ABOVE THE LAW (1988)
Directed by Andrew Davis
Written by Andrew Davis, Steven Seagal, Steven Pressfield, and Ronald Shusett
Starring Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Henry Silva, Sharon Stone, and Daniel Faraldo
Seagal Kill Count: 12
Best Line: I’d like you to run and jump in that fuckin’ lake, and if you don’t hurry, I’m gonna empty this gun in your butt.”
In the mid-80’s, Michael Ovitz was attending classes at Steven Seagal’s Aikido dojo in Los Angeles (according to him – other accounts say that Seagal simply talked about martial arts with Ovitz). Convinced that he could make any person a star, he took Seagal on as a pet project, thrusting him upon the masses as the next action star. Andrew Davis was tapped to direct. He had just finished Code of Silence, a movie starring a martial artist going up against crooked Chicago cops, drug cartels, and Henry Silva. He and Seagal modified a script originally meant for Clint Eastwood and turned it into a movie starring a martial artist going up against crooked Chicago cops, drug cartels, and Henry Silva.
A guy named Kurt Zagon is pushing opium and other drugs through the U.S. with the help of the CIA (for a cut, of course). Two things threaten this system that has worked for so long – a bunch of refugees from Central America who escaped Zagon’s atrocities, and a senator who’s looking to shut down the drug trade. That’s where Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), an Aikido master, ex-CIA agent, and local Chicago cop, comes in. He finds out about one of the shipments while busting a gigolo and starts sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.
As Roger Ebert said in 1988, “It contains 50 percent more plot than it needs, but that allows it room to grow in areas not ordinarily covered in action thrillers.” There’s a reason that stuff isn’t normally in action thrillers – because unless it’s a stellar script, it doesn’t really matter.
This movie is simply a showcase for Steven Seagal (who only gets hit twice the whole movie, and he’s tied up while that happens). We do get to see his Aikido on display, which is pretty kick ass. He snaps bones, puts heads through glass, and spins bodies to the floor. The clotheslines really do feel powerful. The way Seagal handles weapons is pretty smooth, and the gun play is fast and realistic. Not much in the way of gore, but we get a few bloody noses and one shot that appeared to be cut in which someone gets a bullet in the head. Seagal looks good here, slim and commanding.
Henry Silva is another particular bright spot. He doesn’t have much screen time, but he’s great whenever he’s on screen – he has a particular scene of gravitas when he puts the screws to a priest and describes the “warm feeling” from the chemicals he just injected into the priest’s veins.
Basically everyone who isn’t Steven Seagal. Pam Grier as “Jacks” is completely wasted in this movie. She’s supposed to be Nico’s tough as nails partner, but she basically just sits in the car and shows up late to every scene. In Seagal’s first fight scene, she sits in the car the whole time. In another, she gets out of the car once she hears shots being fired, runs up some stairs, and promptly takes a shotgun blast in the bullet proof vest. She’s absolutely useless here as a glorified file pusher. Sharon Stone is also wasted here – she has very few lines and is hidden away for most of the flick. The first time she’s able to open her mouth here is at 48 minutes in. Hard to believe that less than 10 years later, she’d be nominated for an Oscar for her role in Casino.
The setup of the movie is messy. Wondering how an Aikido master got recruited into the CIA? Here’s the explanation (via voiceover) that we get – Nico was invited by a friend to a party at the American Embassy in Japan. While there, “I met this crazy drunk guy named Nelson Fox. He recruited me into the CIA”. Feels like there’s a bit missing there. I imagine that the conversation went a little like this:
“Hey, I’m Nelson, and I’m drunk.”
“Hi Nelson, I’m Nico. What do you do?”
“I’m in the CIA, what about you?”
“I’m a martial artist.”
“Oh, cool. Want to go to Vietnam with me and be in the CIA?”
The script. Clearly this was cobbled together simply as an action vehicle for Seagal, but a lot of how this movie plays out doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s take one action scene as an example. Nico is driving back from turning his badge in, and stops at a stop sign because school children are crossing. As he stops, a group of five men (a combo of Salvadorian gangsters and CIA suits jump out with automatic rifles and start pelting Nico’s car with bullets. Let’s pause here and dissect this.
First off, they had to know exactly which route Nico would take from the park he left to his home. if Nico had taken one other turn on his route home, this plan is blown and they’re just left standing in the streets with their guns in one hand and their dicks in the other. Secondly, lets examine the people that are in the group. The CIA has had this drug pipeline for over 20 years at this point. There’s no way they’d expose themselves in the street like this. They’d simply hire other Salvadorian gang members to do it for them.
Nico rolls free of the car and hides behind it. He’s armed with a pistol – his best course of action here is to hold the five men with rifles at bay with pot shots from behind the car until either backup arrives or he can find a way to escape. Instead, Nico decides to pop up and point his pistol at one of the five guys and says “FREEZE”, which they all do. Five guys vs. one with a pistol and they just comply, putting all of their guns on the ground. He ends up having them put their guns on the ground and takes them into a shop so that he can beat the shit out of them in a more interesting grocery store setting. This is lazy, bullshit writing.
The dummy. In one of the final scenes, Seagal backs a car out of the 8th story of a parking garage, sending one of the henchmen to their death. When the car initially backs out of the building, there’s a clear plant dummy on the trunk that looks incredibly stiff and fake. It sort of bounces on the car and then slides down off of the car. It’s absolutely terrible and hilarious at the same time.
