Review by special guest writer Vytautas Maslesh. Visit his blog, Sardonic Shock Syndrome, to enjoy more of incisive pop culture commentary.
Above the Law (alternate title: Nico: Above the Law) was Steven Seagal’s breakout performance and the first of his three-word-title series (Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, and Out for Justice before breaking form for Under Siege, but then coming right back to it with On Deadly Ground). The film did much to set the tone for not only Steven Seagal’s cinematic career, but the real-life crazy show that is Steven Seagal in real life.
Steven Seagal is, time has proven, a Grade-A bullshit artist. It’s so obvious now that it’s almost tiresome to point it out, but lest it go unsaid, you probably had one friend like Steve back in middle school – the kind of guy who had an uncle that works for NASA and let him play around in the space shuttle when he went to visit, the kind of guy who was attacked by a bear while he and his family were camping over summer vacation and only managed to save his family by shooting the bear with the fully-automatic rifle his grandpa gave him for a birthday present – you know, the kind of guy with a Canadian girlfriend.
In Above the Law, which Steven Seagal not only starred in, but also wrote and co-produced, we get the first taste of Steven Seagal lunacy. Whether Steven Seagal started modeling his own life on the Nico Toscani character after the movie, or if Nico Toscani is meant to mirror the life that Steven Seagal read about in a comic book once is a matter of speculation and conjecture, and is ultimately trivial. Above the Law is where it all starts: the crazy conspiracy theories, the earnest self-aggrandizement, and of course, the bullshit.
Let me summarize the plot of Above the Law. Because the writing on this movie is so impossibly lazy, I decided to highlight the clichés and tropes for you.
The character of Nico Toscani is the son of Italian immigrants who goes to Japan to learn Aikido and is recruited by the CIA at a young age. He leaves the agency, disillusioned with all the torture and gun running and such, and becomes a tough Chicago street cop who of course plays by his OWN RULES. His partner is Pam Grier in her post-Coffy, pre-Jackie Brown years. His wife is Sharon Stone, who is terrible. How bad of an actor are you when you have to admit that you were showed up by Steven Seagal? The answer is Sharon Stone. Even in this cinematic stink-bomb, Sharon Stone is out of her depth. Then again, Sharon Stone is out of her depth in a bird bath.
The heavy is played by 1970s-1980s staple bad guy and four-time Tiger Beat cover model Henry Silva, who is doing the best with what he’s given. He plays a TORTURE HAPPY CIA boss whose preferred tool is chemical interrogation – basically he shoots someone full of smack and then plays 20 questions before killing the dude anyway. He masterminds a plot to something about Nicaragua and killing a senator and oh who really gives a shit? Nico meets Henry Silva in the jungles of Cambodia, and the cruelty of the former causes gentle soul Nico to leave the CIA behind, but of course try to get out / pull me back in / etc.
Nico stumbles on what he believes to be A PLOT TO SMUGGLE DRUGS into the country, but the drugs TURN OUT TO BE EXPLOSIVES. There’s a plot to assassinate a priest and something mumble mumble – the point is that this conspiracy goes ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP!
Unsurprisingly, Nico takes THE LAW INTO HIS OWN HANDS because OWN RULES. Nico goes after the bad guys, but unsurprisingly they decide to GO AFTER HIS FAMILY, leading to the most pointless shootout in history – honestly, Nico and another cop who is not Pam Grier go chasing after Henry Silva, shoot up the hotel room where he’s torturing a priest, and then leave – Pam Grier is shot during the shootout even though it was only 8 DAYS UNTIL RETIREMENT, but it’s okay because SHE WAS WEARING A VEST.
Nico goes after Henry one last time. There’s a CAR CHASE and a SHOOTOUT CAR CHASE, but Henry Silva wants Nico taken alive. Pop quiz, Henry Silva – if you wanted him alive, why have your henchmen shoot at him? Do you not know how bullets work?
Anyway, Henry Silva decides to torture Nico to death with that chemical interrogation stuff he’s been using all movie, but Nico is DRUG PROOF SUPERMAN. He SNAPS OUT OF IT and then he snaps Henry Silva’s arm and spine. The SENATOR IS GRATEFUL BUT CLUELESS, and the movie ends with Steven Seagal boring some reporter to death with stories of his CIA exploits which totally happened even though the government denies it so you can’t prove it didn’t happen and you could ask my Canadian girlfriend but we broke up and then she died.
The worst part about Above the Law is that it is B-O-R-I-N-G. Steven Seagal movies work when they are over-the-top batshit, but it seems that in Above the Law, Steve might not have had 100% free rein to do whatever the hell he wanted, and so there are no Jamaican posses, post-coma montages, or Gary Buseys. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers cop action flick with an unnecessarily involved CIA subplot and long sequences of Steven Seagal running like a twelve-year-old girl making fun of a thirty-six-year-old gay man.
The mystery really is that if you’re going to completely bullshit your way through not just a film, but an entire filmic career and media persona, why should it ever be dull? Why babble on for 30 minutes about the minutiae of CIA spying programs when you could just say that you’re an astronaut who doesn’t need a rocket ship, but rather just jumps to the moon whenever he feels like it? It worked for Dolemite, and it would sure as hell go a long way to making Above the Law halfway watchable.
- Steven Seagal arm snap count: 2
- Spine snap: 1
- Disarms a guy using slappy martial arts: 5 I think
- Running: Approximately 4 minutes
- Running like a man: 0 minutes
- Bullshit: CIA history, Italian heritage, speaking multiple languages
There’s one kind of decent line of dialogue in the movie – after escaping an ambush, Steven Seagal disarms some assassins. When one of them advances on him saying something about how Steve can’t shoot them all – Steve shoots the guy in the gut and says “no, but I’ll get an A for effort.”
This movie came out in 1988. That year, Pam Grier was diagnosed with cancer. I doubt this is a coincidence.
This is a photo of Chelcie Ross, who plays Nico’s ex-CIA partner Nelson Fox:
This is a photo of Ben Stiller playing “Simple Jack” in the movie Tropic Thunder