Black Eagle

There’s a story about the day Sho Kosugi first arrived in the United States in pursuit of his dream of movie stardom. As the legend goes — for surely anything related to Sho Kosugi must qualify as legend, shrouded in myth, mist, and mystery — Sho stepped off the plane at LAX and meant to board a bus bound for Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where he intended to begin building his new life. Unfortunately, the young Kosugi could neither read nor understand very much English and so got on the wrong bus. Eventually, he found himself deposited in a rough part of town where he was promptly set upon by a trio of knife-wielding thugs. Calling upon the martial arts training he’d had while living in Japan, he quickly dispatched one of the assailants and sent the other two fleeing in terror. Somehow, a police car showed up and, after a detour down to the station, Sho finally found his way to Little Tokyo.

I assume that this story, like all things about Sho Kosugi, is both entirely true and false. Such mythology befits a man who is identified with and has become the embodiment of the ninja craze that gripped the United States in the early 1980s. It was a long road he’d walked from his early days in Japan, when he began training in martial arts as a counter for physical frailty caused by a bad lung. After arriving in the United States, he split his time between studying economics and, presumably, hunting down would-be muggers in LA’s seedier neighborhoods. He also got a job performing in a martial arts troupe that worked the amusement park circuit. After collecting a few walk-on and extra credits, as well as more substantial supporting roles (look for him in Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave), Sho’s big break came in Enter the Ninja. We’ve previously discussed the tangled web that lead to 1980s ninja fever by way of Chuck Norris’ The Octagon and the Golan and Globus production Enter the Ninja. Although Sho Kosugi was a supporting player in the latter, it was he rather than any of the other stars who became the poster boy for the ninja film. By the time Revenge of the Ninja was in production, Sho was the star.

He went on to appear in a fistful of ninja films, including the aforementioned Revenge of the Ninja (star), Ninja III: The Domination (co-starring good guy), the television show The Master (co-starring bad guy), Pray for Death (star), and Nine Deaths of the Ninja. By the time Nine Death was released, however, one could see that Sho was steering himself away from ninja roles (though not away from martial arts roles). Despite its title, Nine Deaths of the Ninja doesn’t really have a lot of ninja action in it, adn most of the ninja action it does have comes courtesy of others. Sho goes through the “ninja final exam” in the beginning, but other than that, he’s mostly just a karate action guy in an ensemble action adventure in the same mold as Force: Five and countless others made in the 1980s. By Black Eagle (basically his last action film), released in 1988, Sho had more or less phased out the black jammies and face mask while still holding onto the martial arts and shuriken. He’d also, by that time, maneuvered his career in a way that meant he was not just a star, but also the stunt and fight coordinator, laying down a back-up plan for the day his star inevitably faded. Apparently, he also successfully got passed a California ordinance requiring that his young sons, Kane and Shane, appear in every movie he made, no matter how tangential their appearance.

If Black Eagle was, in some way, the beginning of the end for Sho Kosugi, it was the end of the beginning for his Black Eagle co-star, a muscular Belgian hopeful by the name of Jean Claude Van Damme. 1988 was the year the Van Damme broke, though Black Eagle was a footnote, at best, in a year that also saw the release of Bloodpsort. In many ways, Van Damme’s story was similar to Kosugi’s (and probably many Hollywood hopefuls). After getting a taste for acting in his native Belgium, where he starred as “Gay Karate Man” in a comedy called Forever Monaco, Van Damme decided to try his luck in the United States. Like Kosugi, he arrived in California with no set prospects, little in the way of English, and no money — all of which he hoped to counter with a boundless enthusiasm and confidence in his own ability. Like Sho, Van Damme’s seed eventually found purchase in the fecund belly of Golan and Globus’ Cannon Film Group. It was they who launched Sho’s career with Enter the Ninja and sustained it for most of the 80s. And it was in Golan and Globus’ paean to the 80s, Breakin’, that Van Damme first found his way onto American screens, albeit in a tiny role as a grinning, hand-clapping member of a crowd watching one of the film’s stars go through a dance routine.

