The Steven Seagal Super Cinematic Spectacular: Above The Law
To understand why Steven Seagal initially made good action movies, one has to actually understand how he ended up starring in his first movie Above The Law. It was a case of pure ego on the part of Agent Michael Ovitz, who on more than one occasion has claimed he could make anyone a star. Ovitz and Seagal knew each other due to Ovitz being a student at Seagal’s West Hollywood Aikido Dojo. Ovitz put his claim to the test by arranging a screen-test for Seagal in 1987. Seagal was not a novice in Hollywood though, as he had served as fight choreographer and stunt co-ordinater on several movies before that, not the least of which were 2 films in the James Bond franchise. Seagal’s screen-test went over so well Warner Brothers signed him up for a 3 picture deal. Ovitz asked Seagal to star in Above The Law as a personal favor to Ovitz and thus we have one of the best debuts for an action movie star I can think of.
Above The Law isn’t your average action movie. It relies less on blowing things up and moves on displaying Seagal’s talents as a Martial Artist. The average movie fan wasn’t exactly overly familiar with Aikido in 1988 when the movie was released. What made it even more impressive was Seagal’s wiry frame. Outside of his penetrating stare, Seagal may look somewhat unassuming to someone not in the know. So to see this slip of a guy beat the crap out of people onscreen and, more importantly make it look believable, was something refreshing. When Bruce Lee made it huge in the 70s, everyone and his brother tried to copy the style of 70s era Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies. Seagal demonstrated efficient brutality with Aikido, a form that relies on using an attacker’s force against him by use of counter grappling and short range strikes. The thing is, Aikido is primarily a strictly defensive art, designed to negate as much damage to both victim and attacker as possible. Well that philosophy didn’t come across so well in Above The Law, as Seagal demonstrated the most offense minded Aikido anyone had seen by that point.
The fact that so few people in the West were unfamiliar with Aikido at the time, only added to Seagal’s appeal. He was someone new and exciting. The rest of his appeal, in his first quartet of movies, was also his slight frame. Seagal was not the action movie hero we, as moviegoers, had become accustomed to in 1980s. The 80s were the era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger i.e. the over-muscled guy. Steven Seagal was so wiry and lean, not skinny mind you but more in shape the way a gymnast might be as opposed to how a bodybuilder is in shape. He is muscular but not bulging out of his shirt. Seagal in Above The Law spends large chunks of screen time in a tank top or wifebeater and that only enhances his lean look and makes him seem like an even bigger asskicker. Add to his intense look, that stare with his then narrow face, Seagal just exuded intensity. Even in scenes where he is mainly talking onscreen, there is just this raw energy he gives off, like at any second he is gong to explode in a silent rage and maybe even slap co-star Pam Grier. If anything it is amazing Seagal didn’t have a Hollywood contract before Michael Ovitz came along.
The fact of the matter is, Michael Ovitz came along and made good on his boast, thus unleashing Seagal on a movie going public. Unleash is the right word to use because Above The Law is a tour de force of action that actually has a more complex plot than your average 80s action film. I mean c’mon, a story about an Ex-CIA operative in Vietnam, with possible Mob ties, returns home to Chicago and joins the police force and then gets wrapped up in a rogue CIA cell that is determined to assassinate a US Senator. There is also some stuff in there about protecting a group of illegal immigrants, which ties into the Senator. This is one convoluted story to some extent, but it is pretty complex for an action movie starring a martial artist turned actor. The thing is the movie ends up working because along with all the martial arts and gunplay, Above The Law somehow tells a complex story that merges 3 types of action film into one. It ha the intrigue of a spy movie, the straightforward action of a cop movie and the sheer man to man physicality of a Sonny Chiba Street Fighter movie!
Let me go a little further into this. Steven Seagal plays Nico Toscani, an American who traveled to Japan and mastered the art of Aikido. Due to his knowledge of said art and his familiarity with Asian cultures , Toscani is recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War. On one mission, near the Vietnam-Cambodian border, he watches one of his superiors, Kurt Zagon, torture a prisoner. Through this torture he learns that the unit he is working for has gotten into the business of running drugs from Southeast Asia to the US. Nico quits the agency in disgust and returns home to Chicago. This is just the opening prelude of the movie, giving you Nico’s (and to a lesser extent Seagal’s) background.
This early exposition pretty much paints with a large brush, basically letting everyone watching the movie know that one way or another this shit will get brought up in the main story later on. So after Nico gets back from Vietnam he becomes a cop and even gets married to a character played by Sharon Stone BEFORE she became the mainstream actress most guys wanted to see naked in 1992 and before she started to look like a sleestack sometime around 2004.
