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Posts in: October 10th, 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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