Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Heavy Action: Code of Honor

by Patrick Bromley
I think I might be done with Steven Seagal.

Here's something weird I realized as I sat down in the theater to see Code of Honor, the latest Steven Seagal vehicle that's making a brief detour on VOD and a handful of movie screens before finding what is sure to be its life at Redbox: I have never seen a proper Steven Seagal movie in theaters. I missed his Golden Age in the '90s, first because I was too young to see any of his best films on my own and then because by the time I was old enough I wasn't really interested in the kinds of movies he was making. I mean, I saw Executive Decision in theaters, but Seagal is mostly a brilliant cameo in that one. I saw Machete in theaters, but that's hardly a Steven Seagal movie. The closest I've come is with 2001's Exit Wounds, which is pretty much a Seagal vehicle even though it pairs him up with rapper DMX for a buddy movie. It was also the second to last movie Seagal made to receive any kind of wide theatrical distribution; after Half Past Dead the following year, the majority of his efforts have gone the DTV route.

That I got to see Code of Honor theatrically is something of a fluke itself. Often times when a movie is going to premiere on VOD, distributors will put it on a handful of movie screens so that it receives better placement -- it will show up as one of maybe a dozen titles on the "Also in Theaters" menu instead of getting swallowed up with hundreds of movies already available on DVD and Blu-ray. It just so happens that one of the AMC theaters near me is one of the few theaters in the country at which a lot of these movies will play (as I'm writing this, Anthony DiBlasi's latest effort Most Likely to Die is even screening once a day). When the opportunity arose to see a 2016 Steven Seagal movie on the big screen arose, it was too good to pass up...mostly because I actually had an afternoon to kill for the first time in months.

I may have made a mistake.
I knew nothing about Code of Honor as I sat down to see it on a Thursday afternoon last week (surprisingly with about four or five other people in the theater; I was positive I would have the place to myself). I couldn't even remember the title even as the movie was going. I knew it started with a C. Code of Conduct? Chain of Command? There were things I was thinking about to distract myself from the movie itself, at one point even checking the marquee outside the theater when I ran out to the washroom just to see what the movie I had already seen half of was called. Turns out either of those other titles would be just as appropriate for the film, as they all come from the kind of generic Mad Libs title generator that names every Steven Seagal movie in the last 15 years.

Seagal plays Robert Sikes, a mysterious former soldier whose family was killed and who now spends his days killing criminals with a sniper rifle on a self-imposed mission to clean up the city as the so-called "super vigilante. You have no idea how silly the term "super vigilante" sounds until you hear a dozen characters say it over and over again as though it's a serious thing they are saying: "Is this the work of the super vigilante?" Just vigilante would be fine. Just call him a vigilante. At any rate, his handiwork brings the attention of FBI agent William Porter (Craig Sheffer), who knows Sikes' M.O. and is desperate to bring him down. Into this pissing match accidentally wanders a single mother and tripper with a heart of gold (Helena Mattsson), who fears for her life and needs Porter to protect her and her son.
I will admit to perking up a little during Code of Honor's opening credits because the movie isn't directed by Keoni Waxman, Seagal's most frequent collaborator of the last several years and a filmmaker who does capable DTV action that is also utterly generic. I have nothing against Waxman, really, except that his name attached to an action movie tells me exactly what I should expect. Instead, Code of Honor is the rare action film from a single writer/director: Michael Winnick, whose last feature Guns, Girls and Gambling was the kind of post-Tarantino nonsense I thought we all outgrew in 1996. His work on Code of Honor is...let's say "mixed." The screenplay is a lot of nonsense, the action is mostly bad and there is an attempt to do what I think is some Tyler Durden shit (I've seen the whole movie and I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to think, which I'm sure Winnick would say "is the point"). More than anything, Winnick's hands appeared to be tied by budgetary limitations, as there are large sections of the movie that feel like a mediocre student film. Dialogue has been recorded in different locations so the ADR doesn't match up. A scene in which the mayor is addressing the media circus outside city hall drew unintentional laughter (from me) because it's a single guy with a podium on some empty steps with what looks like about 10-15 people standing around with microphones. It's fucking amateur hour.

