Readers will probably know my affinity for Golden Era De Niro movies, my love of foreign films, of crime dramas both old and new, and of most anything that the likes of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese or even Michael Mann have a hand in. But, despite my loving quality movies, there are always those... less good productions that slip through the cracks and still find a way into my collection. I’m a consistent Mickey Rourke apologist – from his great early movies like Rumble Fish, through the period of his life where he took an ill-advised foray into boxing (and made movies like Double Team, opposite Van Damme) to his recent comeback with movies like Sin City, The Wrestler and Iron Man 2 – and, rather strangely, the situation is pretty-much the same for many 80s action stars.
At the top of the list is Steven Seagal. For no particular reason, his specific style of fighting (aikido) was so effortlessly cool, the characters he portrayed so reliably indestructible, that I enjoyed almost everything he starred in. This was an easy feat back when he was churning out reliably average b-movie fare like Under Siege and Marked for Death, but the man got lazy, old and more than a little portly, his productions plummeting into the depths of DTV hell, his efforts increasingly non-existent – in some movies he was doubled for most of the largely incoherent runtime: body, hands and even voice. Those graceful, lightning-fast aikido moves became less and less common, and sometimes non-existent in his downward spiral into oblivion. A couple of his efforts stood out as better than average (Driven to Kill), but only in comparison with the rest of his terrible productions, and after churning out over two dozen DTV movies in less than a decade, many of even his most ardent fans wanted him to stop and focus his efforts on delivering one good, decent film. Arguably his most recent opportunity to do just this was after briefly returning to the Big Screen for a hilarious cameo in last year’s enjoyable throwback exploitation flick Machete. Through a reality TV show called Lawman, news had spread that Seagal spent the last couple of decades working as a part-time cop (and, more importantly, hadn’t publicised the fact), so between the new kudos that he received for that, and some much-needed publicity in Machete, he could have capitalised and delivered something at least semi-decent. Somewhat shockingly, he instead signed up for another TV series, this time fictional. It’s called True Justice.
I suppose that it could have been a good move. With the average mid-budget feature movie costing almost as much to make as an entire TV series, perhaps Seagal could have found success on the small screen in much the same way as Charles Bronson or Chuck “Walker, Texas Ranger” Norris did in their latter years. The trouble is that, even before the show was picked up for release by TV networks – it’s due to air in the UK on Channel Five next month – it’s already been (partly) dumped into the Straight-to-DVD market. Worse still, it’s been released as if it were just another DTV movie, and not as episodes in a TV show, so basically joe public wouldn’t have a clue why the hell the supposed feature film that they are watching appears to stop halfway through and start a completely new story. Hell, have you ever seen a movie where, forty-five minutes in, we all-of-a-sudden get a flash-forward scene, followed by a ‘2 hours earlier’ warning? It just wouldn’t have made any sense. What you are watching is the first two episodes of True Justice, played back-to-back with no explanation, and given the ambiguous title ‘Deadly Crossing’. It was a monumentally bad marketing decision, designed to garner easy cash from ill-informed punters in the short-term – even though, in the long term, it would probably seriously harm any chances that the show would have of being something of a success in its own right.
Having already released the first two episodes – originally titled Russian Crossing Part 1 and Part 2 – as ‘Deadly Crossing’ in December, April marks the release of the second pair of episodes – originally titled Street Wise Part 1 and 2 – under the umbrella package of ‘Street Wars’. The story, for those who haven’t seen the first two episodes, is almost incomprehensible. But if you want some kind of synopsis it revolves around an elite team of undercover cops based out of Seattle. They include two guys and two girls, and are headed up by Seagal’s Elijah Kane, and, after a string of dead bodies start popping up as a result of overdoses on some kind of new drug that is being peddled, their latest mission is to find the criminals responsible and stop the death toll from rising.
