A thug pulls a gun, and with a flick of the wrist, the attacker spins through the air and lands with a thud. Bodies fly through windows, arms are graphically broken with an unnerving “snap,” and no matter what an attacker comes at our hero with, they are flattened in the blink of an eye. It was fast. It was exciting. It was the 80s action tour de force, Above the Law.
In 1988, I was working at a video store. Incidentally, I should explain to younger readers that a video store was like streaming, only you had to pick up the stream in your car and then take it back again. Our store received a few copies of a new movie called Above the Law with a poster of a guy I’d never seen before looking steely-eyed and holding a gun. It looked like it would be another generic 80s action movie, but man, was I wrong.
After seeing the movie fly off the shelf as quickly as it came in, I decided to check it out. As a fan of Chuck Norris, the first thing I noticed was that this was a very different martial art. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before. And who was this guy starring in it? Who was this Steven Seagal? I’d never seen him even as a bit player in any other movies and he didn’t look like the conventional action hero. During that time, muscled stars were ruling the box office. The tone of the movie was dark. The action was fast. I had to keep running it back. What the heck is he doing? Is it mind control?
Aikido In the opening scene, Nico (Steven Seagal) is teaching an Aikido class. It was a good way to set up the story, introduce the character, and introduce the audience to the martial art that they would soon see applied out of the dojo and on the street. It also helped to differentiate aikido from karate and kung fu styles, by showing, rather than explaining, the philosophy.
As Nico teaches the class, we see him demonstrate his signature clothesline takedown (Iriminage) against a variety of attacks. Nico levels his opponent multiple times with an audible thump. The voiceover narration provides the backstory, while a brutal randori against multiple opponents is shown in slow motion to help establish the utility of the art. I was sold on both the new star and the martial art, and I was less than ten minutes in.
Above the Law
In the 80s, the action film had become a staple of the decade. Stallone and Schwarzenegger were churning them out fast and furious. However, the movies were also getting quite silly. Giant biceps, giant guns, ever-larger explosions, and one-liner asides that were taking on a life of their own, were all common by 1988.
The time was ripe for something different to slide into a less bombastic space. Above the Law stars the aforementioned Steven Seagal as Chicago cop, Nico Toscani. Once an intelligence officer, and still a martial arts badass, Toscani sees his years in the CIA come back to haunt him as he battles old rivals and new villains dealing in drugs and more. However, they soon come face to face with their reckoning in the form of Steven Seagal’s Nico, as he declares: “You guys think you’re above the law, well you ain’t above mine.”
Though the film’s star was not well-known, the great supporting cast, which was made up of new faces and established actors, was instrumental in scenes where no one is flying through a window. Above the Law features Sharon Stone as Nico’s wife Sara in one of her early film roles. In an inspired choice, Nico’s partner is played by the legendary Pam Grier.
And in casting to type, the villain Zagon was portrayed by screen veteran Henry Silva. Directing it all was Andrew Davis, who was no stranger to martial arts action films, having previously directed Chuck Norris in Code of Silence(1985). Seagal would reunite with Davis in 1992 for the action film classic, Under Siege(1992). Having control of a film is usually something most actors aspire to, but from the beginning, Seagal had a great deal of influence on the movie as he is credited as one of the film's producers, as well as contributing to the story and as the aikido choreographer.
Enter Steven Seagal Steven Seagal seemed to have appeared out of nowhere as a fully formed action star. He had hit upon a formula that gave moviegoers a hero that was different and martial arts action that was exciting and yet devoid of flying kicks, leaping punches, or gymnastic flourishes. Above the Law became the template for many of the films that came after, and fans grew to know what to expect from a Steven Seagal film, even down to the three-word title.
The films, Hard to Kill (1990), Marked for Death (1990), and Out for Justice (1991) usually featured Seagal’s character taking on corruption and/or delivering vengeance in wickedly unique action set pieces that displayed his martial arts prowess. Fight scenes that featured Seagal vanquishing his attackers with quick and decisive moves, often sending them into objects like mirrors, walls, and contemporary furnishings, were what fans were coming to see.
In the canon of great martial arts films, Above the Law holds a unique place and it helped to reinvigorate the genre. The film’s success seemed to usher in a new crop of martial artists-turned-actors, but most were not as successful as Seagal, who would eventually move on to direct as well as star in the cinematic environmental warning, On Deadly Ground in 1994.
On a chilly evening in 1990, when I was living in Hollywood, California, and a lifetime away from the employ of a video store, I went to the historic Chinese Theatre, just around the corner from my miniature substandard apartment. Going to the theatre was an unusual extravagance, but I felt compelled to go. The new Steven Seagal movie was playing. I settled into my seat. When the lights dimmed, hoots and hollers erupted from the audience, as we watched Seagal slink down a rain-soaked alley. The title Hard to Kill splashed onto the screen.