Above The Law (1988)
In the 1980s, being an “action star” and being an “actor” were mutually exclusive careers. People who starred in action movies were martial artists, body builders, athletes or stuntmen who were deemed sufficiently charismatic to have a movie built around them. Movie studios used to think that the best way to cast a bad-ass character who fucks people up was to go out and find an actual bad-ass guy who fucks people up as a day job. Now these roles get filled by people like Jason Statham and Leonardo DiCaprio — skilled professionals who are just really good at “acting” like sociopaths.
Steven Seagal was probably the last great example of that action star archetype. A world-renowned martial artist, he starred in Above the Law despite never having appeared in a movie before. At the ripe age of 36 years old, he was eight years older than Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, and four years older than Bruce Lee when he died. He’s also older than: Sean Connery in Dr. No, Clint Eastwood in The Good the Band and the Ugly, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, and Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
This being his first movie, Above the Law begins by painstakingly establishing the legend of Steven Seagal. We hear all about his childhood and watch soft-focused footage of him throwing people onto mats in dojos. If you’re wondering how the movie is able to have such astute, flattering insights into the essence of Steven Seagal, keep in mind that Steven Seagal is the movie’s co-writer.
Steven Seagal, you see, is a delicate fusion of East and West. With mixed Italian upbringing, a rich involvement with Tibetan Buddhism and a black belt in the Japanese art of Aikido, Steven Seagal is the ultimate metaphor for the awesomeness of America.
Anyway, after a thorough round of mythologizing, we cut to Nico (Seagal) during the Vietnam war. He’s working for the CIA, but becomes disillusioned when he sees the movie’s bad guy (Henry Silva) torturing innocent Vietnamese people. This is not a movie of subtlety or moral ambiguity, so the movie’s bad guy declares himself as such almost immediately. One of his first lines is “I’LL TEACH YOU TO FUCK WITH MY OPIUM!” — which he shouts as he threatens to cut off a nice old Vietnamese man’s leg with his oversized combat knife.
The very next scene (this is an efficient movie) is “present day” and Nico is living in Chicago and christening his new son with his wife. He’s a cop now, despite the fact that his family has connections to organized crime. Interestingly, this is brought up as if its going to be a major plot-point, but it’s never mentioned again. The cover of the DVD even plays it up, saying “he’s a cop with an attitude, and a family in the mafia.” I’m guessing the whole mafia angle was cut at the last minute, but they forgot to cut the part where it’s introduced.
His wife, by the way, is played by Sharon Stone, a woman who, with Above the Law, kicked off an impressive run of playing the love interests to awesome movie stars. She was Stallone’s girlfriend in The Specialist, Schwarzenegger’s wife in Total Recall, De Niro’s wife in Casino, and Michael Douglas’ bisexual, oft-nude sexual tormentor in Basic Instinct. I’m sure Ms. Stone is a talented actress, but I often wonder whether she really exists or if she’s just a figment of the world’s adolescent males’ collective imagination. Regardless, chances are, if you masturbated at some point in the 1990s, you probably thought of her at least once.
In this particular movie, Sharon Stone doesn’t get much screen time or attention. In fact, the same could be said for anyone who isn’t Steven Seagal. The villains and supporting characters are wholly generic, but this isn’t a movie about them, it’s just a romanticized introduction to Steven Seagal. Setting aside the sarcasm for a moment, I must say, the movie genuinely works on that basis. This movie isn’t about the character of Nico, it’s about the phenomenon of Steven Seagal, the same way that Hercules in New York, Bloodsport or even Kaazaan existed for the purpose of covering off the bases and giving audiences a chance to decide whether they’re interested in seeing more from a new pop-culture commodity on the market.
If I had seen this movie in 1988, I would have walked out of the theater proclaiming “yes, I AM interested in seeing more. Much more.” America felt the same way, and Above the Law was a big enough hit to launch ten solid years of cinematic ubiquity. On the creativity side of things, the movie could generously be called “routine,” but director Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive) moves things along competently. It has pretty much every cliche you’d expect — one-liners, a bad guy who never kills the hero when he has the chance, a sergeant who demands a rogue cop’s badge and gun, a cop on “one last job” who gets shot, etc — but it’s all done with sincerity and a certain loving tone.
Something else that may surprise people who only know the Seagal of today — the movie is never once unintentionally funny. The one-liners range from subtle to genuinely clever. The action scenes are swift and efficient enough that you don’t get a chance to think too hard about how absurd they are. The one exception, perhaps, is when Steven Seagal is riding on the roof of a bad guy’s car, and then reaches in and chokes him. All well and good, but it goes on forever, all the while the choked victim carries on an inexplicably relaxed conversation with his buddy.
The movie’s seriousness and (relative) ambition make it a bit more modern than the majority of ‘80s action movies, although it had the bad luck of coming out the same year as Die Hard, which, with its world-weary hero and gritty combat scenes, modernized the genre even further and made Above the Law instantly dated.
