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Above the Law
Before he turned into the straight to video staple he's become in recent years, Steven Seagal was a pretty serious box office draw and it all started with this movie, co-written and co-produced by Seagal himself, Above The Law. Directed by Andrew Davis, this is a film that debuted a lean, mean fighting machine far removed from the Seagal of recent years.
Seagal plays Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop with an interesting past in which he worked for the C.I.A. during the Vietnam war where he saw things he'd much rather forget. Now patrolling the streets of the windy city with his partner, Delores Jackson (Pam Grier), he leads a pretty normal life. He's married to his wife, Sara (Sharon Stone), and spends most of his spare time with his family. When he finds out that his young cousin is off doing what she shouldn't be doing instead of attending his baby's baptismal celebration, he busts up a bar (look for a fun and very quick appearance from David Patrick Kelly and Michael Rooker) until he finds her upstairs doing crack with a pusher. The pusher squeals and tells Nico about a big shipment coming in which he then investigates only to find out it's not a shipment of drugs, but a shipment of C-4 explosives.
When whoever is bringing in the explosives blows up Nico's church, killing the kindly Father Gennaro (Joe Greco), Nico decides to ignore his superiors who are telling him to lay of the prime suspect, a greasball named Chi Chi Ramone (Miguel Nino). With a bit of help from Delores, Nico heads into the Chicago underworld to find himself up against a man from his past named Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva) who will kill whoever gets in the way of his lucrative smuggling operation.
So, yeah, say what you will about where Seagal's career has gone in the last half a decade or so, but he sure started off strong. Above The Law may not be high art but it's sure a whole lot of fun. Some great shoot outs, some fancy aikido moves, and some great hand to hand combat scenes will keep action fans more than content throughout the film's duration while the cast of exploitation veterans will have B-movie buffs enthralled. Seagal makes for a reasonably good leading man here, and while he may not have the charisma of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, he's decent enough to make the part work. Henry Silva is his usual bad ass self as the heavy of the film, and his back and forth with Seagal in the few scenes they share together are some of the film's highlights. Pam Grier and Sharon Stone aren't given quite as meaty roles as those assigned to their male counterparts but they're both fun to look at and perfectly sufficient in their respective parts. Grier does get a few good lines and sees some action, but not to the extent that she did in some of the seventies classics that she's best remembered for.
The movie uses its Chicago settings quite effectively, showing off a seedy side of the city's underbelly that you rarely see as a tourist. It makes for a great place for a crime/action film like this to play out and director Andrew Davis does a good job of letting the camera soak it all in. The score, the hairstyles and the fashions might all seem a little dated but so be it, Above The Law otherwise holds up quite well and gives its target audience exactly what it wants - tough talk, cool characters and action galore.
Above The Law debuts on Blu-ray in a decent quality AVC encoded 1080p anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer. There's a few scenes that show some moderate grain and the occasional speck of print damage isn't too hard to spot here and there but for the most part the picture stays pretty clean. Colors don't pop off the screen like a newer movie might but they're reproduced quite faithfully here, not showing any bleeding or oversaturation. Detail levels are okay, even if they aren't great. Close up shots fare better than medium and long distance ones but you'll notice an improvement over the standard definition disc almost immediately. There aren't any mpeg compression artifacts to note and only some very minor edge enhancement is noticeable in a couple of spots. This isn't a reference quality transfer, but it's probably a better effort than many of us would have expected for this movie.
The main audio track, and the best way to enjoy the film is the English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, though alternate language tracks are supplied in Dolby Digital English 5.1, French 5.1, Castilian 5.1, Latin 1.0, German 5.1 and Italian 5.1 track with subtitle options in English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish proving that the world's love for Seagal cares not for language barriers!
With the technical specs out of the way, you can't help but walk away from this track feeling a little bit disappointed. While the levels are properly balanced and there are no noticeable problems with hiss or distortion to complain about, there's very little rear channel activity and bass response is weaker than it probably needed to be. You won't have any problems understanding or following the movie, but this track lacks the 'oomph' that a good action movie can have when a rock solid high definition audio track is done properly.
Aside from a menu and chapter stops... we get a trailer. And that's it.
Despite the almost barebones presentation (when is this going to get some TLC in the extras department?) the transfer is improved enough that Seagal fans may want to consider the upgrade. Those who haven't seen it, well, it's honestly a really fun action movie. It's not deep, it's not particularly artsy, but it's chock full of ass kicking, and it features a pretty killer cast. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.