It is all pretty straightforward, I mean if you look at Seagal’s first 4 movies he plays a law enforcement or ex-law enforcement officer of some kind so it makes sense that this movie starts the trend. Nico gets involved in a case where after a successful bust his perps are immediately released due to intervention by the Feds. Usual action movie protocol when the Feds get involved Lead/Actor Cop gets told to stand down/back-off the case. The Cop basically ignores the warning and investigates deeper in to the criminal activity and always digs up something worse. Do you really expect this movie to break that formula?
Basically it goes like this, criminals are tied to the Opium/Heroin ring that Nico’s ex-CIA unit was involved in. It was due to the drug connections of the unit that Nico quit the CIA in the first place (well that and the fact that Zagon was a a fucking psycho). This all ties into a catholic priest harboring Nicaraguan refugees. See Zagon wants to use the drug money the CIA was still making to fund an invasion of Nicaragua but can’t because a U.S. Senator is trying to pressure the CIA into unveiling their dirty tricks before the Senate. Zagon is tryign to put together a little dirty operation with the Nicaraguan drug dealers to pull off an assassination on the Senator so the U.S. will back his nutty invasion idea.
Of course Nico starts piecing all of these things together, gets the CIA after him and has pressure from his own Police Internal Affairs Division investigating him for no good reason (courtesy of Zagon). The deeper Nico goes, the more people he needs up beating the crap out of (including trashing the same bar twice and beating up the bar owner so many times I lost count). It all boils down to Nico being captured by Zagon and his goon squad. Zagon tries to torture Nico, not for any real reason other than he can. This causes Nico to Hulk-Up and break free and then beat the living shit out of everyone in order to get to the auditorium the Senator is giving a speech at. Nico busts in, stops the assassination and even beats he crap out of some Secret Service guys in he process, all in time to save the Senators life. The movie ends with Nico and the Senator relating Nico’s story to the press about the CIA connection to drugs and backing drug lords, painting Nico as a model Hero Cop.
That’s the movie. It blends political intrigue, spy-thriller and and plain old asskicking into a pretty satisfying movie. Seagal isn’t doing Hamlet as Nico Toscani but more importantly, he knows this and really doesn’t try to push the envelope as an actor. Seagal knows he is here to be intense and kick ass. The rest of the movie is like a whose who of “Secondary Character Actor Heaven”. You get good old Chelcie Ross in there as Nico’s CIA buddy, Nelson Fox, who keeps trying to wave him off the whole thing. Chelcie Ross is probably best remembered for being in Major League as Eddie Harris, the old pitcher who would use anything to get some grease on the ball. Add to that Henry Silva as Kurt Zagon. Silva is a king of the “Hey That Guy Played The Bad Guy In [Insert Movie Title Here]” School of Acting. He definitely plays a good psycho CIA Torture Master in Above The Law, though he was better as the crazy-drugged out hitman in Sharkey’s Machine. Hell, Michael Rooker even has a cameo in this and I might have even spotted Dennis Farina at some point (don’t quote me on that, but c’mon when you need a room full of guys to play Sicilians or Chicago Cops, odds are Farina will be in here somewhere). Then you throw in Pam Grier as Nico’s soon to retire partner, who really doesn’t need all this shit to go down her last week on the force. Even if Seagal’s acting isn’t Alec Guiness level, he’s got a pretty fucking amazing supporting cast. Shit, even Sharon Stone is decent, as Nico’s wife and all she pretty much does is yell and cry at him.
In the end, Above The Law tries to be many different types of movie at once and yet somehow still manages to be coherent, a trick not many movies can pull off with just being about one thing. It is also Seagal at his most compelling. I mean it was his first movie, it was the movie that said “Hey! Look at this White Guy beat the crap out of someone with a Martial Art you have probably never seen before!”. Seagal had such a magnetic presence because he pulls off intense and completely calm at the same time, save for when he is kicking someone’s ass. It’s like he wants to prove what Bruce Lee was saying in Enter The Dragon was true, that emotional content in a fight is the difference between winning and losing that fight. The fact is most martial artists stumble a few steps when they start their movie careers. Hell even most of the guys in the Action Movie Pantheon have some early stumbling steps (just look at Schwarzenegger in Hercules In New York or even worse Stallone in every post-Rocky movie until First Blood), but Seagal is so incredibly compelling and badass in Above The Law that he just clean knocks it out of the park on the first pitch. It was a hell of a way to start a film career. No one foresaw Above The Law being as good as it was. It wasn’t a great film by any stretch but it was something different and it gave the world Seven Seagal. Even more surprising is how well Above The Law holds up, as it doesn’t feel dated or out of place when watching it to day. It really is a good movie. Of course Above The Law set the stage for what was to come next, Seagal’s Sophomore effort Hard To Kill!