Out for Justice (1991)

Out For JusticeCountry: United States
Director: John Flynn
Starring: Steven Seagal, William Forsythe, Jerry Orbach, Jo Champa
Music: David Michael Frank

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.

Out for Justice (1991)

Out of Reach (2004)

Out of ReachCountry: United States / Poland
Director: Po-Chih Leong
Starring: Steven Seagal, Ida Nowakowska, Agnieszka Wagner, Matt Schulze, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Nick Brimble
Music: Alex Heffes

Posted on Permission To Kill over the last few days, you will find quite a few reviews for (spy) films starring Steven Seagal. All of them are light years away from Under Siege, undeniably Seagal’s most popular film, and biggest box office success. But if I had to pick one of the films, Out Of Reach would have to be the best. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that this is a good film, it is simply the best of a bad bunch. What lifts this film above the others is the story about child trafficking. Seagal’s relationship with the children in the movie give it a humanity that is lacking in the other films. Having said that, it is also one of the film’s weaknesses. The films focus on the child actors almost steer it towards being a family film, but the films villains are too repugnant and the violence is far too graphic for younger viewers.

Here’s the synopsis: Seagal plays native American William Lancing. It appears that Lancing used to be a C.S.A. agent and had participated is some morally dubious missions. Since then he has gone into a self imposed retirement. Agencies like the C.S.A. don’t let their agents simply walk away, so in effect Lancing is in hiding. He does his penance in the Rockies where he lives a quiet life helping injured animals. His only real contact with the outside world is a young girl, Irena Morawska (Ida Nowakowska) who lives in an orphanage in Poland. Through an outreach program, Lancing and Irena are pen-pals. Each month he writes to her, sending puzzles, codes and ciphers for her to solve. She thinks the puzzles are fun and has no idea that they the remnants of Lancing’s former life.

As Irena reaches her fifteenth birthday, she has to leave the orphanage. To help her, and some of the other girls that have to leave, the Director of the orphanage has arranged for a gentleman named Faisal (Matt Schulze – Blade 2, The Transporter) to collect the girls. He comes to the orphanage, presents each girl with a rose, then whisks them off to a better life. Well, not quite. In fact, Faisal deals in human trafficking, and is about to auction off the girls to the highest bidder.

Before leaving, Irena hands her next letter to Lansing, to the Director of the orphanage to forward on. The letter does get sent forward, but without Irena’s message. Instead a new note has been inserted in the envelope. It says that Irena will no longer be able to correspond with Lancing. Naturally he wants to know why. Even if she has left the orphanage, there should be nothing to stop her from writing. Right?

Lancing boards the next plane to Poland and starts his own investigation into Irena’s whereabouts. Along the way, he teams up with a Polish policewoman, Kasia (Agnieszka Wagner), and unwittingly adopts a boy from the orphanage,Nikki (Jan Plazalski). You can see that the film-makers almost got the family unit happening, with Lancing and Kasia as the surrogate parents, and Irena and Nikki as the children. But as I said at the top, this isn’t a family film. It has a full scale shoot out at a whorehouse, and the film culminates in a vicious sword fight.

If you are a fan of Steven Segal (there must be one or two of you out there), then you may find Out Of Reach an entertaining diversion for an hour and a half, but beyond that, there’s not enough espionage for it to be a good spy flick, it’s too violent for a family film, and there’s not enough mayhem for it to stand up as a good action movie. What you are left with is a film that looks quite okay, in a moody European way, and has a few good set pieces, but as a whole never really satisfies. And the most annoying aspect of this film, is that some of the dialogue appears to be overdubbed later, and that Seagal (who was an executive producer on this flick), didn’t even dub his own lines. When the star / producer can not even be bothered to fix up the films mistakes, then you know his heart isn’t in the project. If he doesn’t care, why should we?

Out of Reach (2004)

Belly of the Beast (2003)

Belly of the BeastCountry: Canada / Hong Kong / United Kingdom
Director: Ching Siu Tung
Starring: Steven Seagal, Byron Mann, Tom Wu, Sara Malukul, Patrick Robinson, Monica Lo, Vincent Riotta, Elioh Macqueen
Music: Mark Sayer Wade

Steven Seagal is too old for this shit. Seagal, never the most animated actor, looks tired and bored throughout this picture. The story itself isn’t exactly a laughing matter, and you wouldn’t expect any of the characters to break into big cheesy grins, but Seagal’s face is like granite. There should be some hint of emotion! And physically he is extremely ‘out-of-shape’. With a title like Belly of the Beast, I am sure there is a nasty little quip, I could throw in at this point, but will restrain myself. Enough about Seagal – the fans know what to expect – what about the movie?

