Action Jackson is, for better or worse, Shaft if it were made by Joel Silver in 1988. It's a pretty amazing anachronism, really. A film made in the late 80's, deep into the action movie boom, that has the style and sensibility of something from 1974.
Carl Weathers plays Sgt. Jericho "Action" Jackson, the toughest cop in Detroit, a one-man wrecking crew who's been taken off the streets after nearly tearing off a sex offender's arm. When reminded of this, Jackson's excuse is, "He had a spare!"
Jackson is pitted against Craig T. Nelson as the villainous Peter Dellaplane, a car manufacturer who wants to kill a few union leaders in order to... Well, I don't really know why. Even he says doing this won't really help him too much. He simply wants his guy in control of the auto workers' union, and killing just happens to be a hobby of his, so why not? Another of his hobbies seems to be kung fu, because he can actually hold his own against the considerably larger and stronger Jackson.
Jackson also gets involved with the two ladies in Dellaplane's life: his mistress played by Vanity and his wife, played by Sharon Stone.
This film is amazingly over the top, but it's done in such a gleefully entertaining way that you really don't mind. At the start of the film, Jackson is built up as a rampaging animal of a cop by two uniformed officers (one of whom is Thomas Wilson, who was Biff in the Back to the Future films). And they just pile on the crazy from there, with a scene where Jackson actually manages to run and keep pace with a speeding car, and another scene where he shoots a guy with a rocket launcher at a considerably closer range than you'd think would be recommended by the manufacturer.
What really makes this movie is the cast. Weathers is great, and Nelson makes a pretty good villain, but it's the supporting cast—primarily Joel Silver regulars—that make the film so much fun. Bill Duke plays a surprisingly reasonable '80s police captain, Robert Davi turns up as an informant whose death sets off the main plot of the film, and Al Leong is Nelson's limo driver. Several other Joel Silver regulars show up in smaller roles. Trust me, you could make one hell of a drinking game out of it.
With that being said, this isn't a "good" movie at all, at least not in the traditional sense. The story is clichéd, you know exactly what's going to happen at all times, and the action is surprisingly standard, considering the lead character's name.
Another problem is Sharon Stone's character. She's hot, damn hot, which is a given, but she's playing the dumbest character in the film. Watch it and you'll see for yourself almost immediately.
Vanity does alright as Weathers' love interest, but all she really needs to do is look good and speak in complete sentences—which is pretty much all she does. Well, there's that, and a couple of scenes where she shoots up with a gold-plated syringe. (Long story.)
With that out of the way, let's take a closer look at this gem.
- Like any self-respecting bad action movie, it opens over a downtown city skyline. In this case, Detroit.
- Joel Silver Regular Sightings #1 & #2: Ed O'Ross and Mary Ellen Trainor in the opening scene, as a union boss and his secretary, respectively. Both appeared in the first Lethal Weapon, with Trainor returning for the sequels. Another interesting note: I never knew you could kill someone simply by punching them in the face and knocking them through a glass window. If the intent was to have the secretary killed by having her nose shoved up into her brain, they fluffed it somewhat. And also, yuck!
- The killers are entertaining, as well. Is there a more over the top way of killing your enemy than sending a team of goons over to his place to fire bomb him into the afterlife? I can only imagine they went that route because a tactical nuke would have been too expensive.
- The guy who played Biff in the Back to the Future films is a cop which may be the most amusing sentence I've written since...Well, this morning. As a fan of the trilogy, this makes me a very happy guy. (Let's face it, the guy could play the lead in the most brilliant version of Hamlet ever filmed, and he'd still be Biff from the Back to the Future films.) The dude is hilarious, as is his interaction with his partner. I love the scene where they scare the crap out of a kid they just arrested, by making Action Jackson out to be a maniac who eats wayward youths for breakfast.
- This leads us to the big reveal of our hero. It's a great way to intro the character, and the payoff to the scene is great, as Carl Weathers finally gets a good Movie Star intro. Albeit, one where a mug of coffee is shattered on his desk. Hey, it's a Joel Silver movie, everything gets blown up real good!
