ABOVE THE LAW (1988)
(Directed by Andrew Davis)
(Written by Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis)
(Starring Steven Seagal, Pam Grier and Henry Silva)
Plot: Nico (Steven Seagal) retires from the CIA and becomes a cop, specifically targeting the local drug dealer. But when he learns that his enemy is smuggling explosives instead of drugs and that a shady CIA operative from his past (Henry Silva) is plotting something terrible, he must take the law into his own hands. Also known as “Nico: Above the Law“.
If you read my reviews, you should be more than aware of my love/hate relationship with the man…no, the myth…that is Steven Seagal. When I look at that person attached to a stomach, I see…everything that can go wrong in a career, but I don’t want to linger on his many (“Against the Dark“), many (“Submerged“), many (“Attack Force“), many (“Kill Switch“), many (“The Patriot“), many (“Flight of Fury“), many (too many to count!) crappy movies, especially as the quality of his works has begun to inch its way upwards (“Maximum Conviction“). Instead, I want to explore the genesis of my anti-favorite action hero! Seagal had actually broken into the industry as a stunt coordinator, using his (legitimate) Aikido skills to choreograph films such as “Never Say Never Again” and “The Challenge (1982)“. Eventually it was decided that he had the potential to be a star, so “Above the Law” was designed to showcase his talents and it succeeded with flying colors. I’m not claiming that it’s an exceptional movie, or even the most satisfying of actioners, but it was an excellent starting point as everything about it drew your attention to Steven Seagal himself. I sincerely believe that if the spectacle or story were any more memorable, audiences would’ve talked about that instead of its star.
If you’re not entirely sure what I mean, then let us critique the script, which is rather convoluted and unfocused. The primary focus surrounds Nico (Steven Seagal) trying to uncover a conspiracy involving CIA Agents and explosive smuggling, but there are a lot of unnecessary pieces in this puzzle. Detective Jackson (Pam Grier), Agent Fox (Chelcie Ross), Nico’s wife (Sharon Stone) and the FBI Agent (Nicholas Kusenko) could’ve easily been omitted or combined into fewer characters, as their individual contributions are somewhat superfluous- and there are a lot of other minor characters who also fit into this category, but I didn’t bother to remember their names. The FBI Agent could’ve easily just been Nico’s boss and didn’t need that much screen-time. Fox only confirms Nico’s suspicions and provides some exposition, which could’ve either been given by Jackson or Zagon (Henry Silva). Jackson does make a discovery, which could’ve been figured out by anyone else and primarily exists to provide some dramatic tension (partners rarely get through these kinds of movies unscathed). Yet it could’ve easily been the wife in peril, whose purpose is…well…um…because there is a danger of her being in danger? They say she might become a target, but nothing ever happens. There are a lot of scenes which felt like filler, such as when Nico confronts his hooker cousin who is hooked on drugs. I’m not entirely sure why we needed a picture montage of Nico’s history either…or do I? All of these characters exist to show different sides of Nico, allowing Steven Seagal to show the extent of his range. His banter with Jackson is vitriolic and a little racy, which would not work with his wife or Fox. Yet his passionate, fiery rant directed at Fox would not work with anyone else either, because they have a history and its combination with the present plot serves as the context for that speech. What about his wife, who is a mostly flat character? Obviously to show his softer and more romantic side! The FBI’s involvement is important because they have no past with Nico, who is shown to be popular and chummy with most of his co-workers. There’s a different dynamic involved and it brings out Nico’s frustration and makes it cathartic when Nico gets vengeance (which is too soft to work on Zagon). Even the pointless scenes continue this trend, as Nico shows new shades of emotions that would not appear before and after. As I said, all of the attention is drawn to Seagal and the script only serves to hold him up in the limelight. Steven Seagal might be a shadow of his former self as of 2015, but there was a time when he oozed of charisma, charm and had a convincing, badass presence. He was cooler than cool, even if he ran like a girl. He also showed some actual acting skill, in complete contrast to his modern style of acting (looking bored and getting someone else to do his voice). The relevant members of the supporting cast (Grier, Silva) are having a blast as well and I enjoyed watching them.
