By Gabe Toro | The Playlist May 14, 2012 at 12:01PM
Hong, the lead character in “Dragon Eyes,” might as well be a Man Without A Name when he wanders into the small town of St. Jude. He seeks a second chance, an opportunity to atone for past violent misdeeds seen in fuzzy flashback. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize this means a lot of people are about to be kicked in the face. One of the marquee titles from After Dark Action -- the new action imprint from Dark Castle and After Dark -- “Dragon Eyes” at least delivers on this aspect.
Our hero is played by martial artist Cung Le, a tight ball of energy with a pout. Not an entirely expressive performer, he sets the tone for this low-stakes actioner, his thousand mile stare and minimal but clear English painting him as a Man of Serious Action. Director John Hyams, who has revealed himself to be a straight-faced action auteur of the straight-to-DVD set, resists the urge to compliment Le’s taciturn demeanor with some sort of comic relief. As a result, the solidly convincing gang types that populate “Dragon Eyes” take cues from his poker face. If you like your action red meat-flavored, you’ve come to the right place.
As Hong introduces himself to the local gangs in much the same way action stars usually do, he finds himself earning a bit of respect. Kingpin Mister V (Peter Weller, inexplicably pimped out) smartly realizes he could lose all his money to an obviously skilled interloper, or he could gain a much more valuable weapon and minimize his losses. More importantly, he knows a high-kicking martial artist who can rob two major gangs is a stronger asset than the two tribes of Hispanic and black punching bags, delicately claiming, “I don’t eat dried bananas, and I don’t eat collard greens.”
Hyams, son of Hollywood journeyman Peter Hyams, previously directed the direct-to-DVD action high-water mark, “Universal Soldier: Regeneration,” and he renews his dark, moody, humorless aesthetic here. Whereas that was a science fiction action film featuring enough built-in ideas to be compelling, “Dragon Eyes” has a threadbare narrative that runs out of steam around the hour mark. Hyams attempts to fill the gaps with extended, darkly-lit flashbacks that delay an outcome that’s never once in doubt.
Just like 'Regeneration,' Hyams saves a juicy role for Jean-Claude Van Damme, seen in flashbacks as Hong’s mentor in prison. It’s a nothing role, though to stretch the film’s runtime, he’s given a backstory that involves a tragic death of his own. Van Damme has aged gracefully into an onscreen combatant with considerably mileage, and while his part seems entirely superfluous, he actually brings a sharp sense of gravitas to the production. A younger Van Damme would not have brought nuance to lines like, “If you get shot, it’s only because you did not understand the man who shot you.” But now in his fifties, the Muscles From Brussels has surprisingly become a formidable onscreen presence, outshining his numerous peers of that era on a much smaller canvas.
Where Hyams excels, and how Hollywood could learn from him, is in the action sequences. With top-notch action choreography, Hyams respects the onscreen skill of martial arts stuntmen, capturing every fluid motion and using distinct angles that best maximize the violent impact of fists on flesh. Le doesn’t have the charisma of your usual leading man, nor does he have the flexibility to feature in fight scenes of a diverse nature, and for that, the film suffers. And yet, the purity of a stone cold beating, the cinematic violence of one assailant taking down another is a type of termite art that Hyams has mastered, a pugilistic poetry that gives “Dragon Eyes” an odd sense of integrity. Paced sluggishly and with that cheap digital sheen of most direct-to-DVD features, it’s not much of a film, but as a Hyams demo reel, it suggests a great deal of promise. [C+]