Even as somewhat of a fan, it is hard to explain the rise of Steven Seagal as an action hero. Let’s face it the guy could never act – something that is verified over his long forty plus film career. All of them are shit. But there was a brief moment in the late eighties where he seemed like the real deal – the latest and greatest action hero. He launched himself on the action movie scene in nineteen eighty-seven with Nico: Above the Law – directed by Andrew Davis. I already respected Davis due to his assured direction of Chuck Norris’ Code of Silence. It was a good tough crime film (possibly Chuck’s best) featuring Henry Silva as a villain. Likewise, Nico – yep, Henry Silva was the villain – imbuing the role with his trademark menace.
Next for Seagal came Hard to Kill, which too was also an entertaining cop thriller – with the added bonus of Kelly LeBrock as the female lead. Kelly LeBrock may hardly be worthy of a footnote in cinema history today, but in the eighties, after appearing in the Woman in Red (and Weird Science) she became something of a cultural icon. Furthermore, Seagal had married her. Hard to Kill was directed by Bruce Malmuth, another director that I respected as he had helmed Night Hawks with Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer (a film that I think is still sadly under-rated). So that was two for two. Could Seagal keep knocking them out off the park? Was it genius at work or had he just lucked out wit a couple of directors who knew what they were doing?
His next film was Marked For Death – which I managed to miss – which at the time was fortuitous, because it was crap. So when I first saw Out or Justice I had this impression that Seagal could do no wrong. My first impression of Out For Justice was that it was the toughest cop film since the original Dirty Harry. I may have had a little too much to drink at the time when making that assessment, but none-the-less it ticked all the boxes for a genre flick in that style, and with the added bonus of Seagal’s forceful limb snapping fight scenes. But time and place is such a strange thing. Loading Out for Justice into the DVD player, all these years later, was a strange and disappointing experience.
Sure, the toughness is there. But Seagal as an actor is painful to watch. Some of his line delivery, where he wobbles his head, attempting to mimic some bad ass character from the Godfather movies is dreadful, to the point that there it is distracting and harmful to the movie.
The story itself is wafer thin – however the crucial piece of evidence is not revealed till the end, making the story seem more complex and convoluted than it really is. It starts in Brooklyn (the whole film takes place in Brooklyn) and a cop named Bobby being gunned down in the street in front of his family and kids. The killer is a local thug named Richie (William Forsythe) – who may or may not have mob connections. And Richie is not done yet. He intends to turn the borough into a bloody war-zone.
Now Bobby, just so happened to be the partner of Gino Felino (Steven Seagal) – partner, as in, on the police force. Which immediately means that Gino wants revenge. The film delivers the requisite ‘Back off, you’re too close’ spiel from Gino’s superiors, but our mad as hell hero, shrugs that off with an icy stare. It appears that everybody is aware the Gino will not be stopped in his quest to stop Richie.
Adding another layer of plot convolution, it is revealed that Bobby, Richie and Gino were all boyhood friends – almost like brothers, so there is a twisted low-rent Shakespearean element that Gino must kill his brother, because he killed his brother – if that makes sense.
And finally, just to throw another hoary old chestnut into the fire, as I alluded to earlier, it is suggested that Richie has mob connections. But when he guns down a cop on the street, the full weight of the police force comes down on illegal activity in the area, particularly the mob rackets. So Richie’s rampage is bad for business, and the mob leaders also want Richie’s head on a pike. So it’s a race. Who will get to Richie first – Gino or the mob?
One of the most incongruous parts of the movie – and don’t get me wrong, in some ways one of the best pieces – is when Gino inherits a puppy that has been tossed from the window of a moving vehicle. Despite the fact that Gino has a family, and as such, as viewers we should identify with the peril that we find them in – and how Gino responds to that predicament, it is strange that an empathy for the puppy is stronger than for Gino’s familial unit. However, ultimately the puppy appears to be shoehorned into the story, simply for a comedic tagline at the conclusion of the movie. After all the bloodletting and violence, the puppy pisses on the person who discarded him in the first place. A kind of urinal retribution. As I said, such a slight and light sequence appears as a clumsy attempt to provide a hint of humanity to a film which until this moment has displayed a single-minded and relentless presentation of the most macho and bullshit heroics ever portrayed on the screen.
Recently, as I have been revisiting a lot of my childhood favourite films, I have found time to be a very cruel experience. Maybe my memory is going. Or I have simply grown up. I admit there was an occasion when watching films from the late ’70s and early ’80s where I used to get worked up about bad hairstyles and dated music scores. These days I am not so worried by them. Sure, I will remark upon them, as I think they are funny. But I don’t let them get under my skin and accept them for what they are – part and parcel of the times that the films were made in. But the truly disappointing aspect has been the acting and the action. Maybe I am more worldly now and have watched a substantial amount of Hong Kong cinema from the same era. As much as I appreciated Out For Justice for its fight scenes when it was released, compare it to some early Jet Li films. Not only are Jet’s film is superior on an action level, as an actor (even if the Western viewer has to read his dialogue through subtitles) he is far more convincing and emotive.
At the top of this review, I waxed lyrically about how I had once considered this one of the best of Steven Seagal’s films. My appreciation of the film may have changed, but unfortunately it still remains one of Seagals highlights – his best is undoubtedly Under Siege (also directed by Andrew Davis), and maybe Nico runs a close second. Since the early 1990s Seagal’s career has been on a steady and persistently painful downward spiral. I hate to do this but compare Seagal to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and while both actors have consistently made crap since their halcyon action star days, Jean-Claude for most part, it almost seems like the budget, script, happenstance and downright bad luck have played a factor in the lack of quality in his productions. I will exclude JCVD from this equation because it appears to be an anomaly. But Jean-Claude appears to try, but for whatever reason falls short. My perception – and that is just what that is, my own personal opinion – is that Steven Seagal doesn’t give a shit. If you look at is recent output, you can clearly see stuntmen who look nothing like the man they are doubling for, and hear other actors audio dubbing Seagal’s lines. If Seagal himself can’t be bothered to work on and improve any film that he appears in an why should we as fans, actually care at all. I almost see it as an insult.
I guess, at least I have my memories of when Seagal first burst onto the action movie circuit – he was young, slim and full of energy and even if his acting didn’t pass muster at least he appeared to care and so the flaws in the movie could be overlooked. That certainly applies to Out for Justice – it’s a very flawed movie but despite its shortcomings it can still be watched and enjoyed for what it is which cannot be said for the bulk of Seagal’s work.