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While Jean-Claude Van Damme had many irons in the fire early in his career, it wasn’t until the very late 80s that audiences fully took notice of him. Sometimes, he was even forced into taking on the role of the heavy. Once such film was Black Eagle, in which the future action hero played second-fiddle henchmen to the likes of Vladimir Skomaroksky (don’t worry about Vlad… he did just fine for himself, continuing to work in TV through the following decade). It seems that the performer was still finding his way, appearing in low-budget independent films and awaiting more heroic roles.
MVD are distributing Black Eagle in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack as part of their “Rewind Collection” line, and it should please anyone who remembers and enjoys the film. Truthfully, I missed this title during its original run, so I viewed it for the first time with this release. Not only does the disc contain loads of informative extras, but it also presents two different cuts of the film; the theatrical and uncut versions. While the uncut version is 11 minutes longer, it doesn’t include any extra action or violence. Instead, it contains additional scenes that help further develop the lead characters, focusing on Ken’s relationship with his kids and agent Parker. These bonus scenes are also available to view separately in a deleted scenes section.
As for the plot, it appears as though the producers attempted to meld martial arts and spy films together into an amusing jumble. When a US F-111 crashes into the ocean near Malta, there’s consternation on the part of American and Russian agents. The plane carries a newly developed “secret laser tracking device” (that’s about as detailed as it gets). That can’t fall into the wrong hands. When KGB agent Vladimir Klimenko (Skomarovsky) and his right-hand man Andrei (Van Damme) murder the first US agent to arrive at the scene, the government takes drastic measures. They pull vacationing special operative Ken Tani (the great Sho Kosugi), as well as his young sons Brain and Denny (played by the actor’s real children) and CIA agent Patricia Parker (Doran Clark) into the plot.
The story is a very silly knock-off of James Bond, all just an excuse to make the most of the fighting skills of its leads. Despite his obvious physical strength, Kosugi does quite well at making Tani come across as smaller than his opponent. He’s helped by a few comic moments early on, like when the protagonist is being confronted by the KGB while searching for the lost plane. The actor pretends to be an oceanography professor, boring the villains with a detailed talk about his work until they simply decide to leave.
Still, while competently handled, the action is exactly what you’d expect for this type of film. The picture’s biggest and most entertaining moments come during the final third of the picture with two hand-to-hand confrontations between Kosugi and the intimidating Van Damme. One of Van Damme’s most impressive moves at the time was doing the splits, and the battles seem allow the performer to sell his talent and work that particular move in at every opportunity. Truthfully, the real star of the show may be Malta itself. The seaside locations are absolutely gorgeous and every time Tani or Andrei head outdoors even just to wander through the streets or run across the rooftops, the movie perks up.
The added material in the longer cut does help to create a little extra drama between Tani and his kids, who don’t appreciate him for never being around and working all of the time. It also adds a bit of unintentional humor from some of the stiffness and creaky dialogue on display. The most significant addition involves a day at the beach with the hero and kids. He attempts to detail the significance of his “black eagle” code name as a sort of spirit animal for the family It’s awkwardly explained and rightfully questioned by the kids, leading to the amusingly rebuttal, “You have to make it make sense for yourself.” There are also some laughs from the family driver, who seems oddly unperturbed about all of the violence constantly occurring around him. It’s hard to think that his behavior wouldn’t result in some concern or distrust from the protagonists.
So, yes, it’s a very silly film but one that provides a reasonable amount of B-movie fun for those in the right frame of mind. MVD have given the film an excellent transfer as well. For a low-budget feature, the image quality looks far better than it has any right to (of course, it’s also helped by those incredible locations). There’s also a big helping of bonuses that total more than an hour’s worth of extra material. The interviews include all of the major players involved with the film (Kosugi, one of his sons, actresses Doran Clark and Dorota Puzio, director Eric Karson (The Octagon), as well as the screenwriter.
They detail the production, the budgetary struggles, how it eventually came together and the difficult process of shooting the movie. It’s extremely informative and the participants are very genial, open and willing to share plenty of great stories. Naturally, Van Damme comes up and the various persons describe their interactions with him in another extra featurette. They’re all complimentary, although a couple of funny anecdotes are shared.
While friendly to everyone, the actor apparently was very self-aware of his film image as a hero-in-the-making and insisted that his character, Andrei, never lose a fight. That’s certainly a tough challenge, considering that he plays the story’s antagonist. Kosugi served as fight choreographer and actually suggested that the odd demand ended up helping the movie in some respects. It made Andrei a more imposing foe and his own character a real underdog. Puzio, who plays Russian agent Natasha, also shared some difficulties in filming a love scene with the actor. Van Damme refused to kiss her on the lips, insisting his wife at the time would be furious with him. As a result, Andrei ends up more-or-less making out onscreen with Natasha’s shoulder.
All of these memories add to the experience and make the release engaging to watch. I don’t think anyone would mistake Black Eagle for being great cinema, but it does feature some enjoyable moments (sometimes in unintended way) and a good climactic fight between its leads. It’s interesting to see the young Van Damme in an unusual villain role, but stilled poised and ready to become a big player in Hollywood. His appearances in Bloodsport (1988), Kickboxer (1989), Cyborg (1989) and Lionheart (1990) would cement the performer’s status and ultimately turn Van Damme into a star.