Still, it got Van Damme on the radar of Golan and Globus. In 1986, he was cast as the heavy in No Retreat, No Surrender, a bizarre co-production with Hong Kong that told the completely straight-forward story of an all-American karate guy who trains to fight a seemingly unstoppable Russian in a tournament. Where this “Karate Kid meets Rocky III” story picks up its weirdness is that the kid is trained by the ghost of Bruce Lee. At no other point in the movie is there any hint of the supernatural. It’s a completely by-the-books martial arts tournament film, and then without any fanfare or real sense of amazement, Bruce Lee’s ghost shows up to teach the main guy some moves. Van Damme’s on-screen persona in that film (his graceful, dance-informed style may be of questionable application in the real world, but it looked good on screen — which is probably true of most movie martial arts, at least until Tony Jaa showed up and started kneeing people on the top of the head) was enough to convince Cannon that he was worth taking a more substantial gamble on. In 1988, he co-starred in Black Eagle, again as a Russian, but got to play the lead in Bloodsport. After that, he was considered one of the biggest names in 80s action — if not the equal of Arnold Schwarzenegger (and let’s be real — no one was), then at least on par with future granite statue Sylvetser Stallone and future fat guy in a bolo tie Steven Seagal. It’s fitting, then, that one of Cannon’s biggest action star of the 80s would meet their biggest star of the 90s — while one was on his way down and the other on his way up — in a film that few people remember.

In character, Black Eagle is still very much a Sho Kosugi film. Most of his post-ninja output saw him cast in budget-conscious versions of James Bond films, and specifically, as befits the era, the Bond films of Timothy Dalton (where it was acceptable for Bond to wear a Members Only jacket — the “Casual Friday Bond,” as I’ve always called him). There were quite a few films of this type released in the 80s; some to theaters, but many to the newly popular home video and cable markets. It was on cable that I saw most of these films. Seedy spy fare like The Holcraft Covenant and The Osterman Weekend. Goofy action-espionage films like The Soldier and Black Eagle. They were all basically the same, some with better casts than others, but all of them serving to create a late-night HBO B-team for a time when cable television didn’t sport a “James Bond marathon” every weekend on some channel or other.

Most of these films fell into one of two sub-categories: the lone wolf movie or the ensemble movie. Black Eagle, just as it features one star at the end of his popularity and another on the rise, has its feet in both worlds. It’s ostensibly an ensemble  movie, with Sho Kosugi enlisting the assistance of a team of experts. But it’s also a one-man show, since the rest of the team is so thoroughly forgettable. There’s no doubt that, while this mission may be a team effort, one man is considerably more awesome than the rest. Of course, it’s likely that one diplomat making one call to a relatively friendly government could have taken care of the entire situation in under an hour, but that would have resulted in considerably less crossbow action and scenes of Sho Kosugi applying black war paint to his face. No one wants to watch a movie called Simple Diplomatic Issue Ably Solved By Diplomat On Phone.

Kosugi plays Ken Tani, a globe-trotting secret agent who, unlike James Bond, is also a family man with two sons he goes on vacation with for two weeks every year no matter what the state of the world may be. The Soviets could be leaning on a nuclear launch button, but if it falls within the two weeks Ken spends with his lads (played, predictably enough, by Kane and Shane Kosugi), the US government is just going to have to send James Bond or “The Soldier” to take care of things. Except for this time. When a jet bomber crash lands in the waters just off the coast of Malta, Ken Tani finds his vacation canceled as he is sent out to retrieve some top secret whatsit from the plane before the Russians get to it. In order to make it up to his boys and prove that he is one of the most irresponsible fathers of all time, Ken summons the two whiny brats to Malta, so he can hang out with them and put them directly in the line of fire as the usual spy shenanigans go on.

A long time ago, when I reviewed a similar movie called The Soldier, I marveled somewhat at how what should have been such a  simple mission was made so needlessly complex in order to fill out an entire film’s running time. That goes doubly so for Black Eagle. For starters, this doesn’t seem like that difficult a mission. I mean, yeah, I doubt I could successfully complete it (but then, maybe I’d have a chance), but anyone whose had some actual training should be able to pull it off in an afternoon. I don’t see where it’s so difficult that it requires the best agent in the world cancel his trip to Disneyworld in order to complete it. Shortly after arriving in Malta, Kosugi is strutting around in Speedos and has located and swam down to the wrecked plane. That would seem to me to indicate mission accomplished, but for some reason, there’s like a full hour yet to go. The Russians keep sneaking around. Everyone seems to know where the plane is yet no one retrieves the secret gizmo. It’s like they’re all just farting around because they know they have a week to compete the mission, so why rush?

Having nothing better to do other than hang around on a freighter in the vicinity of the downed plane, watching Sho Kosugi go skin diving, the Commies eventually get bored and kidnap Shane, Kane, and their useless female CIA agent chaperon. Their sole motivation for this seems to be so that the film can have a scene where Sho Kosugi stages a rescue attempt in a scenic castle. Additionally, from time to time the Russians also trot out Van Damme so he can do that splits thing he always does, but this really does seem like it’s more for the entertainment of the other men than it is a useful part of whatever plan the Soviets have in mind.