With the circular CIA crest adorning the artwork for Belly of the Beast, I thought I’d be in for more of a traditional spy thriller. But alas, this is more of the same violent dross, as always. This time Seagal plays Jake Hopper, a retired CIA operative who does the occasional favour for his old bosses. A widower, he now spends his time bringing up his teenage daughter.

But at the moment, his daughter is backpacking her way through South East Asia with three friends, including the daughter of a US Senator, and their boyfriends. In Thailand, off the beaten track the teenagers swim and frolic at a waterhole, only to be violently interrupted by a squad of guerrillas. The soldiers kill the boys and take the two girls hostage. Soon a video tape is sent to the U.S. by a terrorist group called the Abu Karaf. They threaten to kill the girls unless their imprisoned comrade’s in arms are released.

Upon this news, there is no way that Hopper is staying at home, and soon he has arrived in Manilla and is tracking down those responsible in his usual bone snapping way.

Naturally enough, for this type of film, all is not as it seems. In Thailand there are many warring militant organizations, and adding to the plot convolution, the law enforcement agencies are also corrupt. In his attempt to discover the truth, Hopper sets off a gang war, during an arms deal that goes horribly wrong.

If there is a positive to Belly of the Beast, it is that it’s martial arts style is more fluid than many of Seagal’s other flicks. It uses more wire-work and is more acrobatic than Seagal’s usual straight-ahead, fight style. The credit for this must go to choreographer Ching Siu Tung (Siu-Tung Ching) who has put together a few impressive confrontations. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will recognise his work as action choreographer for Jet Li’s The Hero, The House Of Flying Daggers and Naked Weapon (which, if you search through these pages, you’ll find a review for).

There’s one set piece that I enjoyed, not because it was staged well, but because it is an old chestnut of the spy genre. It was a repeat of the ‘She-He’ fight from The Second Best Secret Agent In The Whole Wide World, which in turn was recycled in No 1: Licensed To Love And Kill. For the bookworms out there, you may have even come across similar characters in Clive Cussler’s Shock Wave, and Bill Napier’s Revelation. No racism intended on my behalf, but why do espionage writer’s and film-makers have this fascination with Asian cross-dressers? Is it for the ‘shock’ factor, or like TV personality Alan Partridge, do they have a fascination for Bangkok Lady Boys?

Like most of Seagal’s later films, this film isn’t particularly good, but fans will be fans, and there is something strangely perverse about watching the steady decline of Seagal’s career. None of his films are good, but I seem to keep going back for more. Maybe it’s the old ‘car crash’ syndrome; I know I shouldn’t stare, but just can’t look away!

Belly of the Beast (2003)

Into The Sun (2005)

Into the SunCountry: United States
Director: mink
Starring: Steven Seagal, Matthew David, Takao Osawa, Eddie George, William Atherton, Juliette Marquis
Music: Stanley Clarke

Into The Sun, is another gratuitously violent spy thriller from martial artist Steven Seagal. What small enjoyment that comes from this picture is derived from the depiction of Japanese culture, particularly underworld culture. But that alone isn’t enough to lift this film above any of the other similar films that Seagal has done in the last ten years.

The movie opens in a small village in the Myanmar Jungle, within the Golden Triangle. Life appears normal in the village. The women are cooking exotic dishes; the children are playing, riding elephants, and the men are in the fields picking poppies. Apart from the villagers themselves, the small community also plays host to a ragtag army of dealers and would be drug-barons. They spend their days smoking and cursing, whilst waving around their AK47’s. Watching all this, hidden in the jungle are Travis Hunter (Steven Seagal) and his partner. They are a C.I.A. surveillance team. As they watch, a young village girl ventures into the jungle to answer nature’s call. Two armed thugs follow her in and attempt to rape her

Hunter can’t just sit there and watch the violation happen, so he breaks cover and ventilates the attackers. The other drug dealers hear the shots and swarm into the jungle firing their weapons. Hunter and his partner flee and make their way back to a pre-arranged extraction point, fighting a running battle as they go. The chopper touches down and picks them up. Just as it seems that they have made it to freedom a bullet hits Hunter’s partner in the chest. The titles roll.

After a stylised title sequence, in Japan a diplomat is assassinated at the US embassy. The head of the CIA in Japan, Block (an out of character performance by William Atherton), calls in Hunter to help out. They need Hunter because they believe the Yakuza are involved. Even though Hunter is American, he grew up on the streets of Tokyo, and is familiar with the local customs and traditions. Speaking of traditions, this film borrows one from Dirty Harry. Before Hunter is allowed to go out on the streets and solve the crime, he is partnered with a rookie agent, Sean (Matthew Davis). You’ve seen it all before, so I won’t go into the dynamics between Hunter and Sean, but suffice to say, they don’t get along.