Of course, there is an alternate interpretation of this. Perhaps the writers had conflicting visions or maybe this was a botched character understudy that had been converted into an action flick. Maybe the original concept was merely an exploration of the life of Nico- from his childhood to his CIA exploits to his time as a policeman, which would also explain a lot. It’s implied that his family are gangsters, although nothing is ever done with this, but maybe it would’ve served a stronger purpose if the story was less…action-ized. I can’t deny that even with my theory, the narrative is primarily driven by cliches that sometimes will aggravate the viewer. A character will reveal that they discovered something important, but instead of revealing it over the phone, they tell the recipient to come over to their place so that the villains can arrive first and ruin that plan. I get that the FBI are supposed to be the obstructive bureaucrats, but they are portrayed as REALLY stupid for overlooking so much information. I do believe that there should’ve been an attack on Nico’s wife, which would lead to a clash between the CIA, drug peddlers and Nico’s gangster family. I can’t decide whether the overarching theme of how ‘no one is above the Law’ was intended to be ironic or not. I completely agree with the ideology, but did the filmmakers realize that Nico was putting himself above the law on his quest to punish those who considered themselves above the law? Throughout the duration of the film, Nico engages in police brutality, forcible entry without a warrant, illegal wire tapping, killing in cold blood and even a bit more. This could’ve provided an excellent internal conflict, but the writers never explore this possibility. The ending speech could imply that Nico realized he had compromised himself, but it’s vague and likely was directed against the villains. As I said, I’m not sure if this was intentional. If it was, I suppose it added a little depth, even if it could’ve been taken further.If not, then it’s just a flaw. Overall, I wouldn’t call the script bad as much as I’d call it a standard action script. There is some good dialogue, some absurd moments, some suspenseful interactions and some dumb writing in order to drive the story. But it’s loose and flimsy narrative works to boost Steven Seagal, even if it doesn’t hold up very well as its own entity.
“Above the Law” balances car chases, shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat, although I wouldn’t call this movie action packed. There is enough, but I will concede that the pacing is often inconsistent because large chunks of screen-time go on without any kind of physical conflict. Watching this again, I found myself feeling nostalgic and missing this time period for the genre. This was back when practical effects, blood squibs and real stuntwork were used to bring the action to life, all of which are among my favorite kinds of spectacle. The car chases were exciting and the stunts were impressive, although I wouldn’t say any of this was especially memorable. The direction is crisp and the cinematography is gritty, but once again, none of this is allowed to take our attention off Seagal. If any of the action really stands out, it’s the hand-to-hand fights because Seagal shows off his Aikido abilities. Back in 1988, modern audiences had never really experienced this martial art before, so the Aikido gave “Above the Law” its own distinct flavor. The emphasize is primarily on the brutality of Seagal’s counters and limb breaking, but those crunches always made me cringe. Unfortunately, the problem with Aikido is that while it looks different than most martial arts, there isn’t enough diversity in the moves to keep it from becoming stale within the realm of cinema. Almost every subsequent Steven Seagal flick would share almost identical choreography, where Seagal would be surrounded by a bunch of thugs and would dismantle them using the exact same techniques. I prefer the fights from “Above the Law” more than most of them, primarily because Seagal put more emotion behind the attacks and was convincing as a martial arts-themed bad-ass. Do I need to remind you of how phoned in Seagal’s performances were later on? Or how heavy he would become? For the record, I don’t want you to think I’m bullying someone for being fat. I only bring it up so much because he usually plays roles which should be reserved for younger, slimmer men. His prevalent near-invincibility only makes it harder to take him seriously, although “Above the Law” happens to be one of his few films where he gets hurt. Granted, he’s never matched in a fight and being tortured only seems to make him angry, but Steven Seagal bleeding makes for an unusual visual.
There is definitely a lot of 80’s cheese to be found within the fashions, some of the characterizations and definitely the music, but…it was the 80’s! What do you expect? If “Above the Law” is dated in a truly bad way, it’s only because we’ve seen similar-but-better films take the spectacle even farther, or fleshed out the story even further. Even Seagal has managed to surpass it with the likes of “Under Siege” and “Out for Justice“. But “Above the Law” does its job, being competently made and providing enough entertainment to satisfy us action fans, while manipulating us into focusing on the star. Back in 1988, I probably would’ve reacted with a lot more enthusiasm. But even as of 2015, I still find enjoyment out of this movie. “Above the Law” was a modest box office success, but more importantly, put Seagal on the map and lead to him starring in bigger, better movies. Unfortunately, “On Deadly Ground” might’ve been a lot bigger, but it forgot to be better and it ended up leading to a lot of smaller, inferior movies. And then they got even smaller and more inferior. And then even smaller and more inferior again. And that was before he did “Flight of Fury“. The Star had fallen, but sometimes its nice to look into the sky, where it used to be. I will always be fond of “Above the Law“, for all of its shortcomings and part of me will always be fond of Seagal, even when I pay dearly for it. But hey, “Machete” was kind of a big deal, “Maximum Conviction” was fun and while “A Good Man” and “Force of Execution” were not good movies, they still boasted some ambition and effort. Maybe one day, the Seagal who made “Above the Law” enjoyable will return and break our arms for doubting him. I hope the crunch will be loud and cringe inducing!
Violence: It s pretty gritty, although there is one goofy looking arm breaking scene. Still pretty gruesome, but it made me laugh too. Rated R worthy.
Nudity: None…shockingly. Some dialogue is very sex-oriented thogh.
Overall: “Above the Law” was a good start for Steven Seagal. You should watch it if you re a fan of 80’s action or a fan of Seagal in general. But I suspect that if you are, you’ve probably already seen this.
