Aikido comes to the American silver screen in Steven Seagal’s action packed debut.
In a Ken Burns sort of style, 1988 Action thriller, Above the Law, opens with a voiceover done by Nico Toscani (Steven Seagal), as a series of black and white Polaroids cycle across the screen with an alluring mix of piano, synthesizer, and electric guitars in the background. The Sicilian born Toscani informs an unknown audience his family immigrated to Chicago when he was 7, and that he was raised to be patriotic and love his country. After a trip to a baseball game with his father, he observed a Japanese man doing martial arts and later developed “a crazy dream to go to the Far East.” Within 10 years, his dream comes true and he’s there studying with the “masters.” That’s when we’re cued to the opening live action shot, fully equipped with dreamy filtering (as if to make it clear it’s a flashback). A young Nico is the Sensei of a Japanese karate dojo as a series of men bow before him and several other older ones observe from the back of the room. Leading by quite the example, Nico takes each student down with ease using signature Aikido chops and giving orders to each in a Japanese so self-assured, the room’s intimidated. Hair slicked and before the advent of Seagal’s signature onscreen ponytail, we buckle up for the ride.
Nico tells us 1969 led him to a party at the American Embassy in Tokyo before he ultimately ends up recruited in the CIA at 22 with the help of a crazy drunk named Nelson Fox (Chelcie Ross) and declaring that it was at this time that “eyes were about to be opened.”
Shots of the Vietnam War conflict, bombs, and malnourished children grace the screen in spliced stock footage reminiscent to Brian DePalma/Oliver Stone style in Scarface before cutting to strife in the US with protesters at Capitol Hill and later with 1970s era riots shown in Chicago, its police department front and center.
In a grainy shot, Richard Nixon is featured:
“My friends, let me make one thing clear. This is a nation of laws. And as Abraham Lincoln has said: No one is above the law… no one is below the law. And we’re going to enforce the law. And Americans should remember that… if we are to have law and order.”
Landing near the Vietnam Cambodia border in 1973 via helicopter, Nico and a few others hop out traversing the jungle. Shortly after, another chopper arrives, its men with machine guns in tow. Nelson jokes about chemical interrogation and to CIA agents that are reputedly from a “page not even in the book.”
A Vietnamese man is tortured after being caught stealing opium. Nico walks in on the scene and questions a sadistic CIA Agent, Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva). Zagon taunts the prisoner of his doctoring prowess and ways he can torture the man. Nico can’t keep his mouth shut and ultimately ends up smacking Zagon to the ground and freeing the rest. Nelson rushes Toscani out before more trouble ensues. Zagon remains immobilized, and as Nico retreats, Nelson reassures him he has it covered-- a foreshadowing of a recurring theme. Nico declares to Nelson, “I’m through… I’m finished,” struggling to stomach the crooked sinister side of the armed forces he’s uncovered.
Fast forward fifteen years to 1988 and we’re in Chicago. Nico’s at the altar with his wife, Sara (Sharon Stone), and they’re baptizing their child, Giuliano, in the Catholic church. There’s a post service barbecue and we conclude that Nico’s now a cop and Jax (Pam Grier), a DA turned cop, is his partner. As Nico steps away from the event, he finds that a friend’s granddaughter has gone missing. He reassures her he’ll look into it.
On the case, he makes his way around a bar, interrogating patrons, and a distinct looking bartender named Chi-Chi, ultimately leveling them all with his signature Aikido moves. Push comes to shove and the bartender admits that the missing girl is upstairs. Nico barges in and discovers the girl to be mixed up with the wrong guy and using cocaine. He taunts the boyfriend and roughs him up. “You want to get high. You want to get high?” The guy gives him a tip about a shipment of cocaine coming in.
Director Andrew Davis gives us our first Chicago night shot, as Nico and partner stake out an apparent drug deal from afar, and Nico uses some high-tech equipment to eavesdrop. They wait it out to find out where it will happen. The next morning, they’re outside a meat packing plant and planning for a bust. A couple of Andrew Davis favorites (Joseph Kosala and Ron Dean) play cops. Detective Lukich (Ron Dean) even telling Nico, “You’re too pretty to be a meat packer.” The cops and feds interrupt the deal, and we’ve got us a good old fashioned movie gun fight in a Chicago alley, bodies flying, cars tipped over, and a few point-blank shots. Nico also proves he can ride on the top of a car without an issue block after block and dodging every obstruction imaginable. I wish my joints were that flexible.
