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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.

This is a movie that opens with two Detroit auto union organizers being murdered by assassins who burst through the windows of their skyscraper, guns blazing, and move through the office with the same instincts as a horror-movie slasher, disappearing and reappearing at will, exactly where they need to be, until finally a flaming union leader crashes through the skylight of a fancy restaurant on the ground floor. Smash cut to: The Pointer Sisters singing against a montage of Detroit, in all its Detroitiness.

This opening sets the tone for what’s to follow, the story of disgraced detective Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers), a track/football star beloved by all of Detroit who went off to Harvard to get a law degree before returning to serve the public. Why, then, would he fall from grace? Because he put away the “sexual psychopath” son of auto magnate Peter Anthony Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson), making a powerful enemy. With a backstory that, if dramatized, might have resembled Above the Law, the pressure Dellaplane applied forced the Detroit Police Department to demote Jackson to desk sergeant—and caused Jackson’s wife to leave him.

Despite their past friction, Captain Armbruster (Bill Duke) assigns Jackson to work security at the Detroit Man of the Year ceremony. Who’s Man of the Year? Peter Anthony Dellaplane, of course. Their uneasy reunion, along with Jackson’s understandable attraction to Dellaplane’s new wife (Sharon Stone, va-va-voom!), leads Jackson to begin pulling on threads Dellaplane would rather leave sewn up. Dellaplane has assembled a team of ruthless assassins, dubbed The Invisible Men, to rub out union officials who get in his way. Dellaplane wants to rule Detroit with an iron fist, but he can only do that if the union leaders cooperate with his ambitions.

Dellaplane has an exceptionally creepy relationship with lounge singer Sydney Ash (Vanity), the sort of relationship that’s introduced with Dellaplane watching her rehearse in an otherwise empty club, smoking in the shadows. Director Craig R. Baxley heightens the woozy discomfort by cutting between Sydney singing and a slow dolly toward Dellaplane. Nelson, relishing his disgusting character, leers lustily. The unpleasantness only increases in the scene that follows, in which Sydney puts up with Dellaplane’s pawing and kissing only long enough for him to remove a comically large syringe from a velvet-lined, silver case. He shoots her up with heroin, waits for her to nod off, and then has his way with her.

Much of Action Jackson is inexplicable, in the best possible way. Supporting characters change motivations and allegiances from scene to scene, particularly Stone’s Patrice Dellaplane (who seems to vacillate between knowing her husband is pure evil and being totally naïve to it), Dellaplane and his Invisible Men are possibly the sloppiest and most reckless collection of murderers in cinema history, Sydney seems to ally with Jackson solely because he’s a totally ripped stud (in her defense, he is super-ripped), and most charmingly, the climax involves all of the enemies-turned-friends Jackson makes in his pursuit of Dellaplane. Jackson seems to live in an odd world where everyone hates and resents Dellaplane, yet they work for him anyway. All it takes for them to turn on their boss is evidence of a good guy willing to take Dellaplane down.

The action set pieces take everything a few hundred notches over the top. This is the sort of movie where cars don’t crash; they explode like they’re all wired with a metric ton of TNT. Bad guys don’t just carry guns; they carry grenade launchers. Jackson doesn’t just kill in self-defense; he lures the assassin onto the roof, sends him flying over the edge with a grenade to the chest while quipping, “Barbecue, huh? How do you like your ribs?” (And Baxley dissolves from the assassin’s corpse to a plate of freshly barbecued ribs.) Dellaplane doesn’t simply have Patrice killed for Knowing Too Much; he reassures her that he’s a good man, then plugs her with his own freshly cleaned handgun, then watches her die and kind of kiss-licks her face and neck, and finally, tosses the gun to one of his henchmen while quipping, “Works great.” Sydney’s major heroin addiction isn’t treated as a serious problem or a form of abuse; it’s played for laughs as she fails to comprehend Jackson’s explanations of his actions. The film even ends with a combo platter heroin/sex joke:

SYDNEY

Well, you always said you wouldn’t team up with a junkie. How ’bout an ex-junkie, huh?

JACKSON

Wait a minute. You kiddin’?

SYDNEY

Cold turkey. You can have me on Thanksgiving. How’s that?

JACKSON

Can I have you any sooner?

Beautiful.

