Kevin: It’s hard not to feel like we’ve been transported back to the 1980s lately, what with Tom Cruise reigning at the box office, tensions between the United States and Russia at a fever pitch, and Steven Seagal dominating the headlines, not for his film work obviously but for his new Moscow-appointed role as a “special humanitarian representative” to improve ties with Washington. Now while the idea of Seagal as a peace ambassador might sound absurd considering his idea of “outreach” consists of reaching out and breaking your limbs if you look at him funny, it’s not that much of a surprise for an actor who was granted Russian citizenship in 2016 by his close friend Vladimir Putin.
Not only has he described Putin as “a great world leader,” but Seagal has also performed on stage for pro-Russian separatists in Crimea, and mocked the idea of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying, “For anyone to think that Vladimir Putin had anything to do with fixing the elections, or even that the Russians have that kind of technology, is stupid.” Now some of you may be wondering, “What is up with the bromance between Steven Seagal and Putin?” Or depending on when you were born, you might be asking, “Who the hell is Steven Seagal, and why does he look like a bloated Dracula?”
Well if you are the latter, you can read our annual birthday tribute to the star to get up to speed on his early life and career, including appearing to Roseanne Barr in a vision after she defeated a train full of misogynistic terrorists with her tampon weaponry, in a powerful episode of her show that was based on true events:
Now while it is hard to understand just what Seagal finds so enchanting about Vlad, perhaps as the leader of a country considered weaker compared to its rival the United States, Putin is drawn to Seagal’s martial arts discipline of aikido, which is supposedly ideal for smaller fighters taking on larger enemies. Perhaps the infamously diminutive Putin likes to imagine himself as the 6-foot-4 Seagal knocking down puny opponents. Perhaps he likes hearing Seagal’s Gary Busey stories from “Under Siege.” Or perhaps it’s because, unlike his ‘80s action peers like Sly, Arnold, and Chuck – who often kicked righteous ass in the name of the U.S.A. – the left-wing Seagal often played characters who were deeply cynical about the role of intelligence agencies in advancing American foreign policy, none more so than in the star’s very first movie, 1988’s “Above the Law”:
Actually forget cynical, in “Above the Law” (in which Seagal also has a “story by” credit), his character Nico Toscani goes to war against the CIA, FBI, and various other shady operatives employed by the Deep State. The movie opens with Nico narrating a fictionalized version of Seagal’s real-life upbringing and introduction to aikido, with the character also recounting his recruitment by the CIA at age 22, mirroring Seagal’s own extremely unverified stories of past work for the agency, which I guess he did in between operating dojos in Japan and banging Kelly LeBrock in America.
Either way, it doesn’t take long for Nico to become disillusioned with America’s actions abroad and at home, as the film transitions to footage of bombed out villages, screaming Vietnamese children, protests in the states, and police brutality. Honestly if Putin was going to put together a propaganda film to make America look bad, he could hardly do better than the shots from this sequence. Eventually Nico quits his work for the agency after witnessing the torture of Vietnamese prisoners by CIA operator Zagon, although it’s kind of unclear if Nico is against torture in general (since he has no problem inflicting it himself throughout the movie), or because Zagon wants information about lucrative opium shipments rather than military intel.
But no matter how much distance he thought he had put between himself and his old life, even as a Chicago cop Nico cannot escape the tentacles of the Deep State. What was supposed to be a drug bust turns up a cache of C-4 explosives, but the men Nico arrests are quickly released by the FBI once it turns out they are working for the CIA. Although Nico is told to stand down, he eventually implicates pretty much the entire federal government in drug trafficking, the bombing of a church that kills seven innocent people, and the attempted assassination of a Senator before he can expose the CIA’s plans to start an illegal war in Nicaragua.
Now in case you weren’t clear on Seagal’s views here, at various points he implies that the mafia is more honorable than America’s intelligence agencies and that the CIA assassinated both John and Robert Kennedy. He also gives several impassioned speeches about the damage caused by U.S. foreign policy, including:
“War is still the greatest business. These guys have started and financed every war we’ve ever fought. Nobody would believe me if I told them the bankers were the CIA.”
