Above the Law (1988)

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Above the Law, Steven Seagal’s first movie, begins with a full-on montage introduction of its lead character, with Seagal narrating in voice-over as his character Nico Toscani.  It’s an elaborate introduction for such a stoic character — how often is a tough lead character’s blank past used to put him at a mythic distance from the audience?  Contrast this richly detailed introduction with how we first meet Dirty Harry (a murder occurs and he silently shows up to investigate).  Or with a more modern, genre-aware film like Drive (Gosling’s nameless, past-less Driver lays out his ground rules over the phone to someone hiring his services).

Within a genre that specializes in Tough Men Without A Past, the detail in Seagal’s voice-over introduction is humorous.  I was born here, then I went here, and here’s what I did there, then I went over here…  It’s as detailed as a job interview, ticking off the resume points and personal background in chronological order.  It’s as if Seagal were interviewing for a place in our Action Heroes consciousness, presenting himself as a fully formed prototype ready to be placed on the shelf next to the Eastwood, the Norris, the Bronson, etc.

All this introduction helps, because in 1988, who the hell was this guy?  An audience has no built-in shorthand with this character the way an audience would with say, Charles Bronson.  There’s Bronson on screen, playing the same character with a new name for the tenth time this decade.  If nothing else, Seagal’s voluminous voice-over intro is just a way of letting us know that he’s an Aikido expert.  Otherwise, his spontaneous employ of these skills might seem out of place for a Chicago street detective.

I think that modern viewers who came of age after the 1980s (this would include me) tend to view movies like this in the context of other movies, almost to the exclusion of any other context.  Seagal and Above the Law are lumped together in our cultural classification system with Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Stallone and other relics of the age; they were culturally cast together even before the Expendables movies literally joined (some of) them in the same cast.  Their movies are viewed only in reference to each other.  Best of the Best is cool, but Kickboxer is better!  Cobra was alright, but how’s it compare to Raw Deal?  Rambo 3 is good, but it’s no Delta Force.  Enthusiasts are content to debate the quality of these films within the confines of the genre, carving out and defining reference points that suggest quality, likable ineptitude (common for the genre), or trash.  This is fine, of course, and fun.  And neatly sums up the approach of this blog: comparing action movies to themselves.

What we miss in this cultural tunnel-vision are the broader influences we may be unaware of, having not participated in that era (or the ones preceding it) as adults.  In the case of Above the Law, I don’t think we can overstate the influence of the men’s adventure paperback market, a market that was successful throughout the 1970s and 1980s and shaped audience expectations for the action genre along with the era’s definition of an action protagonist.  These books would feature a series hero who chops, shoots, and maims his way through adventure after adventure:  The Executioner #8: Chicago Wipe-Out, The Destroyer #9: Murder’s Shield, Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre, and on and on.  These were war-hardened men of action, protectors of the innocent, invincible warriors ever engaged in the battle against evil and corruption.  A battle they did not seek out, but one that landed at their doorstep and forced them to set things right.

In the earlier entries in the men’s adventure genre, our heroes were usually veterans who did battle with the mob in urban settings.  By the end of the 1980s, the hero’s qualifications had ballooned considerably.  They weren’t just veterans anymore, they were ex-Green Berets, or had been part of (or led) secret elite combat units.  They weren’t just handy with a pistol, now they were martial arts experts, often world-class experts who might run their own dojo when they weren’t fighting corruption.  Above the Law is men’s adventure pulp brought to the big screen.  From the film’s poster: He was a covert agent trained in Vietnam.  He had a master 6th degree black belt in Aikido… and family in the mafia.  He’s a cop with an attitude.

As for the quality of the movie, well, I guess it depends where you’re coming from.  It’s better than most Seagal movies, but that’s a low bar.  It’s better than most late-1980’s American action movies that incorporate martial arts, but that’s pretty dim company to stand out amongst.  It has plentiful detail and colorful language from its supporting cast, especially in comparison to standard genre films.  But I couldn’t begrudge a viewer for not rushing out to see Above the Law only because it does something well which similar movies often do poorly.

For a viewer who is cautious with their time and partial to time-honored classics, Above the Law should probably not jump to the top of their queue (or enter it).  If a viewer’s definition of classic is broad enough to include a film like Coffy (not uncommon; modern film courses cover certain exploitation films), Above the Law might be a good example of its own time and genre.  It’s a good movie, but it’s not the kind of good that would preclude, say, a twelve-pack of beer, your friends, and jeers.  Which is not the kind of praise ever heaped upon a Fellini film.  So we’re talking about different types of quality here.

Let’s get to some Bullet Points:

  • The bamboo flute sounding instrument over cheesy synthesizer during Seagal’s Japanese training.  I can imagine a student in the distant future taking a quiz: “Based on this music when was this movie made and where is the setting supposed to be?”  “Oh oh teacher!  ‘1980s’ and ‘the far east’?”  “Bingo!”
  • Would not want to be in Seagal’s martial arts class.  Starts class by whipping two students’ asses as part of some vague demonstration.  The lesson seems like it might be over at that point but no, he goes on to whip every student’s ass in some sort of slo-mo free-for-all.  Class looks pretty structureless, aside from the guarantee that Seagal will come over and hit you.
  • Funny as this long introduction sequence is, it’s actually a neat montage, with Seagal’s voice-over and martial arts training building our understanding of his background.  And the Vietnam footage, Nixon speech footage, etc. adding authentic-seeming period detail that grounds the action plot in some realistic settings.

