In the middle of 1986, Tony Scott and Tom Cruise teamed up for one of the most successful (and formulaic) summer blockbusters of all time: TOP GUN unleashed its Cold War fury on movie-goers – complete with a dynamic pop soundtrack featuring all the latest stars – and the film went on to be the highest grossing film at the box office for that year. In the years that followed, there were a handful of imitators, though none performed nearly as respectably. It seemed the days of the daring fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants pilots were all but numbered, but CJ Entertainment plucked the idea from mothballs in 2012 when it brought BLACK EAGLE (aka R2B: RETURN TO BASE and R2B: SOAR INTO THE SUN) – a remake inspired by the 1964 Korean film THE RED SCARF – to theatres.
(NOTE: The following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of character and plot. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Tae-hun (played by Jung Hi-hoon, aka “Rain,” a Korean pop star) plays a hotshot Air Force pilot who – because of a dangerous stunt he pulls to spice up an air show – gets demoted back into active service. He’s granted a bit of a reprieve by his commanding officer: if he can win the upcoming aerial combat contest, he’ll be reinstated into the Black Eagle Flying Squadron. Tae-hun realizes the only way he can achieve that end is to have his unit’s most talented mechanic – the lovely Se-yeong (Se-kyung Shin) – servicing his plane; but before he can make the transition back to show pilot, North Korean MIGs invade South Korea’s airspace, and the race to prevent a global thermonuclear war is on!
There’s nothing wrong with a little testosterone in one’s diet, and Cold War thrillers – when they’re expertly done – never go out of style. However, mixing genres – blending character comedy with character drama AND action film AND Cold War thrillers – is never an easy task, nor one to be entered into lightly. Despite the best efforts of writer/director Dong-won Kim (with additional scripting efforts by Sang-hoon Ahn), the opening hour of this EAGLE felt more like a turkey because so very little of it felt authentic in any way. Rather, scenes felt scripted and/or staged, and audiences are treated to one goofy comic bit after another.
Where this gets even a bit more complicated is the fact that, once EAGLE enters the second hour, it’s all serious. Character deaths are dealt with; the stakes of an impending political showdown between North and South Korea (along with some friction from the United States) are raised; and it all gets downright deadly in a heartbeat. All of this serves to really question what happened to all of those light and fluffy moments of the first half? Thankfully, they never returned – that would’ve been an unconscionable mistake – but so much of the story feels like it’s been done before – maybe not ‘better,’ per se, but done.
Still, there’s something to be said for carrying on. Like these pilots who soldier on despite the odds heavily stacked against them, BLACK EAGLE keeps trying. I’m not sure how much of this aerial combat was live – some CGI is obvious – but it certainly gets the adrenaline pumping. When it sticks to the air – when it gives itself over to the action – EAGLE delivers an impressive series of sequences – one after the other – so it’s easy to forgive any shortcomings. If the first half hadn’t felt so listless, this probably would’ve been a bigger hit. Certainly, it’s crafted to be a big audience crowd-pleaser. Rain delivers a good performance, but Se-kyung Shin was the one it’s probably easier to root for; she’s the only character given some solid depth – AND some humorous scenes that make sense – so you’re happy when things work out the way they should.
BLACK EAGLE is produced by Zooomoney Entertainment, Red Muffler, and CJ Entertainment. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through CJ Entertainment America. For those who wish to know, this is a Korean-spoken-language film but there is an English-dubbed version available. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds impressive with no loss in audio and bright, crisp colors. There are a handful of special features including “Sortie’s Ready! 500 Days of Filming,” “Pilot G-Force Test,” some character shorts as well as a behind-the-scenes mini , and the theatrical trailers. It’s a nice collection – certainly it’s more than you get with most of these foreign releases – so be thankful for that.
RECOMMENDED. Narratively, BLACK EAGLE is a bit of a mess, mostly because it feels like two distinct films. The first half – while light on action – tries to be a character drama/comedy with much of the shtick falling flat (so far as this reviewer is concerned); while the second half puts the pedal to the metal, amps up the action and CGI, and mostly succeeds despite more than a fair share of predictability. Much of the effects work is very solid, and, despite presenting a cast of modestly talented actors and actresses, EAGLE has moments where it soars. Mostly, it’s when the story stays in the air. The rest of this? Well, it should’ve been grounded.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at CJ Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD screener copy of BLACK EAGLE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
While I really got into the “Korean New Wave” because of directors Kim Ki-Duk, Park Chan-Wook, Lee Chang-Dong and Kim Ji-Woon, lately it seems like Korean movies also have their share of what they see as ‘mainstream’ movies much like what we’ve come to either love or hate with a Michael Bay film. Such as the 2012 film “R2B: Return to Base” (original title: “Soar to the Sun”, American Dvd title: “Black Eagle”) directed by Kim Dong-Weon … more