Above The Law (1988): Breakdown by RANTBO
CIA drug traffickers think they are above the law, but they aren’t above Seagal’s aikido. No one is. NO ONE.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Steven Seagal is Tac Sergeant, CPD VICE Nicola ‘Nico’ Toscani
FBI Dick: Congratulations Toscani, you just made number four on the most wanted list.
Nico [Disappointed]: Number four? I want to be number one.
Along with Seagal, his well known and oft used tactic of ego boosting through self-gratifying dialogue makes it’s screen debut in Above The Law. Effectively setting himself up as the bad mother fucker we’ve all come to know and lovingly mock. Though I must say he set the bar surprisingly high considering he was an unknown at the time of this opening monologue. But, I guess when you’re blessed with the capability to whip serious ass you no longer have the need to tap-dance around vanity, fame or no fame…
So Seagal, or rather his first on-screen alias “Nico”, tells us, by the age of 17 he was in the far east, studying with the masters (of martial arts), eventually becoming a master himself, in aikido. Then in his twenties (sometime after he perfected being the class bully), Nico was recruited into the CIA and immediately began running covert missions in the jungles of ‘Nam. He soon became disillusioned with the tactics his government was willing to use, so he quit the agency mid-war, moved to Chicago, joined the police department (where he become a decorated officer), married Sharon Stone and did all this before the film officially begins.
Nico then goes on to smash a drug dealer’s face into a dresser full of narcotic paraphernalia and bitch slap him for trying to bribe his way out of getting arrested. THEN, unarmed, he takes on a group of men wielding: a machete, a gun, a lead pipe and a baseball bat. The aftermath of which yields a severed arm, a broken nose, a sliced knee joint, a blade chop to the neck, an aikido flip into broken bottles and a knee to the jaw (Seagal suffering none and delivering all, of course)! AND THEN he goes on to get his badge confiscated for….
….You get the point. Nico is simply every bit as badass as Seagal himself would, and does, claim to be.
Pam Grier is Delores ‘Jacks’ Jackson
The lady that mercifully combats and wards off the evil blonde stain on the film print by Nico’s marriage to the Stone, Jacks is a godsend. Played by Pam Grier, the knockout, bad-ass babe from the yesteryears of 70s blaxploitation. Not only does this mamma-jamma make a worthy partner to Seagal in his limb-snapping vigilantism, she also manages to stave off the obvious ‘one-week-from-retirement-woman-who-won’t-listen-when-told-to-stay-in-the-car-when-a-shootout-is-afoot’ death sequence. Not to say it was easy, but she takes her shotgunned licks and keeps on kicking, successfully breaking the 80s cliché with her take-no-shit-even-from-death attitude. And even though it ruins the chances of making Above The Law a film with a glorious female-free third act, I can dig it. I mean, she’s Pam Grier… and who doesn’t love Pam Grier?
Henry Silva is Kurt Zagon
A corrupt CIA agent and one hideous son-of-a-bitch, Zagon is an expert at interrogation having mastered the art of torture by way of chemical injections. A practice he perfected back in ‘Nam, that so disturbed a twenty-something Nico, it lead him to go A.W.O.L. off into the jungle. Since then, as coincidence would have it, Zagon’s new specialties of kidnapping, murder, terrorism, drug-running and organizing political assassinations has lead him to Chicago where an older and more efficient (read: violent) Nico resides to bring retribution (read: violent death) to the sadistic bastard. And if this laundry list of evil deeds doesn’t solidify Zagon’s worthiness of being shown the strong arm of Seagal’s law, just take a look at his face one more time.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
Lukich [To Nico]: You’re too pretty to be a meat packer.
While I can’t confirm with the detective’s statement’s validity (as I personally don’t think of Seagal as being too homoerotically appealing), one could argue that he does indeed spend a good portion of the film in a tight little black tank-top. However the scenes in which it is present, Seagal is mercilessly beating up other men, hanging out with his wife and running like an special Olympian… Not to say there isn’t some weird underground fetish troop of gay high-speed windmill arm spasm enthusiasts, but I do know that I’m not in the position to make or break this case.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Hey—It’s Sharon Stone, and you bet your ASS she spends the whole film crying! Weak willed, whiny and a nag, this is Stone at her pre-fame best. Aside from her, pretty much* the only other woman in Nico’s life is his well respected and capable partner Jacks. Tragically, the ever annoying Stone makes it out of the film without so much as a bruised cheek, meanwhile Pam Grier’s Deloris ends up with a chest fulla buckshot. But, as spoiled above, Jacks pulls through so there’s not that much to go on in the anti-woman department.