The story is convoluted but irrelevant. Ultimately it comes down to the main villain from the film’s opening (a CIA operative) and his illicit army of mulleted South-American henchmen planning to assassinate a nosy senator who’s been looking into the CIA’s questionable opium trafficking. Along the way, they make the mistake of messing with Nico’s family, and so he and his partner (played by the always lovely Pam Grier) take it upon themselves to foil them.
As an actor, Steven Seagal is far from bad. Scenes that involve comedy or casual conversation are always torturously stilted in action movies, but Seagal has a surprisingly light touch when the situation requires it. He and Pam Grier even have decent chemistry with each other. Despite all odds, they actually come across as two people that might be friends. In his grand-standing speeches, Seagal manages to sidestep the two most common mistakes: he doesn’t Stallone-in-Rambo it up and histrionically overact, nor does he play it with the glib indifference of Schwarzenegger.
Seagal’s Aikido is one of the characteristics that defines him as an action star. If you’ve ever seen Bloodsport or Enter the Dragon, you’ve probably noticed how theatrical Karate and Kung-Fu can be — wild acrobatics, shrieking grunts and dramatic gestures are all part of the game. When Seagal’s fighting people, however, it’s brutal, quick and efficient. Note the way he dispatches the bad guys in this scene. One or two lightning-fast strikes each and they’re all lying on the ground in agony.
Many of Aikido’s philosophies center around efficiency and using your enemy’s strength against them. This explains the utilitarian bluntness of the fight scenes, and the fact that Seagal never seems to attack, only counter-attack. This also helps explain how Steven Seagal manages to create an intimidating presence despite possessing a markedly more aerodynamic physique than his action-star brethren.
Another incredibly important point one must bring up when discussing Above the Law is the scene in which Seagal is shown to be running. This is notable because he runs in such a way that uncannily resembles the way in which a girl would run. You can bear witness to the femme-dashing at the end of the above video. Many people have a problem with this, but it’s never bothered me. Partly because, for men such as myself, who are so overtly feminine that we qualify as men merely on technicalities, it gives us a way of relating to Mr. Seagal. Also, a hero with no weakness is a boring hero. Schwarzenegger has his speech impediment, Bruce Willis has his receding hairline, and Seagal has his inability to move quickly on foot without embarrassing himself.
The title comes from a speech by beloved inspirational figure Richard M. Nixon (“no one is above the law, and the law will be enforced”), although Nico’s politics are decidedly more left-leaning. For all his violent tendencies, Seagal is a bit of a bleeding-heart (must be the time he’s spent with the Dalai Lama). Many people forget that he was once awarded the PETA Humanitarian Award. In Above the Law, the real villain is the American government, for the way they maim and mistreat innocent South Asian and South American peoples. Or, in Seagal’s words:
All around our country they got guys on death row for murdering 1, 2, 3 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, 50,000 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.
All in all, Above the Law makes for a sensational screen debut as Steven Seagal smashes his way into the top ranks of today’s action superstars. (I stole that line from the DVD’s promotional material, but I think it concludes this review well.)
- Fight Locations: A bar, the roof of a car, the parking lot of a meat-packing plant, the convenience store of a flustered Arab shopkeeper, a parking garage, miscellaneous streets, offices, and apartment hallways.
- Weapons: hand gun (he calls it a “pistolo”), shotgun, a sword.
- What People Say About Seagal:
- [With regard to an undercover job at a meat-packing plant]
“It won’t work Nico, they’ll never buy it. You’re too pretty to be a meat-packer.”
- “What this guy can do with his hands... it makes bullet holes look pretty.”
- “This maniac should be wearing a number, not a badge.”
- [With regard to an undercover job at a meat-packing plant]
- Seagal comebacks:
- “I don’t think you can take us all, bad-ass.”
“No, but I’ll get an A for effort.”
- “Stand down, Nico!”
“Stand down on THIS”
- “I don’t think you can take us all, bad-ass.”
- Critical Bile: Relatively little, actually. The movie was pretty well-reviewed, even getting Two Thumb Up® from Siskel & Ebert.
- Hair status: Seagal sports a luscious head of perpetually greasy slick-back hair. It hangs down freely just above his shoulders. He also has a receding hairline that mysteriously disappears in later films.
- All of Andrew Davis’ movies are set in Chicago. Except Under Siege, I guess. That was just set on a boat.
- The international title of this movie was Nico.
- Michael Rooker (title character in Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer) has a small role as “man in bar.”
- There’s one guy in the movie who’s first seen as a bartender in a sketchy bar that Seagal roughs up. Later, he’s seen in the police station reporting Nico for police brutality. Later still, he’s seen as a CIA henchman. Not sure if there’s a story there, or they just ran out of budget for cast members and started recycling actors. In the credits, he’s listed as “CIA Bartender” whatever that means.