Sunday, March 29, 2009

Steven Seagal Month, Week Four: Out for Justice

Month one of Steven Seagal Month is finally drawing to a close. That makes sense to me, anyway. Today, we see the last film of Seagal's rise to fame, Out for Justice. Following the successes of Above the Law, Hard to Kill and...ugh...Marked for Death, Seagal was primed for another hit. But did he find it? Let's take a look at Out for Justice and find out.

This time around Seagal is Brooklyn cop Gino Felino. Don't worry, I'll wait while you get the giggles out of your system. I know Seagal likes to have weird names in his movies, but what the hell is that? Gino Felino? That's begging to be laughed at. If I was him, I might pull a Fellini and just drop the first name altogether. As our movie opens, Gino is staking out a multi-million dollar drug deal with his partner Bobby, but things go to shit when Gino spots a pimp beating a woman nearby and just can't let it go long enough to finish the sting. Gino's fellow officers pour down from the rooftops to help him make the bust, thus blowing ALL THEIR COVERS. You could stand to lose one cop, why lose all of them? For one pimp! Even when the bastard is covered in cops, Gino still feels the need to challenge the pimp to a fight, which lasts about ten seconds, with Gino ultimately slamming his foe through a windshield, resulting in one badass opening credit, as Seagal is framed in the shattered glass for a freeze frame with his name on screen. Very nice.

Shortly thereafter, as with many a Seagal film, it's time to ditch that partner, as Bobby is gunned down in broad daylight on a crowded street by today's villain, crack addict Richie Madano (William Forsythe, from The Rock and The Devil's Rejects), who leaves a mysterious Polaroid on Bobby's body. Richie's crew is freaked out, knowing they're doomed to be caught, but all Richie can say is that things are going to get hotter before the night's over. And he ain't kidding either. Having caused a traffic jam by parking his car in the middle of the street to take a hit off his pipe, Richie draws the ire of another driver. He responds by walking right up to her and putting a bullet through her head! And then he calmly walks away, his spooked crew following him lest they face the same fate. I gotta say, this is the most effective creation of a villain a Seagal movie has yet had. There's no elaborate plot, there's no fucking voodoo. There's just a fucked-up crackhead acting without a conscience and being fucking scary as he does it. This is, frankly, awesome, and Forsythe is playing it perfectly so far.

Gino gets the inevitable call from the precinct and rather than the immediate “It's time for revenge” reaction we normally see in a Seagal flick, Gino's reaction is instead a combination of shock and also reluctance. He's a divorced dad in the middle of his once-a-month weekend with his son, Tony, and doesn't want to miss out on it. But duty calls and Gino is forced to send Tony back home to mom (Jo Champa, from...nothing, really). Gino arrives on the scene – where the Polaroid has gone missing - and doesn't wait very long before telling Captain Donzinger (Jerry Orbach from Law & Order!!!!) that all he'll need is an unmarked cruiser and a shotgun to bring Richie in. Donzinger agrees and the hunt is on.

Elsewhere, the stars of a community theater knock-off of The Godfather get a call informing them of what Richie has done. They want him brought to them, alive and before the cops get him. Gino meets up with his mob contact, Frankie, and Frankie's boss Don Vittorio to discuss what should be done with Richie. Vittorio makes a good case when he says that the justice system can only give Frankie seven to ten years, but the mafia can...well, you know. If it's real vengeance you want, you go with the Don. Gino promises to do even worse if he gets to Richie first.

But, hey, it's time for an out of character aside with Steven Seagal. Driving down the road, Gino spots a car dropping a trash bag out the window into traffic. Gino stops and opens the bag to find a puppy inside, and Gino begs God to let him run into that asshole someday. Ah, the first twinges of animal rights activism in a Seagal movie. Remember this, oh, a month from now, alright? Trust me.

And another weird moment when a hooker offers Gino her services and he cackles like it's the most absurd thing he's ever heard. What, are you gay? What's so hilarious about a hooker asking you if you want sex? He even stops other people on the street and tells them like it's a joke or something. Weird.

Anyway, Gino eventually runs into Richie trying to set up some deal and it's time for the first car chase of the night, ending in a grocery where Richie tells his goons to take care of Gino while he goes off to settle some scores. In true Seagal fashion, Gino takes out six or seven guys in less than a minute, turning their own weapons against them and, as always, using the mystical powers of Aikido to send thugs a-flyin' without ever having to move from one spot in the middle of the room. God I love how action movie baddies always line up and run at the good guy one at a time, taking turns getting killed. They never learn.

