By current standards, Steven Seagal is a pop culture punchline.  Since the mid-1980’s, he has taken a long and winding journey from box-office star to low-budget schlockmeister and then reality t.v. personality, with pit stops along the way as blues musician, spiritual adviser and cop.  With his appearance in Machete, Seagal seemed to acknowledge the ever-more eccentric nature of his fame while letting us know he can see the humor in it, too.

All of this makes it easy to forget just how good his debut film, Above The Law, actually is.  Seagal had a hand in developing the surprisingly ambitious plotline, which kicks off with an elaborate prologue in which his youthful love of the martial arts leads him into a stint with the CIA during the Vietnam War.  During this time, he runs afoul of Zagon (Henry Silva), a sadistic government man mixed up in the foreign drug trade.  He returns home to Chicago, where he becomes a cop and a family man.

Unfortunately, his past comes calling 15 years later.  When Toscani sets up a drug bust, he is amazed to discover that the illicit cargo is not drugs but explosives.  Before he can pursue this, federal agents muscle in and tell Toscani to back off.  Of course, this is not an option for Toscani – and with faithful partner Delores Jackson (Pam Grier!) he uncovers a conspiracy that involves the CIA, drug dealing, foreign invasions and assassination.  When Zagon reappears and goes gunning for Nico’s family, it’s time for gunfights, punch-ups and a few choice car stunts.

Above The Law features a number of stock elements – the cop who won’t back down, the partner who is about to retire, feds clashing with cops – but it also adds some surprises to the action/thriller formula.  For starters, it’s much more plot-intensive than other films from this era of its genre.  Though we know who the villain is early on, the variety of puzzle pieces in the plot and the way they are assembled ensures the storyline remains compelling.  The action scenes are punchy but brief, acting as kinetic exclamation points that punctuate the revelation of major plot developments – and it’s nice to see an action-star vehicle from this era have that sense of priorities.

That said, the biggest surprise of the plot is how radical its politics are for the usually conservative action genre: the plot suggests government agencies are involved in the drug trade and other international crimes.  Seagal even delivers an impassioned monologue about how these agencies must obey the law.  This attitude was also reflected in Seagal’s life: he would famously accuse the U.S. government of creating the AIDS virus on The Arsenio Hall Show and later claim the FBI conspired to ruin his career.

It’s also interesting to see how much promise Seagal had at the beginning.  His acting is rough around the edges but his low-key tough guy persona is a likeable one and he totally delivers in the stunt/fight department.  Seagal vehicles have become notorious for using doubles and fast-cutting to get around the erosion of his physical abilities but you’d never guess that from his work here.  He’s very present in the stuntwork – including a hair-raising scene where he rides the top of an escaping car – and the fight scenes are shot in medium-shot style that shows his impressive hand-to-hand fighting skills.

However, the most crucial component of this film’s success is the work of Andrew Davis.  He serves as both co-writer and director and guides both elements of the film with a steady hand.  It never shies away from its action/thriller roots but it also never wallows in exploitation-style excesses, instead going for the Hollywood level of professionalism of a Joel Silver production.

He’s also smart enough to support his fledgling leading man with skilled vets: Silva is effortlessly menacing as the villain while Grier is credibly tough and has enough presence to stand side by side with Seagal as his partner.  As a side note, it’s worth noting that the casting agents had a good eye for future talent here: Sharon Stone pops up here in an early role as Seagal’s wife and look out for a cameo by a pre-Henry Michael Rooker as a sarcastic barfly.

In short, this is a strong action film and stands alongside the first Under Siege (also directed by Davis) as the best of Seagal’s classic-era vehicles.  Even if the mention of Steven Seagal makes you snicker, this film’s still worth checking out if you’re in the market for a solid vintage action flick.