Black Eagle (1988): Breakdown by Kain424
When an American Jet goes down in the Mediterranean, U.S. and Russian forces scramble to retrieve the on-board high tech weapon system, somehow resulting in a Ninja showdown.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Sho Kosugi is Ken Tani, CODENAME: Black Eagle
Beginning with Enter The Ninja, Kosugi’s name became synonymous with the word “ninja” in the 1980s. He’s managed to go from screen villain to screen hero and would make a full reversal back to villain after Black Eagle in Blind Fury to close out the decade. But let’s talk about this role.
Kosugi is clearly out of his element as the film’s protagonist, with slurred heavily-accented words forcefully leaving his mouth during the many dialog scenes. It’s clear the director of the film didn’t quite know what to do with Kosugi. Still, during the Action, he fares way better. So much so, in fact, one wonders why they didn’t just give more of his dialog to a secondary character who could handle it. And while this isn’t your average ninja film, Sho still gets to do his thing, using the stealth tactics and many of the tools associated with the legendary assassins in his arsenal. He’s a deadly beast when he puts on his business face, quick and totally bad-ass.
Bruce French is Father Joseph Badelia
French is a rather prolific character actor and it’s likely he may be one of those “Hey, it’s that guy!” types, having a familiar face but not a single role you could identify him with. For me, however, it will always be his role here as ex-C.I.A. man and current priest, Joe Badelia.
Badelia is a no-nonsense kind of guy, cutting to the chase in his dialog and openly expressing his distaste in being involved in the current situation. Still, the fact that he helps out his country of birth when asked shows something deeper about his character and Americans (even in Rome, apparently) during the 80s: patriotism doesn’t die. Reluctant and a bit whiny for much of the film’s running time, he ends the picture strapped for war and ready for more. He’s a goofy-looking bastard (seriously, look at that neck; is he part giraffe?), but he’s still pretty bad-ass.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is Andrei
With Bloodsport in the can, but left a mess with a parade of editors trying to piece together a cohesive narrative, Van Damme went back to work in small parts in other movies. While I would rank his role in No Retreat No Surrender above this one, Andrei isn’t anything Van Damme should be ashamed about either.
Defying expectations for this type of film, the filmmakers decided to blur the line of morality with this character by not only fleshing out his personality more than even his handler, and the movie’s stated “true” villain, they also give Andrei a love interest and possible motivations. The Muscles From Brussels gets to strut his stuff here, performing all of his signature moves and, at times, really stealing the show from Mr. Kosugi.
He isn’t given many lines, but his presence is felt whenever he’s in the room. This becomes more and more clear over the course of Black Eagle, leading me to believe that the director, Eric Karson, may have begun to realize what a performer he’d stumbled upon and began changing aspects of the picture to suit the Van Damminator. Andrei is something of a mirror image to Kosugi’s Ken Tani, being essentially a lethal tool of his respective government’s, with more at stake than simply the mission at hand. He grows attached to a woman he meets on board the local vessel, seems to express disinterest in his mission at times, and actively protects and consoles other people to prevent collateral damage.
Most interestingly, however, is that Andrei is presented as more than a match for Ken Tani’s Black Eagle, even during the climactic showdown. Andrei overcomes his adversary with his insurmountable skill and, one presumes, the need to protect his love, on board the vessel Tani is attempting to destroy. The only good hit Kosugi lands on Van Damme is a cheap shot when he’s not looking. So yeah, a bad-ass he very much is.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
“I’m gonna pack it and blow it!”
Nothing like full-mouth kissing, but we do get some interesting sequences involving a shirtless, oiled-up Jean-Claude doing the splits to impress a deckfull of Russian sailors. No one was sailing at half-mast that day.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that, in a C-grade picture like Black Eagle, there are plenty of strong and important female characters. Who get naked.
OK, so just one gets naked. But next to Van Damme’s perfectly muscular form she’s hardly the main dish being served during that scene. Still, her character (what was her name though?) was important to the plot and development of Andrei’s, so I gotta give credit where credit is due.
The other lead female is Doran Clark’s Patricia Parker. Aside from having an alliterative name, she’s supposed to be a tough C.I.A. operative, fluent in other languages (and to be fair, she does speak Japanese at one point) and battle-ready. This doesn’t seem to stop her from getting kidnapped (well, she’s a woman still), and spends most of the story’s narrative as nothing more than an overqualified babysitter.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 29 ]
Towards the end of the movie, Sho Kosugi actually puts on his ninja gear and “becomes” the Black Eagle of the title. He kills a shipload (read: SHITload) of Russian goons, pretty much all hand-to-hand. Before that sequence, however, it’s apparent that Ken Tani is a lethal motherfucker. In a spy vs. spy chase sequence through the streets and across some rooftops, Tani manages to kill nearly all of his pursuers with his bare hands AND THEN just sort of strut away as if nothing happened. As it stands, Kosugi kills around 17 people, making him the biggest threat to life in this movie.