That night, Gino visits Richie's parents, who he's known since he was a kid as he and Richie were childhood friends. Ma and Pa Madano want Gino to go easy on Richie and let him live, but Gino says that unless Richie turns himself in, he will have to die. Since Ma and Pa have no info to impart about Richie's whereabouts, Gino pays a visit to Richie's brother Vinnie at his bar. Vinnie and his patrons all refuse to talk and generally act like huge dicks, so Gino has a fine time pushing people around and wrecking the place until finally the goombas can take no more and it's a-fightin' time, with a big shot putting a five thousand dollar bounty on Gino's badge. The best part of this fight is when Gino goes at it with a guy called Sticks, the two of them using broken pool cues like nunchucks. It's so absurd it's awesome. After dispatching of everyone dumb enough to fight Steven Seagal, Gino tells Vinnie to tell Richie “I'm gonna cut off his head and piss down his throat!”. He may live up to this promise, too. He had the first part down pat in Marked for Death.

And now it's Montage Time~! as we see intercut sequences of Gino hitting the streets for tips, Richie kinda just wandering around, and some police busting a strip club (?) all set to some awful “rap” song that sounds like the Nickelodeon GUTS theme with a lot of extra drum machine added. Once that's out of the way, it's time for a scene both good and weird. After a brief meeting with Don Vittorio, Gino and Frankie go for a walk and reminisce about the good old days. Gino speaks of his Uncle Pino and a warm memory of Pino catching a thief and punishing him by locking him up in the trunk of the car while Pino and young Gino drove around town, finally letting the thief go when Gino got worried about his well-being. It's a sweetly sentimental story that seems to establish Pino as the origins of Gino's moral compass. But then Gino mentions that Pino was in the mafia, and that he's surprised he didn't follow Pino's footsteps and wound up a cop instead. Uh...the mafia is admirable? I mean, sure, they have their good side too, but sheesh they're still the mafia at the end of the day. Don Corleone might not have ever sold drugs and he may have been a good father, but he did assassinate people too. Kind of a mixed signals situation that seems like iffy moral territory to me.

And then there's an all-too-brief cutaway to Richie dropping in on a friend's chop shop to hang out for a while. I'm noticing that we're spending less and less time with Richie now and I don't like that. He's a really good character and his scenes at the beginning of the movie were intense, shocking, and downright brutal. And William Forsythe is so charismatic and so good at evoking complete insanity that he's flat-out captivating. This is a great performance that is suddenly being squandered like it's secondary when it's actually supposed to be the centerpiece of the damn movie! I can see how the filmmakers might have worried that a string of random acts of violence throughout the duration of two acts of the film could get monotonous - and that would almost certainly be true in most circumstances - but with a performance this brilliant, I severely doubt it would get boring at all. If anything, the idea that the random destruction of human life is wide-spread and not slowing down and is being caused all by one soulless man would add to the terror and suspense and create probably the best villain Seagal has yet faced! Why waste this gem by shortening his scenes? It's senseless.

But hey, I guess we need more investigation, so Gino goes to a club to visit Richie's sister Patty (Gina Gershon) who, like everyone else, has no clue where Richie is. While I fully accept that she could be lying, I don't exactly appreciate the way Seagal gets mad and pushes her around and then throws a bouncer over a friggin' balcony when the guy tries to, ya know, do the gentlemanly thing and tell the big, imposing martial artist to lay off the lady. Not exactly a good way to make yourself the good guy, Steven, but then again I guess this could be shades of grey like he's not too good to be bad. And it goes on when they go to Patty's office and Gino starts tearing the place up for no good reason. Like what, she's going to have printed, notarized documents marked “Where Richie is going to hang out on the night he decides to commit suicide by cop”? What does ripping through her files accomplish other than making her angry? During this completely warrant-free search, Gino stumbles upon a gun he assumes is not licensed and arrests Patty. Of course, the real reason for the arrest is to draw Richie out of hiding, so it's a sham from the get-go, but it still sounds like something that might, oh, violate the law a little bit. Not to mention the whole assault thing.

And the movie teases us with another too-short scene of Richie harassing the chop shop workers and cruelly mocking their boss' paraplegia. Another fine display of evilness, but cut off after like a minute so we can see Patty getting booked instead. After tossing the poor girl in a cell, Gino questions Patty about “Roxanne” a name he found written on a note one of the club's waitresses had passed to him. Back at the chop shop, things finally start heating up for Richie again as the cops bust in (not before Richie kills the paraplegic without cause (Thank you)). And I mean they bust in, ramming a van right through the wall and running a man over, an act they show no remorse for. They don't even acknowledge it. Yowza. While Richie and his crew make a rooftop escape, Gino peruses Bobby's desk. Yeah, we needed to cut away to that at this moment, didn't we? Shouldn't this have happened like thirty minutes ago? Gino finds a bag of cocaine, a stack of money, and some compromising photos of Bobby and a woman who sure don't look like his wife. Shouldn't the precinct have found all this when they cleaned out the desk? They do clean out the desk after an officer dies, you know. They don't just leave it alone like some kind of memorial. They need somewhere for the replacement to sit...Never mind.