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  • First time we meet Henry Silva he’s interrogating a detainee nearly to death and threatening to cut off the guy’s feet.  Silva looks right out of a 1930s gangster movie here with his exaggerated facial features.  He looks like he had to run off set between takes to make sure Jimmy Hoffa’s body was still hidden.
  • Cut to 15 years later, from 1973 to 1988 — age 26 to 41 for Seagal’s character — and guess who looks the same?  Steven Seagal.
  • Fairly early in the movie we get what has to be the signature Seagal move: going into a bar where people know who he is and giving everybody a hard time.  It’s a Western move — John Wayne did a variation on this scene how many times? — but Seagal does it so well.  And does it in a way that is unique to his time and place: 1980s, urban Chicago.  I think newer movies would stage this scene with too many Western touches, making sure the viewer understood the filmic reference points.  Coming back to this scene over his career (he repeats it in a big way in Out for Justice) is part of what I think makes him a distinct archetype from Stallone, Van Damme, etc.
  • Throughout the bar scene and the scene following, Seagal proves that he certainly has no qualms with enhanced interrogation (just in case you thought he was against it from the the Vietnam scene).  It just has to be for the right cause.  In Above the Law, there are good guys and there are bad guys, there are good deeds and there are bad deeds.  And all the weapons and brutality the good guys can muster are necessary to battle the unjust.  This is the comfort food that is the backbone of many good westerns and action films.  When people talk of Above the Law or movies like it as a “guilty pleasure,” there’s a good chance this is the aspect that inspires the guilt.  A movie like this offers up a simplistic worldview, and the violent spectacle built on top of it can feel unearned to some viewers.
  • “Don’t bullshit me man, I’ll come back and tear your heart out,” Seagal says, ending the interrogation.
  • “I hate these cocaine lawyers.” -Seagal, spying on cocaine lawyers.
  • Seagal and Pam Grier display incredible shorthand communication during the botched drug bust.  Seeing an attacker sneaking up behind Segal, Grier yells Seagal’s character’s name from two stories up.  “Nico!”  He knows to immediately turn around and shoot the assailant sneaking up behind him.  This is why I could never make it as a cop.  If Pam Grier yelled my name in this situation, reacting by turning around and shooting somebody would fall somewhere behind these other reasonable reactions: a) “What?” b) “I’m right here!” c) lots of other things
  • Henry Silva returns later in the movie, joining Seagal in the “look the same fifteen years later” club.
  • Seagal’s natural hairline is on full display throughout this movie, making his rug in later life look all the more lame.
  • Lot of little details in this movie that make it a richer experience than it needs to be.  In chase scenes, audible comments from nearby pedestrians; in fight scenes, snide remarks from onlookers or people in the vicinity.  At one point, Seagal and his partner wait for Salvano to exit his restaurant so they can follow him to see where he goes.  All that the plot requires is for the guy to exit, get in his car, and be followed.  Salvano finally walks out, sees an employee taking a smoke break and slaps the cigarette out the guy’s mouth.  “The fuck is this?  Get back to work.”  The heavy supply of these kind of details — lines that are natural seeming and pretty funny as they happen — creates a richer fictional world and more spontaneous-seeming viewing experience.  It’s director Andrew Davis painting to the edge of the canvas in a genre film that could easily get away with less.
  • Just when you thought this might be an all-out good movie, they throw in a garbage scene like the one with Seagal/Grier/Father Gennaro on the church steps.  One uninterrupted line from Seagal: “Look, I really don’t mind coming by, promise.  Okay?  Alright.  Okay.”
  • Shifty-eyed looking lady leaves a bomb in the church.  Seagal narrows his eyes and notices her leaving, takes note of her shifty eyes, then sees the shopping bag she left behind.  He sizes up the situation and reaches his conclusion quickly.  “GET DOWN!” he yells, diving to cover the people next to him.  But you have to think that a person who sees a lady leave a bag behind and immediately thinks “oh shit a bomb” has probably acted on this suspicion before.  “GET DOWN!” he’s yelled, probably 5+ other times in his life, just that this time actually turned out to be a bomb and not just a lady forgetting a bag, or the bag belonging to someone else.