As mentioned before, Davis is gratuitous in Chicago skyline shots and a chase scene under the city’s infamous L train (see The Fugitive for some recurring themes a few years later). Nico punches through a window and chokes a guy out while dangling from the roof. After detaining the criminals, they discover a shipment of C-4 explosives.
At this time, we’re clued in that the FBI is in cahoots with the dealers. The sadistic CIA guy from ’73, Kurt Zagon, is back in Chicago and crooked as ever and the criminals are released. The feds led by Special Agent Neeley (Nicholas Kusenko) come up with a line of crock about their puppet, Salvadorian man, Tony Salvano (the main drug dealer), later demanding that CPD stand down while they look into the matter further.
Naturally resistant to the rather mysterious orders, Nico refuses and continues trailing the dealers with his partner, Jax, but they avoid altercation. Following the men into a Catholic church, they run into Father Genarro (Joe Grecco) and he leads them into the basement to investigate a “rat problem” behind a padlock. It’s revealed that the church is harboring many fugitives (mainly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chile refugees) with immigration problems-- including a Costa Rican priest, Father Tomasino (Henry Godinez). The priest invites Nico to mass insisting that he come-- almost in a cry of desperation.
Nico brings his wife and son to church. A well-dressed man keeps coming into frame and a woman in a shawl appears suspicious. She leaves a sack behind and exits the building rapidly. Nico’s spidey sense kicks in, and he yells at the crowd to get down. A small bomb goes off, killing the well-dressed man, Father Genarro, and injuring many others.
Nico runs into the CPD and FBI Man, Neeley after the incident. Nico confronts Neeley and they yell it out as Nico sees a correlation of the bombing with the release of the criminals. Nico goes into a restaurant seemingly run by one of the mischief making dealers. Jax finds that one of the men killed is a US Senate staff person, Richard Singletary (an aide to Senator Harrison).
Nico stakes out neighborhoods undercover looking for Salvano. As usual, he’s caught, and Salvano’s goons fight with machetes and baseball bats till Nico takes out the bulk of them with lots of breathtaking Aikido moves. One man gets away (the cook) whom Nico pursues on foot and giving us a much beloved “Steven Seagal run” (look it up if you want). On the way, there’s another altercation with a bystander in a rough neighborhood and Nico returns home.
Nico and his wife are in bed and the phone rings. Old Vietnam pal, Nelson, calls him late that night warning him to get his family out of town pronto. Under pressure, Nelson admits he’s risking it by communicating. Nico comes up with an excuse about the reason for the call to his wife and they go back to sleep. They awake in the night to a pounding at the front door. It’s CPD, and now there’s a warrant to search the house. He reluctantly hands over his gun and CPD raids the house searching for drugs on a bogus tip.
The idiot bartender, Chi-Chi, sings like a canary to the cops and lies about Nico at CPD. Nico’s then brought in for interrogation with FBI guy, Neeley, and one of his partners. Unlawful entry. Illegal search and seizure. Etc. They demand Nico’s badge and gun. He’s not detained. They instead let him go telling him to stay in the area.
Detective Lukich and partner, Jax, help Nico out behind the scenes and give him another gun. Sister Mary says Father Tomasino was new and had immigration papers. It comes out that Tomasino was supposed to be preaching the day of the explosion but backed out at the last minute and the wrong priest was killed as a result. Nico and Jax discuss further and Nico plans to head home.
A series of cartel men come out of a food truck with machine guns and shoot up Nico’s car. He confronts them and is amazingly able to make them drop all their weapons. One guy resists and Nico shoots him point blank. They chase each other into a convenience store made to be confettied. Nico proves he’s a black belt, defeating all the men and trashing the entire store in the process as rows are knocked over, snacks fly, and the poor international shopkeeper jokes of fleeing his country for safety in America. For good measure, Nico busts one of the men through a plate glass window and makes a scene before fleeing the scene.
At the Toscani house, Detective Lukich escorts the family knowing they’re a big target. Nico tells Lukich the wrong priest was killed. He asks Lukich to watch his family and tells him he’ll take care of the rest.
