” puts Le in the proverbial driver’s seat, and he does a good job steering the audience through a number of jaw-dropping fight sequences that are as brutal as they are entertaining. As long as you don’t mind Van Damme tackling a much smaller role than most of us are used to, then you shouldn’t have a single thing to complain about.
Screenwriter Tim Tori (“Prowl”) uses Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimbo” as a framework to tell the tale of a mysterious individual named Mr. Hong (Le), an ex-con who travels to the town of St. Jude in order to clear the streets of crime. His first order of business is to pummel the wise-cracking punks in the parking lot, an encounter which ultimately earns him a little respect in the neighborhood. Before too long, he’s rubbing elbows with the diabolical Mr. V, the underworld kingpin who controls almost every facet of life in St. Jude. What they don’t realize, of course, is that Hong is playing the crooks against one another, resulting in an impossibly action-packed finale that gives Cung Le an opportunity to shine.
Where does Van Damme come into play, you ask? Every once in a while, Hong stops to reflect on his troubled past. When he does so, the audience is treated to a series of prison-oriented flashbacks involving an incarcerated martial arts master portrayed by JCVD. The supporting role serves the veteran action star well; watching him transform Hong from a downtrodden man into a virtual fighting machine is beyond entertaining, especially when you get to see Van Damme demonstrate his considerable skills. If that weren’t exciting enough, Peter Weller co-stars as Mr. V, the aforementioned crime lord with a flair for extreme physical discomfort. The scene involving Weller, a revolver, and one poor bastard’s testicles is quite memorable.
Hyams does a great job of keeping things light and breezy. Although the structure of the film is nothing new, he infuses this well-worn template with a fair amount of style and a heaping helping of adrenaline. Each character has their own unique freeze frame sequence, complete with accompanying theme song. These moments, combined with some suitably campy performances, give the production a “Saints Row 3″ vibe, which, honestly, I kind of enjoyed. Sure, the moments in-between the impressive fight sequences are ultimately nothing more than glorified cut scenes, but that’s fine by me. I wasn’t looking for anything particularly deep when I sat down with the flick. In fact, the script’s shallowness actually works in its favor.
“Dragon Eyes” is the first of the After Dark action flicks I’ve had the opportunity to investigate, and I sincerely hope the rest are just as strong as this highly enjoyable endeavor. Although Van Damme fans will be a little disappointed by their hero’s overall lack of screen time, they should be pleasantly surprised by the film’s devotion to kicking all sorts of ass. The movie also supports my theory that high-quality, independently-produced actioners are much better than their multiplex counterparts. Recently, I’ve had more fun watching stuff like this than almost anything with marquee names and inflated budgets. “Dragon Eyes” is a blast from start to finish, and certainly worth exploring if you long for the bygone days of 90’s action.
John Hyams (director) / Tim Tori (screenplay)
CAST: Jean-Claude Van Damme … Tiano
Peter Weller … Mr. V
Cung Le … Mr. Hong
Crystal Mantecon … Rosanna
Kristopher Van Varenberg … Sgt. Feldman
Luis Da Silva Jr. … Dash