Gino hits the streets again and gets a call on the radio asking him to swing by his apartment to see his wife for something or other. And then, like some weird comedy relief, the puppy pops up out of the passenger seat and Gino chuckles and says “Almost forgot about you!”. Yeah, so did we. You didn't think to drop the poor thing off at home like ten hours ago? You found it in the morning and now it's night! Poor dog. When Gino gets home, the big issue that required a radio bulletin is...Wifey wants to know if he's hungry. No. Shit. You know full well Gino's out there hunting down the bastard who killed his partner – your friend, by the way – and you call him off the case to offer him a snack and an Espresso? And since Gino is in the mood to tell a story, he accepts. He regales us with the tragedy of his father, a traveling knife sharpener (?) who died of a broken heart after disposable knives were invented and rendered his service obsolete. Really? Traveling knife sharpener? Driving a little cart down the streets of Brooklyn ringing a bell and calling out “Bring out yer knives!”? Was this in the 1800's in Sicily or something? Well, we have no time to ponder this as just as the story ends, some baddies break in and it's up to Gino to mechanically gun them down. Yawn. Since we can recognize the last gunman, we know this to be Richie's crew, but Richie doesn't seem too angry when he hears the news of their demise on his police scanner. Never mind that he's down to one last goon (his driver).

Having secured the wife and son, Gino head back to Patty's club (which, shockingly, lets him in) to ask the waitress, Terry, what her note means. Turns out Roxanne is the name of Richie's girlfriend, and she's the woman in the photo with Bobby. Finding Roxanne's name and address in Patty's Rolodex, Gino heads off and takes Terry in tow. And while they're in transit, Richie drops in on his brother Vinnie, who is still in the bar despite having a broken nose with profuse bleeding. A man who was shown losing most of his teeth is also still there. You have no one to go to for medical treatment? Richie pushes Vinnie around for not having the guts to shoot Gino. And when Frankie's boys show up, Vinnie's refusal to help Richie take them out results in Richie essentially deciding he has no brother and banishing Vinnie once and for all. Good, that guy was starting to get whiny and annoying. Lucky for Richie that the bar patrons are willing to join a random posse and help him wipe out the mafia crew right quick.

Gino arrives at Roxanne's place only to find her good and dead. Oh well, I guess. Gino then heads off to see Bobby's widow, Laurie, and immediately starts rifling through her purse (right in front of her!) only to find the Polaroid from Bobby's death scene, another shot of him with Roxanne. Turns out Laurie had found the photos and, in jealousy, sent one to Richie, never expecting he'd kill Bobby for revenge. Gino intuits that Bobby was a crooked cop who wanted to become someone like Richie, with lots of money and women. Well, suddenly I don't feel as bad as I used to about Bobby getting popped. Gino gets a call on the radio telling him that one of his street contacts spotted Richie at an old girlfriend's house. Gino knows the place and sneaks in, only to wind up in a gun battle. As you'd expect, he's on the winning side of things as he and his trusty shotgun blow a whole lot of bad guys to pieces. Eventually, the only one left is Richie and this is when both Gino and Richie run out of bullets. I cannot fathom portly William Forsythe doing hand-to-hand combat, but that's what it looks like we're heading for. And, yeah, it looks real goofy when Forsythe comes a-running and a-jiggling towards Seagal only to get thrown into a wall and bounce because he's so fat. I'm reminded of Chris Farley doing the inspirational speaker on SNL and running around the room. The fight is one-sided in Gino's favor. He doesn't even need any of that Aikido shit because Richie is such a big fat klutz that most children could fend off his attacks. It's really not fair. After whooping Richie senseless, Gino finally just buries a corkscrew an inch deep into his brain just as Frankie and his boys show up. Even though they wanted Richie alive, they decide to help Gino out (he took a bullet during the gun battle).

Epilogue: Flash forward a few days to Gino spending a day with his wife on the boardwalk when who should Gino spot but the asshole who threw the dog out of the car. Gino gives him a literal swift kick in the sack and the puppy pisses on him for good measure. Aw, happy ending!

My feelings are mixed on Out for Justice. It starts out fantastic, with a great villain and a great situation, but it deteriorates into tepidness. By the end, Richie isn't nearly the rampaging evil bastard he was to start off and the pace has slowed to a crawl. It's like a great movie and a so-so movie got rolled into one and there was more so-so than great. It's not terrible, but it's not all that good. It's just average. I'm just disappointed in how they squandered the potential. Overall, it's the best of these four Seagal movies I've reviewed this month, but that ain't saying so much. Above the Law was lame, Hard to Kill was decent, and Marked for Death was Godawful. “Alright” wins out over that field.

The real sad part is that Out for Justice didn't do so well at the box office. Domestically, it fell short of Marked for Death, taking in only $40 million compared to Marked's $57 million. For the first time, a Seagal movie had failed to top it's predecessor in receipts (when the predecessor sucks so hard, is it that much of a surprise?). An issue? You betcha. That's a big disappointment in the Hollywood machine when they expect you to keep bringing in exponentially higher receipts with every subsequent film. What to do to fix the problem? How about pairing Seagal off with a couple of A-listers who can give him some shine and revitalize his drawing power? That's what Hollywood had in mind and we'll see exactly how big it paid off in two weeks when I review Seagal's biggest hit, Under Siege.

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