Dragon Eyes is ugly, implausible, and infuriatingly convoluted. Here is a film that’s not only an eyesore – the colors muddy, the lighting perpetually dim – but also so badly structured and so poorly developed that it’s next to impossible to follow along with. In attempting to cross a contemporary crime drama with classic martial arts, writer Tim Tori and director John Hyams have diluted the waters, leaving neither genre with enough substance or style to please any potential audience. Characters are introduced and disposed of with such haphazard regard that one wonders why anyone bothered to give them dialogue or personalities; they would have been much better off just standing there silently like pieces of scenery, waiting for their cue to get knocked out, shot at, or both. This movie is a mess the likes of which a mop and bucket are required.
We meet a mysterious man named Hong (Cung Le), whose one piece of back story is slowly revealed via intermittent flashback sequences, ones that somehow manage to show so much and yet say so little. It seems he was arrested, tried, and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit but in fact bore witness to and tried to stop. In prison, he was taken under the wing of an equally mysterious man named Tiano (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who teaches him in the ways of some martial arts discipline in their surprisingly spacious cell. Curious that they were never once seen by a security guard, whose job it is to make rounds on a regular basis. Anyway, when Hong is released, he goes to the crime-infested city of St. Jude, presided over by a corrupt police chief who prefers to be called Mr. V (Peter Weller). For reasons not adequately explained until the end of the film – and even then, the details are sketchy at best – Hong interjects himself into the affairs of several rival gangs, each of which he tries to pit against the other.
At least, I think that was what he was doing. He’s soon taken in by Mr. V, who’s initially impressed by his fighting skills. If I’ve gotten your hopes up that the film is wall-to-wall martial arts choreography, I must apologize. Martial arts do sneak their way into several of the fight scenes, but not in a way fans of that genre are likely to find entertaining. Most of the action is just plain brutal, with a lot of body slamming and punching and lightning-quick edits that confuse every shot into an indecipherable jumble. Strangely enough, most of the fight scenes are punctuated by split-second slow motion shots, which were included perhaps in an effort to make them seem like mindless video game stunts. But I stray; after a time, Mr. V soon loses his trust in Hong and vows to fight back. But as luck would have it, Hong has made an alliance of sorts with the Hispanic gang and the black gang. The same cannot be said of the Russian gang, the leader of which he fought with in yet another suspiciously large jail cell.
When Hong first enters St. Jude, he moves into an apartment building overseen by a distrusting man, whose granddaughter (Crystal Mantecon) is largely responsible for entering a scene, delivering one or two lines that are half-cryptic and softly sarcastic, and then leaving. To say she contributes absolutely nothing to the plot would be a massive understatement. Perhaps I should be thankful that the filmmakers didn’t go the expected route and make her Hong’s love interest. I’ll bet they came close, though. Their precious few scenes together hinted at something flirtatious. In the granddaughter’s case, at least; Hong is a man of so few words and facial expressions that it’s rather difficult to tell how he’s feeling at any given moment. Nevertheless, he’s compelled to clean up St. Jude, and indeed, one scene shows him and the rest of the neighbors painting over graffiti, planting flowers, and picking up trash.
The motivation of the Van Damme character is not made clear to us until the last possible moment, at which point it’s too late for us to care. That doesn’t stop the filmmakers from inserting yet another flashback sequence, this one completely unrelated to Hong’s story. His inclusion is primarily for tradition’s sake, since movies like this require a wise elder who can not only fight but also speak in annoying proverbs. Even here, the filmmakers went only halfway; when Tiano speaks, it comes out as an awkward mix between Eastern philosophy and contemporary street talk. You can tell this movie was written and directed by people who have either never seen a martial arts movie or have completely forgotten everything they learned from one.
When the end credits start rolling, I was tempted to yell at the screen in sheer frustration. It would not be enough to say that there’s no resolution; the final scene goes so rapidly and finishes so abruptly that it felt like it was cobbled together at the last minute in the editing room. You know when sometimes a film has to be hastily reedited when one of its stars dies before principle photography wraps? In such cases, you can always tell that something is missing. No one died during the making of Dragon Eyes, thank heavens, but the ending does give off that vibe of being tragically incomplete and hopelessly salvaged. Some stories are beyond saving. This one should have been put out of its misery like a rabid dog. To watch the film is to witness just under ninety minutes of incompetence.