Tough talk: "This is for my wife... Fuck you and die!"
Who would win in a fight between Van Damme and Seagal? Just one of those typical playground scenarios that gave us kids an insight to our tastes and choices of movies. Like the whole Sly vs. Arnie debate (for the record, I was on Arnie's side back in the day), many vocally aggressive arguments for and against each cinematic killing machine were fought, without ever offering a definite solution to the question posed. Yet for all of JCVD's spectacular high kicks and Bruce Lee-type overt facial contortions, I always fell onto the side of Steven Seagal. The economy of movement and speed offered up by being a 7th degree black belt in Aikido never failed to convince me that in a true mano-e-mano dust-up, Seagal could put Van Damme to the floor with little effort on his part.
Well, at least before he got fat anyway...
OK that was a cheap shot, but it is a fairly common statement among action aficionados that Seagal's waistline expanded as his movie budgets go smaller. He certainly hasn't lost any of his direct approach to martial arts action, but perhaps physically he hasn't aged quite as well as Van Damme or Lundgren and his DTV actioners are weaker than before. No matter, because we are still left with a wealth of 80s and 90s action classics that offer up solid proof that when it came to slick and spare hard-hitting mayhem, no-one could beat the whispering fists and constant on-screen invulnerability of Steven Frederic Seagal - the Clint Eastwood of martial arts cinema.
The two films I chose to comment on for this article are not even my favourite of Segal's movies (I hold a very special place in my heart for the Under Siege movies), but these are two of the best examples of Seagal's filmic style before he got the chance to play on a naval battleship. It must not be forgotten that until he got too big for his own boots with the environmental actioner On Deadly Ground (from where his star began to wane), every one of Seagal's movies turned a substantial profit - distributors Warner Brothers played it very smart when they unleashed this lethal force onto our screens!
Nico/Above The Law (1988)
"You guys think you're above the law... Well you ain't above mine."
Director: Andrew Davis
Tagline: "He's a cop who believes that no-one is above the law..."
Plot: Italian American former CIA agent turned cop (with strong links to the Mafia) investigates drugs, corruption and illeagal arms trading on the mean streets of Chicago, using lethal Aikido skills learned as a young man in Japan...
Steven Seagal exploded onto the big screen in spectacular fashion with Nico (or Above The Law as it was called elsewhere) and brought a whole new dimension to martial arts cinema. It is an impressive debut, especially since Segal has not even featured in another movie prior to this. He even gets a story credit here - the man certainly went for gold here. Seagal is Nico Toscani (the first of many fantastic character names!) who chooses to fight political and governmental greed and corruption by largely breaking faces and kicking ass with deadly aikido acumen. Toscani's back story even mirrors Seagal's to a degree, with the use of photos from his youth as a young student in Japan. This is a truly audacious introduction to both the man and his artistry, which is deployed in regular fashion in the seedy bars and parking lots of downtown Chicago. The brutal speed of his moves and the ease at which the dumb evil scumbags were taken down made for a refreshing alternative to the high-kicking slo-mo antics of his contemporaries. But Toscani is also a family man too - with a new wife and baby son in the picture. What's this? A caring, family-orientated lethal killing machine?! I'm sold! "Swallow your pride... Choke on it if you have to."
Seagal is also surround by some solid professionals in both cast and crew. The film was helmed by veteran B-picture director Andrew Davis (who would re-team with Seagal to even greater effect in Under Siege), who shoots the action sequences with simple framing and a lovely refrain on hyper-edited jump-cutting - Davis knew all too well that Seagal's technique needed no embellishing. In the cast, Henry Silva adds another straight-from Hell asshole villain to his collection, while Sharon Stone is the lucky gal who gets to play our hero's lady. True, she and token female cop partner Pam Grier have little to do except be the eye-candy to all this testosterone, but hey! We paid to see a man throw a guy into a wall without even flinching - and we get that and then some! Story-wise, Nico has considerable amount of plot details - more than you would usually expect from this type of action film. it won't win any awards for originality - far, far from it - but it was clear to all that with Nico, action cinema had found a new hero... And with an introduction like this, we were rubbing our hands with glee at what lay around the corner.
END CREDITS POWER BALLAD: None - a poor show indeed.
(Somebody get Peter Cetera on the line!)
Out For Justice (1991)
"Yeah, but Richie ain't here! Know why? 'Cause he's a chicken-shit fuckin' pussy asshole!"
Director: John Flynn
Tagline: "He's a cop. It's a dirty job... But somebody's got to take out the garbage."
Plot: Italian-American cop (with strong links to the Mafia) investigates murder, corruption and animal cruelty on the mean streets of New York, using lethal Aikido skills that were probably learned as a young man in Japan...
Even by his own standards, Out For Justice is excessive in its brutality - verbal and physical. Steven Seagal's mullet from Nico has evolved into a slick 90s pony tail, and like Sampson his lethal hands have gotten more deadly! As the exotically-named Detective Gino Felino (sounds like an ice-cream), Seagal metes out bloody-fisted justice as he investigates the brutal shooting of his partner - right in front of his wife and kids. Said psycho is William Forsythe, a regular on the B movie nut-job circuits. Forsythe's Richie Maldano is one of his mega-scumbags, but being a fat, drugged up dickless wonder he is way out of his depth when it comes to Gino Ginelli - sorry, Gino Felino. Segal is on indestructible mode here - in one classic sequence, Gino enters an establishment belonging to Richie's brother Vinnie (Italian-American families in the movies have limited imaginations when naming their children), and proceeds to interrogate everyone in the bar - mostly with his fists and occasionally using a billiard cue and a cue ball/napkin cosh. The combination of martial arts brutality and the mere stupidity of the stooges he throws around (don't they know who they are messing with?!) makes for one of Seagal's best moments on the big screen. "Vinnie! How you doin'?"
Director John Flynn may not have the panache of Davis with Nico
, but he sure has an eye for brutality and lingers long on the gory results of Gino's interrogations. But like Davis before him, he lets Seagal be his own man - leaving the shots un-interrupted as every arm-twist and every neck-break hits the pain target with viscious efficiency. Once again, the action is mainly confined to seedy bars, even seedier strip joints the grimy streets of Brooklyn. OK, so most of the non-violent moments involve Seagal walking around simply asking where Ritchie is - the only noticeable change of delivery is in the location. And the violent scenes are like pretty much all of Seagal's scenes to date (this was the last of his urban actioners before the sea-bound antics of Under Siege
let Segal really fly). But the unusual screen charisma is on full display here - the line delivery is truly unique to Seagal and makes every word have a deeper meaning (!!!) than they would have with any other actor. The cast includes solid character actors such as Jerry Orbach, Juliana Margolies and Gina Gershon (as well as soft-core goddesses Julie Strain and Shannon Whirry), the plot takes a couple of nice little turns as Gino punches and judo-throws his way to the truth and our hero even manages to save his marriage and re-unite his family through righteous killing and excessive use of force... Add in the rose-tinted stories about the homeland and a cute puppy and you have the hallmarks of a true Seagal classic... Just be sure not to throw your unwanted dog out the car window, as Gino might just throw you through the tarmac!END CREDITS POWER BALLAD: Don't Stand In My Way (Gregg Allman)(Seagal makes up for no power ballad in Nico by co-writing and co-producing this country-rock masterpiece - what a guy!)