Steven Seagal’s Death Riders. Aka True Justice: Death Riders. Aka True Justice: Brotherhood.
Don’t be fooled by the aliases, or by the fact that this chapter has been released so late in the day. This Blu-ray contains two episodes from the first season of True Justice. What, it’s not a Seagal movie?! What’s True Justice? Well, if you’re that far behind (somewhat understandable given the way in which this series has been marketed – i.e. as double-episode movies poorly edited together) then I suggest you go back and check out some of my reviews of the earlier release. True Justice is a TV show, and it’s had several releases so far – all out of order, and all without the True Justice label on them. Misleading much?
Funnily enough, even if you’ve caught up with the show, and you know what to expect from this title, it’s still probably going to confuse you. Why? Well, True Justice unfathomably entered its second season earlier this year, and the first double-episode from the second series was released a couple of months ago. Not only is this frustrating because UK fans who haven’t followed the show on TV will not have seen the Season 1 finale (it has never been released in the UK) but also because this title, Death Riders, is not actually the second release in the Season 2 run. What? You mean it’s the third title in Season 2? The fourth? They’ve screwed it up as badly as Season 1’s incorrectly-ordered release schedule? No, worse, this is the previously unreleased penultimate double-episode in Season 1.
Is this such a big deal? you ask. Well, unfortunately, True Justice is an ongoing TV series; the characters are developed (shockingly for a Seagal production) and there are overarching story arcs which follow through in sequence. Most importantly, however, the end of Season 1 saw two of the main characters killed. So those of you who picked up True Justice: Soldier of Vengeance aka Vengeance is Mine aka Season 2.1, will have been given a brief recap that covers the events you never got to see in the Season 1 finale – two team members died, and now a third is going to leave the team. Seagal’s cop Elijah Kane has gone back to his covert black ops days to find out just who put the hit on his people, and has taken one of his old team members with him, as well as recruiting a few newbies.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves though. That release, which I’ve decided to review in chronological order, was a bit premature. It should have been released after this chapter, Death Riders/Brotherhood, the penultimate episode in Season 1. Why? Well, for starters, all of a sudden you’re faced with dead team members who are alive and kicking, and Seagal’s Elijah Kane back working for the police. I once asked whether there was any way in which StudioCanal could possibly screw up the release of this Seagal TV show any more than they had already done. Foolish me, as they’ve shown that there clearly was.
It’s a shame really, because Death Riders – which was previously called Brotherhood Part 1 and Part 2 (and the even more coherent Blood Brothers on its original production schedule) – is actually a fairly decent double-episode. Not only does it paint two interesting dual stories – one of feuding Yakuza and Tong gangs, and the other of a hostage situation at a bank – but it also allows for some surprising background revelations about Seagal’s lead cop, Kane. The presence of the Japanese organised crime bosses allows for several side-stories and flashbacks into Kane’s upbringing in Japan; how he married the daughter of a famous swordsman who had Samurai lineage; how he was trained by this swordsman; where he became so familiar with Japanese traditions; and what happened to his wife. Furthermore, it offers up a reason to get Seagal to talk in Japanese – a language which he’s not only fluent in, but also sounds much more impressive talking in (c.f. Into the Sun, one of his last quality DTV movies). It reminds me just what a missed opportunity it was that Seagal didn’t follow through on that Lone Wolf & Cub reboot that he was supposed to headline. All in all, this double-episode has plenty of positive elements – high points of the entire first season – it just would have been nice to see this chapter a couple of releases back, in its correct place in the episode order.
The story has Kane and his elite team tipped-off about a feud between the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Tongs. A Yakuza hit-team has taken out a Tong production plant, and Kane’s team arrive just in time to shoot / kick them all to death. All but one, the younger brother of the Yakuza crime bosses. They’re not too happy with Kane, and put out a hit on him. Meanwhile some guy with a shotgun has entered a bank and taken the staff hostage – he wants payback for the damage that they did by foreclosing on his family home and the subsequent death of his wife. The SWAT team want to go in guns blazing, but Kane – further reminded of the loss of his own wife – wants to take a different approach and talk the guy down. Will Kane be able to resolve the situation in time? Will he be able to take out the Yakuza bosses before they put an end to him and his team?
Despite having spent an inordinate amount of time criticising this show, I should make it clear – I do quite enjoy True Justice, I just hate the way in which it has been treated in terms of the incoherent order to the release schedule. The show itself is reasonably watchable, and it also allows for Seagal to participate in something where there is some character development and story progression over the course of the episodes. By now you should know him and his team; know that Sarah and Radner are having an unlikely romance; know that Seagal’s Kane has a shady black ops past that keeps coming back to bite him in the ass. So when we start getting more information as to Kane’s history, you’re actually interested in it.