- This brings us to Bill Duke, yet another Joel Silver Player, and our obligatory hard-ass captain. In a nice touch, he's a bit more reasonable than usual, and actually seems to like the lead. Far too often in action films, there's a boss who not only argues with the hero, but also seems to have a borderline psychotic hatred for the character. This works alright when the boss turns out to be the main villain, but otherwise not so well. Also a little weird to see the guy with hair.
- I love how in his first scene, Craig T. Nelson remarks that "Action Jackson" rhymes. Really? I guess it takes a keen mind to become a bigwig in the auto industry. We also get a glimpse of Al Leong, another perennial Silver favorite, though sadly he only has a minor role.
- The second appearance of Nelson's Goon Squad has some amusing bits. The Sledgehammer of Irony gets a real workout in this scene, as all the dialogue leads up to a union guy's incredibly appropriate death. See, he's a real stickler for security, and he ends up... Well, there's a Goon Squad, and loud opera music, so I think you can safely guess what happens to him.
- Robert Davi is a jittery informant. This may be my second favorite performance of his, after Licence to Kill. Sure, the character is basically a Miami Vice reject, but it works. The scene where he's killed is funny, though; Do most jittery paranoid informants just accept unexpected UPS packages so blithely? If so, it could explain why they're always killed off at the beginning of action films. Also, aren't silencers supposed to, well, silence the sound of a gunshot? If so, I sure hope the assassin saved his receipt.
- Vanity's intro scene is her performing at a club, which has only one customer, and it's Dellaplane. We also meet Vanity's bodyguard here, a giant of a man named Ed. And yes, it appears Dellaplane is having an affair with Vanity, which we learn when he takes her home, gets her naked, and then helpfully shoots her up with heroin.
- You have to love a film that wants you to believe a middle-aged auto tycoon is any sort of physical threat to a cop built like a tank, whose testosterone levels go off the scale whenever he's pissed. You have to love a film even more when the auto tycoon beats the crap out of some random guy with kung-fu, just so you believe he won't get creamed by the hero at the end of the film.
- Sharon Stone is playing the dumbest character in the film. As proof, I offer this: She finds out her husband is every bit the murderous slime ball that Jackson says he is, so instead of simply running out on him, she decides to talk things over with him. Inspired thinking. Every now and then, the death of the sacrificial lamb in an action flick comes off as an act of mercy.
- Our first big action sequence is truly a classic of over the top '80s action. It begins with a foot pursuit between Jackson and a cab driven by the guy who killed Robert Davi's character. Yes, Jackson chases down a speeding cab on foot, and manages to leap onto the roof. Granted, there's a mention of him being on the track team in high school, but come on! He hangs on for dear life as tons of property destruction is amassed, along with some civilian injuries and probably a few fatalities. He stops the ride by punching through the windshield (without injuring his hand at all!) and grabbing the wheel. Jackson gets thrown to the pavement, and a standoff ensues with him screaming like a nut. The cab speeds towards him, so Jackson somersaults over the car and the dumbfounded driver crashes impressively into a building. The assassin somehow gets away, and the only damage to Jackson is a tear in the shoulder lining of his coat. Meanwhile, an entire city block gets destroyed. You really have to see this to believe it.
- I like how they film Dellaplane killing his wife. Sure, her thinking they can just talk over his murderous ways like a financial dispute is about as smart as trying to French kiss a rotating fan. But the setup of his concealed gun is well done, and makes it work. An odd bit comes after he shoots her, because he continues kissing her after she's dead, and then lights up a cigarette afterwards. Weird. Even weirder is that despite shooting her at close range (in fact, he's holding her tightly when the gunshot rings out), he somehow frames Jackson for the murder. I guess forensics weren't good for shit back in the '80s.
- With Sharon Stone out of the way, Jackson now gets to hook up with Vanity. The confrontation between Jackson and Vanity's bodyguard Ed is fun. The rest of the relationship, however is rather bland, except for a part where Vanity is reluctant to help Jackson, so he drives straight at a wall as fast as he can, and then slams on the brakes at the last second. Somehow, this earns him her full cooperation.
