by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
Code of Honor might be the movie that makes me swear off 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!