Film Torments: Black Eagle (1988)

In the halcyon days of the early 90s came the Gotterdammerung of the action star. Though budgets skyrocketed – peaking with the $100 million masterpiece that is True Lies – the era of the muscle-bound one-man-army was declining. As Schwarzenegger and Stallone made ill-advised dips into comedy (and dipped straight back out), they left in their wake a gulf of righteous muscle that dozens of direct-to-video pretenders scrambled to fill. But before the likes of bloated predator Steven Seagal came to dominate the martial arts market, and before James Cameron forgot how to make films within a reasonable timeframe, a Belgian gentleman round-housed his way into the industry.

With his Valentino smoulder and limber, ballet-trained physicality, Jean-Claude Van Damme was the perfect representative for a more vulnerable kind of action hero. Though this aspect of Van Damme was most viscerally displayed with his heartbreaking performance in JCVD, it was present from his first, non-speaking roles (even the bugshit insane No Retreat, No Surrender, wherein he was a karate Ivan Drago). Black Eagle is not the best representation of Van Damme – or of anything, really – but it does provide us with a snapshot of his screen presence just before his breakout role in Bloodsport, released the same year.

Nominally starring Shō Kosugi of the Cannon Ninja trilogyBlack Eagle is an action film with minimal action. Save for Van Damme and its sparkling Maltese setting, there is nothing memorable about this clunking, tedious bore. It’s a vacuous non-starter that belongs in a bargain bin next to Belly of the Beast and dross of that ilk. For all its failings as a sub-James Bond spy ‘thriller’, it at least works as an excellent advertisement for Malta’s tourist board, full of winding alleys and sun-bleached villas. (There’s at least one scene in a museum where a tour guide expounds at length about the rich cultural heritage of Malta. It’s probably the best bit.)

Kosugi plays the titular code-name, A.K.A. Ken, who just wants to go home and be a family man. Kosugi, coincidentally, plays the role like he wants to go home and be a family man, achieving the incredible feat of having zero chemistry with his own children (Shane and Kane Kosugi). Usually dubbed in his films, Kosugi’s limited grasp of the English language doesn’t help – he garbles his limited clutch of lines and muddies an already convoluted plot about laser-guidance systems and downed spy planes, but Van Damme has no such problems.

Playing the near-mute henchman of the main villain (Vladimir Skomarovsky in standard evil Soviet fare), Van Damme performs the splits at least nine times and scowls and gurns as camply as he can. What’s his character’s name? Doesn’t matter.* I’m not even sure it’s said out loud. Kosugi is a capable martial artist, and a likeable enough lead, but he simply doesn’t possess the raw magnetism that Van Damme conveys here. When the two eventually (and I do mean ‘eventually’) meet in a pair of disappointingly brief fist-fights, Van Damme outshines the supposed protagonist through presence alone.

Not especially difficult, mind you, when Kosugi is saddled with making what amounts to a family holiday in the Mediterranean seem compelling as an action premise. The camera flip-flops through the action scenes but lingers lovingly on the Maltese beaches. The pace is lackadaisical at best and glacial at worst – even the requisite ‘sexy spy gambling’ scene is duller than a beige salad. Doran Clark tries her damndest to inject some life into the film as Ken’s CIA handler but she manages little more than babysitting Kosugi’s children, both of whom have better fight scenes than their father.

Black Eagle is bargain-bin action schlock at its least inspired. The only reason to watch this is as a curiosity: one, to see Kosugi perform in a non-dubbed starring role, and two, to see Van Damme in his vestigial days before he broke into the mainstream. The third, perhaps, is to sway prospective tourists to visit Malta, because it looks absolutely beautiful and seems to be the only aspect of the film where the camera tried to capture something properly. Even as a curio, however, this is a flaccid, meandering slog of a film that feels every second of its 90-odd minute run-time. Go watch Jean-Claude Van Johnson instead and petition those cowards to un-cancel that shit.

*It’s Andrei. Did you really care?

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