Sunday, March 8, 2009

Steven Seagal Month, Week One: Above the Law

Ah, Steven Seagal. For years one of the bigger names in action movie-dom thanks to his imposing figure, martial arts fighting style, and ruthlessly violent fight scenes, he has brought in more than $850 million at the box office worldwide. People love seeing a big badass whoop the ever loving shit out of the bad guys (the more generic the baddies, the better), and that was all Seagal provided, and audiences ate it up. Beginning in 1988 with his debut, Above the Law, Seagal had a meteoric rise to fame and success, which came to a crashing halt only 6 years later. Why? Well, we're here to find out. All March long I'll be chronicling Seagal's rise with his first four movies, and next month we'll not only see his pinnacle of box office success, we'll also find out where it all went horribly, horribly wrong. So let's get started, shall we?

This week's film: Seagal's debut in Above the Law.

So the movie begins by essentially giving us Seagal's own life story, with some tweaks to fit it to his character here: born in Italy, raised in America, super-patriotic but nonetheless itching to get out and travel the world, he wound up in Asia and studied the martial arts. And then we see Seagal teaching a martial arts class by just beating everyone up real good. That's the best way to teach anyone anything, beating them so severely they'll forget what you told them. Seriously, there's a clothesline in there like it's pro-wrestling. Steve's voice over continues, now entirely fictional, as he tells us of being invited to an American Embassy party where he was recruited into CIA. Why? I dunno. He just says he was. And then he says his eyes were opened, a statement which is followed by some lovely Vietnam War footage.

Is this Above the Law or Billy Jack?

So it's 1973, and Steve and some fellow soldiers are trolling along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, where they meet up with a helicopter delivering some men to perform what one of Steve's buds calls “chemical interrogation”. I hope that's like the naked LSD trip they made the guy take in The Good Shepherd. That was sweet. Steve asks if these guys are with the Agency, but his friend says they're “from a page that ain't even in the book”.

Cut to that night, where it pretty much is the naked LSD trip, but the interrogation leader, Zagon (played by MEGAFORCE's gay cowboy villain Henry Silva), has given their hostage a massive dose, and the man can't even speak except for groans. Zagon, who is sooooooo clearly our villain (he has his own signature musical sting and everything), calls the man a pussy and abuses him a in a manner that screams “HATE ME! I'M DYING AT THE END OF THE MOVIE, SO HATE ME!” The victim even dies in the end. Zagon is doomed. It gets better. Zagon attacks another detainee and tells him “never fuck with my opium!”

He killed a man with an overdose and didn't care, he's a drug runner, and he's PLAYED BY HENRY SILVA. Zagon is the most obvious bad guy of all time. The only way this movie can possibly redeem this is if Zagon turns out to be a good guy.

That's strange...I just got the feeling I'm gonna kill this guy some day.

And they just keep piling it on, folks. Seagal asks Zagon what the fuck any of this has to do with, ya know, military intelligence, and Zagon gets all appalled at the sound of those words. “Who da fuck is dis cherry?!” Seagal, who finally gets the name Nico, is offended by Zagon's tactics, but Zagon warns that he can make people disappear. Nico won't back off, though, and when Zagon tries to dismember his hostage, Nico busts out some KUNG FU FIGHTIN'~! With a fist of doom to Zagon's temple and a...wacky a sidekick before his fellow officers force Nico out of the room. Nico has to flee the country back to the US, a trip which, according to the time stamp on screen, took fifteen years. Nico and his wife, Sharon Stone, are having their baby baptized. And this baby is horrifying, because it looks like a mini-me of Seagal, right down to the gigantic dark eyes and pronounced brow.

At the after-party (?) Seagal's new partner, Pam Grier, is inexplicably the center of everyone's attention. But why linger on character development when Nico' crying over her daughter running off with that boy the family doesn't like. Nico basically brushes the issue off, half-heartedly promising to take care of it after work (you didn't take the day off for the baptism?). And so we go to work, Nico and Pam driving around, Pam joking over he walkie with other cops about how it's her last week on the streets.