A short time later, Nico confronts Special Agent Neeley in a parking garage forcing him to take him to an undisclosed dealer hideout. Epic one liner coming up…
Neeley: “You just made #4 on the most wanted list.”
Nico: “#4… I want to be #1!”
They walk into a warehouse full of explosives. The seller (Ralph Foody, who happens to be the mobster from the black and white movie on Home Alone) tells them they’ve already sold out of the c-4 to the CIA to some bomb tech out of Langley. In an offbeat act of humiliation, Nico takes Neeley to a Lake Michigan waterfront and forces him to jump into the water in his underwear.
Nico arrives to a giant electronics sales floor on the hunt for his next lead. He runs into an old friend, and they arrange to meet up later. Nico’s friend conveniently has access to top secret government information and pulls up operative dossiers. They look up Nico’s old Vietnam accomplice Nelson first who appears to have ties to Costa Rica. They then check up on his associates. Five agents from the Central American CIA desk-- all trained assassins and now operating in Chicago. Not suspicious at all, right?
Senator Harrison is shown on a TV screen in Jax’s apartment. She’s reviewing military photos of the past related to the case when Sister Mary calls. The assassins show up at Mary’s apartment and confront her with guns. Father Tomasino is revealed to be hiding there. They take him, sparing her. Andrew Davis gives us some more great night shots of Chicago and Lake Michigan.
Nico syncs up with Jax and Detective Lukich. They touch base on Sister Mary observing suspicious activity near the church. The scene cuts to the sadistic chump, CIA Agent Zagon, and Father Tomasino is shown tied to a chair, eerily similar to Zagon in 1973 Vietnam. Tomasino’s confronted and told that if he’s said anything about the plans to kill the senator, he better admit to them now. Tomasino says he’s told no one. Nico arrives to the apartment building, following the lead to Sister Mary’s place.
They inject Tomasino with a truth serum that Zagon describes as “warm and wonderful”. Nico and Lukich get on the roof, casing the place out from above and leaving Jax down below in the car. As the serum works its magic, Tomasino admits he told others that Zagon is a “child abuser” and “rapist”. Tomasino is cornered again on if the plans to kill the senator were told to anyone and he denies it. Nico crashes the party, a choice weapon in hand. Lots of shooting and fighting and the action continues. Jax comes in against Nico’s wishes and is shot to the ground in a stairwell. Nico chases the shooter on foot before jumping onto the roof of the L train as it flies by. Davis gifts us with some more shots in the train which is a nice testament to the sights and sounds of Chicago in the period.
Reeling from the loss of Jax, Nico finds his way into her apartment and sees casefile photographs she was reviewing, pictures of his own family with her, and has a tender moment. We see later, Jax is being carted down a hall in the hospital along with CPD pal, Lukich. She’s injured, not dead!
Nico arrives with Branca (his wife’s uncle). Branca informs Nico that Jax is okay-- that she was wearing a bulletproof vest. It’s revealed that Nico’s wife and son have been staying with Branca as their reunited. Nico’s wife tells him she always loved him for his pride but that the same pride might kill them all. “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for my family,” Nico says, maybe a little too haphazardly. He quickly flees the scene and is back on the case, begging the question where his priorities really remain.
Nico gets on a rooftop of a building and plays I-spy with a scoped rifle in a sort of Rear Window moment. Nelson shows up, busting him and telling him he’s trying to help him to protect him. It’s revealed that Zagon’s a rancher in Costa Rica, and apparently that’s the connection to the South American drug syndicate. Nelson admits that Salvano was one of the key street peddlers in Chicago. Aware of the illegal antics, Senator Harrison no longer wants to support the CIA’s crooked dealings in South America as they trickle into Chicago. They talk through the ins and outs of the setup and why they couldn’t kill Father Tomasino. Nico confronts Nelson on their past and how the CIA shouldn’t be “above the law.” Nelson remains amicable with Nico in a protective sort of way, and they make their way down to the parking garage. The dumb bartender, Chi-Chi, Salvano, and Zagon show up. One of the goons pulls a gun and Nelson and Nico start shooting back. Nico runs through the garage taking cover where he can. He jacks a car and makes a run for it, the thugs hot on his heels. Nico quickly finds he’s sealed in, so he throws the car in obnoxious reverse plowing Salvano over and ramming him out the side of the garage and into the Chicago streets hundreds of feet below, the car hanging on by a thread-- an epic action shot. There’s another shootout as Nico jumps out of the car. It’s only fitting that machine guns show up again. Nico and the troublemakers jump back in cars and race their way around the garage guns blazing, the car ‘s sagging undercarriage metal scraping the ground from all of its collateral damage. Nico makes it out of the garage into the street and then gets slammed into by another unmarked van.