The whole thing leads to a somewhat nonsensical finale at the docks and on board a Soviet freighter. Once again, it seems like a fairly straight-forward operation is needlessly complicated by a bunch of secret agents who had nothing better to do, like a bored Canadian border guard who passes the time by treating every granny as a potential terrorist laden with heroin, child pornography, and suitcase nukes. This finale has less to do with the plot of the movie and more to do with setting off a bunch of explosions for no real reason, while Van Damme and Kosugi kick each other. In fact, most of the movie seems to happen without any real regard for the plot, which in itself isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Hell, I can’t even remember what happened to the gizmo. I think Sho got two pieces of it, and maybe the Russians somehow ended up with one, even though all they brought with them was kickboxers instead of divers. I guess Sho got it back in the end, or he destroyed it, or something. It didn’t really matter. He shot a lot of things with a crossbow; I remember that.

However, it helps if some of the nonsensical episodic action is also good, and it’s in that area that Black Eagle‘s cracks begin to show. For starters, much of the movie’s padding consists of scenes of Kane and Shane looking bored and complaining that their dad isn’t around. Well, it consists of Kane doing that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Shane talk. He just sort of appears wherever his brother is and nods. But Kane actually has a fair bit of acting to do in this movie, and it’s all really bad. Yeah, I know he was a kid, but the world is full of accomplished 13-year-old actors who do a better job their first time out than Kane did with several movies already to his credit. So he can’t use age as an excuse. The script doesn’t really do him any favors either, as about 95% of his lines are, “Hrmph! My dad is never around!” Even when he gets clued in to the fact that his dad isn’t a marine geologist, but is instead a super-awesome ninja spy killing machine, he’s still all pissy about it, with the “you lied to us!” and “how come we never played catch together?” whining. Look, Kane, your dad only knows how to throw one thing, and that’s ninja stars.

I guess I’m supposed to feel some sympathy for the kid, but exploring some sort of important family dynamic or “the price of serving one’s country” is far beyond the meager means of this movie. They would have been better off to have never even tried. Other than serving as convenient hostages at one point in the film, the kids really have no impact on the plot while having a substantially negative impact on the movie itself. My guess is that they feel so superfluous because they were shoehorned in at the last minute. My guess is — and I admit this is only a guess — rookie screenwriters A.E. Peters and Michael Gonzales were told to come up with a cool James Bond style film. You know, something like The Living Daylights. And so they did, and it wasn’t great, but it was sort of cool. Then Sho Kosugi was signed on to star, and Sho’s contract required that all movies have a part for his kids. So Peters and Gonzales had to do a scrambling rewrite to force Shane and Kane into the story. Uninterested in writing parts for kids, possibly having no idea how to write age-appropriate dialogue for Kane, and not happy about having to cram them in, we ended up with a really annoying character (Kane — Shane is so uninvolved in his own scenes so as to be almost imperceptible) that serves no purpose other than to derail the actual plot. That plot, in turn, was probably chopped up to make room for the kids, which is why it seems to disappear entirely as the impetus for the action much of the time.

Or maybe I’m totally off-base. Maybe this was the original vision of the movie from the get-go. Maybe they really did think they were successfully exploring how a secret agent must struggle to balance his professional and personal lives. Sho’s insistence on his sons being in all his movies means that this “secret life gets in the way of his family life” plot had already showed up in Revenge of the Ninja and Pray for Death (which was, to be honest, pretty much just Revenge of the Ninja, but with a metal helmet added to the ninja get-up), but in those two instances it at least felt like that was the plan from the beginning. It was certainly better integrated and executed in the ninja movies, and Kane’s wooden delivery of lines was kept to a minimum in favor of just having a scene where he beats up some school bullies and a scene where he foils some adult villains. The third time is not a charm for this little sub-plot though, and the awkward, tacked-on diversion of it is unwelcome.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why it’s there. It only matters that this is how the movie turned out. There’s a reason Bond doesn’t have kids. No one watches a James Bond movie to see extended scenes of a kid buying ice cream or looking bored at a museum. And I don’t think anyone wants to watch Black Eagle for those scenes, either. We want to watch Black Eagle so we see lots of scenes of Sho Kosugi kicking people and flinging throwing stars at their face. And while we do get that, it comes nestled in between poorly-acted, ill-advised scenes of familial angst. And one can’t criticize Kane’s acting in those scenes without also criticizing his father’s acting. Sho was not, after all, a native speaker of English. His best moments as an actor came when he was supposed to shut up and do that “angry face” before opening a chest that contained an array of ancient weapons. He could stumble his way through the requisite “scene depicting marital bliss” with the knowledge that it was there solely to set up some murder he must avenge as “the man of peace with a mysterious past pushed too far.” Saddling him with multiple scenes dependent entirely on dramatic acting and dialogue does nothing but expose his weaknesses.

