Friday, June 8, 2012

OUT FOR JUSTICE (1991, John Flynn, Warner Brothers)

OK, so this is one of those movies I'm going to work a little harder to convince you to see. That's fine. They can't all be the DPRK wuxia film, right?

If I can get a word in over the sound of you rolling your eyes, I'd like to explain something: Before he became a punchline, before he got fat and convinced he was a Lama, before the blues album and the energy drink Seagal could GO, man. Warner Brothers had him pegged as the next great action star and his first three efforts (ABOVE THE LAW; HARD TO KILL and MARKED FOR DEATH) were competently directed, solidly acted, well choreographed martial arts action pictures. As a martial artist, Seagal is the real deal: a 7th dan black belt in Aikido and former bodyguard, who became the first occidental to open his own dojo in Japan. Seagal choreographed many of his own fights, and they are Hobbesian -- nasty, brutish, and short. Seagal's philosophy on hand to hand fighting is on display in this excerpt from his first film (under its British title NICO):

So, what makes this particular film, OUT FOR JUSTICE, so good? We'll start with the least likely suspect: the script. Seagal's early movies all feature him as an Italian Roman Catholic family man looking to escape a dark past, usually some sort of CIA work. This dispenses with the CIA nonsense and ramps up the Italian stuff to eleven; placing the story in Brooklyn in the immediate aftermath of the murder of a police officer by a psychopathic low level gangster. The film establishes quickly that all the principals have known one another since childhood, and uses the rest of the film to float details to the audience about the back story. It's a solid hook that keeps the exposition from ever running heavy on the film.

A special shout out has to go to whoever the hell wrote the dialogue for this thing (David Lee Henry), because it achieves a nice hyper-real quality that a lot of films go for, but end up sounding cute or self-referential. It also has some of the wonderful virtuoso profanity that seems to be unique to the Northeast corridor of these United States, and that cursing has a purpose in the story. Check out this, the most famous scene in the movie, in which what seems like gratuitous profanity is really a clever ruse to bait someone into saying the wrong thing at the man baddie's brother's bar:

Also, you gotta love a character who calls someone "a chicken-shit fuckin' pussy asshole" and then when he, in turn, is called a prick asks "Is this the proper place for profanity?" That is some clever tough guy dialogue, right there. Also check out the nice repetition of certain phrases "Anybody remember seein' Ritchie?" and "He ain't nothin' without that badge and gun." In this scene two different characters try to use the other's anger to get what they want, and the scene escalates in tension until it breaks into a pretty brutal fight. The characters are clever; constantly interacting with their environment (cue ball, boxing stuff, "Go get 'em Sticks", telephone booth guy) without the movie banging you over the head with it and it makes the entire thing feel spontaneous and real. You may recognize this as quality film making. With or without aikido, this is a 5-star, no fooling, great scene.

This sort of thing happens throughout the movie: In an early scene Seagal is driving and in the background a barely visible hooker asks "Want to fuck?" with such disdain that he begins laughing hysterically. When pulls up to the next corner and asks some extras "Did you hear what she just said?" An old man asks, half mocking, "What'd she say, my man? What'd she say, my man?" and Seagal starts laughing again and drives away. This is all one continuous shot and, for a moment, you think you're following a real cop around Brooklyn.

The acting is aces here, as they assembled a fine cast to support Seagal, who turns in his best performance here. William Forsythe gets a star part here as the drugged out psycho and instead underplays the part, forcing the audience to focus on the pathetic nature of the character and actually going for more reality than you would expect. Jerry Orbach plays a prototype of his "Law and Order" character here and is as dependable as a revolver, here. Gina Gershon gets a small part as the sister of Forsythe's character and gives it enough humor and humanity to work (She also gets the dirtiest line in the entire movie). There's a selection of old New York faces playing mafiosi that give their scenes a slick charm.

The biggest compliment I can give this film is that it's the story of a New York cop who's a master of aikido (and while no reason is given in the script, my friend Anton pointed out that there's a katana in the background in one or two shots of his apartment, so good attention to detail, guys) and brutally murders about 25 people in two days, and yet the entire thing feels so organic at times that you can't help but be swept away by the reality of what you're seeing. Great drama, brutal fights, and a solid script make this a lost classic and that's exactly what this blog is here for.

COOLEST MOMENTS (I didn't get to):
- Meat cleaver
- Road rage murder


Sean McKelvey said...

In the videos you see an interesting aspects of this moving in relation to other martial arts . You notice that when he hits one that they stay down there no camera shops that show that they're hurt . What this tells you is that there's no need to make any other assumption other than that there are hurt . Why would you think this? Because Segal is an absolute master. They were going. They really did not have much choice in the matte.

W.K.M. said...

Yeah Seagal is pretty untouchable in these movies. I have to slow down the playback a lot of the time to see clearly what he's doing to these guys, which is something you usually associate with Jet Li.

W.K.M. said...

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