Above the Law (1988) no *
Directed by Andrew Davis. Written by Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis. Story by Davis and Steven Seagal. Photography, Robert Steadman. Editing, Michael Brown. Production design, Maher Ahmad. Music, David Frank. Cast: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Henry Silva, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Ronnie Barron. Produced by Seagal and Davis; co-producer, John Wilson; executive producer, Robert Solo. A Warners release, 104 minutes. Rated R.
With a radically modified story, different direction, casting, photography and editing production, "Above the Law" could have been an OK addition to conspiracy theory movies. But what we have now is a lesson in how not to make a film. This thriller has as much diverse action as an entire week's cop stories on TV, yet its interest is in reverse ratio to its dozens of plots, subplots and tangents. It is not just bad, it is incoherent and dull. Think of the huge expense involved and it also becomes a downright sinful production.
ABOVE THE LAW is an opportunistic exploitation, low I.Q. movie, inspired by the Iran-Contra and similar affairs. It is narrated by Chicago cop Nico Toscani (Seagal) who, in self-congratulatory tones, tells of his glorious past in a lengthy introduction. He came to the U.S. as a child, from Italy; he became a martial arts master in Japan (this corresponds to the current American desire to beat the Japanese in their own terms and on their own turf) ; he was sent by CIA to the Vietnam-Cambodia border in 1973, where, to his disgust, he witnessed Company people engaged in the drug business, torturing and killing the native competition (he protested but simply walked away, still leaving a grotesque Henry Silva with a knife and a victim); later he joined Chcago's finest. He hasn't aged a day over the many years.
In Chicago there's an ill wind blowing against decency and justice. Lieutenant Nico is tracking down a complex ring of drug-dealers. This involves --not in chronological order : the corrupt (I think) local police; the (corrupt) Feds; the (corrupt) CIA, still in the drug business to fund covert operations ; the corrupt everyone else; illegal aliens ; activist priests (local and Latin American); the refugees' sanctuary in a Catholic church; Nico's suspension from the force; Nico's defiance of the force; Nico's family (all Mafiosi) which (you gotta see it to believe it ) comes to the help of American values of purity ; arsenals appearing immediately upon request ; a U.S. senator who is about to expose the operations and about to get killed by the CIA for this; the half-black baby (adopted?) of Nico and his insipid blonde wife ; a bomb explosion in a church; car chases in streets ; car chases in parking structures; car crashes everywhere, and by the dozen; an enormous amount of firepower (it would be awesome if it were not almost comical) ; martial arts by the fistful ; assorted beatings; acts of sadism ( feet cut off, an arm broken in revolting Dolby sound, etc. ) ; legal, para-legal and illegal arrests; undercover police action (betrayed) ; and a great deal of additional overkill.
Newcomer Steven Seagal is a 6 ft. 4 hulk. I'd hate to meet him in a dark alley, I thought while watching the movie. Later I read some hagiographical press release notes about Seagal. These say that Seagal is "A Renaissance man" ( scholars note this definition ) a master of aikido and the like as well as weaponry; the first non-Asian founder of a "dojo" (a martial arts academy) in Tokyo; the founder of another dojo in (where else?) Southern California; a student of Eastern philosophies, religions, acupuncture, herbology; an international security operative ; a bodyguard to heads of state; a man of many missions; a man of rescues and safe houses; and more. (All references are non-specific, "classified".) I am now so impressed that I worry about meeting Seagal in a well-lit mall on a Saturday afternoon. Please don't send him this review.
Seagal may well be smart (what with all this herbology) and handsome, but the movie photographs him as the opposite. He wears a single expression throughout: a grim scowl. He has one intonation throughout : flat, with his head bobbing as he goes from one studiously learned phrase to the next. But give him credit for indestructability which rivals only that of bionic men or zombies from the living dead. (There's something of both about Nico.) Superman Nico always comes out intact when they bomb him, when he's shot at by massed volleys of firearms, when his car is smashed or when it's riddled by half-a-dozen machine guns. It must be the acupuncture, but then again, remember the herbology. Nico's own bullets are dead on target: with his ordinary revolver he could outdo the Stinger missiles of Afghanistan. In physical fighting, one unarmed Nico makes mincemeat of ten non-herbologists with weapons. Nico can outrun, outshoot and outguess anyone. He can also outbore you.
You see a great deal of Chicago and there is a new and costly setup every couple of minutes. Quantity but no quality. It is mostly shot with literal, prosaic, unimaginative (there must be a dozen pans up a brick church) photography which convinces you neither as fiction nor as docudrama. The editing is blunt and amateurish. The sound has persistent, portentous, music and effects in loud, pretentious surround-noise super-Dolby.
Director Andrew Davis is a Chicagoan. He holds a B.S. (that's Bachelor of Science, not the other thing) in communications from the University of Illinois. His background is principally in cinematography: commercials, low-budget MacMovies and others. He's directed STONY ISLAND (said to be good) THE FINAL TERROR, ( bad) and CODE OF SILENCE (with Chuck Norris, no comment).
Among the actors, some can probably act, but they must be hoarding their abilities until interest rates go up. Seagal is pronounced "Say-GAHL." He has a lot of it. Pam Grier pronounces Chile as "Chi-LAY." I pronounce ABOVE THE LAW a mess. But don't take my word for it. I am told that that Ebert loved the flick and Siskel gave it only a mild no. Can't blame the boys for being nice. This way, the movie's makers won't cut off their thumbs --but what about the folks at Langley?