The year was 1988 and the American action movie was reaching its zenith. The genre had produced several bona fide superstars and it was big money at the box office. Action movies were the perfect vehicle for unknown talent to prove themselves. An actor that audiences had never seen before could be the lead if he had the right moves, hair, and one-liners. It was under these conditions that the world was introduced to Steven Seagal in the film Above the Law.
Written and directed by Andrew Davis, Above the Law hits all action movie clichés. In fact, it probably packs in too many. We’ve got flashbacks to Vietnam; a tough, renegade cop; political subterfuge; a revenge plotline; intrusive FBI agents; CIA backstabbing and much, much more. Above the Law is a product of its time, a true example of the ’80s action film. That said, it’s actually hard to pin down exactly what this movie is about. All I know for sure is Steven Seagal is a guy named Nico and he kills a lot of dudes. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Above the Law might not be the best Steven Seagal movie – that honor goes to Under Siege – but it is a role that feels tailor fit for him. As Nico, Seagal does tons of his slap-fu in this flick, constantly open-hand chopping bad guys into submission. He always finds a way to get into a hand to hand fight with four or five dudes. Sometimes, the bad guys pull up with guns and then put them away so they can fight Seagal man to man. Of course, this being the ’80s, there’s also a ton of gun action, as every scene seems to end in everyone pulling out their firearm and riddling the background with bullets. There’s not a ton of big set pieces in Above the Law; most of the action centers around a bunch of cars with bad guys and good guys hiding behind them, taking shots at each other. It’s a street–level movie and that’s not a bad thing.
The supporting cast in Above the Law is strangely strong for a low-budget action movie. Pam Grier shines as Jacks, Nico’s sexy and tough partner. She seems like she is having a blast, smiling through the whole movie, even as she’s shooting bad guys in the head. Sharon Stone also makes an appearance as Nico’s wife, although her role is so small you almost don’t notice it’s her. Then there’s Henry Silva, who plays the villainous Kurt Zargon. He looks like the bad guy from a science fiction film, beautifully out of place in this hard-edged cop movie. Seriously, I can’t figure out his character. At all. What are his motives? I don’t know, but I know I love every second he is on screen. I wish we spent more time with him.
Andrew Davis would go on to direct some fantastic films, including the Harrison Ford mega-hit The Fugitive and Seagal would go on to become a huge movie star, but this feels like the starting point for both of these guys. Above the Law certainly isn’t the best action film of the era, but it’s worth watching just to see Davis and Seagal find their footings as artists. It has some genuinely great shootouts, an awesome performance from Pam Grier, and one supremely fantastic villain death (arm break into neck break). It also serves as a time capsule to the Steven Seagal that once was. He’s skinny, slick, and smooth in Above the Law. There are worse ways to spend your weekend.