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Above the Law
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ABOVE THE LAW (1988)

Starring: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Henry Silva, Daniel Faraldo, Chelcie Ross

Written By: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett, Andrew Davis (also story), Steven Seagal (story) Directed By: Andrew Davis

The Short Version

Steven Seagal’s first movie.

Consider this the transition piece between typical 80s action and typical 90s action.

Believe it or not, the script is too complicated.

The fights are very well done, and they go quick.

Overall, Above the Law is fun to watch, despite the ending.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PROVOLONE PICCANTE.

Sharp Italian cheese… just like the character Seagal plays in Above the Law.


Pairs Well With...

HEILEMAN'S OLD STYLE.

For a very long time, this was the official cheap beer of much of the Midwestern United States, and it’s the beer you see advertised most in this movie.  It fits.  (You see only one sign for something else, and it’s from the same brewery.) 

“Right now in Europe they're trying some 80 year-old camp guard for Nazi war crimes.  And all around our country they’ve got guys on death row for murdering one, two, three guys.  And they probably deserve what they're going to get.  But you and I, we know a couple of people that are personally responsible for the death of, what, 50,000 non-military personnel?  Librarians, teachers, doctors, women, children; all dead!  We've wiped out entire cultures!  And for what?  Not one CIA agent has ever been tried, much less accused of any crimes.  You guys think you're above the law.  Well, you ain't above mine.”


Once upon a time, the world had never heard of Steven Seagal.  Then came Above the Law, and all Hell broke loose.

Well, kind of, anyway.  Though something of a novelty at the time, compared to what would follow, Above the Law is actually kind of tame.  It would, however, be the springboard that turned Steven Seagal into one of the most dominant action players of the next several years.

While martial arts action was nothing new to Hollywood (a certain Mr. Lee had broken that barrier roughly a decade and a half before), it hadn’t really integrated fully into the standard action film yet.  Chuck Norris was as close as things got, and even then, the fights were generally formalized, with a tournament-like feel even if the action didn’t happen to be taking place during a tournament.  By and large, martial arts movies were still their own thing for Hollywood, and if something ever did trickle down, a martial arts scene was still a martial arts scene.  Above the Law takes a blender to this notion.  Seagal takes his aikido to the street, and feels free to use it whether his opponents have any idea what they’re doing or not, without notice.  For a standard Hollywood action audience, this was a novelty.  He’s a cop with a gun, after all; why doesn’t he just always reach for his gun?  Hard though it may be to believe now, many audiences had never seen anything like this before.

This novelty was augmented by the fact that the fights look great (even the ones that only last two seconds), along with it being very clear that Steven Seagal was doing all of them himself.  This movie is his coming out party to the world, and he knows exactly what the biggest item is that he has to sell.  The combat is tight, the action varied, and every weapon has been handpicked by Seagal himself.  He also makes sure that he doesn’t forget the gunplay to go along with the aikido, because he knows what his audience is ready for at this point.

Indeed, though it’s popular to make fun of Seagal now, the movie he’s constructed here – for make no mistake; this is his baby – marks a real turning point in the history of Big Hollywood action movies.  Continuing beyond the small step taken by Lethal Weapon (which Above the Law actually bears quite a bit of resemblance to in its frame) the year before, Above the Law is the pivotal transition between what typified action movies of the 1980s and what would become the standard for not just the 90s but even beyond.  After this, martial arts combat would forever have a dominant role.  No longer was it a dumb move to bring a knife to a gunfight; indeed, just bare hands would be fine.  What Bruce Lee started, Steven Seagal finished.

With that said, though, Above the Law does retain one element of older school 80s action that future Seagal movies would jettison: a complicated story.  Indeed, Above the Law has enough subplots for three stories.  CIA drug operations, assassination plots, refugees under a church, bomb in a church, corruption, family stuff; all of those things and more can be found here, and all of them are actually given a fair amount of screen time to develop.  (You’ll be amazed that this clocks at under 100 minutes.)  This is why there’s a lot more screen time between fights than the typical modern action audience and certainly the typical Seagal audience will be used to, and even though there are several fights beforehand, the first bone doesn’t crack until almost precisely the one hour mark.  (Though Seagal fans won’t be surprised to see Seagal already starting out at preaching his politics, one element he’d tend to keep as time went on while he dropped others.)