- The second most brilliant scene in the movie is when Jackson's car has been trashed, so he goes to find an old informant of his named Papa Doc. It quickly turns into one of the most bizarre, hilarious scenes I've seen in a while, because all Jackson finds is Papa Doc's balls which have been cut off and put in a jar of formaldehyde. Jackson is roughed up by two huge guys (one of whom is B-action villain mainstay Branscombe Richmond. Vanity gets Jackson out of this fix by claiming he's her insane brother. Jackson immediately starts screaming stuff about God, which for some reason makes all the goons back away in terror. Jackson beats the crap out of them, but only ends up right back where he started: framed for murder, with a wrecked Chevy Impala. Meaning the whole scene is totally extraneous (as well as disturbing and totally hilarious), and just an excuse to add more action to the film.
- Sign #1 your script hasn't really been thought through: In lieu of actual police work, your lead character learns key plot points from a totally new character introduced in the third act, who talks for about five minutes straight, and is never heard from again.
- In a scene that seems to be there just to pad things out a little, Jackson fights with a drug dealer (Silver regular Sonny Landham) and this is pretty hilarious, too. I never knew that some guys can laugh off getting injected with a full syringe of heroin. Also, I never knew it was possible to throw someone out of the window of one building and into another. I guess Steven Seagal saw this while prepping The Glimmer Man.
- Dellaplane captures Jackson and chains him up in a warehouse. Naturally, Dellaplane chooses this moment to explain his entire evil scheme, and it's fairly retro in its conception. Like I stated earlier, the film seems like something that was made in 1973, not 1988. The action scenes (with the exception of the cab scene and a few others) are geared more towards punch-ups, and the overall plot could easily have been used for a fourth Shaft film or a Pam Grier vehicle. Hell, there's even a cold-hearted, middle-aged white guy as the villain, who throws out a racial epithet here and there. The soundtrack has something of a '70s feel, too. It's pretty neat.
- I also like Jackson's line to Dellaplane as he's leaving. Somehow, telling a guy that someday he's really going to piss you off doesn't seem all that threatening. But then again, I'm not Action Jackson. If I were, I'd be outrunning cars all the damn time.
- Dellaplane decides to set Jackson up with a lookalike assassin. And am I the only one seeing the obvious problem with this? Jackson and his impersonator look nothing alike. Dellaplane might want to rethink things a bit, especially since officers from Jackson's own precinct will probably end up investigating. Still, it's supposed to be a bad movie, and if you're with the film up until to this point, it's silly to bail with less than twenty minutes to go.
- One more thing about this scene. Why is it that Dellaplane felt a pressing need to remove Jackson's shirt after capturing him? Sure, every action hero inevitably ends up with his shirt off, but why would Dellaplane intentionally do this?
- Ed's rescue of Jackson is hilarious, as is Jackson's line to the head goon before he napalms him: "How do you like your ribs?" Speaking of which, what the hell kind of gun is that, anyway? It looks like a grenade launcher, but I'm fairly certain most grenades don't cause explosions that call to mind industrial accidents on oil platforms.
- One thing that always amuses me about this film is how everyone who helps out or even associates with Jackson in a positive way turns up in the finale, as basically a private army for the guy. Seriously. The man has more contacts than Bausch & Lomb.
- Things I never knew: It's absolutely possible to drive a huge sports car through a house, up a flight of stairs, and into a bedroom, even if the stairs are made out of wood, and the car weighs a few tons. Also, some bad guys will take time out from a getaway to kill someone via a forced heroin overdose, even though it's havoc outside, and just shooting the person would be a whole lot quicker and easier.
- The final fight is about as good as one could expect, considering one of the combatants is Craig T. Nelson. Sorry, but I still think it's stretching it to show him kicking Jackson's ass like this. And it's even more unlikely that Jackson doesn't get a scratch on him, even after his head is put through a car window. (That car being the same one that was just driven up a flight of stairs.) Still, you have to love a hero who avoids getting shot simply by yelling really loud at his opponent.
- Like I said earlier, the Bill Duke police captain character is oddly reasonable, as evidenced by the fact that Jackson is rewarded at the end, even though he did all the same crazy shit that got him in trouble in the first place.
- We also learn that all it takes to kick a heroin habit is to refer to yourself as an "ex-junkie" and then ride off into the sunset. No withdrawal symptoms to worry about at all!
- One last note: the song "Action Jackson" heard during the closing credits samples the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But hell, that describes the movie perfectly: Good, bad, and ugly. Not to mention big, loud, and insanely fun.