Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Above the Law

The Action Mutant…
knows Seagal’s due for a big comeback…just knows it!

Above The Law

review by Joe Burrows

Employing the mystique well suited for martial arts, Steven Seagal was something of an enigma before he even made his big screen debut in 1988. Training in martial arts since age 7 and receiving his first Dan (ranking) in Aikido at 23, Seagal went on to provide training for Hollywood’s elite (which would eventually get him noticed by H-Town bigwig Michael Ovitz). Lots of smoke and mirrors surrounded Seagal’s past, such as him being a CIA operative and having associations with the FBI and the Mafia. However, one thing remained clear, which is noticeable in the very first moments of his debut film Above the Law: Seagal’s use of Aikido made him something that wasn’t seen before in cinema until that point. Aikido is more about body leverage and pressure holds, which made Seagal’s on-screen persona more intimidating than the usual “white hat” martial artists of the day. The result: a level of violence unlike anything seen before. Hope you like arms breaking!

The Plot, as it was:
Seagal is Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop and former CIA agent during Vietnam. He takes down a scummy drug dealer (Daniel Faraldo) during a sting but is dismayed to learn the Feds have released him. Toscani and his partner Jacks (Pam Grier) find out that the drug dealer is connected to a group of crooked CIA men, led by Zagan (Henry Silva). Nick was involved with the men in Vietnam but left them when he discovered they were torturing civilians and using the war for drug connections. Now, they want to silence a senator that wants them to come clean and Toscani is the only one that can take them down. However, in order to do that, he must go ABOVE THE LAW! Don’t they all?

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Part autobiographical (allegedly) and part urban fantasy, Seagal made the most out of his first showcase on the screen. Looking the leanest he ever did in his career (yeah, he got beefier as the years went on), Seagal also show more personality than he ever would in his future projects. It seems like the more serious the material; the better his performance is (look at 1991’s Out for Justice, a Seagal film that is very comparable in story, action and tone). Not to say he’s a good actor but he does try noticeably harder here. With this being his breakout work, Seagal really showcases his fighting talents through some memorable brawling sequences that never lack in brutality. The plot is actually more intricate than the usual fare, which hurts the film in a sense that it’s too dry in spots (there’s a subplot involving refugees in a church basement that is loosely connected to the main story but really isn’t needed). The villains are cookie cutter but appropriately slimy enough to get the job done. Grier and a pre-star Sharon Stone (as Toscani’s wife) are wasted in their roles but face it; it’s a man’s movie. On that principle, Above the Law works out well and is worth seeing if you’re into Seagal’s bone crunching style.

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- Ron Dean (the old guy in the Direct TV/NFL ads) is Det. Lukich.
- Ralph Foody is the Federal Clerk. He appeared in Andrew Davis’ (who directed here) 1985 film Code of Silence and was the Tommy gun wielding gangster Johnny, featured in the first two Home Alone movies (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”).
- Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Cliffhanger) has one line as a bar patron in the scene where Seagal rousts up the customers.

Body Count/Violence: 27. As mentioned on other sites, Seagal could merely kill all of his foes but he has a more fun time beating them into pudding. Although he guns down his fair share of bad guys here, Seagal is at home when he’s snapping a guy’s arm or neck, along with knocking them around. He also chops off a guy’s arm with a sword, sends one flying out of a parking garage window and chokes a guy while hanging onto a speeding car! There’s also car chases, explosions and the occasional drug torture.

Sexuality/Nudity: Nothing, which is odd considering the film features Pam Grier AND Sharon Stone!

Language/Dialogue: The usual strong stuff for the genre.

How bad was it?:
How odd is this; the critics gave this movie a decent critical response! Ebert led the charge, giving the film ***/**** and praising Seagal for being “physical enough to create a believable menace in the violent scenes”. I’d say part of the credit goes to director Andrew Davis, who would direct Seagal in his greatest success in Under Siege four years later. The man also directed Code of Silence, which gave a slight nod of critical success to Chuck Norris for a change. Definitely not as critically lambasted as Seagal’s future movies would be.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Though no budget figures are available, Above the Law proved to be a nice debut for Seagal. Released on 4/8/88, it would debut in 8th place with $2 million. However, its buzz grew and it actually moved as high as 4th in the end of April. The end of its run saw Above the Law gross $18.9 million, which started Seagal’s near decade long run of bank-ability with Warner Bros.

Film: **1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ***/*****

Copyright 2007 The Action Mutant.

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