Nico pulls over to take a piss (yes) in a dusty bar (yes) full of drunks who don't like him (yes). He starts asking about the missing girl, prompting mockery and insults from the drunks (yes), and then one guy jokes about fucking the girl (yes!) and then Nico beats him up (yes!!), leading to a bar brawl (YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!). Nico quickly disposes of several men and then forces the asshole barkeep (who gives the drunks commands like he's Jimmy Hart leading the Hart Foundation or something) to take him to the girl. She's upstairs doing all kinds of drugs with her man, who knows better than to try anything and says “this is exactly what it looks like”. Nico teaches him a lesson by repeatedly slamming the man's head into the mirror they were doing coke lines off of, and then throwing him around the room like RoboCop arresting Kurtwood Smith. The ass-whipping spills out into the hall, the girl alternately insulting Nico and begging his mercy all the time, until the dude offers up some dope on a shipment of, well, dope coming in.

And now it's what I like to call the Snoopy Scene of the movie: a dark and stormy night! Nico plants a bug to stake out the lawyer orchestrating the coke deal. After picking up the info, Nico and Pam follow the coke lawyer to a club. Pam, who irrationally hates clubs for no reason other than “the element”, whatever that means, doesn't want to go in but Nico promises a party~! YAY~! Party~! They head inside, they spot the lawyer and his client, and then they dance. And that's it. That was pointless.

Oh, and Pam has to give us the “I'm too old for this shit” rigmarole to reenforce the fact that she's DEAD MEAT.

Flash forward to the drug deal going down. Nico, Pam, and a bunch of other cops are disguised as meat packers (?) at a random seedy location, where coke lawyer, now named Chichi, and his client arrive to pick up their shipment. But then feds swarm in and blow Nico's sting all to shit. There's a gunfight here that's actually pretty good, except for one improbable truck flip (why would there be a mountain of meat shaped perfectly as a jump ramp for this vehicle to “accidentally” drive over and flip off of?). And then we get the requisite impossible car chase as Nico rides on top of ChiChi's getaway car, trying to find a way to stop it. Reaching in through the passenger window and strangling Chichi's client does the trick nicely. Inspecting the shipment, the coppers find an engine block filled with military explosives instead of the expected drugs.

Chichi and his client, apparently having made bail, spend the night with their lawyers working out what to do about that crazy cop. Client, who looks like Fausto from Ghosts Can't Do It and talks like Santino Marella from WWE (“what-a are you-a going to do-a?”) wants Nico in prison. Not dead? Leaving the office, Chichi and the now-named Salvano run into (dun dunn DUN) Zagon, who warns that he wants no more problems from these morons.

At the precinct, the coppers explain that Salvano is wanted by the feds for involvement in some shadowy stuff the feds won't divulge, and that the cops need to stand down. Nico, of course, refuses to do so. Pam says he'll need her, and so she comes along to stake out Salvano. They wind up in a church where literally nothing happens except Salvano saying a prayer and then leaving. Nico and Pam, now finally named as Dolores, try to follow but the priest pops up and recognizes Nico and slows them down, letting Salvano get away. Priest takes them down to the basement and shows how some room was broken into. A room full of Mexican illegals who have sought sanctuary, it seems. I suppose now Nico has to protect the beleaguered minority? This is Billy Jack, isn't it? Come on, throw a school into the mix, I dare you. Father asks Nico to start attending church again and the next day, Nico obliges. It's sermon time~! Father talks about the government doing wrong and whatnot.

OK, it's official. I AM watching Billy Jack again. Anyway, Nico spots a woman walking out of the church but leaving her bag behind which can only mean one thing


This small bomb sends everyone – everyone except Nico, anyway – flying for yards, smashing into walls and stained glass windows, and fills the room with smoke and fire and ballyhoo. Yep, that;s C-4 alright, the same thing they confiscated from Salvano earlier. I love how Nico doesn't flinch, doesn't move, and doesn't even get any soot on him. What, is Steven Seagal God all of a sudden? The priest dies, Nico's mama loses an eye, and Nico gets pissed. Or constipated.