“So the Senator couldn’t be bought, huh? He wanted to expose your plans to invade Nicaragua with your own fucking coke money. So the agency clears Zagon to cap his ass … tell me something old buddy, do we kill our own senators now? Are we the fucking Romans?”
“In Europe they’re trying some 80-year-old camp guard for Nazi war crimes. All around our country they got guys on Death Row for murdering one, two, three guys. And they probably deserve what they’re gonna get. But you and I, we know people that are personally responsible for the deaths of 50,000 non-military personnel. Librarians, teachers, doctors, women, children, all dead. We’ve wiped out entire cultures!”
“Not one CIA agent has ever been tried, much less accused, of any crimes. You guys think you’re above the law, but you’re not above mine.”
“Whenever you have a group of individuals who are beyond investigation, who can manipulate the press, the judges, members of our Congress, you’ll have within our government those who are above the law” (wait, what was the name of this movie again?).
Now at one point I was shocked to hear Nico tell an FBI agent “I thought all you federal agents were straight, honorable guys,” but then I realized he meant it sarcastically; with Seagal’s “acting” it’s kind of hard to tell sometimes. Although not only does “Above the Law” portray America’s intelligence agencies as responsible for pretty much everything bad in the world, but at the same time it implies they are grossly incompetent as well, as at one point the CIA database is broken into by an Amiga computer, an even worse security lapse than John Podesta making his password “password.”
Now eventually Nico exposes the plot to assassinate the Senator after killing everyone else involved, including a bartender who Nico assaulted early in the movie and who shows up at the end with all the CIA’s best assassins for some weird reason. Now while breaking an old man’s arm in half, as he does to Zagon, does not exactly square with Seagal’s stated desire to “strive for peace, harmony, and positive results in the world” as part of his new role with the Russian Foreign Ministry, both Americans and Russians can agree that it’s pretty badass to watch. See, Seagal’s already building bridges between our two countries, one snapped limb at a time.
Meanwhile, for another take on Seagal’s big screen debut, enjoy Mike and Anthony’s Tag Team on “Above the Law” from last year:
Mike and Anthony Kick Off “Birth of a Legend” Series with Seagal in “Above the Law”
(Originally posted Feb. 24, 2017)
As the old saying goes, when the truth becomes legend, print the legend. And when it comes to Steven Seagal, it can be difficult to separate the truth from fiction. Was he the first foreigner to operate a dojo in Japan? Apparently yes. Did he do high-level covert work for the CIA? Probably not. Does he owe his film career to being super agent Mike Ovitz’s martial arts instructor? Sort of.
But no matter what chain of events brought Seagal onto the screen and into our lives, we are all luckier for it. We’ve already covered Seagal’s amazing “to the blood bank” line reading in “Hard to Kill,” and to kick off our “Birth of a Legend” series, our East Coast crew Mike and Anthony are doing their own Tag Team of Seagal’s film debut: “Above the Law.”
Mike: “Above the Law” premiered in 1988 and was unfairly snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that year, falling short of being nominated for the Oscar’s “Big Five” by just five categories. “Above the Law” tells the story of Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), a hard-boiled ex-CIA something or other, an aikido master, a Chicago cop, and a coiner of such classic one-liners as “Bank on it, pal” and “Bone-snapping noises.” The movie opens with Nico, standing 6-foot-4, beating the shit out of a dojo full of tiny Asian men in an attempt to teach them how not to be pussies. Typically how this is done is Nico karate-chops them in the throat and tosses them over his shoulder into the nearest potted plant. Somehow the CIA takes notice of his aikido skills and recruits him to go to Vietnam, but this is well after the war so I’m not entirely sure what he’s doing there. I’m also not sure why he’s wearing a keffiyeh in the middle of the jungle.
After a long day in “the bush” behind Urban Outfitters, Nico watches Zagon (Henry Silva) torturing some low-level soldier and he flips out. This provokes Zagon into threatening his life and Nico into proclaiming that he’s through with the CIA, and I guess goes AWOL because he just saunters off into the jungle alone. The movie cuts to Chicago 15 years later where Nico is now a cop with a baby and a hot-ass wife played by Sharon Stone.
