Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Above The Law (also known as Nico) is an action crime film released in 1988, and it was co-written, co-produced and directed by Andrew Davis. The film marks the debut of Steven Seagal, who stars as a former CIA operative now working as a cop in Chicago on the trail of arms smugglers and drug dealers. The film also stars Pam Grier, Henry Silva, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo and Chelcie Ross. The film came about after aikido teacher Seagal was offered a screen test by a former pupil, Michael Ovitz. The film received a mixed reaction from critics, although fans of Seagal frequently claim that this is one of the star's better movies. The film would go on to earn $18.8 million in the US and would propel Seagal into mainstream attention. Seagal and Davis would later team up again for Seagal's most successful film to date, 1992's Under Siege.
What's It About?
Nico Toscani is a former CIA agent who worked on the Vietnam-Cambodia border during the Vietnam war. Disillusioned with the agency after witnessing a superior officer torturing prisoners, Nico returns to his hometown of Chicago and becomes a detective alongside his partner, Detective Delores Jackson. After the pair of them bust a drugs ring and arrest two of the dealers, Nico is aghast after the pair are released following intervention of federal agents.
It soon emerges that a conspiracy is at the heart of the matter when Nico's pastor is killed in an explosion. The two smugglers, including Salvadorian drug lord Tony Salvano, were in the employ of Kurt Zagon - the very CIA agent Nico fought all those years ago - and their arrest jeopardised a federal investigation into Zagon for alleged human rights abuses. When it becomes apparent that Nico and his family are now being targeted, Nico is warned to drop the case but ignores the advice. As he and his family are being increasingly targeted, Nico must fight back alongside Jackson and his old CIA colleague Nelson Fox.
What's to Like?
Given the modus operandi of its debuting star (beat people up, emote as little as possible), Above The Law is ideally suited to kick off the Ponytailed One's career. A slick entry-level action thriller like this allows the man to kick plenty of ass as well as establish his leading man credentials and Seagal seems grateful for the opportunity. His on-screen partnership with Pam Grier is a little odd to begin with but they soon settle on a dependable relationship, one where she reluctantly goes along with the maverick male intent on dishing out his own brand of justice. To his credit, Seagal actually makes a decent job of portraying his character although this template has hardly changed in the years since.
Seagal's fighting style might not be as flashy as the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme but it's certainly effective, sending a variety of goons through the scenery with stone-faced aplomb. Of course, this is the Eighties so the film still has plenty of shoot-outs and car chases for fans of such exploits to enjoy. The film doesn't pretend to reinvent the wheel but instead, it tries to keep things relatively simple. However, the screenwriters clearly didn't get the memo because there are a number of issues with the script which introduces far many too characters and subplots for a film of this nature. Granted, the film isn't that memorable beyond the novelty of seeing Seagal's movie debut but it's competent enough to not be terrible. This may sound damning but given the rest of Seagal's career, the bar isn't exactly that high.
- The film has a lot in common with Andrew Davis' earlier film, 1985's Code Of Silence, which also features martial artists, Chicago cops, drug lords and corruption. Davis was hired as director because Seagal was a big fan of Code Of Silence. The script itself was one of a number of pre-written spec scripts at Warner Bros intended for Clint Eastwood but once Seagal signed on, elements of his own story was included.
- The movie isn't just Steven Seagal's debut - John C. Reilly also first debuted in this film as one of the thugs seen in a bar. Coincidentally, his future Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Michael Rooker also makes an early film appearance in the film as another man in the bar.
- As part of the pitch to studio executives, Seagal was called upon to demonstrate his proficiency in aikido. During the demo, Seagal demolished his students and suitably impressed, the film was then green-lit. They had no idea that the entire demonstration had been staged.
What's Not to Like?
While the film is certainly competent, the last thing it can be called is 'memorable'. The film feels completely generic with an uninspired B-list cast, forgettable action sequences and needlessly complicated scripting. Outside of Seagal, Grier and a very young-looking Sharon Stone, all the supporting characters are completely unmemorable - even the sneering Silva as the villain. And I'm not joking about the complicated script - why have members of Nico's family members of a Mafia that a) have no bearing on the story and b) aren't the principal baddies for Seagal's lethal lawman? Wouldn't a better story see Nico return to Chicago as a cop and deal with the inner conflict of seeing his own family at the centre of a crime ring that he has to shut down? Perhaps I'm thinking too much about Above the Law which, quite frankly, doesn't deserve such scrutiny.
I'm beginning to think that part of the reason why this film is held in high regard to Seagal's fans is purely down to how he is now. Compared to the slow, overweight, pony-tailed best friend of Vladimir Putin he is these days, his appearance in this film is a refreshing change from his later output. It's also a reminder of how differently his career may have gone if he had better management and not kept remaking the same film over and over again. Seagal's best film by far was Under Siege which was a bombastic action movie that felt like an A-list picture, in contrast to this almost painfully thin thriller. In truth, this film doesn't feel all that different to the likes of Marked For Death, Death Before Dishonour or Out For Justice - three films that are so similar that I actually made one of them up and you probably didn't notice. Seagal was never going to be an A-lister - his charisma isn't as strong as the likes of Stallone or Schwarzenegger - but this uninspired debut feels like a disappointing waste of everyone's time.
Should I Watch It?
Seagal's fans may hail this as one of his best but that's not much to shout about. This film might have been the one that gave us cinema's most stoic action hero but it's just too complicated, uninvolving and generic to stand out from the crowd - something it should have aspired to if Seagal was going to be an event star. As it is, it's interesting to see Seagal really try in a role and is only really of interest to his fans. If that isn't you then you're better off watching something else.
Great For: Steven Seagal, character actors looking for a pay day, duping studio execs
Not So Great For: Seagal's detractors, remaining in the memory, launching careers
What Else Should I Watch?
I find it baffling why people rate Seagal - his monotone delivery and minimal acting make him a hard hero to root for while his behaviour (alleged and otherwise) makes him an even harder person to like. I've already said that Under Siege is his best film and probably the only Seagal film worth checking out. If you're a glutton for punishment then the next best is probably Under Siege 2 which isn't as good as the first film but much goofier, repeating the Die Hard-on-a... formula by moving the action to a hijacked train. After that, Seagal's films with himself as the star are nearly uniformly disappointing. He makes the odd cameo every now and again like his appearance in Machete which still isn't a great film but still better than rubbish like Half Past Dead or Fire Down Below.
If you're looking for an action star to actually get behind, why not watch a film with as many of them as possible and pick one? Enter The Expendables trilogy which features almost every action star from the past thirty years (except Seagal) in some capacity. Stallone (First Blood), Schwarzenegger (Commando), Jason Statham (The Transporter), Jet Li (Hero), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Chuck Norris (Missing In Action), Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier), Van Damme (Kickboxer), Wesley Snipes (Blade) and many, many others all appear in at least one of them so try watching one of the movies and discover these stars (and former stars) enjoying themselves in a big, dumb, fun, explosive action film.
Nicolo "Nico" Toscani
Det. Delores "Jacks" Jackson
CIA Agent Nelson Fox
Bautista "Tony" Salvano
Steven Pressfield, Andrew Davis & Ronald Shusett*
Release Date (UK)
19th November, 1988
Action, Crime, Drama
© 2022 Benjamin Cox