A Steven Seagal Trifecta
Above the Law (1988), Hard to Kill (1990), and Executive Decision (1996)
Before Steven Seagal was a creepy fat man hobnobbing with dictatorial warlords, he made some pretty good action movies. Particularly in the first few years of his career, you could even say really good action movies. What was notable about Seagal was that he had legit martial arts experience, seemingly authentic “mystical Asia” vibes, and brought a certain brutality to his fight choreography you didn’t see from the Van Dammes and Stallones and whatnot. At least before he ballooned up to 300 pounds, you figure this guy could really fight, or at least do some convincing throws.
Seagal, of course, also has a long history with MMA, including “coaching” Anderson Silva and exchanging heated words with Ronda Rousey. FWIW, Joe Rogan is a believer in his skills, or it could be just more fake news. Whatever your opinion, it’s tough to deny the dude made some decent films. This month’s Fight Pizza Movie Night covers a few gems in the Steven Seagal canon.
Above the Law (1998)
Seagal’s first film begin with an autobiographical photo montage of a young Stevie plying his aikido trade. He then speaks passable Japanese while instructing a room full of Japanese students. We are quickly shown this dude must be legit. Following this is documentary footage of Vietnam war atrocities and protests, contrasted with a law and order Nixon speech, which shows us he is a serious and moral person and not just a flavor-of-the-week action hero.
We have a solid supporting cast with perpetual weirdo badguy Henry Silva to provide a foil, Sharon Stone as the babe wife with absolutely nothing to do but silently dote on the baby, and legendary hotness Pam Grier as Nico’s (Steven’s) partner. There are also lots of Chicago cops with Chicago cop accents (including authentically Chicago cop Joseph Kosala) and Ronnie Barron as an exquisite scumbag.
This plot is so massively convoluted with hidden refugees, mobsters, drug smugglers, crooked cops, crooked feds, government explosives blowing up churches, CIA hijinx, assassinations, and what the fuck, but the action is slick and brutal. In the first bar fight Seagal violently breaks every nose in the joint and of course there’s his trademark arm snaps. Maybe the kids won’t get it, but this was way before the John Wick style ultraviolence that is so common nowadays and Seagal really did seem harder core than all the other 80s actioners.
Above the Law remains a high mark of Seagal's career.
Hard to Kill (1990)
It’s another early Seagal effort and we know it's good because there’s a bone break in the first few minutes as Seagal twists off a street thugs foot. We also learn Seagal's a family man and his family is quickly killed. In the carnage, Mason Storm (Seagal) is presumed dead.
After seven years in a coma, Seagal's ready to kick ass. That’s following acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and some TLC from real-life ex-wife Kelly LeBrock, who’s always ready to assist by looking pouty and feeding Steve fried rice. Kelly LeBrock often finds herself in the role of helping forlorn guys, most notably in classic John Hughes teen comedy Weird Science. She also accessorizes very well - don't hate her because she's beautiful.
Oh yeah, there's some ridiculous far-fetched plot about a senator and an incriminating tape and whatever, but it's not terribly important. All in all, it's a nice standard story: dude wakes up and rehabs his body and relearns his fighting skills while falling in love with the chick that's helping him. Much vengeance and glorious arm snapping ensues. There’s a super badass bit with a pool cue too.
Executive Decision (1996)
I’m gonna jump ahead a few years on this next one for a movie I haven’t seen before that also has Kurt Russel; I figure it will be a little more interesting to watch. It’s also one of the better rated Seagal flicks on Rotten Tomatoes. We’ll just have to see how the Fight Pizza arithmetic compares.
Funny to compare the English and Spanish language posters here - apparently by 1996 Seagal had lost some steam in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
In the first ten seconds however, Seagal stabs two motherfuckers in the throat, so eat shit Snake Plissken. Shortly afterwards, there’s a pretty slick hijacking carried out by Hercule Poirot and his buddies. There are definitely some creepy 9/11 vibes about the terrorist plot that give it added prescience. There’s also pre-Zoom Zoom calls and Halle Berry as a stewardess.
Early impressions are that Seagal works as a subordinate star to Kurt Russell (who is playing the nerdy analyst role, but one imagines he’ll be thrust into heroism). Without giving Seagal too much to do, he’s better when doing stuff (like stabbing necks and snapping arms).
The plan is predictably ridiculous, but it’s well done and even a little tense.
Holy shit! That was nuts!
Seagal’s dead! Wow, the only thing more badass than having Seagal in your movie is having Seagal in your movie and killing him in the first twenty minutes. I can see now why he didn’t make the American poster. And I can definitely see that his career was pretty well in the shitter by 1996 if he took the role.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the one with least amount of Seagal was the best. Executive Decision is a taut, surprising, even inventive thriller. High marks and many slices.
Maybe I should have done a Kurt Russell triple feature instead, or at least Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a Fight Pizza all-timer.
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