When Steven Seagal hit the multiplexes with Above The Law, he earned instant multiplex-cred as an action hero.  He could make his films with major studio backing and had an eager audience ready to watch him shoot and kick his way across the silver screen.  What did he serve up as an encore?  Hard To Kill, one of the most amusingly awful action-hero vehicles of its era.  Even if viewed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia for the glory days of 1980’s action, this is a terrible film.

To begin with, the plotline of Hard To Kill is a ridiculously convoluted on a basic revenge plot:  Mason Storm (Seagal) is doing some undercover surveillance when he catches the wrong corrupt public official on his video camera.  Henchmen are sent to Storm’s house, where they gun him, his wife and his child down in cold blood. However, Storm miraculously survives the attack and lingers on in a coma, with the Feds deciding to keep his identity secret as he lays in a hospital as a John Doe patient.

Seven year later, Mason awakens and asssassins come to kill him.  He escapes with the help of plucky nurse Andy (Kelly LeBrock, Seagal’s then-wife) and builds himself up to fighting strength as Andy and Mason’s old cop pal O’Malley (Frederick Coffin) do some research on his behalf (we also discover Mason’s kid also survived the attack and has been kept in a private school).  The culprit behind the original attack on Mason is revealed to be a senator – one Vernon Trent (Bill Sadler) – and when the Senator tries to attack Seagal and his friends, the audience finally gets the showdown it has been waiting for.

Simply put, Hard To Kill plays like a brain-damaged version of Above The Law.  The carefully constructed plot of Seagal’s first film is replaced by a patchwork plot full of ridiculous contrivances (the villains mistakenly think TWO people are dead).  The dialogue is also full of howlers, including a hilarious speech where Mason assures O’Malley they’ll be able to defeat the villains because of their “superior mental attitude.”

Even worse, the hero spends the entire midsection of the film training at a ranch (in long, self-indulgent montages) while supporting characters do all his legwork for him.  Mason Storm might be the most useless hero ever in an action movie because he spends so much time waiting around.  There’s also a scene early on where a gang of toughs break into a store Mason is in – and he actually waits for them to shoot the clerk before fighting back.  A fearless avenger, he’s not.

Even worse, Hard To Kill also reveals Seagal’s limitations as an actor.  He has no cast of well-chosen character actors to back him up this time so it’s easy to see how wooden and self-serious Seagal is here.  The aforementioned “superior mental attitude” scene is a good example, as well as scene where he takes one of the villain’s catchphrases and gives it a hilariously dumb twist (check the clip below for that highlight).

That said, Seagal comes off better than LeBrock, who is stunningly awful: look out for the scene where she has to cry, it’s a campy lowlight of the film.  She vamps around like a Beverly Hills housewife here, seemingly inhabiting a different romantic comedy reality from the rest of the film.  In fact, it’s tempting to believe that she was written into the plot because she’s so poorly integrated into the story: the best example of this comes in the scenes where Seagal drags her around like a screaming accessory while he fights multiple henchmen.

The oddest aspect of Hard To Kill is how it unintentionally reveals how limited Seagal’s fighting style is: there are no kicks or acrobatics, just fast throwdowns and a fetish for arm-breaking.  He never really fights with anybody, he just brutalizes his opponents (it’s worth noting that it’s extremely rare for Seagal to get hit by another fighter).  Thus, his big showdown against Sadler and his henchmen comes off less like a brawl and more like a schoolyard bully slapping around a bunch of scared kids… and wait ’til you see the bizarre, borderline homoerotic-S&M method of brutality he uses on Sadler.  The direction  by Bruce Malmuth, who once helmed the superior Stallone vehicle Nighthawks, only comes alive during the action scenes and those aren’t strong enough to make up for bizarrely bad story surrounding them.

In fairness to Seagal, most of the major action heroes from this era have a handful of noteworthy duds on their box-office resumes.  That said, it’s amazing to look back at Hard To Kill and see how someone with so many resources at his fingertips could turn out such a shoddy star vehicle so early in the game.  Seagal would soon achieve a rebound – at least until his permanent slump kicked in during the mid-1990’s – but the seeds of his eventual downfall as an action hero were sown here.