As an introduction to Steven Seagal, the movie does a passable job. Seagal looks threatening and his moves are stiff enough to be believable. Unfortunately, he also has to act, and with his first go, it’s rough. In a scene in which he believes that Jacks is dead, it appears that he’s trying to squeeze out tears and it simply looks painful. It’s got a bit too much plot to sift through and could have used a bit of tightening, but it’s not terrible.
With the rumor that Above the Law 2 is in production, I thought it would be fun to pitch a sequel to this of my own.
For this purpose, I feel like I could go back in time if I wanted and pitch an idea for 1993 or something, but I’m going to stay present tense and set this sequel 30 years in the future – present day 2018. Nico and Sarah split up shortly after the events of the first movie (we know that Sharon Stone won’t be back because she hates Seagal. We’ll write her out, no problem – she wasn’t an integral part of the first movie as it was. Nico’s been out of Chicago for a while – he traveled back to Japan to work his dojo, traveled the world, all of that stuff. He comes back to Chicago because Jacks, who has been a successful D.A. for the last 30 years, is retiring – Nico wouldn’t miss that for the world. Steven Seagal isn’t in great physical shape these days, but we’ll need to make sure that he gets those Aikido moves ready for this film.
The retirement party is going well - Jacks, Nico, a bunch of cops and even some of Nico’s family members are having a keen time (they can trade innocent barbs as a throwback to Nico’s BBQ at the beginning of Above the Law). At one point, some of the cops leave the party and a Salvadorian gang busts in. They shoot the place up, killing Jacks and winging Nico. Nico and the other cops fight them back but it’s too late – Jacks is dead.
The Salvadorian gang is led by Tony Salvano’s son, who is now all grown and looking for revenge on Nico and whoever else had to do with his dad’s death. A large portion of the Chicago cops are in with the gang as well, letting them do whatever they want for a cut. Unfortunately for them, there’s one cop who isn’t on the payroll – Nico’s now grown son. Now father and son must team up against the Chicago PD and the Salvadorians, working Above the Law.
A FEW CALLBACKS TO THE FIRST MOVIE THAT WE HAVE TO MAKE:
· Seagal kills Salvano’s kid by dropping him off of a building. Before he does so, he says “say hello to your dad for me.”
· In the first one, one of the FBI guys says, “Congratulations, you’ve made number 4 on the FBI’s most wanted list.” and Nico replies, “I want to be number one.” In this film, he becomes the number one most wanted for killing crooked Chicago cops.
· We need to have a scene at the church from the first movie – not an action scene, just a scene showing the priest that Nico saved doing well.
· Nothing Zagon related will be here.
A young Michael Rooker can be seen for a moment in the first fight scene as a drinker at the bar. He has one line about pigs not being allowed in the bar.
Here are some major changes from what was written versus what actually happened on screen. This is from the final draft of the script, dated 4/29/87. I’d gladly take a look at any earlier drafts as well, if anyone has one.
Late in the movie, Nelson Fox corners Nico on a rooftop where Nico is spying on Zagon. Nico basically outlines the plot for the dumb American audience, and that’s when Zagon and his car full of goons show up. In the script, Nico explains the plot while walking through the garage (instead of on the roof) and then Fox offers him a job to work as a “consultant” in Zagon’s crew in Thailand, which Nico obviously declines. Also, when the shootout happens in this scene in the film, there are no other people around. In the script, there are a bunch of people who scatter when the guns go off.
In the script, Nico and Zagon have a hand to hand combat scene in the garage, in which Zagon slashes down two security guards with a knife and then cuts Nico across the ribs. Zagon then flees from Nico in a car. Nico smashes into Zagon’s car outside of the garage and then chases him into a police ambush. In the movie, there is no hand to hand scene in the garage and Nico just tries to escape the garage (not chasing anyone) and runs into cops directly outside.
In the film, Nico chases down a punk and finds out that Salvano sent a hit-squad after him. This exchange takes place on a side street, and afterwards, some random tough guy walks up for no reason and Nico punches him in the chest and takes him down. In the script, Nico takes the punk down in a flower shop and the random tough guy isn’t in the scene at all.
The ridiculous scene in which Nico takes on 5 men with automatic rifles is better in the script. In the script, the men arrive in cars and one smashes into his driver-side door. When he escapes the car, he rolls underneath his car and their car, and pops up behind them. All but one of them is out of bullets when he pulls out his pistol, which makes way more sense when they put their guns on the ground.
In the script, Nico never makes the FBI agent jump in a lake. After abducting him, he takes his shoes and basically just leaves him in the middle of nowhere. He never threatens to shoot him in the butt.
In the movie, Nico goes to see a (seemingly) random Japanese woman at an electronics expo and she hacks some stuff for Nico. In the script, she’s actually seen way earlier, at Nico’s BBQ in the baptism party.
In the movie, Zagon interrogates the priest, but he never cracks. Nico busts in the door and saves him. In the script, the priest does crack and tells Zagon who he’s told and what he said, then Zagon slashes his throat once Nico and his uncle breach the house. In the film, if you look quick enough during the gunfight, the priest’s neck is actually cut. This means that they filmed the scene, but decided to cut it. Nico gets hit in this scene in the side. When he escapes on the train in the script, the bad guys don’t follow him – he just gets away.