Warner Bros. // 1988 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 16th, 2001
No one is above the law...except the hero in this case.
Steven Seagal came out of nowhere with his first film Above the Law and seemed to be ready to step into the top rank of action stars such as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Mel Gibson. Though lower budget than some of his later films this one always struck me as one of his best films. Great fight scenes and stunts outweigh a haphazard storyline and a contradictory premise to make for an exciting mindless action flick. This DVD is part of Warner's budget line but does boast a very nice anamorphic transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
Seagal plays Nico Toscani, a martial arts master turned CIA operative turned detective who is known for having the most mob members as relatives in the Chicago police department. Things look fishy when a big bust results in the drug lord walking free after federal intervention. From flashbacks we find that the CIA was running drug operations in Vietnam, and the same unsavory people are behind this latest operation, which will result in death and mayhem for those who oppose their plans. Nico must take the law into his own hands to defeat those who feel they are above those same laws.
That is just a hint of what is actually a fairly convoluted story about CIA operatives, drug lords, Nicaraguan refugees, and friendships. There is quite a bit more story than this film needs, because in the end what we are here to see is Steven Seagal aikido his way through a lot of bad guys while things go crash and blow up. It is in the kick butt department that the film really works; Seagal used what was then a brand new type of martial arts fighting for the screen, a less flashy but more street wise and deadly style. The martial arts scenes, with one exception, were among the most impressive parts of the film. The fights looked very realistic and like someone was actually getting hurt. The gunfights were also very well done and equaled just about anything I've seen in similar films.
Chicago really lent their support to this film, allowing some stunts that lend a lot of excitement, such as the parking garage chase that ended with one car crashing through the outside wall of the building. Other stunts were also impressive and belied the low budget of the film overall. Very exciting and professional looking work.
I really have to say that there is a different scale being used to judge films like this. If I talk about good acting I am not saying Steven Seagal is another Olivier. But I thought Seagal was very good in this first film, and managed to show a variety of emotion, from warm and loving to his family to Mr. Cool in the face of adversaries to a man over the top with anger and righteous indignation, often at the drop of a hat. I don't think he has ever shown this variety of emotion since. Sharon Stone plays his concerned wife with a small part, and adds a human element to the hero. Pam Grier, veteran of the blaxploitation films of the '70s, gets an endearing role as Nico's partner. Perhaps the best acting (or overacting as the case may be) came from Henry Silva, who played a truly evil villain, one who enjoys his torture and drugging people. Often these films are only as good as the villain, and Silva holds up his end with delightful menace.
Warner came out with the DVD in 1998 as part of their budget line. The quality of these budget discs vary widely, but this is one of the better ones. The anamorphic widescreen side looks quite good, with only a few blemishes coming from the film stock, and a minimum of edge enhancement from the digital realm. Colors are solid, blacks are deep, and the level of detail is sharp and crisp. A very watchable transfer. The other side sports the usual cropped pan & scan sop to the Joe Six Pack crowd who can't stand black bars on their screen. The audio remix into Dolby Digital 5.1 is quite good as well, with plenty of punch from the explosions and gunshots, and fairly active use of surrounds, and clearly understood dialogue.
I almost hate to talk about holes in credibility and story problems with films like this, but it bears saying. The biggest flaw in the film is that the hero is fighting against those who feel they are above the law, and is willing to break the law willy-nilly in the pursuit of same. He is willing to break the nose of a young man because he is consensually using drugs with his cousin, and thinks no less about breaking the nose of a man who simply doesn't want to talk to him. I kept feeling the inherent contradiction running through the film. This isn't a new premise of course; people like to see vigilante justice.
Seagal tries to do a little too much with this first effort, which is almost an audition to show everything he can do all in one film. He's a little too much the cold Clint Eastwood type to go into flying rages later, but he seems to be just that, a cool and controlled man on a hair trigger. That also seemed to be a contradiction.
I'm tired of talking about contradictions, there are several more within the story. We don't watch these types of films for the storyline much anyway. So lets talk about production values. This was a low budget film, which is understandable with Seagal being co-writer, co-producer, and star all in his first film. The stunts and fight scenes seem to have eaten most of the budget, because it is elsewhere the film shows less polish. One particular scene I can note is when Seagal slams a door and you can see the whole wall wobble. Don't look too closely, and you'll be all right. What you are really meant to pay attention to works just fine.
Warner's budget line of discs has one trait in common, a lack of big extra content. That said, this one isn't bad, especially if you like trailers. Eight Seagal films all have trailers on the disc, with some cast and crew information and text based production notes to round out the collection. Not that impressive, but then again you can pick up the disc at Wal-Mart for under $15.
As Steven Seagal films go (a big caveat to be sure) this one is quite good. I came away from it the first time really believing we were seeing the beginning of a top rank action star career. Several films later it was apparent that he was in the second tier with people like Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Still, Under Siege revived his career with a big hit, and he has the chance to rise above the low expectations again now with Exit Wounds.
If you like Seagal flicks then this disc will find a happy home at your home. Others looking for some mindless action entertainment might give it a rental. If you've not seen his films before, you could do worse (much worse actually) than to start here.
I didn't expect much, so I don't have much to hold against the film or Warner. Therefore all are released.
Review content copyright © 2001 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast and Crew Info
* Production Notes