Jean-Claude Van Damme kills only two people by contrast, but both in fairly terrible ways. The first, a special ops man found planting a tracking device on his ship’s hull; Jean-Claude beats him and then crushes the guy’s throat or something. It’s just offscreen. The other kill is the poor bastard who brought the first man out to Andrei’s ship. Van Damme yanks him into the harbor and drowns his sorry ass.
Most everyone else is shot, stabbed, or blown up. It’s all pretty impressive for what the film is, though one can imagine what may have been done on a bigger budget. Oh well, it’s not bad in this department.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING:
Sho Kosugi vs. Jean-Claude Van Damme, Round 3
Here, the film reaches its inevitable final confrontation between its two super-assassins. Having been unable to finish their previous fights, and often coming to stalemates anyway, our two bad-asses seem finally forced to square off. While not likely viewed with much excitement upon its original release, this fight (and likely the two before it) can probably be viewed as quite the treat for fans of the genre now. Two legends in their prime, kicking, punching, jabbing and performing their signature moves.
It’s pretty cool. While I can’t say this film is great by any means, I will state that absolutely, the fact these two actually have not one but THREE fights retroactively redeems Black Eagle as a rather good ‘versus’ movie. It definitely puts it miles above something like War. Sadly, the movie kind of pussies out around here, with the battle between the two greats ending due to outside interference. I think Van Damme had the edge, though. Rematch, anyone?
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
One of the things keeping this movie from really taking off is that Kosugi put his kids in the movie. I know, they’re not that bad, but I think they’re inclusion bogged the movie down. They could’ve at least trimmed their scenes a bit. Anyways, when those kids finally leave it means the movie’s gonna get down to business. And that includes a rather awesome suiting up montage where daddy Ken Tani turns into bad-ass Black Eagle. It’s awesome.
Not one for great lines, Black Eagle is pretty scant here. This is due both to the poor writing and also the generally bad performances of the lead actors. The best I can offer up is the exchange between Van Damme’s Andrei and Doran Clark’s Patricia Parker after she’s been kidnapped:
Andrei: “Miss Parker, I want Ken Tani.”
Parker: “Right now, so do I.”
It’s unclear how this film came about, but I’d put my money on it being something of a vanity picture for Sho Kosugi. It’s got all of his staples: ninja hijinks, his two children, cheap shooting locales, and an over-written plot. Still, for a 90 minute actioner, it’s not too bad.
What drags the movie down is its failure to stay true to its budget restraints. Filmed in Malta in back alleys and on rusty boats, it’s immediately clear money was a setback. The producers still managed enough, however, to get a few explosions, build a replica jet, and shoot some underwater footage. Not too shabby. In addition, we have two martial arts legends as our leads with Kosugi and Van Damme. Unfortunately, it’s here that the weaknesses begin to emerge.
With the plot a very Cold War-ish tale concerning agents of two superpowers in a race to recover advanced weaponry from a sunken aircraft, immediate comparisons to Bond films are bound to be made (Thunderball, anyone?). With Kosugi apparently fancying himself the type of actor capable of carrying a Bond-like demeanor (hint: he isn’t), we are “treated” to several scenes attempting to display Sho’s “wit” and sly spy skills. This goes on to ridiculous lengths, including a scene at a roulette table, where Kosugi’s Ken Tani teases his awareness of his rival’s true mission as he wears a suit and tie.
Director Eric Karson seems to have an eye for great camera angles but a bad ear for dialog, letting the not-quite fluent Kosugi have ample amounts of complex verbosity despite his obvious lack of a firm grasp on the English language. During a scene in which Ken Tani is supposed to act as a nerdy intellectual with too much to say, this actually works for the character, but never when Sho needs a witty retort or a campy send-off. At least Karson was smart enough to limit Van Damme’s dialog to around ten lines.
Remarkably, I don’t rate Black Eagle as a complete failure. As I mentioned before, the movie may have been seen as something of a disappointment upon its original release (especially having come out just after the much more impressive Bloodsport), but the film now stands as something of a rather remarkable and entirely accidental versus picture. Sho Kosugi was the king of the ninja films and Van Damme would go on to bigger and better things. Never again would either pair off, and that’s probably for the best. They were both in their prime, and the fact that we get three fights between the two of them gives it more of a kick than the film otherwise deserves.
So check this one out. It is indeed a lesser film, especially in comparison to many of either Van Damme or Kosugi’s other pictures. But if you count yourself a fan of one or both of these greats, and ever want to see these two go at it, you owe it to yourself to get this one. It’s a low-key James Bond knock-off, but you could do much worse.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Even in his prime, Sho Kosugi couldn’t take Van Damme. Oh, and the Cold War had ninjas.