Maximum Conviction Review
I'd heard really bad things about this film – and that wasn't exactly hard to believe considering the standard output these days from ageing b-list action-star Steven Seagal. His best work of late has been on TV; not his reality show Lawman (useful only to show a larger audience the good he'd been doing outside of his movies) but more his procedural True Justice, which is pushing for a third season right now. Although not particularly good, it's at least consistent viewing from a man who has been anything but.
Funny thing is, Maximum Conviction is actually alright. I know that doesn't sound like great praise, but it is probably a big relief for fans considering some of the straight-to-video dross that Seagal's done over the last decade. It’s been some 12 years since he last headlined a theatrically-released film (although his movies still make it to the cinemas in Asia, and probably make a fair chunk of money there) and, in that time, he's done twice as many movies as he’s done in the preceding 12 years of 'mainstream' work. Yes, for all the Hard to Kills and Under Sieges, there are twice as many low budget straight-to-video flicks like Belly of the Beast and Driven to Kill which nobody has ever heard of.
Indeed with politics preventing his joining the old-action-star-combo-comeback series, The Expendables (some long-standing dispute with one of the producers), it seems the most high-profile we’re going to get from this fleetingly impressive Aikido master is bit-part cameos like in Machete. Or TV shows like True Justice. And films like this. Yes, the day has finally come where pairing Steven Seagal up with former WWE wrestler Steve Austin actually does more for Seagal’s career than Austin’s.
The story has Seagal playing Steele, a private security contractor whose team is busy decommissioning a top secret maximum security military prison. Just as their job is nearly done, two last-minute prisoners are brought in on a hold-over for one night. Steele and his right-hand-man, Manning (Steve Austin) are the only two left behind to oversee the security whilst the transfer goes on, with the rest of their team prepping for their next mission. When a heavily armed group of mercenaries assaults the prison, it soon becomes clear that the new prisoners are far more important than anybody realised, and it’s up to Steele and Manning to hold down the fort until backup arrives.
Maximum Conviction is like a low budget variation on Seagal’s earlier Half Past Dead, which is initially worrying when you consider that Half Past Dead was one of his first limited-theatrical/practically straight-to-video outings (where he teamed up with Ja Rule, no less), and arguably the first step on his long, slow downward spiral into the depths of straight-to-video hell. The flipside is that Maximum Conviction is also easily one of Seagal’s most professional recent straight-to-video efforts. You have to remember that it’s been a decade since Half Past Dead and these days the best that fans can possibly hope for from the 60-year-old arguably-past-it action relic is a film which features no voice dubbing, no body doubling, decent action, reasonably well-shot – and reasonably plentiful – action sequences, and a straightforward narrative which makes sense. Maximum Conviction ticks all of these boxes.
Of course it’s not going to stand up to any halfway decent action film out there; of course it doesn’t have the budget to compete with any of them. Audiences have become accustomed to far more than just dumb actioners these days, and this kind of simplistic story and limited execution will disappoint the majority of moviegoers. Hence why Seagal’s movies don’t see a theatrical release this side of East Asia anymore (I have no idea why the Japanese still put up with him; perhaps they have some strange respect for him after he spent so long over there). Indeed even in the ranks of its straight-to-video counterparts, Maximum Conviction will probably leave you wanting in many respects – after the superior likes of Universal Soldier: Regeneration (the best straight-to-video movie I have ever seen) and Six Bullets, both by Van Damme, Seagal’s output looks distinctly lacking by comparison. Yet in terms of Seagal’s work, it’s the best we’ve seen in a while.
Which is why I don’t understand all the negative reviews. I’m not talking about the negative reviews from general sites – that’s perfectly understandable, this is a distinctly average-to-poor movie by anybody’s standards – but from Seagal fans. What else did they expect? It’s been over 20 years since Under Siege, and over a decade since Exit Wounds, which was the last film he did that anybody could really justify as being well-made, reasonably taut, action-packed and fun. Seagal’s been wallowing in the mire for long enough for those who still tolerate his work to be pretty familiar with his bad movies. And this isn’t one of them. This is one of his better recent straight-to-video movies.