The trouble is, for those who haven’t previously been introduced to this team, or their cases – and for those who didn’t realise that this was in fact just a compilation of two episodes from a TV show – the ‘feature’ makes little sense. This cast is recurring after all, and those with no prior knowledge will be wondering what the hell is going on? Why are they treating the blonde like the new girl? Who’s this idiot who has just joined the team – are we supposed to know him? And is there a member missing from the team – because people keep talking about somebody as if we’re supposed to know them? Forget the fact that the characters have already been developed somewhat in the first two episodes – the players simply don’t work in a standalone effort because they were never intended to. Unfamiliar viewers won’t know that the blonde girl just joined the team; they won’t realise that the missing character was the previous fourth member who has gone on a different assignment (and may well return in the next episode, who knows?); and they won’t realise that this month’s new addition to the team is so disliked by everybody because he already proved himself to be a pain in the ass in the first two episodes. I could go on, but really, the point is simple – you shouldn’t watch this without seeing ‘Deadly Crossing’. Moreover, you shouldn’t watch it as a feature film. It’s two episodes, with a fairly obvious cut between the two – and with separate stories in both (albeit a two-parter, so there is an overreaching story arc), so the best way to watch it would be as such. After 42 minutes or so, the second (or, technically, fourth) episode will start, complete with requisite flash-forward and completely new subplots. I mean, how would it even make any sense in a feature film to have a new story introduced, over an hour in, involving some eccentric indie director seeking protection from Elijah’s team whilst he shoots in the shadier areas of town?
The tragedy of this all is that it’s actually not such a bad production if regarded as a TV series. It’s kind of a sub-CSI: Miami-style show: cheesy as hell, populated by clichéd characters and hammy dialogue; but boasting a few fun actions sequences and a certain ‘entertainment factor’ which applies even to the silliest productions. I mean, few fans watch CSI: Miami for the quality or depth of drama – most of us love it because of the ridiculous posturing of David Caruso’s over-the-top lead CSI Horatio Caine, or for his affinity for drawing his gun and shooting anything that moves. The show may be quantifiably ‘bad’, but it’s bloody good entertainment nonetheless. There’s something of this in True Justice – it’s a pretty standard police procedural, with recurring characters and familiar storylines – but then Steven Seagal pops up and throws somebody across the screen for no apparent reason. Or unconvincingly power-slides his massive black CIA-style SUV whilst shooting his gun in slow-motion. In terms of pure entertainment value at least, how could that not be a massive bonus?
It’s a great shame that Voltage/Optimum have messed up this production so badly – it’s not exactly a great TV show, but it’s an absolutely incomprehensible, pointless waste of time when released as standalone feature films. The story dithers, meanders, and is diluted by numerous extraneous sub-plots which neither start nor finish (as in, they carry on from the previous instalment, and will no doubt carry on in the next); the characters are given little introduction and limited development, and the action scenes don’t really stand up – even by DTV standards. Those expecting Seagal to kick ass for ninety minutes will be sorely disappointed that it clocks in at more like nine minutes, and that, even for those, he’s limited in the level of damage that he can inflict upon his targets because the show has been tailored for airing under TV restrictions. Swearing, nudity? Forget about it. The main villain? (the Russian Vice President from the latest season of 24) Well I’m sure he’ll pop up somewhere down the line later in the TV series, but he sure as hell doesn’t get properly dealt with here... because this isn’t the complete story.
Not that many will, but if you take the time to pick up Deadly Crossing, and then watch the two ‘features’ in 40-odd minute segments – i.e. episode format – then the third and fourth instalments, presented in Street Wars, are pretty enjoyable. It’s hokey stuff (Seagal playing the guitar?), cheesy as hell (Seagal wandering off with random twentysomething models?), but still quite entertaining – kind of an odd mix between CSI: Miami, Sammo Hung’s Martial Law, Chuck Norris’s Walker, Texas Ranger and the recent Elmore Leonard-based Justified; clearly not as good as any of them, but still strangely watchable. For Seagal fans it’s the most polished recent production from him (barring Machete), with no overt signs of either voice or stunt double, and a few kick-ass moments. It’s just a shame that we have to wait for another 4 ‘movie’ releases just to complete the series. And for those who pick this one up for a throwaway beers-and-kebab kind of actioner, prepare to be very disappointed. A movie it is not.
True Justice: Episodes 3 & 4 (Street Wars) Score - 6/10
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