After a bit of preliminary investigation, Hunter finds out that many of the young Yakuza are working with the Chinese Tongs. The ringleader for this merger between the two rival underworld groups is Kuroda (Takao Osawa), a slightly unhinged gangster from the Tony Montana school (or Carmonte for you traditionalists).

The film starts off promising enough, but half way through the story flounders, and we are left waiting for the climax, between Kuroda and Hunter. While we are waiting it gives Kuroda’s henchmen an opportunity to be violent and unpleasant to the other supporting characters. This is supposed to make us want to see Hunter extract retribution, but in the end, seeing him stoop to gratuitously violent methods of revenge, makes him barely any better than the villains of the piece.

I don’t think there is much point in me slagging off this movie, after all it is a Steven Seagal film. People who choose to watch his films know what they are in for, and he delivers. But as a spy film it doesn’t really stack up. It is what it is – another B-grade action film.

Into The Sun (2005)

Half Past Dead (2002)

Half Past DeadCountry: United States
Director: Don Michael Paul
Starring: Steven Seagal, Morris Chestnut, Ja Rule, Nia Peeples, Tony Plana, Claudia Christian, Linda Thorson, Kurupt
Music: Tyler Bates

Half Past Dead is a spy action film for generation Y or Z. In some ways it may not seem like a spy film at all, but Steven Seagal’s character is an undercover F.B.I. agent. Clearly that means it is a spy movie, but it is not in the classic style. In fact, when watching the film, we are not supposed to know who the ‘spy’ is, which is a key plot point and adds to the intrigue. At this point, you are probably saying, “why did you spoil it?” On the cover of the DVD I saw, it clearly states that ‘Half Past Dead sees Seagal as an undercover F.B.I. agent…’ No surprises left. Onto the movie itself.

Akeido Master, Steven Seagal plays Sasha Petrosevitch, a career criminal, who specialises in stealing and driving fast cars. When we first meet Sasha, he is awoken by his employer, Nick Frazier (Ja Rule), and his boss, the head of the whole syndicate. It seems that the syndicate has an F.B.I. informer in it’s midst. Sasha is forced to undergo a polygraph test, which he passes with flying colours. He is in the clear, and free to continue his criminal activities.

That night, after Sasha and Frazier have boosted a car and taken it to a chop-shop to be altered, the F.B.I. storm the building. The F.B.I team leader, Special Agent Ellen Williams (Claudia Christian) tries to convince Frazier to surrender. Instead, Frazier keeps winking at her, and threatening to shoot it out. We, the viewers, are supposed to think that the ‘winking’ is some kind of code to the F.B.I., and that Frazier is the informant. It is in fact a nervous tick, and he continues to do it throughout the movie. But none-the-less, a nice red herring. Naturally enough the standoff between Frazier and his men, and the F.B.I. escalates and a firefight results.

In the gun battle, Sasha is shot. We next see the medics working feverishly in an attempt to bring him back to life. The monitor beside them shows a flat-line, and although not reflected in the movie, some twenty two minutes pass before he is revived. In this movie, dying and being brought back to life is called ‘Half Past Dead’.

The film skips ahead nine months, and Alcatraz Prison has reopened. It is now called New Alcatraz, and it houses the worst of the worst. The newest lot of arrivals include Sasha and Frazier. Although arriving at the same time, they have spent the preceding nine months in different prisons. They have not seen each other since the night of the shootout.

The film has many awkward moments, but surely the most surreal is when the new arrivals are marched through in single file to their cells. Seagal’s strut has to be seen to be believed. All the other young punks glide through the gates with attitude, but middle-aged Seagal’s head wobbles without rhythm, like a dashboard ornament in an old car. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a comedy routine.

In general, this film has a youthful edge. It was never made for my generation. It was made for fifteen year old boys. So it’s okay if I don’t like it. Every generation has their own thing. So why is a dinosaur like Steven Seagal doing acting with Ja Rule and Kurupt. Or more to the point, what do the youngsters want with Steven Seagal? I don’t have an answer, but Seagal’s attempt to be young, hip and ‘with it’, dude, are clumsy.

Anyway, back to the story. New Alcatraz has a brand spanking new execution chamber, and on this evening it is going to be christened. Lester McKenna (Bruce Weitz), a prisoner who has been appealing against his sentence for seventeen years is to be executed at midnight. But Lester has a backstory. All those years ago, he stole two hundred million dollars worth of gold bars. And in the time he has been in prison, he has never divulged their location to anyone. It seems like his secret is going to go to the grave with him.