Gone are the East European locations and supporting cast; gone is the voice dubbing; gone is the body double (who used to be on hand for even the simplest of scenes, like getting out of a car!); gone is the overwhelming low budget look and feel, and the incoherent story which no doubt ran out of budget before a proper conclusion could be filmed, making it even more frustrating.
Instead we get a fairly solid setup. Nothing original – as stated, it’s little more than Half Past Dead crossed with Rio Bravo – but enough to allow the movie to ride along from action scene to action scene without you getting too bored or confused. It’s also a decent length – 98 minutes allows it to be more substantial than some of the barely-90-minute features he’s done, whilst also keeping things tight. It has a reasonable supporting cast. Nobody strikingly familiar, but people largely committed to their parts (a few leftovers from Seagal’s True Justice series make an appearance too), and no dodgy accents or unconvincing cheap actors to pad out the scenery.
Then there’s the pairing with Steve Austin. I’m not particularly fond of Austin’s permanently-constipated form of acting. I’m sure there are just as many out there who just plain hate Seagal’s stoic, emotionless demeanour, but for Seagal fans, he’s actually quite charismatic. More so than many of his contemporaries – like Van Damme, even if JCVD is a considerably better actor (in that he can actually act). Austin just doesn’t work for me, even in Expendables, where he was a dull thud of a henchman. The last straight-to-video movie I reviewed from him, Recoil, did nothing wrong, but didn’t do anything right either, and looked like a cheap TV movie even by Maximum Conviction standards.
In terms of Seagal co-stars, however, Austin is the best thing that’s happened to him in years. Sure, Danny Trejo has popped up in a couple of DTV outings (they’re friends, hence why Seagal got to play the villain in Machete), Lance Henriksen made an appearance in one of the better ones (Pistol Whipped) and Vinnie Jones popped up in Submerged, but Austin is the highest profile co-star he’s had since playing opposite rapper DMX in Exit Wounds (Half Past Dead’s Ja Rule was only really good for comedy value). And rather than take this movie as just another paycheque, Austin actually puts his all into it. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to be outdone by Seagal – even if his character is playing second fiddle – or perhaps it’s because they somehow, inexplicably, get on, but whatever the reason, Austin is a whole lot of fun in this movie; committed to the action and locked and loaded with all the best one-liners; lines that will actually make you laugh!
The flipside is that having a higher profile co-star appears to have left Seagal also feeling like he ought to be a bit more committed; it’s had a positive influence on his professionalism and performance. He’s still quite bloated at the moment – losing a little weight, even at 61, would undoubtedly have a beneficial effect on his visual/commercial appearance to viewers: one of the few gripes that fans have which I tend to agree with – but that doesn’t prevent him from dishing out some old-school limb-breaking moves and shooting just about every cool weapon in the movie, including a thunderous drum-fed automatic shotgun which would make even The Expendables proud.
His dialogue is pretty stilted, but nothing worse than we’ve come to expect from him – and at least it’s all Seagal speaking, unlike the 90% of his straight-to-video works – and he even appears to be having fun at one or two points in the film, including the ridiculous ending which sets things up for a sequel that I’d actually embrace. But fans should really be rejoicing the bone-breaking and head-busting, which looks better than we’ve come to expect and, with the added quota of dead bodies from the Austin camp, makes this quite an action-packed little feature.
All in all, as stated, if you’re judging this alongside any theatrical movie in the world, it’s going to lose on all counts (although the action is more coherent than in the Theatrically-censored, frenetically-shot Taken 2, for example), and even in terms of DTV movies, it’s not the absolute cream of the crop. But it’s still amidst the better ones, and certainly one of the best Seagal’s done in years – perhaps even not a bad addition for Austin either. And if you’re a fan of one or both Steves, then this is definitely worth a rental. Add a point to the basic score of 5/10 for each Steve you like; I’ve already added one for Seagal.
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