Friday, May 21, 2010

Urban Justice

At the core Urban Justice is a simple movie. It is about revenge, and a very specific revenge at that. There is no moralizing, no attempt to make some sort of grand point about the collapse of civilization, or even any attempt to justify the violence. Right before Steven Seagal’s character, Simon Ballister, is about to go kill all of the remaining bad guys, the sexy lady we assume he’s going to sleep with (he doesn’t) attempts to chide him with the standard, “You’re just as bad as them,” spiel. His response, in a flat, even tone, is, “I’m a lot fucking worse.” That pretty much sums up the entire movie, and of the many tough guy things he says in this movie, this might be the toughest. He is that tough, and he knows it, and he doesn’t have any illusions about what he is about to do, he is about to go kill people.

Urban Justice begins with Ballister’s son, Max, a young police officer who we are immediately supposed to like because he loves his hot young wife. Is that all it takes to make us like a character? That he likes his wife? Yeah, that is all it takes. I admit it, I’m easy. He takes some pictures and is killed for it. At the funeral everyone is sad, which must mean that he was a good cop as well, and whoever it is that gives the eulogy says, “your death will be remembered by everyone, always.” That’s high praise, this guy must have really been something. Lurking at the periphery of the service is Seagal, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast sky, and generally being all kinds of mysterious.

This is really all you need to know. His son was murdered, he came to kill the killer. There is some back and forth about whether this gang did it, or that gang did it, or maybe corrupt cops did it. None of it matters. Ballister doesn’t even care who gave the order, he only wants the guy who pulled the trigger. For our sake, I’m glad he didn’t find out who the gunman was right away, because the real fun of Urban Justice is watching him wade through various gangs and groups of thugs looking for his man. And he most certainly does go through a lot of stock gangster movie extras to get to the truth. If that doesn’t sound like a good time then you probably won’t be interested in this.

Director Don E. Fauntleroy (who worked with Seagal on Today You Die and Mercenary for Justice) and writer Gilmar Fortis II (who has the best name ever) use a lot of the hallmarks of classic Seagal. Ballister is a man with a shadowy past, and is involved in some sort of unspecified military or intelligence agency that enables him to make a single phone call and have a bunch of cool, high-tech tracking stuff delivered to the room above a liquor store he rents by the week in Compton. Martial arts play in important role, evenly balanced with gun play.

My favorite moment of violence occurs in Seagal’s first fight. He is in the ghetto, and, in predictable fashion, the ghetto residents are somewhat adverse to his presence. When he finds two thugs leaning on his car, waiting to run him off, he, also in predictable fashion, whoops their punk asses. There is the context, and here is the moment. When he slams one of their faces against his shiny black sedan, instead of shattering the window like in most action movies, the impact leaves a splatter of blood from the gangster’s nose and mouth on the glass. And I like that. It is the moment where all of your suspicions about Ballister’s ass-kicking abilities are confirmed.

Seagal never really gets mad, he doesn’t yell or scream or go over the top, instead he brings a quiet menace to the character of Ballister. He is a badass, and there is never any actual doubt as to whether or not he will succeed in his goal. Usually that lack of tension turns me off to a movie (see Taken). I want to believe that no matter how skilled, well equipped, or generally awesome a protagonist is, that they are still in fact human, and that there is the potential for failure. However, in this case, that doesn’t bother me. In this scenario he knows that he’s going to pull it off, he knows that he isn’t in any real danger, even after he gets shot, because he knows exactly how badass he is. At the end, when he kills the guy who shot his son (and walks away from another because he has no interest in killing anyone who didn’t shoot his son—though, again, I’m glad he had to go through a bunch of guys to get to the shooter or else this movie would have sucked), he doesn’t smile, or crack a joke, or change expression at all. He approached this like another job, and now his job is done.

Fauntleroy does a good job of creating the feeling of an old school action movie. There aren’t a lot of quick, music video style edits, and the fight scenes are solid, even though there is an excessively long, fairly uneventful car chase.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of the pitfalls of some of Seagal’s DTV oeuvre. There are no body doubles, no weird vocal overdubs that are obviously some other dude, and there are no awkward shortcuts resulting from a low budget or limited shooting schedule or any of the other small tragedies that sometimes befall Seagal’s recent movies. And most importantly there is a lot, I repeat, a lot of action, which is all anyone really wants to see in a movie like this.

The lack of a single antagonist to focus on does hurt the movie in the end. I get it, Ballister isn’t sure who is responsible, so they think it is a good idea to let the audience go through the same journey. While we can appreciate the search, and it is fun to watch him pound an endless supply of hoodlums, and for some reason a carful of white supremacists taking a vacation to the middle of the hood, a bad guy to focus our ire on is necessary. It would provide some much needed focus to the movie, Seagal’s single-minded determinism isn’t always enough to drive the film alone. During his scenes it is, but when the film leaves Ballister, it suffers.

For a while we suspect that Danny Trejo might be the bad guy. He’s only here for a scene, but it’s a good scene. Did one of the corrupt cops kill Max? Undercover Brother himself, Eddie Griffin turns up as a prime candidate for chief bad guy. You know what I like about Eddie Griffin? He’s funny. You know what he is not in this movie? Funny. He tries to play a tough guy, sadistic gang leader, but the entire time he’s on screen, I kept waiting for him to bust out his Michael Jackson impersonation. I’m all for actors leaving their comfort zones, trying to broaden their professional horizons, and all that, but he plays Armand Tucker the drug dealer as a caricature. He’s just not intimidating at all.

In my opinion Urban Justice is up there with some of the best of Seagal’s direct to video movies, and is even better than some of his theatrical releases. The action is good and plentiful, the story is straightforward and not too ridiculous, and the movie doesn’t suffer from poor production quality. The filmmakers don’t even ask me to pretend that I believe Seagal is a college professor or archeologist or some sort of scientist. I appreciate that concession, I really do. And there is a good, Charles Bronson, vigilante revenge feel to the whole film, which I also appreciate.

Watch Urban Justice, even though it is called Urban Justice.

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