Next scene, Senator Harrison is at a “Committee for Democratic Policy” event at a local hotel. Nico’s spotted tied up in a kitchen in the same building with Zagon and bartender, Chi-Chi. Zagon says they have one hour before they kill the senator. They beat up Nico before jamming a syringe with truth serum into his arm. With his neck cinched, Zagon goads Nico to fight the urge to tell the truth. Nico holds his ground and doesn’t say anything but appearing more and more aloof from the cocktail of medication. Zagon tells him he can go. Nico still appears dazed as Zagon taunts. Nico snaps out of it and viciously kicks him before unleashing a couple of impressive Aikido moves on the rest of his goons. Before long, they’re all dead. Nico arrives in the meeting with the senator, bloodied up and runs into Jax and Detective Lukich.
Neeley from the FBI apprehends the Senator from the hotel. Shortly after, Toscani’s back home with his family safe and sound. There are news crews outside (also reminiscent to the ending of The Fugitive, and I think some of the same newscasters). The senator arrives at Toscani’s house and apologizes for all of the calamities, promising for justice to be served.
That’s when we cut back to Nico telling reporters some of the backstory, we were introduced to at the beginning of the movie… that he worked for a special operations group in Vietnam and Cambodia… That nearly all of the members of the team were CIA doctors… And that they were all trained at a secret camp in Langley, Virginia at that time.
The closing monologue leaves us something meaningful to consider.
“Gentlemen, when you have a group of individuals who are beyond any investigation, who can manipulate members of the press, judges, members of our congress, you’re always going to have those within our government… those who are above the law.”
The scene cuts to the US Capitol and fades to black.
So, after a detailed narrative description, one can only do so much to expound upon what some interpret as a one-dimensional film with a one note has-been action-star, but in the spirit of good philosophy, we first have to contemplate the film’s title. Who is operating Above the Law in this story? Who is the title of the film alluding to, really? For many movies, a title is just that, a title.
Tightly packed in this action seeker’s delight is an important question. What would you do if you were a cop and your entire world caved in? Black is white. Day is night. Up is down. And left is right. For most of us, we wouldn’t know. You get into this sort of haze in your thought process and your ethics are thrown into a perpetual tailspin. The same badge you stand for, betraying you. The government in the nation you love, operating against you to serve itself, and if you don’t step up to the plate to make things right, more harm than good happens. That’s where Nico’s left standing.
Naturally, we want to believe that the title is about the crooked CIA, sideways cops, the FBI, the drug dealers and knowing politicians, and so on, but it’s ultimately left to us to determine. Perhaps, everyone in the entire film is. The priests harboring fugitives. Nico’s cop friends going against orders of the feds. The CIA going against orders of the government. And Nico himself, a character in perpetual conflict.
We’re all posed with a difficult choice to bend the rules when put under duress. Whether we’re discussing Nico’s unconventional antics, disobeying orders, or in his own vigilante sort of pursuit for justice, you can’t help but cheer for good to triumph over evil. Of course, the next question, at what cost? Killing and injuring dozens of people, facing the collateral damage, and the associated psychological trauma to self and family, just to name a few. That’s not free, is it?
I think when we step back from a film like this, we often distance ourselves from it, discounting it to be an escape from reality, and thinking there’s no way it could happen to us, so therefore, there’s no point in thinking it over. Maybe so... but if we’re going to try and pack an object lesson into this exercise, the least we can do is surmise, right? Perhaps, films like this have since been done thrice over and are “a dime a dozen” for the likes of fleeting action stars-- their names long fading from Hollywood marquees, but on the heels of reviewing Barbie, for me, resurrecting a tale like Above the Law is just what the doctor ordered to keep the testosterone flowing!
Above the Law
Directed by Andrew Davis
© 1988 Warner Bros, Inc.
Rated R for violence and coarse language