Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Hard to Kill

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

So how does a guy, in this day and age, end up seeing a Steven Seagal movie for the very first time, 24 years after its exceedingly short window of relevance has closed?

He forgets to change the channel after the baseball game ends, and just keeps watching.

Yes, I'm still in Australia. But if you follow sports news, you know that the Major League Baseball season got underway with two games in Sydney between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks this past weekend. At one point, I thought I would be at one or both of those games. It didn't turn out that way, but I still got to watch the last three innings of Saturday night's 3-1 Dodgers win on free-to-air TV.

After it ended, I saw that a movie was starting, and decided to play that game where I try to guess what it is before the title appears. The title Hard to Kill appeared pretty early on in this one, so I lost the game -- then compounded matters by deciding to sit there and watch the whole movie.

Seagal plays (great name alert) Detective Mason Storm, a cop who has just collected video evidence of a crooked scheme by mobsters and politicians at a pier. Spotted but able to escape, Storm finds out later that night that he hasn't gotten away without revealing his identity when several hit men break into his house and shoot him and his wife (Bonnie Burroughs). Storm is at death's door, but never goes through -- he instead ends up in a coma, but the police force lets the world believe he has been killed in order to remove him as the target of further reprisals. His wife does die, and his son's fate is uncertain. Storm remains in the coma for seven years, at which point he awakens with vengeance on his mind. He's also got to clear his name, as the corrupt cops who set him up also framed him for murdering his wife. Assisted by a nurse in the coma ward (Kelly LeBrock), Storm goes into hiding while trying to rebuild his strength and recover the evidence against the corrupt politician (William Sadler) at the heart of the mafia plot and the murder of his wife.

If you're seeking out poster boys for bad late 80s'-early '90s action stars with nary a credible film to their names, you could do a lot worse than Steven Seagal. Your other top choice would be Jean-Claude Van Damme, who actually may rank a rung below Seagal on the credibility scale simply because Seagal was in Under Siege, which was pretty good. Neither guy has much to be proud of, but at least there was something earnest about Van Damme. Seagal always struck me as a bit too much of a smirker.

So it may please you -- or disappoint you, depending on your preconceived notions toward the man -- to learn that I thought moments of Hard to Kill, Seagal's second star vehicle after 1988's Above the Law, really worked. You might even say it goes for realism from time to time. Knowing that these movies tend to be outrageous self-parodies, I was kind of surprised not to find Storm awaken from seven years of atrophied muscles and just pop out of bed, ready to kick someone's ass. It's not quite on the order of The Bride willing her toe to move in Kill Bill Volume 1, but Mason Storm does have to figure out how to use his body again, and has to escape from a hospital using his wits more than his muscles.

There's an almost enviable cleanness and simplicity to the movie's setup and narrative direction, as well. You'd be tempted to describe the script as lean, in fact -- and that's an adjective almost always employed in complimentary fashion.

Of course, Hard to Kill can't escape its ultimately simplistic ambitions and scale, as much of its execution can be characterized using that all-encompassing yet inexact term we always use for dated material: "cheesy." Yes, Hard to Kill is pretty cheesy, and it's not just the 1990 musical score that sounds a lot like you would expect it would. In some scenes it's just oozing that cheese.

That didn't surprise me, but what did surprise me was that it was ultimately a lot less of an action movie than I was expecting. Seagal movies and Van Damme movies are usually marked by at least one and possibly as many as six superfluous action scenes, which exist only to allow the hero to crack a few more heads. Hard to Kill has one very obvious example of this principle, a convenience store robbery that Storm comes across on his way home that has no relationship to the rest of the plot. (We have to see Storm righteously cracking some skulls before he goes to sleep for seven years, you see.) While in most movies a scene like this would be purely gratuitous, here it seems to be compensating for the relatively low body count that's to follow.

Hard to Kill also reminded me that Kelly LeBrock wasn't only in Weird Science. The Amazonian British model did quite good work in John Hughes' film, but here many of her line deliveries are outright absurd. It ends up being a little weird that she becomes Storm's love interest, as a quest to avenge your dead wife never loses its righteousness as much as when you are already shagging someone else.

Hard to Kill is also fun from time to time for spotting other familiar faces, such as Breaking Bad's Dean Norris and the aforementioned William Sadler. I was most disappointed to discover that the film does not feature the great stunt actor Al Leong, whose presence as a henchmen in action movies from this era was so ubiquitous that my friends and I actually learned the actor's name. Seeing his face would probably help:

There he is!

Yeah, he wasn't in this movie.

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