Tuesday 20 June 2023

Above the Law (1988)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis, from a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal
Stars: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Ron Dean, Jack Wallace, Chelcie Ross, Joe V. Grieco and Henry Silva

Index: The First Thirty.

One of the influences for these First Thirty runthroughs was a set of three books edited by David C. Hayes, which covered everything that a trio of action legends did on screen (and, in a few instances, off it too). They’re anthologies, with many hands writing chapters, and three in Hard to Watch: The Films of Steven Seagal are mine, though not this one, which marked his debut as an actor rather than a stuntman.

In Hard to Watch, Joshua Knode treated it as a sort of introduction, highlighting something that became very obvious as that book ran on: that, at this point in his career, Seagal brought something new but it quickly got old. Here, he was a wish fulfilment action hero: handsome, incredibly fluid in his movements and able to solve any problem, however complex, with a mere punch to the face. Before long, however, he bloated up substantially, lost the ability to move and complicated his film’s issues with dubious morals and off screen baggage.

This isn’t his best film but it’s from his best period, when he was working with director Andrew Davis, also responsible for Under Siege, and actors of the calibre of Pam Grier (as his partner), Sharon Stone (as his wife) and Henry Silva (as the villain of the piece, just in case you were in any doubt there).

It’s a simple story and an ironic one, given the core theme that’s summed up in the quote abbreviated into the movie’s title: “No man is above the law and no man is below the law.”

The irony is partly because, while this was taken from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, it’s delivered here by Richard Nixon, the only U.S. president to resign from office, who thought it came from Lincoln, and partly because Seagal himself has managed to deflect a surprisingly large amount of lawsuits over the years.

Here, he plays Nico Toscani, a Sicilian who studied martial arts in Japan, was recruited by the C.I.A. during the Vietnam War and ended up as a sergeant in the vice squad of Chicago’s police department. That’s not just background because each of those details comes back into focus during the film.

The Sicilian angle is because, while he’s just a cop, Nico often performs his duties like he’s actually a godfather. The Japanese martial arts manifests in his graceful aikido movements, which were different to what any other action star at the time was doing. The brief stint in the C.I.A. included an incident on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam, in which he met Kurt Zagon, some sort of C.I.A. interrogator torturing prisoners with chemicals. When he attempts to stop him, his boss, Nelson Fox, is able to get him out safely, but his career in the spy business is over. And then to Chicago, the location for this movie.

Pam Grier shows up pretty quickly as Jacks, his partner Delores Jackson, who’s on her last week on the street because she’s about to shift into being a district attorney. She doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time, as this is Seagal’s film not hers, but it’s a lot more than she had been getting in her other eighties films.

Jacks is a good contrast to Toscani, because she’s by the book and he’s far more by the seat of his pants, as we learn when he wanders into a bar, looking for an errant girl as a favour to her family, and beats up everyone who wants some. Michael Rooker’s there, credited simply as Man in Bar. He gets a single line and clearly doesn’t want any, so escapes unscathed.

At the same time, Grier is a good contrast to Seagal, because he does all the fighting but she does all the acting. Arguably, this would have been a better film if she got to do more of that, but it would have made it a different one and much of why it succeeds is because Seagal was a fresh face to action cinema and he was very much bringing something new to the mix.

Sure, he’s a go getter cop, someone who will happily break laws to get bad guys, but he’s a hands on go getter cop, someone who clearly knows the martial arts he’s supposed to know. It’s obvious that he’s doing these fight scenes himself and he looks good doing it without his opponents having to make him look good. He’s also happy to do his own stunts, spending one scene on the roof of a car with his hand round the passenger’s throat.

By the way, that bar scene hinted that there is corruption going on, that the cops shake the place down regularly, and that’s really where we’re about to go. Nico and Jacks are working a drug case and he sets up a sting for cocaine traffickers, but what they find hidden in some engine blocks turns out to be C4 and U.S. Army ordnance. What’s more, the bad guys that he arrests are promptly released again, as they’re clearly connected. “Certain federal agencies,” say the powers that be and the cops are told to stand down. Nico walks out and we know full well that he’s going to carry on digging. That doubles when his local priest is blown up and becomes beyond doubt when he discovers that Kurt Zagon is somehow involved.

Seagal is great here, not as an actor, because he never was, but as a presence. His arrogance transfers well into the character of an honest rebel cop fighting the system and the action scenes are fresh and exciting. Sure, they’re also over the top, but less so than much of what Arnie or Sly were doing at the time.

Grier does a good job, even if she’s sidelined more than she should have been. Joe Greco is even better as Fr. Joseph Gennaro, almost as if he’s acting in an Oscar contender rather than a $7.5m action flick with a debuting lead. Silva brings his usual delicious villainy. Chelcie Ross is a reliable presence as Nelson Fox and other actors playing cops and C.I.A. agents are too.

Of the major cast, only Sharon Stone doesn’t shine and, while she’s young and doesn’t quite seem to have grown into herself yet, it’s not as early in her career as it seems. Total Recall was only two years later, but it feels like a decade.

To be fair, she does the job she’s given well enough. It’s merely not much of a job, because she’s sidelined far more than Pam Grier was, mostly there for Seagal to protect. In fact, for a stunningly beautiful actress, she doesn’t look great in a lot of scenes, as if they had to mess up her hair and make her cry just so that she wouldn’t make Seagal look bad by comparison, just as Grier’s role had to be minimised so he could dominate their scenes.

And that’s why this is decent but not great.

No comments: