Well, it is a consummate pleasure to introduce the one, the only, the Count of Monte Fisto, Mr Intensity, Monsieur Steven Seagal, and his feature film debut.
Yes, it’s Above the Law – although in the UK it was released as simply Nico for marketing reasons I cannot even begin to appreciate. I’m not a fan of the whole ‘change the name for different English-speaking markets’ approach, it seems to indicate that they couldn’t unanimously agree on a title that universally represents the movie. Bad start.
It’s a cop thriller (naturally), and knowing the movie as Nico it formed a small but significant part of what has become one of the most fondly remembered years of my youth. In summer 1988, I was 17 and about to have my little heartbroken for the very first time. I also joined/formed my first rock band, and while still at school studying A-level art (or not, as the case may be), I first began to experience that strange feeling musicians only get when other people start to show that they dig what you can do (like some sort of proto-fame sensation). This was the year I saw Pink Floyd at the old Wembley stadium and caught one of Nick Mason’s drumsticks after he tossed them out to the crowd. This was the year of the Seoul summer Olympics, and the year I started learning to drive. It was also a leap year, and I was flexing muscles and hormones I didn’t know I had. Life was good, the summer felt long, warm, carefree and happy (except the bit where I got dumped…er, twice!). I was working out in the gym, Lee Haney and Cory Everson were the untouchable King and Queen of bulging muscles, I was swimming in the local pool, posing, swaggering and towards the end of the year began studying martial arts. The reason for this Benji backstory? Well I guess I just want to illustrate that Steven Seagal’s film debut fitted into my particular 1988 in a similar way to Van Damme’s Bloodsport did i.e. like a flippin’ glove!
Both guys were new on the scene in ’88 and we all just ate them up. It’s weird to think that Stallone and Arnold were both at the point where they were trying ‘comedy’ when Seagal first appeared. Seagal was definitely a man’s man. While girls everywhere were still trying to tell us that Swayze’s dirty dance moves from the year before were what made a sexy ‘real’ man, us guys knew better. Patrick had become a pussy, and if you wanted a real man, a man us lads aspired to emulate, a man that could get the job done, you need look no further ladies than the king of the intense eyebrow himself, Mr Steven Seagal.
As a side note, Swayze obviously also felt he had softened up way too much with all this jigging about, knee sliding and lake shenanigans, so he did Roadhouse in 1989 to help redress the balance (before going soft again in Ghost. ‘sigh’).
The film begins with a credit sequence that combines Seagal’s own voice-over with a chronological montage of his genuine baby/childhood photos. It soon blends into a fictitious further biography that, while setting up the film’s premise and introducing us to the character of Nico, also simultaneously effectively presents us with Steven Seagal: the new action/martial arts star on the block (I assume the producers may have already been aware of Van Damme at this time, but who knows?). It’s certainly an effective way of introducing us to Seagal as well as Nico, and instantly conveys the ‘real deal’ authenticity that he was actually bringing to the table.
I apologise if I keep comparing Seagal with the Muscles from Brussels throughout this retro, but at least from my own subjective point of view, they are inextricably linked. Both starring debuts appearing in ’88, both bona fide martial arts masters etc.
The fact that the budget of Seagal’s debut outstrips Van Damme’s 5 to 1 indicates a certain studio confidence in him, and that budget managed to help put together an interesting and capable supporting cast. First and foremost is the lovely Pam Grier. Yes, Coffy, Foxy Brown and later, Jackie Brown herself turns up here as Nico’s long suffering police partner ‘Jacks’ – Grier was not quite middle aged in ’88, but the dodgy fashions certainly helped her look it. Nonetheless, she was still a foxy lady. I didn’t really know much about 70′s blaxploitation movies when I first saw her in Nico. She’s such a striking looking woman though, and had such an extensive filmography, that I sort of knew her before I knew her (if you see what I mean?). I remembered her more (before Jackie Brown came along) as Ms Wardroe in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Her presence in Nico is cooler than I was informed enough to give it credit for at the time.