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  • As for the lady’s shifty eyes (which were SHIFTY), young women probably don’t know what to do with their gaze when strange men with tiny ponytails narrow their eyes all intently at them.  In an alternate universe somewhere there’s a movie about a nice woman in a shawl who forgets her bag at church and gets stared at by a serial rapist.  “How’d you know he was a serial rapist, ma’am?” the cops ask.  “Because of the tiny ponytail and the intense, narrow-eyed stare in the middle of church,” she replies.
  • “You think you’re rough stuff, Toscani,” begins a federal agent who hates Seagal’s maverick style.  “Martial arts hero, chop suey crap.  Let me tell you something, you’re not bulletproof.  You’re not even a good cop.  You sneak around playing your street-dick games and all you come up with is conjecture, wild coincidence, and bullshit.”  This is an explicitly accurate criticism of Seagal’s behavior so far in this movie.  If they’d wanted to make a different movie and have Seagal be wrong on any of his assumptions, the above quote could’ve been the poster tagline for the movie.  Not a good cop.  Playing street-dick games.  Conjecture, wild coincidence, and bullshit.  Steven Seagal is… ABOVE THE LAW.
  • Car full of Salvano’s thugs pull up in car.  One of them aims a gun at Seagal while the others get out of the car with a bat, a huge machete, and a pipe.  “These guys gonna beat you to death,” gun man says.  Guess who wins this fight?  Guess who gets their hand chopped off with a machete? (gun man)
  • “If I find out you’re lying I’m gonna come back and kill you in your own kitchen.” -Seagal, wrapping up another interrogation.  The guy chooses to share even more information to avoid the scenario Seagal has threatened.
  • The federal agent fellow gets a warrant to search Seagal’s house and arrest him.  He brings a bunch of officers who go through Seagal’s things.  “It’s not necessary!  This is ridiculous!” his wife yells as agents start to go through her personal items.  “Sweetheart,” Seagal says, “let him play his pussy game.  Cause this is a setup.”
  • From now on this is how I hope to calm my wife and children anytime something comes up.  Wife: “Honey, I can’t believe what the refrigerator repair man charged us.  This is not the price he quoted us.”  Me: “Sweetheart, let him play his pussy game.  Cause this is a setup.”  Child: “Dad, Mr. Benson gave me a B minus even though I did all the extra credit.”  Me: “Sweetheart, let him play his pussy game.  Cause this is a setup.”
  • Sharon Stone has never been asked to upsettedly carry a blanket pile intended to look like an infant more in her professional life.
  • “Put your ass in that chair,” they say to Seagal down at the station.  We get a scene right out of the standard Dirty Harry plot – “You’re suspended, I want your badge and your gun” etc etc.  Roger Ebert wrote in one of his Dirty Harry reviews that Harry Calahan seems to solve all of his major cases while off active duty.
  • The sleezeball bar owner from the beginning just happens to be down at the station filing a complaint when Seagal is dragged in.  Most movies don’t have a single character as interesting to listen to as this guy, and he’s just some side character.  He’s saying to the officer taking down his complaint: “Alright, this guy in the middle of the day, he comes up in my place, he starts wrecking the place.  Assaulting my customers, you know?  He starts doing all this outer space kinda stuff.  Put my customers in orbit.  Remember those violations you told me he was guilty of..” (He notices Seagal being walked through the station)  “Look this is my boy right here.  Hey, oh, they finally got you, uh?  They finally got you motherfucker.  I told you it was gonna go down.  Shoulda listened.”
  • Seagal literally fills a duffel bag full of guns, presumably to take with him to do battle with the bad guys.  “What are you going to do?” his friend asks, watching Seagal zip the bag closed.  “You don’t want to know,” Seagal replies.  But honestly, what could he say that isn’t already implied by zipping up a duffel bag full of guns?  He’s made his intentions pretty clear.
  • If I were his friend I would just say “Please be careful with that duffel bag full of guns.  That’s a crazy thing to be lugging around and you seem very upset.”
  • Look at this picture Seagal’s police partner, Pam Grier, has in her apartment:

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  • “You think I’m a bad cop.  You know something, maybe I am.  But at least I don’t have my face buried up Washington’s ass.” -Seagal, in response to earlier allegations
  • Seagal borrows this crazy one-handed telescope from Wayne Enterprises so he can do some spying:

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  • Seagal is captured.  “I want him alive!” yells Henry Silva, the man who has spent the last ten minutes of the movie in a firefight with Seagal and has emptied at least two full clips of bullets directly towards Seagal.
  • Seagal is tied to a chair and the torture session begins.  Within a few minutes, Seagal fakes being woozy (he’s somehow immune to the drug Silva injects him with), and just up and jumps out of his chair, snapping the restraints off his wrist.  He proceeds to kill everybody present.  There’s a whiff of “fuck it who cares” on the filmmakers’ part in the creation of this final escape.  He really just jumps out of the chair he’s tied to.
  • Weirdo voiceover to end the movie: “Gentleman,” Seagal begins, offscreen, “whenever you have a group of individuals, who are beyond any investigation, who can manipulate the press, judges, members of our congress, you’re always gonna have within our government those who are above the law.”  The movie ends.
  • “Thanks Steve,” I imagine would come the reply from whoever the hell is supposed to be listening to him in this voiceover scenario (the “gentlemen” presumably).  It’s suggested Seagal would be giving some kind of testimony regarding departmental corruption or some such, but I can’t imagine this is how these testimonies work: with the recipients of this lecture rubbing their chins in deep contemplation of the truth Seagal has laid bare before them, Socrates pointing to the hypothetical cave wall so that Glaucon may better understand.  “Wow, we should eliminate corruption!”
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