Anthony: The scarf in the jungle is a bold fashion statement by Nico. He’s a bold son of a bitch! If leaving a secret op in the middle of the jungle gets me Sharon Stone, then book my damn plane to Vietnam right now! Also, Henry Silva is one of the best bad guys ever. His face has a resting expression someone would make if their private parts were sucking on lemons.
Mike: Meanwhile back in Chicago, a woman he’s somehow related to tells Nico that her daughter is missing, so Nico does what any good cop would do: he walks into the first bar he sees and beats the living daylights out of every customer. That’s right, the same guy who was all up in arms because Zagon wanted to torture an enemy prisoner proceeds to assault any innocent person he comes in contact with. Eventually, after he’s kicked enough ass he finds the missing girl, and her coked-up boyfriend gives Nico a tip that a drug shipment is coming into the city. Nico, Mr. By the Book/I Can’t Torture Anyone, immediately sets up an illegal wiretap to find out more details, which in turn leads him to a nightclub which his partner Jacks (Pam Grier) proclaims she doesn’t like because of the “element” located within.
Anthony: I think one of the more overlooked aspects of this movie is that Steven Seagal and Pam Grier are called upon to improvise several scenes where they talk to each other as old friends/partners. It’s obvious these “slice of life” conversations are not written because if they were on paper Satan would have appeared in the writer’s room and collected all of their souls! I challenge anyone to watch this movie and listen to the parts where two good cops bust each other’s balls and not wonder what the fuck they are talking about. Are they both having a stroke at the same time? This is true even when they pretend to be on a date so they can go into the restaurant unnoticed. UNNOTICED? An Italian man and a black woman on a date in the 80’s!? Somebody call the fucking cops right now before this place gets firebombed!
Mike: Good point Anthony, I wasn’t aware that Chicago was such a progressive town! No one bats an eye as this interracial couple bellies up to the bar for a couple of Harvey Wallbangers. Moving on, the trip to the restaurant gets Nico and Jacks the lead they need to take down this drug deal. This of course turns into a violent shootout with multiple casualties on both sides, and also features Nico riding on the hood of a speeding car, where he eventually punches through the passenger side window and grabs Dudley Moore’s stunt double by the throat.
After the botched drug deal, which actually turned out to be a botched arms deal, no one seems too concerned with the dead bodies strewn all over the place. I imagine someone from the force would have at least had this interaction with Nico following the events of the day:
Captain: “Hey Nico, you just killed like four guys, do you want to … uhhh … talk to the cop shrink or just keep working the case?”
Jacks stepping in: “Hey listen up square! You don’t talk to a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter!”
Captain: “Understood. Nico, good luck!”
(Side note: Can we take a moment to admire the HAND CANNON Nico’s lieutenant is carrying?):
Anthony: Every Chicago cop is perfect in this. They all have mustaches, no chins, and the greatest accents. I am astounded that such magnificent sausage-throated character actors existed, let alone were cast in their ideal roles.
Mike: Nico is the only guy who doesn’t sound like one of the Super Fans, and he’s also the only cop on the force with a body fat index below 50 percent. After all the dead bodies, the illegal wire tap, the sting operation with no probable cause whatsoever, and a stern warning by the FBI, Nico decides to once again disobey orders and follow the Dudley Moore lookalike known as Salvano around old Chicago. It’s never explained why Zagon (who is a member of the CIA) has his entire operation hanging on the shoulders of Salvano, who is not only a small-time two-bit crook, but is also under constant surveillance by Nico. Actually I take that back, because despite all the harassment, Salvano outsmarts Nico at every turn! He blows up a church with Nico inside! He didn’t even mean to do that, he just HAPPENED to blow up a church that Nico goes to. They even killed John Hughes in the process! I honestly don’t even know why they blew up the church in the first place; I think it was to kill one dude! That’s commitment. Seems like a simple bullet to the head would have gotten the job done, but that wouldn’t be enough to send a message to all the churchgoers of the world.
