Director: Andrew Davis
Producer: Andrew Davis, Steven Seagal
Cast: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Henry Silva, Ron Dean, Miguel Nino, Nicholas Kusenko, Joe Greco, Chelcie Ross, Gregory Alan Williams, Jack Wallace, Metta Davis, Joseph F. Kosala
Running Time: 99 min.
The man, the myth, the mystique that is Steven Seagal begins here, with 1988’s “Above the Law.” Many wonder how a virtual no-name like Seagal was able to secure a three-picture deal with complete creative control right out of the gate. The story goes that Seagal built his reputation doing fight choreography on movies like “Never Say Never Again” (during which he reportedly broke Sean Connery’s wrist), serving as a bodyguard to the stars, and teaching Aikido to legendary Hollywood agent Mike Ovitz. In order to add to his star persona, Seagal claimed that he had a murky past with the C.I.A. It’s not hard to see why people would be impressed by a 6’4″ American Aikido master with a background such as that.
Fiction blurred into fact as soon as “Above the Law” hit the big screen. In the media Seagal tried to spin it that his onscreen character was a reflection of his real life. The opening of the film sets everything up with voice-over narration: Nico Tuscani, Aikido Black Belt, former C.I.A. operative during Vietnam, with family members in the Mafia, now a Chicago vice cop.
In this media-savvy age, the idea that Seagal could fool people into believing he was more or less his character Nico Tuscani is pretty astonishing. That’s sort of like if Jean Claude Van Damme had been interviewed upon “Bloodsport”‘s release and instead of saying, “Yeah, I’ve been trying to break into show business for years, I paid my dues by being an extra in movies like ‘Breakin’ and I got fired from the set of ‘Predator,’ this industry is tough,” he had rather claimed “When I was 25 years-old, I traveled to Hong Kong to partake in an underground full-contact fighting tournament. ‘Bloodsport’ is my story.” Everyone would have been like, “Holy $#*%&! This guy is the real deal!”
So, “Above the Law” is sort of like the “Batman Begins” of Steven Seagal movies. And with a set-up like that it’s hard to go wrong. “Above the Law” is also one of the few Seagal movies with a credible director behind the camera. Andrew Davis had already filmed one of Chuck Norris’ better films, 1985’s “Code of Silence,” which was a fairly serious look at police corruption in Chicago (until a police robot crashes the third act – no joke). Many of the actors who played cops in that film return in “Above the Law.” Davis, a Chicago native, really knows how to film the city.
As a kid, what impressed me about this movie was Seagal’s hard-ass persona and martial arts moves; rewatching it now, what I enjoy most about “Above the Law” is the gritty photography of Chicago. It feels like Davis and his DP captured what the Midwestern metropolis was like back in ’88. Looming skyscrapers, back alley drug deals, swank restaurants, political corruption (hey, maybe not much has changed) – it’s the perfect atmosphere for an 80’s action movie. Andrew Davis would go on to achieve mainstream credibility in the 90’s with “The Fugitive” movie and direct Seagal in his biggest box office hit “Under Siege.”
Two things hold “Above the Law” back. One is that it actually tries to be a ‘buddy cop’ movie of sorts. The script teams Seagal up with a spunky but about-to-retire-from-active-duty partner, played by Pam Grier. Now Grier is a great actress in her own right but anybody who’s seen Seagal in “Glimmer Man,” another ill-advised buddy movie, knows that the man works best alone. Seagal is meant to be the squinty-eyed, no-nonsense, mono-syllabic tough guy (except when he’s delivering political monologues). Watching him try and play cute with Pam Grier is just plain embarrassing.
Another aspect that hampers the film is the score from David Michael Frank. I’m sure it sounded really hip and cool back in the 80’s, but now the music is horribly dated. Casio keyboards, pan flute solos, reverberated drums, jazzy guitar licks, blaring saxophone – it’s all here. This sort of soft rock filler sound just isn’t befitting of a hard-edged action flick. Hell, since both movies prominently feature the Chicago skyline, I’d love to see someone rescore “Above the Law” using the soundtrack from “The Dark Knight.” I guarantee it’d probably fit the movie better and make it feel way more bad-ass.
Still, it’s hard not to enjoy “Above the Law.” The script is front-loaded with Seagal’s own personal politics, a left-leaning stance that flew in the face of every Reagan-baiting movie that Stallone or Arnold ever made. Seagal points the finger at corrupt men in power (this was right around the time of the Iran Contra scandal) and says, “I’m not letting you get away with it.”
The fight scenes aren’t as numerous or as bone-breaking as some of his other movies – stick to “Marked For Death” and “Out For Justice” to fill your brutality quotient – but it’s Seagal’s debut. It presented the man as a larger-than-life icon right from the get go, before he became the bloated cliche he is today (sorry, Steven). For an action star, being able to make your mark with a film like “Above the Law” is something like losing your virginity – you only get to do it once.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10