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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.

The introduction to Seagal was, for many, an introduction to aikido, a defensive martial art.  Seagal’s expertise in aikido (possibly inadvertently) underscores the idea of Seagal as a defender of justice.  He doesn’t initiate combat; he defends against enemies.  More importantly, the defensive strategy of aikido relies on speed.  If your goal is to disable an enemy whose hands and legs are powerful weapons, speed is paramount.  All the Hollywood fakery in Above the Law cannot diminish the natural speed with which Seagal dispatches his enemies.

Like most, Above the Law served as my introduction to Seagal, but it didn’t happen when you might think.  In 2008, I was assigned to review a book called Seagalogy, which I naturally assumed would be a tongue-in-cheek look at his films.  The author went by the name “Vern,” and I later found out he was a writer for Ain’t It Cool News.  None of this really boded well, but I entered with an open mind.

I’m glad I did, because Vern’s passion for Seagal was both sincere and infectious.  He didn’t pull punches when a Seagal movie did something stupid.  He focused, sometimes at length, on Seagal’s odd fascinations and the truly inexplicable moments peppered throughout the films.  After reading the book, I decided to watch all the recommended ones in chronological order.  Prior to this, I’d seen bits and pieces of Under Siege and Hard to Kill.  Despite my love for action movies, I’d never sat through a full Seagal movie and didn’t see much of a point.  He’d been a punchline for too long.

At this point, too, my worldview and politics were still taking shape.  I did not have much interest in politics until the 2008 election, in which world ruiner George W. Bush finally had to give up his office to a woman, a black man, or an interchangeable series of elderly white men.  President Bush’s greatest accomplishment, to my mind, was his unintentional transparency.  Unlike past Presidents, who actually went to the effort of playing politics and trying to doublespeak their way out of hot water, Bush’s impressively brazen corruption and hypocrisy showed both our country and the world how American politics really worked.  Could anybody argue that we didn’t need a change from the status quo?  (Answer: yes.  See also: McCain/Palin ’08.)

What would change, though?  I didn’t know enough to have an answer.  I thought, “Things seemed good in the ’90s, and they always used to say Hillary was ‘co-President’ with Bill, so maybe reelecting that dynamic duo would be a good thing.”  Even though going back to the ’90s seemed like an odd form of “change,” what I saw in the Clintons was a sort of slipperiness that used the broken system in Washington to help Americans instead of politicians.  That seemed like the best option.

And then Hillary decided to fight dirty, which might have been fine against her Republican opponents—but she was going after the members of her own party, including the seeming starry-eyed optimist, Barack Hussein Obamascare.  I was one of those guys who bought into the idea that his inexperience was a virtue.  He was no Washington insider—he’d go in and fix that broken system.  Then, after repeatedly blustering about the need for campaign finance reform and getting money out of politics, he turned down public campaign funding in order to avoid the cap on private donations.  He did this for the sole purpose of raising a record-breaking metric ass-ton of money, and his image instantly transformed from a hopeful, possibly naïve crusader, into just another politician—and worse, one who had deceived me.  Fuck that guy.  I was way ahead of all you knuckleheads who decided he’s been a disappointment.  Nothing he’s done has surprised me, from voting for the bailouts to the non-closure of Guantanamo to the clusterfuck of Obamacare to the NSA data collection to…whatever the hell he thinks he’s going to accomplish with Iran.

President Obama was, to an extent, my own Nelson Fox (Chelcie Ross).  He recruited me.  He took me under my wing and gave me faith that what I was doing for the country was right.  And then, one day, I walked into a Vietnamese hut as he silently watched Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva) torture a Viet Cong soldier for information on heroin trade routes.  And my world shattered.  What is this country I live in?  What are its values?  Why are so many resigned to vote for the lesser of two evils instead of someone who won’t stand by and allow “politics as usual” to further erode it?  Why do people allow the lies, distortions, and doublespeak to distract them from the search for the truth?

A film like Above the Law makes the case that these questions don’t matter.  It’s not about how other people either accept or grudgingly tolerate bullshit, it’s not about the values of country or politician—it’s about my values, my integrity, fighting for what I believe.

Every scene in Above the Law cranks up the pressure for Nico to shut up and fall in line.  It starts with his discovery of U.S. government-issue C4 in a truck full of Salvadoran cocaine.  Where’d they get it?  Poking his nose into it leads not only to his arrest, but the arrest of his partner, Jacks (Pam Grier).  The Feds release them with a stern warning that they’ll throw away the key if Nico doesn’t stop asking questions.

