One of the great action stars of our time, Jean-Claude Van Damme, "The Muscles from Brussels", has been having a renaissance of sorts over the last few years. After having largely disappeared from the limelight in the late '90s and early '00s, he burst back on the the scene with the anti-autobiographical meta-narrative film JCVD (2008) in which he played a version of himself weary of the world of direct to video dreck.
In the several years since he's still making those low budget actioners, but with renewed vigor after having realized, along with a legion of new fans, that there is a place in the future for Jean-Claude Van Damme. He's bounced back with critically successful turns in the reinvigorated Universal Soldier series as well as embracing his own comedic legacy in films like Welcome to the Jungle and the spectacular Amazon Prime original series, Jean-Claude Van Johnson.
We decided to take a look at a couple of his films from either end of his career for this piece. First up is a supporting turn in the Sho Kosugi vehicle, Black Eagle from 1988, and then there is anther minor role in the Alain Moussi reinvention of JCVD's original Kickboxer series, Kickboxer: Retaliation.
Sho Kosugi (Pray for Death, Enter the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination) was red hot in 1988. He became synonymous with the '80s Ninja movie craze that landed dozens of black clad martial artists on video rental shelves around the world following his roles in Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja. However, Black Eagle, his collaboration with director Eric Karson (The Octagon) marked the beginning of a downward trend which led to Kosugi's disappearance from the cinema world for over a decade not too long after its release. And there, standing in opposition to him in the film, was the young gun with only a few films under his belt, the up and comer, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Black Eagle is, undeniably, pretty damned boring. The plot revolves around a downed military plane that was carrying a top secret laser tracking device that the US government is keen to recover from its crash site in the Mediterranean Sea. However, the KGB want that device as well, and they've sent their top guy Andrei (JCVD) and his team to grab it before the Americans can get it back. Most of the film plays like a travelogue with tons of meetings and delightful coastal scenery in between occasional martial arts throw downs between Ken Tani (Kosugi) and Andrei.
Tani is the weapon of last resort for the CIA, a martial arts master who is typically able to set his own schedule, but when the CIA put him in the game during the same two weeks of summer that he typically has visitation with his kids, things get complicated. Women and children are snatched, shit is blown up, boats chase boats, and plenty of blood flows. Too bad it isn't more exciting.
Black Eagle really is the Sho Kosugi Show, JCVD is a supporting character in the film much like the character he plays in 1986's No Retreat, No Surrender. Released almost simultaneously with JCVD's first solo lead role as Frank Dux in Bloodsport, Black Eagle was one of the last supporting (and almost silent) roles that Van Damme would take for a long time. He makes the most of his time on screen, but it's nothing to write home about. It is telling that his image on the movie poster was bigger than that of Kosugi, even though the latter is in the foreground, because it was clear that JCVD was going to be the breakout star at this point.
This is not a great film, but it is an interesting film in the evolution of Van Damme as a performer. We see a lot of his trademark work in this role, but he doesn't really start to become his own star until the double whammy of Bloodsport and Kickboxer in '88//89.
While Black Eagle isn't great, this disc from the new MVD Rewind collection is really top notch. The film is presented in two versions (94 minute R rated and 104 minute Unrated) on the disc and both okay, nothing to write home about. The image isn't super sharp, but there are moments of filmic appearance and decent detail. Not a huge disappointment, but not a revelation either.
Where the disc does really excel is in a solid selection of new bonus materials created for this edition. We get interviews with Sho Kosugi and his son/co-star Shane Kosugi lasting a little over 20 minutes, a half-hour making-of featurette with director Karson, screenwriter Michael Gonzalez, and the Kosugis and other members of the cast that is worth checking out. There is a 20 minute featurette with interviews from the cast and crew sharing stories about having the young (cocky) Van Damme on set at the beginning of his career, as well as a featurette with the writers talking about the screenplay and some additional deleted scenes. To be truthful, it's a more complete edition than the film probably deserves.
If you are a JVCD fan or completist, this Blu-ray of Black Eagle is a must own. If you're looking to explore early JCVD, skip it and go for some of the others I've mentioned.