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Posts in: October 2015

150 Films #1: Above the Law (1988)

You know something, Fox? Right now in Europe, they’re trying some 80-year-old camp guard for Nazi war crimes, and all around our country they got guys on death row for murdering one, two, three guys. And they probably deserve what they’re going to get. But you and I… We know a couple of people that are personally responsible for the death of what? Fifty thousand non-military personnel? Librarians, teachers, doctors, women, children—all dead! We’ve wiped out entire cultures! And for what? Not one CIA agent has ever been tried, much less accused of any crimes. You guys think you’re above the law. Well, you ain’t above mine.
— Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), Above the Law

You can say plenty of harsh things about Steven Seagal (and many have), but one fact is undeniable: he knows how to make an entrance.

Little is known about the origin story, but legend has it that super-agent Michael Ovitz made this happen.  Detractors like to describe it as a modern Pygmalion, with Ovitz believing he could turn even a talentless lump of an aikido instructor into an action star.  This theory doesn’t explain how or why Seagal took such an unusually proactive role, given his total lack of Hollywood experience.  He produced the film alongside director Andrew Davis, and together, they co-wrote the original screenplay.  They, not Ovitz, created the Seagal brand, and in crafting Above the Law, they delivered a star vehicle that really could have launched any nincompoop into superstardom.

For a big, dumb action movie, Above the Law has both an unusual narrative density and an atypical (especially for the time) liberal leaning.  This is not the America-first, kill-’em-all jingoism of your Stallones, your Schwarzeneggers, or your Norrises.  It’s not the winking smartassery of your Willises, your Van Dammes, or your Gibsons.  It’s not even the abject weirdness of your Bronsons, your Weatherses, or your Lundgrens.

Above the Law means fucking business.  Although it has little in common politically, its tone most closely resembles Clint Eastwood’s ’80s output.  Yeah, I compared Steven Seagal to Clint fucking Eastwood.  Watch the Dirty Harry sequels or Firefox, Pale Rider, Heartbreak Ridge—hell, even City Heat displays a level of thoughtfulness and complexity lacking in other action films.  Both Eastwood and Seagal made films that, for all their violence and oftentimes unpleasant salacity, served as atypically personal meditations on themes of violence, American culture and politics (including sexism, gun control, imperialism, and corruption), and our increasingly complex and confusing role as a world power.

Compare such meditations to the latter-day output of Charles Bronson, a personal favorite of mine.  Bronson, too, made strangely personal action films, but they lacked the passion and intensity.  Bronson’s films, which I once described as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true” (a description I stand by), all depict a world gone rotten.  They implicitly romanticize the Greatest Generation and suggest, at their core, that the old codgers could and should reshape the world they want with the use of comically oversized, handheld chain guns.  There is a certain poetic purity to that simplicity, but it has more in common with the one-track mind of Stallone and Schwarzenegger than the more cerebral output of Eastwood and Seagal.

For all the murder and mayhem and church bombings present in Above the Law, it cuts off quite a wide swath of 1980s international politics.  Seagal stars as Nicolo Toscani, an aikido master turned disgraced CIA agent/Vietnam vet turned Chicago Police narcotics detective, whose familial Mafia ties prove invaluable to his work.  A character with that kind of backstory, in lesser directorial hands than Davis’s, could have been an overstuffed, contradictory mess.  But Seagal and Davis use every part of the buffalo, paying off Nico’s textured mythos with a complicated plot involving CIA drug kingpins using their dirty money to back shady Latin American dictators to further expand their empire.

Standing at the intersection of this massive, global deception is Nico, a man of integrity, the sort of man you would want when international government agencies—the alleged upholders of the law—corrupt their duties and fail those they represent.  How do you blow the whistle on a massive CIA drug/money-laundering/election-buying conspiracy?  They’re all in on it.  Well, sometimes there’s a man, and well…  He’s the man for his time and place.  And fortunately, this is a man of brutal, often shocking violence.