Next up is a young and slightly baby-faced Sharon Stone, who is pretty forgettable as Nico’s wife Sara. It’s a one-dimensional part, and it’s hard to imagine (from this performance) that Stone had already been around for most of the decade jobbing between TV and bits in movies, and that a mere three years later she would be shocking the world with the briefest glimpse of her un-knickered lady garden as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct.
Also along for the ride, playing the genuinely creepy villain (Zagon) is the venerable Henry Silva. This guy had played a baddie in Bagdad before I was playing in me Dad’s bag (sorry), and by this time in his career had settled very much into accepting his relentless villainous on-screen lot in life. Anyone with a face as derelict as his just can’t be anything else can he? He’s like Jack Palance after a good kicking.
Silva brings a large dash of his more recent TV serial villains to his role here and I’m not sure that was a good thing. In Nico, he’s very much more the Buck Rogers baddie than the Ocean’s 11 robber. Meh! Well you take what you can get, and Silva is I guess a good choice.
The rest of the supporting cast all seem to be recognisable jobbing film and TV actors, and I’m not going to worry about addressing any more of them here, it’s my retro so there – Oh! That is except for a notable ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ turn from a certain Michael Rooker as ‘man in bar #1′ – amazing really. In much the same way as Stone would really make her mark only three years later, Rooker seemingly just needed the 80s to hurry up and piss off before his career would just take off. Funny how things happen like that ain’t it?
I’m not gonna do a complete synopsis of the plot this time, as it’s an 80s cop thriller. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen it. It’s not complicated: it’s drugs, corruption, torture, assassination plans etc. Watching it again, and with my wife also ‘giving it a go’ we did struggle to really figure out why there was seemingly so much for all the characters to be talking about so much of the time between crazy shootouts or Seagal ass whooping. I mean, Nico himself is the unstoppable force of nature, ex military special ops, but now regular cop guy with a pure sense of right and wrong. This gets him into trouble with everyone right from the off (of course), cos he’s a proper no nonsense cop, not a ‘yes’ man. What’s more, he’s Italian, he loves his family and takes care of business yadda yadda. All fine, no problems there. Of course his special forces past catches up with him in the form of Zagon (Silva), who’s now involved with the crimes Seagal has been investigating, and eventually Seagal ajaxes him in the final reel with a painful neck snap manoeuvre – oooh that had to hurt!
Anyway, watching the movie again was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first, it being so shocking to see Seagal so young, vital and skinny. He looks about nine feet tall, and almost comedically towers above everyone else in the movie (especially poor Jacks). He’s all long limbed and kinda ungainly. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me while watching again after so long. That is, that I’m actually surprised how successful Seagal’s ‘brand’ eventually became. Aikido (the martial art he is 7th DAN in) is not visually spectacular in a cinematic way. Aikido is an amazing discipline, but it’s not acrobatic or overtly aggressive like some other forms, so the audience can be left less than thrilled sometimes. Also, the man can’t run to save his life, is incredibly ungainly and doesn’t have an impressive muscular physique either. In fact Seagal’s best ‘action hero’ assets when he’s not fighting are his eyebrows (very intense), and his voice. His Mafiosi Don style delivery is fairly effective. This adds up to suggest he has less obviously going for him than the ripped to shreds, jumping, spinning, large arsed Belgian. I guess there’s something in the way Seagal dispatches people without looking like he’s doing very much at all, that appealed in a different way.
It’s not a bad debut then, the writing and acting is pretty good, no-one really clangs, and Seagal does pull off the job well. Personally, I would like to have seen more of the special forces stuff that tops the movie, rather than a cop drama, but that’s just me.
All of Seagal’s movies that led up to Under Siege felt to me like they were still searching for the right combination of character and story to present Seagal’s particular talents in the most effective and cinematically thrilling way. Under Siege definitely did that. Nico, on the other hand did not, but we can’t be too hard on it. If you view the movie as a debut, a first curtain, the opening act as it were. It acquits itself pretty well, and one is certainly left in no doubt that that Seagal is a force to be reckoned with.