While Steven Seagal has become a punch-line in recent years, his star-making debut, Above the Law, is a solid action flick.
Warner Bros – circa 1986. A bunch of powerful, suit-wearing studio execs are summoned to a studio lunch like no other. They’re set to observe an Aikido demonstration by a superstar trainer named Steven Seagal, previously known as the fight choreographer who broke Sean Connery’s wrist while training him for Never Say Never Again. By the end of the demonstration, mangled stunt men lie on the floor while a blood-stained Steven Seagal walks away with a movie deal that – unbeknownst to all – will establish him as perhaps the hottest action star of the early nineties, only for his career to collapse under the weight of his own ego eventually. But, in the early days, the sky was the limit for Seagal, and his first movie, Above the Law, is an impressive big-screen introduction to one of the most enigmatic movie stars of his time.
Above the Law stars Steven Seagal as Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop with roots that go back to Palermo, Sicily. The movie’s opening sequence does a good job of establishing not only Nico’s past but Seagal’s, too. As Seagal’s voice-over explains Nico’s early fascination with Aikido and his stint in Japan, we see real archive photos of Seagal doing the same thing. And, if you’re a Seagal enthusiast, you’ll know that the man was always cagey about his past, suggesting a history with the CIA. In Above the Law, Nico is shown to be a veteran of covert operations run by the CIA at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, and the film kicks off with Nico leaving the agency in a fury when he discovers his superiors are using torture to extract information.
While one can’t help but view Above the Law‘s early sequences with a raised eyebrow, given that many of Seagal’s boasts were discredited in the years to come, it can’t be denied that this opening sequence is one of the most masterful introductions ever for an action star. Seagal is unique in that he never had to suffer the indignity of playing a henchman or even a supporting role before getting his shot at stardom. After all, Stallone had to do a bit of porn, Schwarzenegger did Hercules in New York, and tons of roles where all he had to do was look muscular, and even JCVD had to dance on the beach for Cannon Pictures during Breakin’. But Seagal was the lead right from the get-go.
Above the Law still ranks as one of Seagal’s better movies. It helps that the director, Andrew Davis, was a pro. A few years earlier, he’d gotten an excellent performance out of Chuck Norris for Code of Silence, and he was the perfect choice to helm Seagal’s first movie. While people joke about Seagal’s ponytail and outrageous wardrobe in later movies, he’s much more down to earth in Above the Law. He dresses conservatively, and the ponytail isn’t there yet. In fact, Seagal is notably balding, with him obviously having a little work done in between this and Hard to Kill.
The screenplay for the movie is more intelligent than you’d expect, with it a far cry from the era’s more typically right-wing action movies. In this one, Nico is working against rogue factions of the CIA, and it tackles then-controversial topics, such as the agency’s involvement in Central American conflicts. That said, the film doesn’t shy away from stupidity either, such as a mind-bogglingly dumb moment where Seagal executes an unarmed man in broad daylight while popping off a silly one-liner.
The Aikido battles made the movie a sensation, and you’d never seen that kind of fighting in movies before. Seagal is a somewhat terrifying opponent in how he’s able to demolish all comers – brutally and even sadistically. At this point, Seagal’s ego wasn’t quite into overdrive yet, so he actually takes a few licks and even – gasp – is captured by the bad guys at the end and tortured.
The film has a pretty great supporting cast led by Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier as Nico’s tough partner, who all the guys can’t stop drooling over -but who could blame them? Davis fills the movie with lots of Chicago tough guys, and you can even spot a young John C. Reilly as a thug in one scene. Plus, there’s one of the most popular eighties bad guys, Henry Silva, as the main villain, the CIA interrogator Kurt Zagon. You even get a young Sharon Stone as Nico’s wife, although her role is pretty minor. She was showcased to greater effect in the same year’s Action Jackson.
When all was said and done, Above the Law was only a minor success theatrically, grossing $18.7 million off a $7.5 million budget. It was enough to turn a profit, but home video was where the movie really took off, guaranteeing that Warner Bros would make a follow-up Seagal movie, Hard to Kill, which grossed more than three times what this did and cemented his stardom. After that there was another hit, Marked for Death, and then Seagal was off to the races, only for it all to come crashing down shortly after the ill-fated On Deadly Ground.