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Hard to Kill
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Steven Seagal, Kelly LeBrock, William Sadler, Frederick Coffin, Bonnie Burroughs, Andrew Bloch

Written By: Steven McKay Directed By: Bruce Malmuth

The Short Version

It’s really hard to go wrong with old school Seagal.

It’s fun to listen to Seagal toy with the bad guys before making their limbs bend the wrong way.

Kelly LeBrock has a very nice turn as the damsel who is not in distress.

This is not “Short Attention Span Theatre;” back then, they sometimes tried to include a movie between kill shots.

Hard to Kill is vintage Seagal awesomeness, and a tasty action snack that’s easy to revisit over and over again.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Easy to snack on, and they make this crunching sound…

Pairs Well With...


The choice of left-for-dead cops after they finally come out of a coma and get to have a cold one with an old pal.

“This is for my wife.  Fuck you and die!”

When a line like that is used to cap off a round of pool cue kendo, you know you’ve been to a party.  A classic Steven Seagal party. 

Hard to Kill was the first of two theatrical outings for Seagal in 1990, and his first after changing the rules for mainstream American action with Above the Law in 1988.  Here, the formula created in that first film alters slightly, but still keeps its basic frame: Seagal is still playing a family man, he’s still playing a cop fighting corruption, his character still spent an extended period of his life in Asia, and between the bone snaps, he still tries to include an actual movie with plot points that don’t involve action scenes (though this time, he’s trimmed down the subplot fat).  Best of all, the formula still works.

Our story kicks off in 1983.  Mason Storm (Steven Seagal, Under Siege) is an LA cop looking to get the goods on a local mobster on Oscar night.  This leads him to a back alley with a video camera and a tape recorder, but he overhears – and captures on film – much more than he bargained for.  Instead of an ordinary deal, he hears someone arranging for a hit against a US Senator.  He can’t quite figure out who’s ordering the hit, but he’s sure it’ll be clear when he has a chance to review the tape.  Unfortunately, he seen by the bad guys, and even though he gets away, now they know that someone has the potential to spoil their plans.  Even worse, when he calls a friend of his on the force, crooked cops overhear the conversation, so now they know that “someone” is named Mason Storm.

After pausing at a liquor store to pick up some champagne and take out some would-be robbers, Storm heads home to his wife and son.  After stashing the video away for safekeeping, he heads upstairs and is about to have a very nice nightcap with the wife when bad guys with guns show up and start blasting.  Mason is in bad shape, his wife is killed instantly, and his young son runs off.  When Storm gets to the hospital, he’s pronounced dead, and the bad guys sigh with relief.

Only a moment later, it turns out he’s not dead.  Upon hearing this, Storm’s best pal, Lt. O’Malley of Internal Affairs (Fredrick Coffin, Shoot to Kill), immediately puts a clamp on the news.  As long as everyone thinks Storm is dead, he’ll have a better chance of staying alive long enough to tell what happened.  Unfortunately, even though he’s still alive, he’s in a coma, and for the next seven years, he’ll stay that way under the name “John Doe.”

Then one day in 1990, John Doe wakes up.  After seven years of waiting, it’s time for the bad guys to pay…

There seems to be a law amongst Segal critics that everyone has to mention a certain item, so I’ll take care of this part right away: yes, Mason Storm is a very kickass name.

As it turns out, Hard to Kill is also a kickass movie.

Hard to Kill is a tighter effort than Above the Law was two years before.  Whereas the earlier effort was packed with enough subplots to fill three movies, this time around, the fat’s been trimmed to a manageable level.  The film still remembers to tell a story – indeed, there’s a very long gap in the middle during which nothing more menacing than a dirty look occurs while characters are allowed to develop and the stage is allowed to be set – but this time, it tells a smooth one that doesn’t feel like it’s competing for a listing in the “Guinness Book of Trying Too Hard.”  It gives something up in the tension department – the audience spends about an hour knowing something that Mason Storm does not – but it more than makes up for that with other things.  The romance element – always the diciest of propositions when it comes to action flicks – actually works very well here, and is built up believably, even understanding Storm as finding himself to be a widower.  The humor’s there, too, but it’s never ridiculous, and in fact is usually timed perfectly to enhance whatever else is going on.