He spots a superior officer in the hospital hallway and corners him to get some answers about why Salvano was let go, but Commander whatshisname is all indignant and just starts mocking “all that chop-suey crap” Nico does. Why? I dunno. Nico promises to find out the name of the fed who signed for the explosives, and Commander Pricky McDouchebag just shuts up. And now it's montage time, as Nico and Dolores seperately investigate Salvano and the bombing. A car full of stereotypical spics pulls up to Nico and take him at gun, knife, machete, and baseball bat-point. Nico, though, easily wrestles the machete away and begins HACKING MEN TO DEATH (no blood though. I guess squibs were too fancy for this movie?) until only the obnoxious leader of the group is left. Leader runs for his life, but Nico is right on his heels as they cover seemingly half the city on foot, including at one point running through what I surmise was a Sound Effects factory, as leader ran in to a chorus of “shattering glass”, “glistening blade” and “fender bender” noises that have no logical origin. Nico finally catches the man, gets the scoop that the attack was indeed ordered by Salvano, and then gives the guy a KO knee to the face for good measure. Conveniently, this last part happened mere feet from a guy who is the lead spic's friend, which means we're immediately in another fight. A brutally one-sided one, as Nico levels the man with a heart punch.

Sharon Stone finally gets to say and/or do something (halfway into the damn movie) as she and Nico lie in bed later that day listening to news reports about the chuch bombing (yes, it's still the same day), and she asks what the fuck they were doing in a church anyway. Nico has no good answer and just says some vague shit about “I want answers and I need time”. What? The phone rings, bringing an ominous warning from a CIA agent, telling Nico that some heavy shit is going down and Nico and his family need to run for their lives. Sharon wants to know why the CIA is calling at 2 AM, but judging from the broad daylight out the window...they aren't. Later that night (that's when the sun goes away, just so you know) the police show up to arrest Nico on orders from the feds. At the precinct, they reveal that they've followed his whole investigation since the stand down order, and are pretty much booking him for being too dedicated a cop, I guess. OK, so it's illegal to wire tap and set up stings without authorization, but really, this guy's a one-man army, wouldn't you let him have a bit of free reign when he's clearly getting somewhere with this Salvano shit? Nico winds up having his badge revoked.

Nico meets up with Dolores to hear what she's found out, namely that high-ranking intelligence agencies are involved in drug trafficking. Nico, of course, is intent on using this info to take some suckers down. After a pointless visit to the church for a conversation with Sister Vague Accent (she's either Irish, British, German, Swedish, or Guatemalan. I'm not sure which, but she does phase through all of them), Nico gets pwned by Dolores, who vows she can handle the investigation by herself and tells him to go home. Stopping at a school crossing along the way, Nico is attacked by a squad of goons wielding machine guns who shoot his car to pieces. No worries, though, he magically phased through the seats so he can pop out from underneath the trunk right when the goons are reloading. One of the goons, a rotund man, steps forward and says “you can't drop us all FATASS” in a moment of great irony. Nico responds by putting a bullet through the man's heart.

Nico corrals the goons into an Indian convenience store, which just screams fight scene. And indeed, Nico finds himself taking on the four remaining goons singlehandedly, destroying the shop in the process. Including the obligatory store front window.

Jumping ahead, Nico's mama, wife, and baby are snuck off for their escape to wherever. Nico stays behind to nab Pricky McDouchebag, or Special Agent Neely as he is now known (why does it take so long for people to get names in this movie?) after the agent has, he says, solicited a child prostitute. Nico forces the agent to use his authority to get them into the evidence locker to get the C-4, but it turns out to have been taken away by CIA days ago, specifically the agent who told Nico to get his family out of town. Enraged, Nico takes Neely out to a lake and forces him to strip to his undies and go for a swim. Why? I dunno.

Off to a tech convention to meet some random Asian woman who apparently has some kind of hacking capabilities. She gets Nico into a CIA dossier database. Turns out CIA has sent five agents, all of them trained assassins, to town all in the same week. Ruh-roh Raggy~! This is probably where I should mention Padre Tomasino, a priest who was the target of the church bombing but lived. Nico has vaguely referenced him on occasion throughout the second half of the film, but this is the first time they actually establish that he's a target of the government. Apparently harboring illegals is riskier business than we even thought. Sheesh. Nico sets out to find Tomasino, who is in hiding, and protect him.