Further bloating the filler is the inclusion of Doran Clark as Patricia Parker, the world’s least competent CIA agent. Her job is to take care of Kane and Shane once their father insists on their being brought into a known espionage war zone. At no point does she display anything remotely resembling the competence of even a junior operative, let alone a seasoned veteran. She’s a classic example of the 80s action film’s tendency to pay lip service to feminism by telling us a female character is “one of the very best in her field” while actually showing us that she has no demonstrable skills whatsoever. Sure, they’ll make some token gesture toward justifying the praise — usually a scene in which she bests the hero in some inconsequential fashion (like they get in a friendly fight, and he thinks he has her beat only to discover that she has a switchblade pointed at his crotch or something) — but beyond that, she generally ends up being a useless load no matter how many times other characters mention how competent and tough she is. I expect better of Doran Clark, of all people. I mean, she was a Lizzie back in the 70s!

Somewhat more palatable is Bruce French as Father Joseph Bedelia, the proverbial “retired spy dragged in for one last job.” Yep, there’s not too many action-spy movie cliches left unmined by this film. His background as a marine geologist and CIA operative, and current occupation as a Jesuit priest, make him the perfect third man for Kosugi’s loose confederation of accomplices. He also has his own boat, so he and Ken Tani can continuously putter out to where the crashed plane is without every actually doing anything about it. French at least performs as if he went to the movie version of spy boot camp, and he knows how to drive a boat and shoot people in the back. Like Clark, and like many of the people in this movie, French was primarily a television actor. He acquits himself somewhat better than does Doran Clark, probably because the script actually had some idea of how to use him.

The final performer of note, of course, is Jean Claude Van Damme. Many jokes can be made about Van Damme’s acting (and the fact that both of the main attractions of this film could speak very little English), and some of them are probably true. But for my money, he was never as bad as people claimed. Within his limits, he usually turned in a serviceable performance, and was sometimes even surprisingly good — not just with action, but also with more dramatic (at least action movie dramatic) stuff, like when he was that caring dad fighting to keep a hockey game from being blown up, even though Americans outside of New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh don’t give a damn about hockey. And whatever else, he had a certain charisma that made him a star whose movies played in theaters (at least until the end of the 90s). Contrast that with, say, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, whose relative lack of charisma on-screen meant that he was never able to break out of that direct-to-video ghetto (though, given how prolific Wilson has been and how much money he’s made at it, it’s perfectly likely that he didn’t see any need to break out). Black Eagle is, like No Retreat No Surrender, a movie that plays it conservative with Van Damme, casting him as a presence more than a character. For the most part, he has very little to do other than look impressive and kill people, which he does admirably.

But then a funny thing happened, perhaps while Black Eagle was still being filmed: Bloodsport was released, and Van Damme became a star. Bloodsport showed that Van Damme had the potential to be more than just muscles and a glare with an accent that could be passed off as Russian whenever America needed to kick a Russian’s ass (which, in the 80s, was pretty frequently). He was still rough around the edges, but there was something a little more to Van Damme than was found in many of Cannon’s other stars, including Sho Kosugi (who benefited largely from fascination with ninjas in general carrying his stilted performances). As with my guesses about the Shane and Kane plot, I’m really just making stuff up until someone finally released a DVD with director and screenwriter commentary, but it feels like Van Damme’s sudden arrival as a star caused the makers of Black Eagle to go back and try to force in a little more story for the Muscle from Brussels. So all of a sudden, he goes from silent killing machine in most of the movie to tragic villain at the end, a man whose love for a woman causes him to turn his back on the Cold War spy game — but too late! Though his heart is no longer in it, fate demands that he have one final showdown (or Sho-down) with rival agent Ken Tani.