The two episodes actually work quite well together. Despite there being a clear recap around the 45-minute mark (when the second episode starts), the stories play well together; you get the conclusion of the hostage situation at the end of episode one, and then the further development of the Yakuza story in the second episode – with two of the Yakuza head honchos taken down, the third Yakuza boss is out for blood, taking down one of Seagal’s old Japanese friends, and incurring his wrath as a result.
Of course Seagal fans are action fans first and foremost, and this instalment features a fair few decent fights. Seagal appears to be going through a phase where he thinks that what fans want is more brutality – in a recent straight-to-DVD movie he disarmed an opponent, took the guy’s gun apart, and then proceeded to beat the guy with the sharp end of the remainder of the gun. I think he even stuck it in the guy’s eye. I can’t remember, I’d switched off by then. I wish Seagal hadn’t gone in this direction. More extreme violence doesn’t make the fights any better – what we really want is the same fights, just shot and edited in a more coherent fashion. Close-ups of hands flailing is just so passé, and it doesn’t really show off Seagal’s Aikido skills.
Still, this chapter has some nice moments. The opening confrontation with the Yakuza leads to him shooting and beating a couple of suspects (again, a bit too brutally in the latter case – is this guy really a cop?!), and the assault at the end of first episode also has a few nice touches as Seagal takes on one of the more skilled Yakuza bosses. The second episode has a nice little garage scene, which, although populated by far too many hands-flailing close-ups, does have a nice closing touch as Seagal flips a guy into a car windscreen (shot from within the car – a definite tribute to the same opening credits shot used in Seagal’s early, decent effort, Out for Justice).
With all the Yakuza talking about, and playing with, samurai swords; and Seagal’s character’s own backdrop in relation to swordfighting painted quite extensively, it’s a painful wait to get some sword action, but it does eventually happen. Indeed the only true disappointment is the abortive attempt to include MMA fighting in the show. The Yakuza run a cage-fighting club, where MMA fighters are frequently seen battling it out in the background. It makes for great background viewing, but you are hoping throughout the double-episode, that this will mean that Seagal’s Kane will get to face off against one of the fighters (in real life, Seagal has trained a couple of MMA fighters, so it’s clear he has some connections). Unfortunately, it never happens, and you’re left feeling that it was a missed opportunity.
Directed by Wayne Rose, who directed several Battlestar Gallactica and Smallville TV episodes, this double-episode is actually reasonably stylish. Rose has done 4 of the double-episodes on the True Justice show, including the first season stories Street Wars and Lethal Justice, the latter being one of the best double-stories in the first year of the show. Whilst he may not be the best director of Seagal’s action sequences out of the regulars involved in this series (Keoni Waxman has the edge, having done a few of Seagal’s better pre-True Justice DTV movies – The Keeper and A Dangerous Man – and being the man behind the upcoming Steven Seagal / Steve Austin actioner, Maximum Conviction), he still presents them in a reasonably stylish and certainly competent fashion – with nice touches, like the aforementioned Out of Justice tribute, that give the scenes a slight flourish. Aside from the action, he’s probably one of the best directors of the more mundane squad-room-based and interrogation-room-based scenes, shifting focus and moving the camera where his counterparts would have relied on tiresome fixed shots which really did nothing for these already-slow moments of exposition.
Still, reasonably stylish direction (for this TV series), a more involving story that pulls in elements of Seagal’s character’s past, and some sporadic but engaging action don’t really make up for the fact that this TV series has been so abysmally treated on release that few viewers will be able to sit through it and gain any pleasure. As a fan of the show, your best bet is to import the Season 1 box set, which presents all 13 episodes in the correct order. Don’t be fooled by the UK ‘collection’, as it’s just a hodgepodge collection of half of the season 1 episodes – in the wrong order – and, rather randomly, the first episode in the second season. Stay away from that one.
It’s the biggest shame about this reasonably watchable TV show; it’s some of Seagal’s most consistently reliable work, and yet it’s been so utterly ruined on release. For once, it’s not Seagal’s body double or voice double that is going to further add to his bad reputation – there’s none of that here, but few will get past the fact that the double-episode format doesn’t make sense when promoted as a ‘movie’ and that the ongoing character arcs are chopped and ruined by the lack of chronological releasing. Brotherhood / Death Riders is one of the best chapters in the first season, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that most viewers will be onto the second season by now, and won’t have a clue about where this delayed chapter fits into the grand scheme of things. Disappointing.
For those who want a clearer list of the episodes and their confusing release schedule (don’t ask me what happened to Season One, episode 13), then this is the order in which they have been released on Blu-ray, complete with the relevant review links to my earlier reviews:
1. Deadly Crossing (Season One, episodes 1 and 2)
2. Street Wars (Season One, episodes 5 and 6)
3. Dark Vengeance (Season One, episodes 3 and 4)
4. Lethal Justice (Season One, episodes 7 and 8)
5. Urban Warfare (Season One, episodes 11 and 12)
6. Soldier of Vengeance (Season Two, episodes 1 and 2)
7. Death Riders (Season One, episodes 9 and 10)
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