Most unforgivable for an action movie, though, is the film's reliance on CGI muzzle flashes, blood sprays and bullet holes. There are a few moments of physical effects -- not surprisingly the best stuff in the film -- but most of Code of Honor plays like a demo reel of how to ruin your movie with shoddy AfterEffects work. You are an action movie, Code of Honor. You really only have to get this one thing right. To Winnick's credit, the action in the movie isn't incomprehensible. A number of recent Seagal films have been edited to shit because the filmmakers have to cut around body doubles and the fact that Seagal isn't even on set while extensive reshoots take place. The action in Code of Honor certainly isn't great, but at least it's coherent. Winnick has a visual sense even when he hasn't the means to realize his ideas; he moves the camera in often interesting ways and understands the choreography of his photography. He even tries to stage a few ambitious set pieces, like one in which Craig Sheffer has a bomb under his chair and has to fight off a nightclub full of goons without getting out of his chair. The end result leaves something to be desired, but I admire the invention. Few action movies made at this level are willing to try anything.
Which brings me to Mr. Seagal. Code of Honor finds him backsliding into his "Southern" persona (he has been Russian for a while now), meaning he delivers most of his delivery in a manner fit for Foghorn Leghorn. He's not much more than a glorified cameo in the movie, talked about by other characters considerably more than he ever actually talks on screen. He is completely in the late stage Marlon Brando phase of his career, spending most of the film sitting down and piling on the affectation: accent, tinted glasses, backwards cap, enormous scarf. He does get propped up long enough to do a few seconds of hand-to-hand (or knife-to-knife) combat, and it's the most he's moved in four or five movies. It's shot in extreme closeup, of course, and in the wide shots Seagal is replaced by an obvious double because that how it is in the 2010s. Watching him and Sheffer fight is something to behold: two puffy, wheezing stars speaking in half whispers, each trying to outdo the others awful toupee. Seagal wins that one easy.

Code of Honor might be the movie that makes me swear of Seagal for a while. It's not because the movie is that bad; it's bad -- at times laughably bad -- but it's always trying, and trying matters. Seagal has made many worse movies than this, but I don't know if he's ever been so lazy in any of them. There are a lot of Seagal vehicles that I love, including some of his more recent DTV efforts like Pistol Whipped and Urban Justice. I've known for some time that he doesn't really give a shit anymore, but never have I felt the contempt for his work that I picked up on in Code of Honor. Hopefully some theater in Chicago hosts a repertory screening of Out for Justice soon just so I can get the taste of this one out of my mouth. This can't be my first -- and practically only -- experience with Seagal on the big screen.



Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!

7 comments:

  1. I was lucky that I got to see Under Siege 2 and The Glimmer Man in theaters, because it made me feel like at least I got to see Seagal adjacent to his prime on the big screen. I'm yet to watch any post-goatee Seagal, and so far I don't imagine I'm missing very much.

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    1. I saw Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Marked For Death, Out For Justice, Under Siege, and On Deadly Ground theatrically. I still feel pretty blessed about that (even including On Deadly Ground, because there's some great moments in that).

      He was my favorite American martial arts star for a good while. One of my Top 5 action stars period. That time is long past. I still take out the Golden Era flicks and enjoy them to remember what that was like, and it's enough.

      The last movie he did that I got any enjoyment out of was Urban Justice and that is mostly terrible. I haven't watched anything he's made in years now.

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  2. Fun review, but also makes me sad. It is truly mind-blowing thinking back to the days when Seagal could open a movie (just looked it up, Under Siege was #1 at the box office for 4 straight weeks!). But I miss those days. The only Seagal I was lucky enough to see in theaters was Under Siege 2 and it was a blast.

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  3. I too live near one of the theaters you describe; it's how I got to see Wolves and Standoff on the big screen. They were showing Code of Honor last week, but I watched the trailer and decided to skip it. Sounds like I made the right call.

    BTW, props for mentioning probably Seagal's two best DTV films. I also kind of liked Driven to Kill, and though I agree with you about Keoni Waxman, The Keeper wasn't the worst thing I've ever seen.

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  4. In 2001 Exit wounds was the last Seagal film I saw in a theater.
    In 1996 Glimmer man was the last really good Seagal movie I saw. Wow, that´s 20 years ago.
    I always liked his unique kind of elegant fighting, but never felt compelled to watch any of his direct-to-video or VOD movies.
    Sad to see where his career went.
    Same goes for his co-star Craig Sheffer, who started with interesting roles in Fire with fire, A river runs through it, Fire in the sky and especially Nightbreed and then went down.

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    1. Yeah I'm more upset about what's happened to Craig Sheffer.

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  5. I can't speak of the two "good" VOD Seagal movies because I haven't seen them, but the vast majority of Seagal's VOD/DTV films are garbage. They usually involve Seagal on set for maybe three days with half his dialogue ADR by him or worse, a Seagal impersonator when he can't even give that minimal effort.

    The plots are stupid, generic and somehow horribly over-complicated so that it takes an hour to resolve all of the loose plot threads that are dull, don't make any sense and more importantly don't involve Seagal breaking limbs.

    I was lucky enough to be around for the Seagal heyday, but even his best movies are more of a promise of good movies to come and not actually good in and of themselves. Seagal always makes the same movie, never takes any risks, doesn't care about quality control in his films so even the fighting is terrible. And he has no sense of humor and takes himself. As an example, he never signed on for an Expendables film.

    Compare him to Van Damme, who has good and terrible movies too, but he has a sense of humor, usually has good action sequences, even in the DTV movies and takes creative risks.

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