Elsewhere, Sister Vague Accent is ambushed by, I presume, the CIA assassins. They find Tomasino in her house. The assassins subject Tomasino to the nefarious chemical interrogation and (dun dun dun) Zagon is leading it all. He wants to know if Tomasino has divulged “our plans to kill the senator”. Um...what? What are you talking about? Dolores, Nico and Bobby Heenan (seriously, this guy could pass for The Brain), arrive outside. Nico tells Dolores she has to stay in the car while the menfolk take care of business. Is she going to die or not? What else is she there for? Too old for this shit; she's retiring; she's a woman; and she's the hero's partner. KILL HER so her death must be avenged! That's her purpose, you idiots. Anyway, the chemicals don't work and Zagon decides to move onto phase two, which is good ol' fashioned dismemberment. Right then, Nico and Bobby bust in and start a-killing. Bobby gets hit in the shoulder and he and Nico are forced to retreat to the hall, where Dolores is waiting to back them up. Oh good, someone kill her! There's only 24 minutes left, but we can make it work still!

Thank you.

The firefight spills onto an elevated train which is full of the sounds of screaming pedestrians, even though everyone is sitting still and not moving their lips. The magic of dubbing. Nico hops onto another train and lives another day. Nico visits Dolores' house for a weepy moment.

DAMMIT, SHE'S NOT DEAD! You got shot in the fucking chest with a shotgun and you lived? FUCK YOU AND YOUR BULLETPROOF VEST! The next day, Nico visits his...whoever, who tells him that Dolores will be fine. Nico celebrates and, well, doesn't that kinda ruin the whole movie? Everything's fine~! Hooray~! Who cares about fucking Henry Silva now? What, we still have to go all Billy Jack and save the migrants? They're in a church, they're fine. Anywho, Sharon Stone begs Nico to back off and leave this whole thing alone, the assassins having sent photographic proof of how close they are to the family and that they can kill them at any time if he keeps bothering them.

He, of course, ignores her and goes to scout Zagon's hideout. Nico's buddy Nelson (the one from the ominous phone call) is there to bust him, though. Here's our chance for improbable exposition as the two discuss the corruption of CIA, with their trafficking and their assassination schemes. After that crap, Nelson takes Nico at gunpoint and – oh, there's more exposition. Now Nico is complaining about CIA destroying cultures by inciting and prolonging wars. Alright, I get it. Government sucks. Mercifully, Zagon and his thugs, including the barkeep and Salvano (???) show up. Time for another firefight. Nelson bites it quickly, and Nico takes his gun and car to make a getaway. Salvano winds up on the back of the car, and Nico backs it right out a wall of the inexplicably sky-scraper tall parking garage to send Salvano plummeting to his death. The car doesn't fall because Steven Seagal is magical. Despite a valiant effort, Nico winds up being cornered and kidnapped at the end of it all.

And now it's off to kill that Senator no one cares about. Zagon and crew have Nico tied up in the kitchen, where Zagon uses the old WCW Coal Miner's Glove gimmick to give him a thorough walloping. And then, of course, it's time for a massive shot of the magic drug. Nico plays dead so he can bust out a surprise attack. Why the drug doesn't affect him, I don't know. The thugs all bite it, Nico breaks a few of Zagon's bones before the obligatory Neck Crank of Death, and over (and yes, this fight scene was just that brief. So anti-climactic)? All the baddies are dead, but there's still like six minutes left. Nico stumbles into the lobby just in time to collapse from the drug. Luckily Dolores and Heenan are there to take care of him. The next day, the senator visits Nico's house for a personal thank you, including the promise to bring the baddies to justice.


Nico gives a deposition to some judge lady and basically starts telling the movie's story over from the beginning. That's your ending? It should have ended with a triumphant pose over the bad guy's corpse, or perhaps a nifty catchphrase. But a deposition? That's lame!

Above the Law is stupid, nonsensical, predictable (except in the one instance when it should be!), and downright goofy at times. At best, it's the kind of thing you might watch on TNT on a really, really bored Saturday afternoon. It's the kind of thing you can mildly enjoy if you don't think at all, but if you even start to apply logic to it it turns into frustration. It was a decent hit, though, bringing in $20 million at the box office, and it even won some critical praise (Roger Ebert gave it three stars!). Certainly, it's not worth paying theatrical admission price for, not even whatever that would have been back in the 80's. And, oh yeah, it's a Billy Jack remake in more ways than one, and that's a miserable legacy to attach yourself too.

Steven Seagal's rise to fame continues next week with Hard to Kill!

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