At this point in the movie, between the booze and our constant impersonations of Chicago natives, both Anthony and I were pretty much clueless in terms of the overall plot. The screenwriters must have sensed this as well, because they decided to write in a scene where Nico visits a random Asian woman who is a computer wiz, and it takes her about 10 seconds to hack into the CIA database and give Nico almost every single thing he needs to know. What luck!
Anthony: The CIA database was broken into by a woman on an Amiga. I mean c’mon! I would have preferred Nico go get a haircut from Dee from “Action Jackson” because at least that would have been more believable. I don’t think the computer she used had enough RAM to play Zork, let alone hack the CIA mainframe.
Mike: What the magical Amiga told us, I think, is that there is a CIA hit squad in Chicago and they want to kill a priest or something. This priest is obviously a very dangerous and experienced assassin who would require this level of murderous talent just to take him out. Oh wait, actually he’s just some nothing special priest, but apparently he and his group of illegal immigrants living in a church basement know all about a plot to kill a state senator! Wait, how do they know about that? Did Salvano tell them? Wait, Salvano couldn’t have told them because he doesn’t go to church unless he’s blowing it to smithereens … wait, so how does the CIA know that he knows? Wait, how does Nico know? Wait, how does the Amiga know?!?! I rewound the movie a few minutes to be sure it wasn’t half-taped-over with an episode of “24.” It wasn’t.
Anthony: Who cares how the Amiga knew, because it led to the shootout on the elevated train, which was amazing! Please Nico, endanger more innocent people in your quest for justice! Chi-Town cops are known for their ability to get multiple people killed who are simply trying to come home from work.
Mike: You’re right, that was pretty awesome. Somehow Nico discovered where the priest was hiding before an entire government organization could (thanks Amiga!), and in the process he risked the lives of hundreds of rush hour commuters and got Jacks shot point blank by Zagon. From here Nico escapes and goes to Jacks’ apartment, where the evidence she gathered fills in the one or two blanks the Amiga couldn’t. Between Jacks and the Amiga I think it’s safe to say Nico is the worst investigator of all time, because he has made no discoveries on his own. Even with all this new knowledge and the element of surprise, he still manages to get himself captured by Zagon’s crew!
Anthony: I would like to say more about the final confrontation where Nico (for lack of ANY other explanation) Hulks out and kills a whole room of torturers including Zagon, and this is after getting shot full of truth serum and being tied to a chair. Maybe the drug guy mixed that syringe up with the gamma needle Bill Bixby had on hand, because I’ve never known a man that gets stronger after getting shot full of truth serum except Morpheus from “The Matrix,” and even then he still needed Neo to Howitzer the entire floor before he could escape.
Mike: Can I just say that as horrible a cop as Nico is, Zagon is equally as horrible a CIA shot-caller. At the end of the movie Zagon brings Nico, literally the only man in the city who can stop him, to the very place where they are planning to kill the senator. Which by the way, no one ever talks about how they’re going to do this. They all appear to be waiting around for the senator to get whacked, but who is actually going to kill him or how is left a complete mystery, as all the scumbags throughout the movie – including the bartender from the very beginning for some reason – are now together surrounding Nico. Why would they even need that bartender? Zagon is putting together his A-team, flying in assassins from all over the globe, and he apparently goes, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to invite that Polack midget who runs Sully’s Tavern; you know the guy, the one who talks too much and has had his nose caved in by Nico 15 times.”
Anthony: Oh how could we forget the fact that Zagon brings EVERYONE to the place where they plan kill the senator. Because if you’re going to hire someone to kill the senator you should be there to supervise so you have absolutely no alibi whatsoever! Why take the time to craft a perfectly legit timeline where you couldn’t have killed the man because you were across town sucking lemons into your penis in front of 50 witnesses? Not only is Zagon there, but every single person cast as a bad guy not killed yet is there as well. This way Nico can conveniently murder all of them!
Mike: For me the whole movie was worth it just to see Nico break a 75-year-old’s arm at the elbow and then snap his neck. It’s a good thing he didn’t leave anyone alive to explain what the fuck happened to the authorities!