DISCARD MATERIAL (the original review)
-Note from Author: I chose to do a new writing as I felt I was too snarky and unfocused during my original take, although this ended up being difficult because I struggled with putting into words what I liked about this movie. My original review is pretty subpar in retrospect. I cleaned it up a bit, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself with lines like “At this point, martial arts had sort of died at this point”. Yeah, I wrote that…
There is an amusing irony running throughout Steven Seagal’s big debut, ”Above the Law”. Early in the film, we see stock footage of former President Nixon explaining that no one is above the law or below it, and it’s that principle that keeps law and order. Of course, we all know what Nixon did. Throughout the movie, Steven Seagal is trying to punish those who seem to be above the law. Yet Seagal’s character Nico uses police brutality, forcible entry without a warrant, illegal wire tapping, killing in cold blood and even a bit more. The irony is that Nico seems to think he’s acceptably above the law, while accusing other people who fancy themselves above the law. This makes for great conflict but it’s never explored. Throughout the movie, we’re supposed to believe Steven Seagal is right. It’s strange when a films message completely turns on the film itself.
Seagal plays Nico, and we hear him narrate his childhood through a montage of pictures. It s a surprisingly effective opening. He grows up, learns martial arts (aikido, to be exact), becomes a CIA operative until he witnesses Zagon (Henry Silva), a CIA bigwig, torturing some poor soul with mysterious drugs. He then leaves and years later, is now a cop. His partner is…Pam Grier? Holy shit! Steven Seagal, Henry Silva and Pam Grier are all in the same movie! Grier plays Jax, his hot but tough partner. Nico gets involved in what first appears to be a drug bust, but it turns out to be explosives. Unfortunately, all involved are let go and soon Nico learns that his old CIA nemesis is behind it and for a deadly reason.
The problem with Above the Law is that it’s predictable. The characters are all types and no shocking plot points/surprise twists will actually shock or surprise you. Yet at the same time, the film seems to want to play with our expectations. Too much of this film meanders with pointless subplots that never go anywhere. Why did we need Nico’s hooker cousin here again only to be dropped off like she wasn’t in the movie to begin with? Why did we need so much focus on Nico s family. It keeps setting up a possible attack on them, but it never happens. The story is unfocused on the result is that the pace is annoyingly uneven. Of course, there is also the ”what are the odds” twists that happen oh so much within the movie. But that’s the 80’s for you.
So ”Above the Law“ is Steven Seagal’s first movie that would pretty much define what a Steven Seagal movie is. It has action, violence, questionable acting, clichés, one-dimensional villains, a perfect hero, corrupt cops/government agents and most of all: A title that you can put ‘Steven Seagal is’ and it will create a coherent sentence. Steven Seagal is “Above the Law“. Steven Seagal is “Against the Dark”. Steven Seagal is “Out for Justice“. Steven Seagal is “Marked for Death”. Steven Seagal is “Submerged”. Steven Seagal is “The Foreigner“. “Above the Law“ also adds what you’d want from an 80’s actioner. There are plenty of exciting car chases, gritty violence, detestable villains, gun fights and the most impressive of all: Martial arts. At this point, martial arts had sort of died out in popularity. Chuck Norris was the closest thing we had, and even his career was beginning to fade out. Seagal brought a surprising amount of realism to his fights, and you also have to remember that aikido is more unique than the styles Americans were used too. Oddly, in the same year, Jean Claude Van Damme would make his big break with ”Bloodsport“. The two would become rivals for quite some time. Which flick was better? Well, Van Damme’s movie was more entertaining, but Seagal delivered a much better performance. Speaking of which…
It’s so odd to be used to fat and boring Seagal and then go back to watching one of his older films, where he was at his physical peak and is actually acting. Sure, he’s more of a star than he is an actor, but he’s pretty good at it. He bristles with cackling energy (Note from Author: Okay, I’ve embarrassed myself) and when he wants to hurt someone, you feel it. He does great and in fact, whenever the plot loses focus, it can be argued that it s done to show off Seagal’s chops a bit more, as he was a better actor than most of his contemporaries within the genre. He holds the movie together. As for the other actors, Pam Grier (Jax) is superb as his partner. I forgot that she could actually act as well when she wanted to. A Henry Silva (Zagon) performance that is not over-the-top isn’t a Henry Silva performance at all. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it works really well here. Sharon Stone has a small and forgettable role as Nico’s wife. Some of the supporting cast feels off. The Indian grocery store owner has to be one of the worst actors I’ve ever seen.
”Above the Law“ isn’t a great film, or even a particularly good film. But it is a decent 80’s actioner that is elevated due to Steven Seagal’s imposing presence. All in all, it was a great start for the man and it s a shame how far he would eventually fall. I truly do miss you, Steven Seagal, I really do. It is a coincidence that I watch and review this shortly after some gal accused him of sexual harassment and sexual slavery. If he’s found guilty, I just don t know if I will be able to continue watching his films. I can only take so much disappointment from him (Note from Author: The case was dismissed). Yet I have to confess, if you re a fan, you should watch this again. I like to envision a Seagal who isn’t a fat, boring, greedy, horny, sexual deviant (Note from Author: Because I see that whenever I look in the mirror!).