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An Eye for an Eye (1981) Review

An Eye for an Eye, (not to be confused with Eye for Eye), was directed by Steve Carver (Lone Wolf McQuade, River of Death), written by James Bruner (Missing in Action, Sword of Heaven) and William Gray (The Changeling, Black Moon Rising), and stars Chuck Norris (Walker; Texas Ranger, Hero and the Terror), Mako (Pearl Harbor, The Sand Pebbles), Maggie Cooper (Airwolf, Falcon Crest), Matt Clark (42, Tuff Turf), Rosalind Chao (Mulan, White Ghost), Richard Roundtree (Haunting of the Mary Celeste, Party Line), Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hugo) and Terry Kiser (Weekend at Bernie’s, Forest Warrior). It follows a narcotics officer as he shakes down the underworld to break up a Chinese drug ring and avenge his partner’s death in the process.

The Plot: Long before the days of irony in action movies, there were films like An Eye for an Eye, embracing what would come to be cliché in a short time with earnestness. A vast majority of “Eye” is perfunctory, but it has the personality to get it through its generic elements.

Undercover San Francisco police officers Kane (Norris) and Pierce (Kiser) are looking for the names of the people running a drug operation in the city, turning to informants to get that information. Their contact turns out to be in on the job, and the ensuing chaos gets Pierce killed and Kane put in the hot seat by captain Stevens (Roundtree), leading to Kane quitting the force. As noted, the plot is full of tropes and clichés, but the scenes that bring the plot to these points are undeniably above average.

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In the aftermath, Kane reaches out to Pierce’s girlfriend Linda (Chao) and does what he can to comfort her, but that doesn’t last as she’s killed soon after she calls him to tell him about some evidence she found. Naturally, his interest is peaked, as is Linda’s friend Heather (Cooper) and cop McCoy (Clark), who assist Kane in his burgeoning investigation. Carver takes his time to set up the story and the suspects in what’s partially a procedural. Needing guidance, Kane reaches out to Linda’s father James (Mako) who joins the investigation of Linda’s boss Canfield (Lee) as the primary suspect, with dangers emerging the closer they get.

Bruner and Gray don’t do a whole lot different than others, killing the leading man’s partner, involving old mentors, getting close friends killed, and more; but the execution is blunt enough with its confrontations and quiet enough in between that the movie holds together.

The Characters: With AN Eye for an Eye being a Norris movie, his character is the centre and a well-developed centre at that. The other characters range from decent to laughable caricatures, undoing some of their delivery in the first half.

Kane was a lot more amicable before Pierce got killed, in the few short minutes of runtime before this happens, we see him acting more laid back and jokey with his partner. This quickly disappears after his death, as he’s much easier to set off by those who’d seek to place blame on him for getting his partner killed. He can still work well when he’s communicating with people he likes or at least can tolerate, like James, but he’s always keeping himself at an arm’s length from most.

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Carver uses visuals more than dialogue to flesh Kane’s backstory out. A dog named Mort is the only resident at his house, which is essentially a fortress with high fences, alarm systems, and a coastal setting keeping entries to a minimum. Though it’s a little over the top, it illustrates his borderline reclusive lifestyle and makes further sense of his sparse interactions.

James was the martial arts mentor for Kane, teaching him the high kicks and hard punches he pulls off during An Eye for an Eye’s action scenes. He’s had an impact on Kane’s behaviour too, being for the most part an older version of the man: quiet, forceful, and determined to find out why his daughter was killed.

It’s the supporting characters that are below the bar, like Heather and Canfield. Heather has nearly no interaction with Kane throughout the movie, and by all indications, never met him before Linda’s death. However, the movie forces the two together to meet the expectation of the lead having a girlfriend. Similarly lacking in screen time is Canfield, who’s an obvious villain played by a willing actor, but his involvement is so far removed from the story for so long that he may as well not have been there.

Sean Kane is a good example of the strong, silent type of hero, and James is a good enough sidekick, but An Eye for an Eye tries to include elements that don’t belong while neglecting its villain to ill effect.

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The Action: Around a third of the runtime is spent with the lead looking for clues and names, but at its core, An Eye for an Eye has an action bent. It’s got a matter-of-fact presentation for several of the sequences that help to make them more memorable than normal.

During its opening sequence, An Eye for an Eye sets its tone well with a genuinely striking shootout with its good guys. Kane gets pinned down by goons while Pierce is shot and left on the ground until another henchman finishes the job by running a car into him, which promptly catches fire and burns the man to death. It’s a harrowing sequence ended by Kane defenestrating one of the men in a cold, yet angry way.

Chinese Triads are the ones circulating the drugs and driving the events of An Eye for an Eye, which wants you to know that, even if some of the scenes make less sense because of the way Carver dresses the henchmen. The failed information grab, in the beginning, has normal bad guys, but when Kane seeks James out, they come via helicopter and “concealed” gunmen in white ninja costumes for this single engagement. Ironic enjoyment wasn’t factored in, and while the combat is solid, with Norris ably dispatching foes, it’s befuddling.

It picks up from there, with the last third being punctuated with fireworks and close-quarters combat as Kane infiltrates a dockside drug smuggling outpost and a gambit of gunmen and a heavy to fight through to get the evidence he needs to put the drug-pushing murderers where they belong. The last 20 minutes are packed with more action, but An Eye for an Eye is back-heavy and would’ve been better served with one or two more action sequences to marvel at Norris’s abilities.

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The Technics: Carver directed An Eye for an Eye well, if not great. Scenes are handled well, and the tone isn’t jostled around like in plenty of other 80s actioners.

1980s California is used to good effect here, adding to Carver’s presentation. Not only are the investigative scenes and montages marked with well-known places, but the whole movie also travels the state, with the rolling hills used in some transitions, Chinatown in sleuthing, and the Golden Gate Bridge visible during some of the action scenes. It’s another good way to differentiate this movie.

Pacing is a little slack, though, with the investigation losing its luster since the villain is so obvious. The sex scene between Kane and Heather didn’t add anything and felt like quota meeting for audiences, and some of the extended shots could’ve been trimmed to shorten the runtime by around 5 to 7 minutes. William Goldstein’s (Fame, Shocker) synth score at least makes the empty space ear candy.

An Eye for an Eye is too long and a little clunky, but it has a decent story, a good leading man, some solid action, and a great score. While it may be more enjoyable through an ironic prism, taken at face value, it ain’t bad.

An Eye for an Eye is available on Blu-ray and DVD, but oddly seems to be missing from streaming services. If you got a kick out of An Eye for an Eye, FilmTagger has a few more suggestions.

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