One militant group of mercenaries, run by Donald Robert Johnson (Morris Chestnut) has other ideas. His team parachute into Alcatraz, eliminating the guards on the outside. Once inside, they systematically make their way to the execution chamber, killing anyone who stands in their way. Initially the inmates do not pose a problem, as they are happy to be freed from their cells and support any breakdown of the ‘system’. But all guards are shot.

Johnson and his mercenaries’ plan was simple. Parachute in. Get Lester. And then a helicopter, will meet them, and fly them to safety. Well it ‘was’ simple. Unfortunately for the merc’s, a violent storm hits San Francisco. The helicopter pilot, who was coming to retrieve them, was flying blind as he approached Alcatraz. As he attempted to land, he hit one of the guard towers, and the helicopter crashed.

Now Johnson and Co. have no way out. They take everyone hostage, including Lester and the High Court Judge, Jane McPherson (Linda Thorson- Avengers fans will remember her as Tara King), who is attending the condemned prisoner’s execution. Once the hostages have been taken, it is a different ballgame, and it is up to Sasha and a group of misfit prisoners to take back the prison and free the hostages. Yep, it’s a lot like Seagal’s hit film Under Siege, and with the Alcatraz setting, there is a bit of The Rock in there too. But Half Past Dead is not up to their standard.

If you take Half Past Dead for what it is, a loud, noisy action flick, aimed at the youth market, then it isn’t too bad. But more seasoned viewers will find that they have seen this all before, and performed by much more charismatic actors than we have on display here.

Apparently a sequel was made called (funnily enough) Half Past Dead 2. Steven Seagal has opted out on this one, and Bill Goldberg played the lead. I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Half Past Dead (2002)

Black Dawn (2005)

Black DawnCountry: United States
Director: Alexander Gruszynski
Starring: Steven Seagal, Tamara Davis, Timothy Carhart, John Pyper Ferguson, Julian Stone, Nicolas Davidoff, David St James
Music: David and Eric Wurst
AKA: The Foreigner: Black Dawn and Foreigner 2

I know Steven Seagal is not known for his emoting on screen, and as such most of his characters seem the same, but in this particular instance we have met his character, Jonathan Cold before, in the turkey, The Foreigner. Out of all the crap that Seagal has pumped out over the last few years, I find it strange that the film-makers should pick this one to make a sequel to. Maybe it’s an apology?

Black Dawn starts in a rather frenetic fashion with MTV jump cut titles and a shootout in Amsterdam financial district, where a gang of Chechen terrorists (although they call themselves a ‘resistance group’), assault an armoured car carrying diamonds, and make off with the loot. In fact this is just one of several similarly styled robberies that the terrorists have committed. They are stockpiling the diamonds to buy a nuclear weapon.

When we first meet Jonathan Cold, he is about to break into a Federal Detention Centre in Utah. Posing as a doctor, he makes his way to the sick-bay, and injects one of the patients with…well something. They don’t really say. But this injection has a pretty nasty effect on the inmate. He starts to convulse and froth at the mouth. Still posing as a doctor, Cold orders the patient moved to the nearest hospital. The inmate is placed in an ambulance and rushed out of the prison.

Now this was no ordinary prisoner. This guy, Michael Donavan (Julian Stone) is in fact, one of the world’s premier arms dealers. Why did Cold spring him? Well, after the events in The Foreigner, Cold no longer works for the C.I.A. He is a mercenary for hire. And Donovan has employed him, not just to free himself from jail, but also because Cold just happens to be an expert on Nuclear Weapons.

But because Donavan is such a bad boy, the C.I.A. have staked out his warehouses and are watching his cronies, including his psychopathic brother, James (John Pyper Ferguson). When Michael, and Jonathan Cold turn up, after the prison break, the C.I.A. operative watching the warehouse is a little shocked. Her name is Amanda Stuart (Tamara Davies), and she was trained by Jonathan Cold. It is upsetting for her to see her former teacher, now working for the bad guys.

Meanwhile, the Chechen terrorists have landed on American soil and are planning the final phase of their operation. That is, buying and then detonating a nuclear weapon on American soil. And who do you think the seller is? You got it!

Black Dawn is unusual for a Seagal film because it barely features any martial arts at all. In fact, it looks as though most of the stunts and fight scenes were filmed by a stunt double. Very strange, because that is how Seagal came to prominence, through his Akeido skills. Now, if he is too old, or out of shape to perform these scenes, it begs the question – why does he keep doing it? (Oh yeah, the money!)

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by Black Dawn. It actually plays like a spy film, rather than another noisy revenge flick. But don’t take my words the wrong way. This is not a great film, but it is light years ahead of its sleep-inducing predecessor and better than most of the violent dross that Seagal has managed to put out over the last few years. I wouldn’t go tracking it down, but if it was on TV at three in the morning and you have insomnia, it’s worth a look.

Black Dawn (2005)