He doesn’t.  When Nico connects the Salvadoran drug ring to the local Mafia, his local parish is bombed during Mass.  When he connects the church’s secret immigrant-smuggling operation to the Mafia-backed drug ring, his family is forced to hide in a guarded safehouse.  When Nico and Jacks connect the drug ring back to the CIA, the Feds pressure the Chicago Police Department to take Nico’s badge.  When they independently trace the CIA connection back to Zagon, the ensuing gun battle leaves Jacks nearly dead.  The screenplay suggests a close friendship, but Davis’s direction implies an affair.  Nico and Jacks alternate between bickering and intense tenderness.  Their strange relationship culminates in one of my favorite filmed images, in which Seagal looks tenderly at this framed photograph:

A professional family portrait that includes Nico, his wife (Sharon Stone), their baby…and Jacks.  Does this symbolize her place, in Nico’s mind, as part of his family?  Does it imply she’s his second wife?  The only thing that’s clear is her importance to Nico, and his devastation and her death (he hasn’t yet found out that she was saved by a bulletproof vest).

When Nico finally untangles the string and realizes Zagon intends to assassinate a political candidate bent on investigating CIA corruption in Latin America, he’s lost everything.  His family hates him for refusing to shut up like a good Sicilian boy should, his brothers in blue turn their back on him, his CIA mentor proves to be the crooked coward Nico always hoped he wasn’t, his priest is dead, his church is bombed, his partner/lover(?) is critically wounded.  He has no one to trust, no one to turn to—not even God, an important relationship in early Seagal films.

In the end, a man like Nico realizes he can only rely on himself to do the right thing.  In order to protect his friends, colleagues, and loved ones—in order to preserve the world he wants to live in, he has no choice but to stand up for what he knows is right, and deliver justice to those he knows are wrong.  The third act of Above the Law is a bloodier High Noon, culminating in the triumph of Nico’s rugged individualist free spirit.  The world can change—but only if we stand up for what’s right instead of tolerating everything that’s wrong.

I’d be lying if I said I recognized any of these attributes at the time.  It’s an action movie, for crying out loud, one I mainly liked for its convoluted plot, inventive action scenes, and Chicago location shooting.  I still like all of those things, and rewatching it for this piece, I was absolutely not marveling at the quasi-libertarian themes and the individualist attributes of Nico.  The purpose of 150 Films is to ponder these films, and my relationship to them (past and present), and you’ll note that I’ve pondered the shit out of this one.

The act of watching Above the Law, though, is not one of deep thought.  It’s pure joy, occasional amusement, and genuine admiration of the filmmaking.  I regard Andrew Davis as the most underrated director of his generation, a genre auteur whose action films stand among the very best.  Beginning with 1985’s Code of Silence (one of Chuck Norris’s few good movies, in part because it features a talking robot gun tank), Davis set a template of plugging a star into his own interests: Chicago, political corruption conspiracies, and the need for people to stand up against the codes of silence that allow such things to happen.

Code of Silence, Above the Law, The Package, The Fugitive, Under Siege, Chain Reaction, and Collateral Damage all share this common thread, good people who stumbled into an elaborate conspiracy.  Even Holes, the children’s film, begins with its protagonist falling victim to a conspiracy (false arrest, much like The Fugitive), and then unwittingly participating in another, much more elaborate conspiracy.  As so many people are, Davis’s characters are offered a choice: turn a blind eye and fall in line, or fight for what’s right.  Davis creates worlds in which the deck is entirely stacked against his heroes—this is especially true in his best and most popular film, future 150 Films entry The Fugitive—and then refuses to allow those characters to give up.  They’d rather die fighting than live lying.

Although this is a common theme for many action movies—one man against the world—Davis takes more care than most in creating a complex world of moral ambiguity, where the right answer isn’t as cut-and-dried as “star = good, everyone else = bad.”  In Above the Law, this ambiguity is demonstrated through Nico and Jacks’s willingness to protect the church’s immigrant-smuggling operation, the blind eye they turn to Mafiosi (as long as their crimes don’t actively hurt citizens)—even Nico’s opening scene, in which he simply walks away from the CIA and leaves them to their crimes.  Nico won’t be a willing participant in the crimes of others, but he won’t fight against every injustice he sees.  He fights for the innocents, but he lets the guilty fight amongst each other.  This unusual complexity is perfectly captured by the monologue that opens this post.

When it comes down to it, there’s a reason I fell in love with Steven Seagal, and that reason is Andrew Davis.  Davis had the perfect star in Seagal, whose obsession with corruption, justice, and moral ambiguity perfectly complemented Davis’s own interests.  Seagal’s movies would get weirder and more fascinating as time went on, but Davis grounds Above the Law in narrative honesty and a world approximating our own.  His extensive use of local actors (Ron Dean, Joseph F. Kosala, Joe Greco, Nicholas Kusenko) lend authenticity to its overall Chicago-ness, and this is one of the only Seagal movies where the man bleeds.

I would say I like some of Seagal’s other movies more for their sublime goofiness, but Above the Law is a real movie.  Even if you hate Seagal, this movie will surprise you.

Keep or Sell?: Keep

Up Next: Action Jackson (1988)

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