However, none of this potentially burdensome material ends up slowing down the movie, because it’s all very well played.  Many people consider this to be Steven Seagal’s best acting performance (I’m undecided on that myself), because here, he’s got range.  He’s the badass, sure, but he’s also the friend and the family man.  I think this plays most strikingly in a scene wherein he pulls up to his uncle’s house looking not just pissed, but distraught because he believes that his partner is dead.  The joy and relief on his face when told that she’s alive and okay is so genuine that there’s even a little heart tug there.  It’s a subtle detail, but believe me, when people seeing him for the first time wondered what Steven Seagal was all about, they noticed.

He’s also got a great cast behind him.  Pam Grier (Escape From LA), old school fan favorite of the blaxploitation era, is just plain fabulous as Seagal’s about-to-leave-the-force-to-be-a-DA partner.  She’s got a real chemistry with Seagal on the screen, and there’s no trouble at all believing that they’re partners and friends.  The police force is rounded out by a familiar cast of gruff, blue collar character players of the sort whose names you never remember but whose faces and voices you always recognize, and then almost always as Chicago cops.  On the flip side, Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate) takes things over the top as the villain, but that’s fine, because that’s what he’s supposed to do.  The character is, after all, something of a psycho who specializes in chemical torture for profit.  Beyond that, the villains are standard fare, though I will actually give kudos to Daniel Faraldo (Full Fathom Five) for what he doesn’t do, which is take the character of the sleazy drug kingpin to the farcical extreme that pretty much every other actor given a chance to did during the 1980s.

Kudos also to the production team for superb uses of locations.  Even if you’ve never been to the city yourself, there’s no way to mistake the setting for anywhere but Chicago, and if you have been there, it’s something of a travelogue, and twenty plus years on, the start of a game of “hey, there’s another building there now!”

So, with all of the stuff that breaks ground and goes right with Above the Law, is there anything that goes wrong?  Of course there is, though most of it falls into the category of “stuff that audiences habitually forgive action movies for.”  Without question, the biggest flare is fired by the fact that ultimately, the movie is a complete contradiction of itself.  The preachy speech quoted up top (a line from Seagal, of course) lays down the essence of what both Above the Law as a movie and what Steven Seagal’s character of Nico Toscani are all about.  And yet, for someone who thinks no one should be above the law, Nico Toscani has no qualms whatsoever about stepping outside his bounds and behaving very much like he’s above the law himself at the first drop of a hat.  Cousin on drugs?  Beat the crap out of half a bar and shove the boyfriend’s face into a mirror full of coke; no sweat.  And that’s before the drug kingpin gets released by the Feds and goes on to bomb Nico’s church.  Like the drug dealer himself says, realistically, “This maniac should be wearing a number, not a badge!”  But then again, we do forgive our hero cops this one all the time as moviegoers, don’t we? 

Also of note, once all of the various and at times superfluous subplots are either sorted out or discarded, the one that turns out to be central to everything is actually rather thin.  (The CIA selling drugs is fine; that’s not only old hat for movies by now, but it’s even been proven true.  I’m talking about the tenuous connection between the priest and the assassination plot.)  And just how the hell is there any logic in the final gathering of bad guys including the shitheel bartender Seagal roughed up early in the movie?  Why should the badass CIA man have anything to do with this little creep?  He’s credited as “CIA Bartender”, but I am very, very dubious.  But then again, we all know the real excuse: we want Seagal to kill him at the end, plain and simple.

And that is where the one major strike comes against Above the Law, no matter how you want to slice things or approach the movie.  The problem is simply this: the final fight, the climactic battle to which everything else has been leading, lasts significantly less than ten seconds.  It’s not even really a fight, because in a fight, all parties tend to get at least one move in.  Realistically, it’s a pretty disappointing finish to an otherwise well-done movie.

Even with that, though, Above the Law is still fun.

Bottom line, Above the Law is definitely worth your time.  Not only is it Steven Seagal’s first film, but it marks the transition between what action was in the 1980s and what it would become in the years that followed.  It’s also fun, and in the end, that’s what these movies are all about.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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