In the decade’s twilight, as muscle-bound supermen lost ground to special effects, two unlikely challengers entered the ring. They were Ferraris, not Hummers, making up for their standard humanoid proportions with bone-breaking speed. While Jean-Claude Van Damme wouldn’t find his best showcase until the ’90s, the case could be made that Steven Seagal never bettered his debut.
Seagal, an aikido expert who claims to have a past with the CIA, plays Nico Toscani, an aikido expert who has a past with the CIA. It’s no stretch — note Segal’s “Story By” credit — but here, the man has something to prove. Uber-agent Michael Ovitz believed he could make anybody a star, even his (alleged) martial arts instructor. So, as much as he ever would, Seagal tried.
Director Andrew Davis, fresh from wringing a performance out of fellow action hero Chuck Norris in “Code of Silence,” presents Seagal as the punching man’s Dirty Harry. He talks just as softly, but forgoes the .44-caliber stick. All Nico needs are his hands, held approximately steering wheel-width apart, and something he can flip the next scumbag into. The moves are still novel and the speed still impressive, but the biggest thrill is Seagal himself. When he monologues an old friend to pieces about the Agency’s unchecked evil, it plays like a bounced check; he could’ve been a contender, or at least not Steven Seagal.