Above the Law ★★★★★

Decades before he became a bloated, self-important joke, Steven Seagal was the Real Deal — a new action star in the decade of Arnold, Sly, Chuck, Jean-Claude, Bronson, and Bruce. Taking writing and producing credits alongside director Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE), Seagal is impressive in his film debut as Chicago cop Nico Toscani, who runs afoul of CIA-sponsored drug dealers led by the ominously monikered Kurt Zagon (the great Henry Silva in his last really good role). Nico remembers Zagon from his own CIA days in Cambodia, where Zagon was a sadistic interrogator who tortured prisoners for his own gain.

ABOVE THE LAW’s ambitious plot by Steven Pressfield (KING KONG LIVES), Davis, Seagal, and Ronald Shusett (TOTAL RECALL) sends Toscani and his partner Jacks (Pam Grier, who has one week before retirement) after an incoming shipment of what they think is dope. However, when they bust Salvano’s (Daniel Faraldo) operation, they find C4 plastic explosives instead. Forced by FBI agent Neeley (Nicholas Kusenko) to let Salvano walk and suspended from the force by superior officer Crowder (Thalmus Rasulala), Nico fights back anyway, putting his life and those of his wife (Sharon Stone) and his partner in danger to stop Zagon’s plot to kill a U.S. senator.

Not only is Seagal phenomenal in the many chases, shootouts, and martial arts sequences, he’s also surprisingly tender in scenes at home with his extended family. Seagal, formerly a martial arts instructor with Hollywood clientele, had never acted before and has rarely, if ever, been this good since. Davis, whose previous film, CODE OF SILENCE, was also filmed on location in Chicago, brings back many of the same local supporting actors, and few directors have ever nailed the Windy City as well as Davis does. More importantly, he takes care to make Nico a human being — not another ‘80s superman with a one-liner for every kill — and Seagal is up to the challenge.

Perhaps skittish over an untested leading man, Warner Brothers didn’t give ABOVE THE LAW much of a release, opening it in only 350 theaters as if it were an art film. Though the studio eventually found more screens for it, perhaps buoyed by positive word of mouth, Davis’ film didn’t find the audience it deserved. Seagal’s next nine theatrical releases opened at #1 or #2 at the box office with 2002’s HALF PAST DEAD breaking the streak.