In 2009 director John Hyams raised the bar for direct-to-DVD action films with UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION. Expectations were low and so was the budget, but Hyams overcame those limitations with some jaw- dropping action scenes that included a pleasing rematch between Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The standard set so high that I felt disappointed when I saw the trailer for Hyams' follow-up DRAGON EYES (2011).
As with the previous film, Van Damme plays a key supporting role but the headlined star is a UFC fighter. While Van Damme was not on screen a great deal in REGENERATION he was still arguably the lead but that is definitely not the case here. Despite what the distributors might want you to think. His character, Tiano, plays a pivotal role but only appears in a string of flashbacks. He is mentor to a prisoner called Hong, played by mixed martial artist Cung Le, who drifts into the town of St. Jude (state unspecified) with a clear but unspoken agenda.
DRAGON EYES is back-to-basics action of the "Cleaning up the town" variety. The kind of thing we've seen in the likes of STREET CORNER JUSTICE (Charles Bail, 1996), Latin DRAGON (Scott Thomas, 2004) and ROAD HOUSE 2 (Scott Ziehl, 2006). It's a storyline that reaches all the way back through the 1980s to the glory days of the western influenced by Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). There's a heavily retro vibe to the whole film. This is established with a credits font that evokes the blaxploitation era. After REGENERATION I felt sure that Hyams would get a decent budget to show what he can do, but it would seem the opposite was true. The trailer indicated that the locations would be simple (back streets and abandoned buildings) and there was a limited Van Damme presence, but I felt sure any shortcomings would be overcome by great looking action.
While it appeared low budget, I was hopeful that DRAGON EYES would be something akin to the first couple of films starring Tony Jaa. Unfortunately, while Le's character is as thinly written as any of Jaa's and both are skilled martial artists the comparisons between the two end there. Le lacks charisma and isn't given much to say or do apart from the action scenes. While there are inventive action moments there are simply not enough of them. Le shows no promise of being the next big thing. It's not really his fault, Hyams just fails to deliver. There's a notable overuse of slow motion.
Looking like it was shot on video (although with a decent camera), DRAGON EYES is a major disappointment. During approximately 80 minutes of screen time, the plot meanders and seems total nonsense. Exposition is minimal (which is unusual) and the film coasts from one scene to another with no real sense of direction or momentum.
There are lots of pointless scenes involving supporting characters, including one funny one featuring a crackhead called Beech played by Eddie Rouse. Rouse and Le both previously appeared in PANDORUM (Christian Alvart, 2009) and of the two it's Rouse who delivers the most memorable performance in DRAGON EYES. That is apart from Peter Weller, always a great screen presence, clearly having a ball playing villain Mister V. He gets all the best lines.
The simple plot is overly complicated and unconvincing. We are meant to believe that Hong has been able to locate and break into all the main bad guys safes to steal their contents. This is all going on while he runs around like a ninja to make them uneasy and things take a turn when after beating up the local gangstas they seem to respect him for it.
I was confused when some guys he fought in one of the first scenes started to come to his aid when another group show up to fight him. It wasn't until this second group are shown listening attentively as he tells them to stop selling drugs to kids and put away their guns, that I realised the absurdity of what was going on. They are listening to him like he's Jesus. This just allows for more bad guys to take their trade and they do nothing. They just get shot.
As usual this all builds to a big climax (it's no surprise that it's in an abandoned building) in which Hong fights his way through some thugs to confront the villain and rescue a girl. The action's not engaging and I really didn't care. I just couldn't wait for it to be over so I could put this all behind me. It's not that it's a really bad film, it's just that it's bland and poorly put together and I expected so much more.
If you want to see a film like this with a comprehensible plot and good action, just rent the Steven Seagal movie URBAN JUSTICE (Don E. FauntLeRoy, 2007) or give Van Damme's little seen Yojimbo-influenced DESERT HEAT (John G. Avildsen, 1999) a go.