Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Retro Review: STEELE JUSTICE (1987)

(US - 1987)

Written and directed by Robert Boris. Cast: Martin Kove, Sela Ward, Ronny Cox, Bernie Casey, Joseph Campanella, Jan Gan Boyd, Soon-Teck Oh, Sarah Douglas, Shannon Tweed, Robert Kim, Peter Kwong, Al Leong, Phil Fondacaro, Asher Brauner, Dean Ferrandini, Big Bull Bates, Kevin Gage, The Desert Rose Band, Astrid Plane. (R, 97 mins)

In the annals of ridiculous '80s cop movies, STEELE JUSTICE fell through the cracks and still flies under the radar today. An action hero straight out of the McBain playbook, disgraced L.A. cop John Steele is perfectly played in Rainier Wolfcastle-style by a teeth-gritting Martin Kove, then best-known for both his role as Isbecki on the popular CBS series CAGNEY & LACEY and as Kreese, the asshole sensai of the Cobra Kai dojo in the KARATE KID movies. A Vietnam vet-turned-renegade cop who refused to play by the rules, Steele was thrown off the force for insubordination by perpetually irate Chief Bennett (Ronny Cox, basically playing a sniveling "protect the shield" version of his BEVERLY HILLS COP character). Steele, the kind of badass who wears a live coral snake (named Three Steps "because three steps, and you're dead") around his neck, is pulled back into action when his Asian-American ex-partner and Vietnam buddy Minh (Robert Kim) and his family are massacred by the goons of drug kingpin Pham Van Kwan (Peter Kwong), a prominent figure in the "Black Tiger" Vietnamese Mafia. Of course, it goes deeper than that, as Pham is the son of Gen. Bon Soong Kwan (Soon-Teck Oh), a corrupt South Vietnamese military official who was smuggling CIA gold and tried to have Steele killed in the final days of the war. Understandably still holding a grudge, Steele is recruited Shriker-from-DEATH WISH 3-style by Bennett, who wants him take out the trash while keeping the department's image squeaky clean. Or, as Bennett explains to Steele's reluctant new partner Reese (Bernie Casey), "He isn't being recruited...he's being unleashed!" In addition to avenging the death of his best friend, Steele has to contend with clueless, desk-jockey cops and his corrupt former commanding officer Harry (Joseph Campanella) being in cahoots with Kwan, who's now a respected L.A. businessman who's also hooked up with the ambitious, spoiled daughter (Shannon Tweed) of a powerful mafia boss. Any chance all concerned parties will converge at an abandoned factory at a waterfront shipyard? And that a crane will somehow be involved?

There isn't a single cop/action movie cliche that goes unused by writer/director Robert Boris, who also wrote 1973's ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE and 1983's DOCTOR DETROIT. The film is filled with stunts and brutal violence but it's silly enough that you have to wonder if Boris was making a comedy. You know there's no way anyone in the cast is taking it seriously. Certainly the actors saw the absurdity of Minh's daughter Cami, the only survivor of the massacre of Minh's family, being played by Jan Gan Boyd. That same year, Boyd played a Secret Service agent who sleeps with Charles Bronson in ASSASSINATION, but here she is in pigtails and dressed like a little girl, skipping around and calling Steele "Uncle John," an actress in her mid 20s playing a role that seems like it was written for a six-year-old. Steele's ex-wife Tracy (Sela Ward) is on hand to humanize him while trying to tell herself she doesn't still love him, admonishing him with "The war isn't over for you...it just changed locations." Of course, there's a "working out/preparing for battle" montage set to a driving, AOR hard rock tune, in this case Hot Pursuit's "Fire with Fire." And it doesn't get any more '80s than the L.A. hotel lobby shootout where Tracy is directing a music video for Animotion ("Obsession") singer Astrid Plane (as herself), when Pham's guys (including perennial '80s henchman Al Leong) show up to kill Cami. Steele and Reese, a budget-conscious Riggs and Murtaugh, arrive only to have Reese barely survive a bullet to the gut and Steele shot with a poisoned dart. That's no problem for Steele, who dives head-first through a window into a banquet room, slices his arm open, sucks out the poison, and cauterizes the wound with a conveniently unattended sizzling pan in one of the greatest scenes ever.

It gets really good around the 4:00 mark

Released by Atlantic, STEELE JUSTICE opened on a handful of screens May 8, 1987, the same day as Francis Ford Coppola's GARDENS OF STONE and the John Cusack comedy HOT PURSUIT. It expanded across the country over the next few weeks but never even cracked the top ten, petering out in late May with a box office take of just over $1 million, more than double the take of Cannon's NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET, another neglected cop flick from earlier that year. For a movie that was equal parts RAMBO, DIRTY HARRY, and LETHAL WEAPON, STEELE JUSTICE surprisingly never found an audience (it opened in my hometown of Toledo, OH on May 29 and didn't even play for a full week, gone five days later to make room for the Wednesday opening of THE UNTOUCHABLES). It didn't even really break out on video, which is a shame. Was STEELE JUSTICE a spoof and none of us realized it?  Is this the STARSHIP TROOPERS of '80 cop actioners? Sure, it's a stupid movie but it seems to recognize that fact. There's something ludicrous happening at any given moment (Steele driving a truck through a Black Tiger billiards hall and beating the shit out of everyone is great, but why is he wearing too-tight burgundy slacks?), and Kove is a blast as Steele. Needless to say, the failure of STEELE JUSTICE didn't open any doors for Kove as a big-screen action star. After the end of CAGNEY & LACEY in 1988 and THE KARATE KID PART III in 1989, he found a lot of work in the world of straight-to-video throughout the '90s and into the '00s for directors like Cirio H. Santiago, Joseph Merhi, and J. Christian Ingvordsen. He remains busy on TV and low-budget schlock to this day (he's in Syfy's upcoming LAVALANTULA sequel 2 LAVA 2 LANTULA!, one of 24 IMDb credits he's got for 2016 alone), and is a regular fixture at fan conventions thanks to his KARATE KID notoriety. One of the most entertaining action movies Cannon never made, STEELE JUSTICE is junk, but it's junk that deserved a better reception than it got. It's just been unleashed on Blu-ray--unfortunately, with no extras other than a trailer--by Kino Lorber. Nearly 30 years after it bowed to instant oblivion, let's hope STEELE JUSTICE's day has finally arrived.

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