Even though he often toys with his opponents with smartass repartee before dispatching them, Seagal’s fights also feel tighter than they did in his previous film, and the bones crunch a little louder this time around, too.  Indeed, they’re not only louder, but they crunch more often, complete with more “that’s not supposed to bend that way” visuals.  Having proven his general martial arts repertoire in Above the Law, now he’s able to find his groove and have fun with it.  Ass kicking highlights include the liquor store scene – do punks ever try to rob anything else in these movies? – and my personal favorite, the pool cue kendo scene, with a little spearfishing thrown in at no extra charge, if you know what I’m saying.  The Chinatown chicken stand fight is also satisfying, if a bit one-sided.  (Is there ever a better location for an urban footrace in an American city than its Chinatown?)  There’s even some non martial arts action fun to be had; indeed, watching Mason Storm escape a gunman while Storm himself is barely conscious and confined to a hospital gurney is a riot to watch, and it’s all the more so by staying on just this side of the plausible line.

Which brings up another cool thing about Hard to Kill: it pays attention to details.  The plan to hide Storm during his recovery makes sense; there are even layers to it so it doesn’t feel like just a plot device.  (Even how he gets found out is a nice detail that’s only peripherally noted; the wrong number gets called when he wakes up because the person calling didn’t see a hand scribbled note with a new number written down in the file.)  Often in movies when a character comes out of a coma, he or she is up and at ‘em right away.  Seagal’s recovery may be somewhat accelerated (how much we cannot say, though; hooray for the ambiguous passage of time during the training montage!), but at least some real effort is made to show that he has to recover and rebuild his body before he can come back to being as ass kicking aikido machine.  Dating the 1983 portion of the film with something concrete like the Oscar telecast (and Johnny Carson making fun of it afterward) is also an inspired stroke.  Again, this is a movie that cares about its characters, and also wants to tell an actual story with a little depth.  That kind of flavor only makes the bone snapping that much more worthwhile when it comes.

Speaking of bones (cough)… there’s just enough sex in this flick to let the audience know that Seagal is a “hands on” type of guy (foreplay without exposure only), and no showers scenes at all to speak of.  What it does have is real romantic chemistry, no doubt helped along by the fact that Steven Seagal’s leading lady in this flick is his then-wife, Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science, or, if you watched enough TV commercials once upon a time, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”), with whom he was even still on good terms.  (Not always a given with action star/wife pair ups; but then again, Seagal isn’t Lorenzo Lamas, is he?)  This chemistry allows a lot of subtext to play out without a word needing to be spoken, and it really helps to sell the “meet the girl/fall for the girl” thing in a way that most action movies never do.  Most importantly, though, LeBrock is just a good actress, and she plays her character well.  When I saw how short her acting resume actually is, I can only suspect that it’d be a lot longer if she wanted it to be, because the skill is there.

As for our bad guy, William Sadler (Die Hard 2) easily slips into the role of the man you love to hate, and thanks to his bevy of henchman that give Seagal plenty of chances to make limbs bend in ways that they shouldn’t, that mostly makes up for the fact that he himself can’t (and doesn’t even try to) fight, denying the audience a climactic duel at the end.  With that said, though, at least there’s a long battle leading up to it, and the final showdown does take more than just ten seconds.  Even though you’re pretty sure how it’s going to be resolved, there’s even some tension there, and tension is always a welcome thing in an action flick.

Bottom line, Hard to Kill is one of the fun and wonderful gems from the golden age that is Steven Seagal’s early career.  A story is told, bones get snapped, wisecracks abound, and yes, even more bones get snapped.  This is the kind of movie that’s easy to snack on over and over again, and can be considered a library essential for any Steven Seagal fan.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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