*Nico does have a niece who’s addicted to smack and crashes with a sleazy guido in an apartment above a dive-bar. But she’s only briefly shown and we’re left to assume that she gets taken home by Nico to clean up her disgusting whorish ways. But who knows, maybe she didn’t?… There, ended on a positive.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 21 ]
Click HERE for the Body Count Breakdown
A trend begins within this first outing for Seagal, in that he breaks into the double digits of slaughtering bad guys—but only just. Nico manages to effectively eviscerate 12 unfortunate souls, on top of (and sometimes because of) his brutal ass-kickings. Most of the kills are run of the mill shootings, but there are a couple novelties, like the especially gruesome send off for Zagon…
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
The Triple-Break Overkill Of Death
Beaten, drugged and demoralized; Nico sits before his greatest enemy, strapped down and choked out. A defeated man—well, at least as defeated a man as Seagal will ever likely get. As for some reason, the drug Zagon injects into Nico takes on an adverse and unexpected effect, instead of sedating him, it gives him the strength of 5 men (two more than a non-chemically enhanced Seagal). Busting out of his chair, Nico disables one of his captives, uses a fortunate (in that he lives) fellow’s shotgun to blast two more guys and then does this to poor Zagon…
The syringe Zagon injected him with must have been filled with Lightning Bolt Energy Drink.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
EPIC MOMENT & BEST LINE:
Top Of The Bad-Ass Class
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Much like his later DTV films, the plot of Above The Law is a little convoluted—but I’ll try and explain. Now I’ve already established that Seagal is an ex-CIA agent and Vietnam Veteran, turned liberal Chicago vice sergeant, who, oddly enough, is prone to vigilantism. His undercover character name for the film is Nico Toscani. Now as such a name would suggest, yes, his family has ties to the mafia, though it is never utilized to further the plot. Not sure what the point was, but whatever, it doesn’t hurt the story…
Anyways, Nico’s shady CIA past and his gritty peace-officer present collide as he is pitted against a psychotic CIA agent with a large network of criminal contacts and assailants, running drugs to fund assassination plots and other nefarious deeds—who ALSO happens to be one of Nico’s old superiors from ‘Nam. If that’s not enough, this is all somehow tied together with Nico’s neighborhood church, a recently transferred priest from Nicaragua, a gaggle of refugees and a greasy flop-house bartender, known only as—”Sciffoo”. Got all that? Me neither… However, unlike Seagal’s later films, Above The Law is surprisingly easy to follow along with and even more so, forgive the plot holes for, as it is so undividedly entertaining with all it’s big-balled, glass-exploding, neck-snapping action.
The film does a great job at introducing Seagal to the masses and justifiably so, made him an instant action star. Something that I don’t think you could say for any other action icon, as this wasn’t just his first starring role, it was his first role period. AND Law was a pretty big hit at the theaters. Pretty impressive, really. Especially by today’s standards where Seagal catches non-stop shit for his cheesy DTV movies, tubby physique and fake nappy hairdo and the only new action hero that caught any respect this past decade was Matt Damon. Though, none of that shit was present back in ‘88. Lean and mean, long and strong, Seagal brought his A-Game with an impressive martial arts background, intense brooding demeanor and dark-side liberal ideals which rightfully rewarded him an impressive career in Bad-Ass Cinema.
It’s really weird though, watching this now, 20+ years later, as Seagal was just a skinny, stork-like goof with a receding hair-line that ran like a velociraptor. But then you watch him fight and, lawd have mercy, this guy really knows how to ruin a mother fucker’s day. His aikido is so quick and so, so brutal, I’d think it impossible for any action fan to not be impressed with how quickly he is (read: was) able to fuck people up without mercy or a need to over-stylize his unique techniques.
The film itself is serious in tone, with a clear directive of commentating on corruption within the government and CIA. Yet it still fuses seamlessly with a good helping of badassness and all without making the film come off as being too unintentionally funny. I stress the word ‘too’, however, as there are several instances of wacky 80s clichés to lighten up the gritty subject matter. For example, there’s a sequence in the first act in which Nico is hit by a fleeing car, flies onto the roof, dodges bullets from the bad-guys within and takes them down by punching through the driver-side window to choke out the crime-boss riding shotgun.
Silly, sure—but badass? Definitely. And that’s why this flick will forever stand triumphant within this genre; you can put this movie on in front of almost any group of random guys, and be sure to have a rapt audience.
A couple other things I really dug were the score by David Michael Frank and the memorable supporting cast of B-Movie day players. Both staples of director Andrew Davis. Before bringing Seagal to the action masses, Davis made the classic Chuck Norris cop-thriller, Code Of Silence. A film which Above The Law echoes in both style, location and substance. Both feature a great Faltermeyer-esque bluesy score by Frank, and also many of the same cast, including a main villain by Henry Silva, cop character actor Ron Dean and, of course, the infamous ‘CIA Bartender’, Ronnie Barron.
He’s named as such due to his mysterious turn as the snarky loud-mouthed owner of the shady bar that Nico visits to get back his niece, who then later shows up working for Zagon without explanation, or hearkening to his earlier appearance. Leaving many a action fan to contemplate the reasoning of the filmmakers. I myself choose to believe that it was just another excuse to have Barron flaunt his glorious mullet one more time in front of Seagal, and in doing so, finally give Nico a justifiable (and defensible in court) reason to wax the slimy fucker.
All-in-all, Above The Law is a solid, fun-as-hell, balls-to-the-wall action flick that deserves a high degree of respect for the contribution it made to Bad-Ass Cinema as not only a great entry, but for also introducing us all to The Sensei, Steven Seagal. Respect that regrettably, outside of the genre’s hardcore fans, the film (and Seagal in general) rarely seem to receive. And that’s a shame. Seagal’s films (even most of the shitty ones) are a double-pump macho blast to watch and Above The Law is one of his best. Even if you think he’s a joke now, if you’re a fan of action movies, don’t count this one out. It’s a must see.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Fuck with Seagal, he’ll “kill you in your own kitchen.”
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
[X] Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle
[ ] Crotch Attack
[X] Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
[ ] Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket or A Towel
[ ] Giant Explosion(s)
[X] Heavy Artillery
[ ] Improvised Weapon(s)
[ ] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
[ ] Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
[X] Manly Embrace(s)
[ ] Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
[X] Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
[X] Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figure(s)
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
[ ] Tis The Season
[X] Torture Sequence(s)
[ ] Unnecessary Sequel
[X] Vehicle Chase(s)
[X] Vigilante Justice
[TOTAL: 17 outta 25]
Above The Law (1988) © Warner Bros. Inc. / Review © AllOuttaBubbleGum.com and Ty ‘RANTBO’ Hanson