Like the stuff with the young Kosugis, it feels like an afterthought, but unlike the stuff with the Kosugis, it’s not really annoying. It takes up very little time. There’s very little dialogue spent on it. It even adds a level of depth, awkward though it may be, to the otherwise cartoon villains of the movie (among whom only Van Damme is memorable anyway). Of course, it also makes Bruce French seem like a dick when he shoots an unarmed Van Damme who wants nothing other than to rescue his beloved from a departing Soviet ship. That probably seemed like a much nobler shot when Van Damme’s character was just an emotionless assassin. If anything, the plot feels like “writing by committee,” which I think is pretty common in a movie where the story idea comes from the producer. “Put this in, and this, and this. Now have it to me by tomorrow.” It results in a lot of missteps, as we’ve seen, but the thing is, when Black Eagle is good, it’s pretty good. Though we spend way too much time listening to little Kane Kosugi whine like a five-year-old even though he was something like thirteen (I can only fault the screenwriters a little here — I would have no idea how to write a child character either, as all children to me are either newborns, five years old, or eighteen; I can’t tell the differences between any other age), we still get to spend a fair amount of time watching Sho Kosugi engage in low-rent Bond action. He gets to invade a castle prison, have a chase and fight along the rooftops, stand around in a Speedo, fly a glider, and fight Jean Claude Van Damme while a bunch of stuff blows up around them. It’s enough dumb 80s espionage action to keep me mildly happy despite the ill-advised forays into family drama, though it’s not enough to make me an enthusiastic booster for the film. I was OK with the film, but I’d stop short of suggesting anyone else watch it.

Director Eric Karson was no stranger to cheap action films. In 1980, he directed Cannon’s Chuck Norris vs. the ninjas movie The Octagon, which had been the first of the 80s ninja movies, though it didn’t catch on quite the way Enter the Ninja did a year later. The next film he directed after that was one of those cheapie war movies inspired by Rambo: First Blood Part II (in other words, war movies that couldn’t afford a full war and so just concentrated on one guy or one group of direct-to-video mainstays). Then came Black Eagle, which for better or for worse, is probably his best film, even though I think The Octagon is OK. To complete his collection, in 1990 Karter directed Angel Town, the debut film of Olivier Gruner, the guy who filled in the direct-to-video market’s need for a muscley European martial arts star once Van Damme became a theatrical draw.

There’s no particular flourish or style to any of Karson’s work. He’s simply a competent workman, and most of his movies achieve the level of “just about acceptable.” I personally think Black Eagle is a little above just about acceptable, but as I’ve said, this is one of those times when I state my enjoyment of a film somewhat half-heartedly. There’s definitely a lot of below-average stuff on display, and for those in the world who, like me, consider the meeting of Sho Kosugi and Jean-Claude Van Damme to be a veritable “clash of the titans,” how the clash eventually goes down is going to be a study in wasting what little potential there was in such a meeting. Karson at least films the martial arts all right, though to be honest, there’s nothing overly spectacular on display. Kosugi and Van Damme each have a few scuffles with assorted others before finally getting to their own dust-up, which isn’t bad but is too short to really be satisfying. Kosugi choreographed all the action, and it’s pretty good as long as you don’t remember that, by 1988, Hong Kong had already made Project A and Police Story. The fighting was better in No Retreat No Surrender, but that movie had the benefit of being directed by Cory Yuen Kwai. Although Kosugi had a couple more films left in him, the bulk of his work after Black Eagle would be behind the scenes, as a fight choreographer and, later, as the founder of a stuntman school and organization. I guess Kane was probably his first student, and although the boy’s as wooden and charisma-free today as he was when he was a little kid, he at least looks good in action and was able to pretty much kick the Ninja Warrior obstacle course’s butt.

If you want vintage Sho Kosugi, you are better off watching Revenge of the Ninja. If you want James Bond with a splash of 80s casualness, you are probably better off just watching The Living Daylights. But if you don’t mind somewhat slack and flawed, cheap action films, Black Eagle isn’t completely shabby, though I seem to be a lonely voice in saying this movie wasn’t all that bad (The Soldier was much worse, for example, even though it had Klaus Kinski in it). The Malta location allows it to have an air of the jet set about it, even if it’s not really trotting the globe all that much. It doesn’t look cheap. The plot never quite seems to know what it’s up to, but ultimately, it becomes inconsequential anyway. As Kosugi’s swan song (his next movie was a schizophrenic action-comedy remake of Zatoichi, the Blind Sowrdsman, but Rutger Hauer was the star), it encompasses all the strengths and flaws that defined Kosugi’s career and completes the man’s journey from shadowy ninja assassin to cut-rate James Bond with some throwing stars. Like a lot of other low-budget action stuff from the era, it manages to be just good enough without actually being all that good.