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150 Films #2: Action Jackson (1988)

Thanks to the magic of the alphabet, 150 Films kicked off on what I hope is an unusually serious note. Above the Law has the gloss and intensity of a straight-ahead action movie, but level-headed Andrew Davis tempers it with gritty Chicago locations and a serious political thriller story. This gave me license for both short-form political ranting and exalting both Davis and Steven Seagal to what I believe are their rightful places among the cinematic firmament. Together, they made a truly great action thriller, high above the dumb fun Seagal would later make.

But I like dumb fun, which is why I’m glad the alphabet blessed me with an immediate follow-up as sublimely stupid as Action Jackson.

Joel Silver, one of the few contemporary über-producers who has become a household name, does not get his proper due. Because he cut his teeth on early Walter Hill collaborations (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions) and made himself a household name through blockbuster action films (the staggering run of Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard), he often gets lumped into the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson camp of hyper-masculine, coke-fueled insanity.

It’s my contention that Silver has both a better eye for quality and a much better sense of humor about his work than other action producers. Almost from the instant he became an “overnight” success, Silver became almost perversely dedicated to satirizing a genre he helped popularize. While putting his offbeat authorial stamp on relatively serious action franchises, as well as modestly successful one-offs like Ricochet (1991), he was also producing subversive mockery of his own work via Road House (1989, same year as Lethal Weapon 2), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990, same year as both Die Hard 2 and Predator 2), Hudson Hawk (1991), and The Last Boy Scout (also 1991).

What is Action Jackson, then? Is it the first self-conscious satire of the Silver brand, or is it merely an absurd, ragingly stupid film enhanced by Silver’s twisted authorial stamp? Let’s call this a rhetorical question, because I don’t think the answer matters. Regardless of intent, Action Jackson, from moment one, fills the screen with over-the-top bombast and cartoonish silliness.

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150 Films #3: Alien (1979)

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: I haven’t seen every Ridley Scott film, but I’ve seen most of them, and I only like three: Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut), White Squall, and Alien. Some directors do very little for me, like Martin Scorsese, but at least I can see why others like him. Ridley Scott’s most highly regarded films—like Blade Runner and Gladiator—have mystified me. Why do people like these movies? How did Thelma & Louise get so huge? Why hasn’t anyone noticed the patchwork of garbage he pumps out between the hits are the rule, not the exception?

The first time I saw Alien, I had no idea who or what a Ridley Scott was. I was an innocent lad of perhaps 12. I had a friend at school who had somehow finagled his way into the “cool kid” crowd despite his passionate love of Star Trek: The Next Generation and soccer (shudder). We were both late to the TNG party, so when WPWR started playing reruns every day after school, we’d race home to watch the episodes and call each other to discuss what had happened. Conversation often lingered on Counselor Troi’s costuming and whether or not Ensign Ro was hot without the weird Bajoran nose ridges, but we were into it more for the sci-fi than the babes at that point.

This friend moved away at some point and we lost touch, so I’ll call him Sean since I can’t solicit his permission to talk about him on the blog. Sean came from an increasingly popular ’90s fad: the broken home. His dad had disappeared long before we were friends, his mom had remarried, and he had the misfortune of suddenly having an older stepsister that every guy in school wanted to bone. Wait, maybe that’s why the cool kids liked him. I remember him getting distressed more than once when he found out a “friend” had used him to get in good with his sister. The point of bringing this up isn’t to rehash 20-year-old gossip; the fractured family unit and older stepsister allowed him a gateway into things my parents would not approve.

That’s how I ended up seeing Alien—eventually. One afternoon, riding bikes around town, we were talking Trek when he brought up a more mature variation on the space opera. “Have you ever seen it?” he asked.

Seen it? I’d barely even heard of it. My dim awareness came courtesy of repeated viewings of Spaceballs. My mom had explained to me that John Hurt’s cameo was a parody of the movie Alien, the only movie my dad ever walked out of (because he was totally grossed out by “that scene”). So I kinda had that ruined for me, ultimately, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

Sean described it as “like Star Trek, only more realistic.” He also told me it was incredibly violent and full of action, and the sequel Aliens was “even better, because it has more action.”

The very thought excited me. Plus, I knew my parents had seen it, so they’d know whether or not I was old enough to see it. When I got home, I asked if we could rent the movies.

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