PLOT: Two cops -- one from Canada, the other from New York -- train in the specialized martial art of Eagle Claw in order to enter a fighting tournament organized by Mr. Li, a Toronto criminal overlord. As they penetrate Li’s inner circle, they must gather evidence, avoid suspicion, and hook up with as many foxy ladies as Li throws at them.
Director: Michael Kennedy
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, James Hong, Priscilla Barnes, Matthias Hues, Eric Lee, Harry Mok, Kelly Gallant, Qingfu Pan
What do you get when you add 10% worth of martial-arts actors, 10% of James Hong, 20% of Priscilla Barnes, and 70% of blue lighting gels? You get 1992’s Talons of the Eagle. And yes, I realize the aforementioned percentages add up to 110%. But you’ve failed to account for the fact that Billy Blanks always gives 130% and Jalal Merhi only gives about 80% and Canada has the metric system. I’m no math major, but I’m pretty sure you’re not either, so let’s move on.
In brandishing a golden cavalcade of b-movie martial-artists -- Billy Blanks, Harry Mok, Eric Lee, Jalal Merhi, Kelly Gallant, and Matthias Hues -- Talons of the Eagle is something of a dream cast of action talent. Throw in character actors James Hong and Priscilla Barnes, some gratuitous nudity, a silly early 90s score, and you have what should have been an action trash classic. Unfortunately, the elements of the film don’t quite coalesce the way they should.
FoBL favorite Billy Blanks stars as Tyler Wilson, a tough NYC narcotics cop. His counterpart across the border is Michael Reed, played by ponytailed former jeweler Jalal Merhi. Within the first five minutes of the film, each of them manages to botch drug stings in riveting fashion, except that Reed’s fuck-up leads to DEA cops getting killed. Tyler is sent to Toronto by his superiors to partner with Reed and infiltrate the gang held responsible.
The easiest route for access is a martial-arts tournament put on by the gang’s leader, Mr. Li (Hong). But before entering the tournament, they need better training, so they seek out an Eagle Claw academy. Real-life asskicker Qingfu Pan, who once trained Hong Kong police cadets in fighting techniques, plays the school’s master. His acting doesn’t quite leapfrog Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but he’s here for his fighting widsom and his grizzled knuckles tell the story: he’s either punched a lot of people or has a gnarly bacterial infection.
After they do some fancy tournament fighting and break up an attempt on Li’s life, Tyler and Reed catch the gang-leader’s eye and he brings them into the fold as muscle. The bossman’s main lady, Cassandra (Barnes) acts as their guide but Li’s existing henchmen Khan (Hues) and Niko (Mok) are a little perturbed by the new help, with the former being particularly suspicious. The rest of the film follows Tyler and Reed trying to collect evidence under the gang’s watchful eye while carrying out Li’s orders and performing poorly-acted martial artist love scenes with female cast members.
As Mr. Li, James Hong is mostly excellent. The businessman-as-evildoer is nothing new in this genre, but Hong’s performance walks the line between sleaze and sophistication and it acts as a cohesive superglue that prevents an otherwise poorly made film from completely falling apart. He gets to show a fair amount of range too: he’s suave, he jokes with glee, he flies off the handle, fires off glocks, and looks mad cool while ripping through about seven packs of Pall Malls in the 97-minute runtime. Hong can and does act circles around everyone else in his scenes, but he also plays off them well enough to make their stiffness believable in the context of an aged criminal ordering around the hired muscle. Though for all his infinite criminal wisdom, he should have known better than to light a fucking cigarette in a tiny storage room full of C4 explosives.
While lacking speed and creativity, the fighting sequences during the climax still win points on settings and death blows. In typical martial-arts film fashion, characters pair off for individual battles which, for obvious reasons, vary wildly in quality. With Master Pan and company rushing in for the assist, we get a decent little weapons battle between Pan and Eric Lee. It’s rare you get an on-screen fight between such decorated real-life fighters, so it’s a bit of a bummer that the fight is short, slow, and like most of the fights, poorly shot and edited. Pan’s student, played by Kelly Gallant, gets an brief and boring fight that underscores how poorly utilized she was in the film.
Tyler and Niko have a pretty good scuffle in a restaurant kitchen with Niko bringing out his nifty giant-fucking-knife technique, which Tyler tries to counter with every piece of kitchenware he can find, up to and including the very same mesh strainer my wife has been asking for since last Christmas. It is not customary to see any man fighting someone off with a mesh strainer, nevermind a black-belt and fitness-craze inventor. Perhaps worse, he actually throws fistfuls of salad to fend off his attacker. Nay, TOSSES SALAD.
The real crown jewel of the fights is a battle between Blanks and Hues in a parking garage. Shit starts off with Hues walking into frame with an oil barrel raised over his head screaming like a maniac and we know from the jump that it’s on like Donkey Kong. Because of the barrel, see? Both guys are shirtless and bathed in the omnipresent blue light that plagues 90% of the film and all of this would be cheesy enough were it not for the delicious saxophone music that accompanies the throwdown.
During all of this, Reed is fighting Mr. Li on a roof. Keep in mind that Hong was on the wrong side of 60 at this point in his career and was using a folding fan as a weapon. How is it then plausible that a cop and martial-arts master in his physical prime needs more than 60 seconds to beat an elderly businessman using eight ounces of bamboo and paper to fight? Errrrrr?
While dramatic performers are often underutilized in films like this, it’s not always the case that they’re humiliated for their efforts. Not only is Priscilla Barnes subjected to an attempted rape scene, but she’s also forced to act alongside Jalal Merhi while he’s adorned in a ghastly Jockey banana hammock. And this is before they have random shower sex in which Merhi kisses her as if he were eating mashed potatoes with his hands tied behind his back. So not only does Barnes now have “Three’s Company replacement cast member” on her resume, but also “poorly acted martial artist shower sex.” She really does deserve better.
You expect films like this to be poorly produced but there’s always a potential for choice moments that somehow elevate it above average fare. They’re few and far between in Talons of the Eagle. Outside of some lines from Hong, there’s very little quotable dialogue and Merhi and Blanks make a poor pair and their dynamic isn’t conflictual enough to be interesting. Worst of all, director Michael Kennedy and his editing team do a huge disservice to the fighting talent because the hand-to-hand action didn’t look so hot. The constant blue lighting was also a huge and distracting negative. While you get a decent villain performance from James Hong, this is probably only for Blanks completists.
Amazon, Netflix, bargain bins.