The man known as Steven Seagal makes his feature film debut with Above the Law, a 1988 cop actioner directed by Andrew Davis. It is a pretty decent little movie, amazingly enough, and it presents Seagal as a charismatic and likable enough lead to launch him into an action hero career that is, alas, sorely lacking today thanks to a combination of a weakened product and a changing audience base.
For whatever reason, Seagal was always my guy. I was a fan of Van Damme, too, but Seagal had a certain humanity and humour that seemed more interesting. His attacks weren’t based around outmuscling opponents; he used Aikido and his wits to take down groups of bad guys. And in Above the Law, his Buddhist/Italian/street blend was just the right touch.
Seagal is Nico Toscano. Through an introduction sequence, we learn that Nico was born in Italy, immigrated to the United States and developed a love for martial arts. He moved to Japan to study with the masters and soon dominated. In 1960, Nico was recruited into the CIA and served witness to a whole new era of corruption and torture at the hands of one Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva).
Years later, Nico became a cop in Chicago. He got married to Sara (Sharon Stone) and partners with Jacks (Pam Grier), forming an enviable 1989 triangle – to say the least. Anyway, through his tough street style of police work, Nico eventually finds himself at the centre of a deep government conspiracy involving opium, the CIA and his old nemesis Zagon.
Above the Law does have a fairly interesting plot, but Davis’ picture doesn’t communicate it in a very literate fashion and it seems more convoluted than it needs to be. It tries to be everything to everyone, focusing on corruption in the government, cop drama, marital issues, and the drug trade all at once. It doesn’t really do service to any of its compelling plotlines and starts to come apart at the seams by the time it tries to wrap.
Luckily, Davis’ flick is populated with a terrific mix of great actors and stock character actors to make it almost always entertaining. Stone is good as the doe-eyed cop’s wife, while Grier gets to play the cop just days away from retirement. Above the Law also features my favourite pair of character actors: Ron Dean and Joseph F. Kosala. Kosala was apparently a real cop who, like the likes of Dennis Farina and Chuck Adamson, finished his career in film. Thanks, IMDb!
What makes Above the Law really tick is Seagal’s irrepressible presence. He dominates every scene he’s in, even the dramatic scenes with Stone. Davis wisely sinks Seagal’s Nico into the community, so everybody knows him and little nuggets of dialogue from passing characters we never see illuminate more about this character. Seagal gamely fleshes this out, whether through a ridiculous strut after punching a big guy or the colourful use of “motherfucker” in the right places.
Above the Law lays out what is so interesting about Seagal at the same time that it lays out why his career fizzled out. He tries everything and anything in the role, moving from speeches that may interest only him to action sequences with lots of broken bones and busted lips. He moves fluidly through the picture, showing the required emotion and hardness in turns.
They don’t make many action movies like this anymore. Most are coated with CGI and touch-ups to present visions of perfect heroes. Many of our heroes aren’t even human beings anymore, “blessed” as they are with superpowers or visions of unattainable wealth. Seagal’s Nico was a real person, at least on some level, and that used to be worth something.