Weathers and Silver intended Action Jackson to pay homage to the blaxploitation movies both admired, but this influence is hardly evident. The closest to it is the idea that pretty much all the black characters, under the thumb of The Man, end up siding with Jackson in the end. Thanks to the Silver house style of the time, the film looks too shiny and expensive to fit the blaxploitation oeuvre. Even the cheesiest blaxploitation films tended to wear social messages on their sleeves. The closest thing to social commentary in Action Jackson is when Sydney’s bodyguard informs Jackson of his internal struggle over whether or not to beat the shit out of him “because of [his] Muslim faith.”

But it doesn’t matter, because Action Jackson‘s attempt at cross-pollenating blaxploitation and ’80s action yields baffling, amazing results: in action, in sleaze, in astoundingly stupid one-liners, but especially, in performances.

Utilizing the late-’80s stable of Joel Silver actors, Action Jackson‘s periphery is populated by familiar faces from Predator, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. Most notable among the familiar faces are the inimitable Robert Davi (Die Hard, Predator 2) and stuntman Robert Lee Minor. Davi, giving a career-weirdest performance, plays a perpetually sweaty, possibly drug-addled conspiracy-theorist pal of Jackson. He’s eventually killed for Knowing Too Much by Minor, who poses as a delivery driver in order to utter the classic quip, “It’s C.O.D.” Minor may have only been cast for his passing resemblance to Weathers (the former often served as a stunt double for the latter), which becomes a major plot point, but his cool psychopathy and distinctive pitch-black glasses make him by far the most memorable of the Invisible Men.

If any of you have read this far and come to the conclusion that Action Jackson is a good movie, let me make it crystal clear: this is a bad movie. It’s just bad in the best possible ways, so if you like a good good-bad movie, make this a must-see.

A Study in Tone: The Two Roof Chases

To my surprise, both Above the Law and Action Jackson feature a similar chase set piece. They have two things in common: (1) the hero jumps on the roof of a car and holds on for dear life, while (2) the bad guy shoots through the roof in the hopes of killing the hero. Yet tonally, these scenes could not be more different. Take a look…

For those of you unwilling or unable to watch these two videos, let me explain. The Action Jackson version is like a cartoon parody of Above the Law. Look at the brutality of Seagal’s lone “superhero” moment, when he throws himself into the windshield of the car in order to get into the roof, as compared to Weathers’s superheroic outrunning of a speeding taxi (after quipping, “I gotta catch a cab!”). While the mobsters of Above the Law plow through grimy alleyways, Action Jackson‘s shady assassin weaves in and out of traffic, casually causing cars and trucks to explode in the background. Jackson punches out the windshield, an impossibility in our world; Nico Toscani, in contrast, punches out the side window.

Nico has a clear goal: to get the mobsters, as the choking one repeats, to “stop…the fucking…car.” They need to stop so they can be arrested. End of story. Jackson’s goal is a little more indistinct. Robert Lee Minor’s Gamble tried to run down Patrice, and Jackson more than comes to her aid. When Gamble throws Jackson from the car by slamming on the brakes, he just sits there grinning, silver Magnum pointing up, allowing Jackson time to get up and chew the scenery. Gamble seems to have no plan; it’s only when Jackson’s taunts enrage him that he hits the gas. At this point, Jackson does a 360° jump over a fucking automobile, baffling Gamble and diverting his attention from a car evidently parked in the middle of the street, which becomes a ramp that leads the taxi into an auto shop. The most shocking part of this is that it does not end with every car in the shop exploding; this is because Gamble has to escape from the car unscathed before Jackson can run to it.

Both sequences have something resembling a sense of humor. In Above the Law, though, the humor is derived from an acknowledgment of the lunacy—the mobsters think Nico is a madman with a death wish—and the comparative realism of the choking mobster not wanting to die for such a dumb reason. The humor in Action Jackson is derived from the exact opposite: in refusing to acknowledge the sheer lunacy of nearly every frame, it becomes its own form of straight-faced comedy. Even with the nonstop quipping, it’s funnier when they fail to land than when they do, because the world Silver and Baxley create is one where nobody but the audience knows they’re supposed to be funny, and it’s funnier when the audience doesn’t exactly agree.

I love every inch of this stupid movie. Everyone needs to see it.

Keep or Sell? Keep!!!

Up Next: Alien (1979)

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