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STUDIO: Sony Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
• None, though it does boast a Thai language audio track in 5.1 surround sound, which is pretty special if you ask me.
When revenge is personal, justice can be brutal. Whatever that means.
Steven Seagal, Eddie Griffin, Carmen Serano, Kirk B.R. Woller, Cory Hart (no, not that Corey Hart), Danny Trejo
Slum scoundrels smoke Seagal’s son. Seagal seeks satisfaction.
Even in his prime, Steven Seagal wasn’t exactly the most dynamic of action heroes. Examine a typical Seagal fight sequence closely, and you’ll see that most of them break down into four distinct stages: Part 1, Seagal stands perfectly still as his opponent runs recklessly towards him. Part 2, Seagal waves his arms around indiscriminately. Part 3, cut to a close-up of opponent being punched or thrown. Part 4, the assailant hurtles backwards while Seagal continues flailing his arms for no good reason. Repeat, if necessary.
I realize that Seagal is some kind of aikido master and he wants to showcase those skills in his movies, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not the most cinematic fighting style ever conceived. He might as well have no legs at all; it’s as if he studied martial arts under the tutelage of that robot from Lost in Space. But now that he’s spent several years off my radar making one cheap DTV flick after another, it seems that Steven Seagal has finally started to diversify his fighting style, adding a devastating front kick to his repertoire that would make Charlie Murphy proud:
Just look at it. It’s a thing of beauty, this kick. It’s so powerful, Internet Explorer can’t even handle its awesome might. If you’re reading this review in IE, be sure switch over to Firefox so you can appreciate the true grandeur of Seagal’s magnificent wallop. In any other movie, a kick to the chest from Steven Seagal might knock a guy down; maybe knock the wind out of him even. But in Urban Justice, Seagal’s foot is the ultimate coup de grâce, so devastating that if he were to merely graze you with his big toe, the distance you’d travel as a result of the blow would be measured not in feet, but in furlongs. It is the überkick.
Nearly every fight in Urban Justice ends this way, and every time it happened I found it more and more difficult to contain my delight. The movie acts as if the bottom of Steven Seagal’s heel is the most explosive substance known to man, one to be studied and harnessed in the interest of solving the world’s energy needs. I spent much of Urban Justice’s runtime in anticipatory glee, waiting with bated breath for another one of those transcendent moments when foot meets foe. If at any point I started to get bored with his typical statuesque flight choreography, Seagal seemed to read my mind, suddenly rearing back and planting his foot in his assailant’s chest as if to proclaim, “Screw all this counterattack crap, lemme just kick the shit out of this motherfucker.”
But what about the rest of Urban Justice? What about the parts that don’t involve Steven Seagal kicking somebody in the face or chest? Are they up to the standards of these brief, transitory moments of ecstasy? Not quite, but as far as straight-to-DVD action flicks go, Urban Justice is enjoyable enough. Steven Seagal plays Simon Ballister, a mysterious figure who takes up residence in South Central L.A. shortly after his son, an LAPD narcotics officer, is killed in a gangland shooting. Simon wants revenge, but his vengeance is strangely specific: He’s not interested in learning the reasons why his son was murdered, and he’s not after any of the higher-ups who might have ordered the assassination. “I just want the motherfucker who pulled the trigger,” he says. Which seems refreshingly straightforward until you’re an hour into the movie and you realize he’s killed half of this South Central gang in search of one guy. I couldn’t help but wonder why he doesn’t just kill the other half and call it a day.
Straightforward is definitely the best adjective to use when describing Urban Justice. The movie does everything it can to avoid complications: it sets up a simple revenge story, with Seagal pitted against a murderous gang of street thugs, and stays out of its way. There are a few obligatory investigation scenes where Seagal puts on his detective cap in an effort to determine the identity of his son’s killer, but for the most part Urban Justice is just a flimsy pretense to stack one fight sequence after another, with the occasional gunfight and car chase thrown in for good measure.
As usual, Steven Seagal is placed squarely in the role of ultimate badass, but as Seagal grows ever larger, so does the disparity between fiction and reality. He’s still believable as the unstoppable martial arts maestro, but only barely. Playing against him is Eddie Griffin as gang leader Armand Tucker in a role that is either A. a commentary on the way urban gangsters emulate Scarface, or B. total, brazen theft. I honestly can’t be sure. Griffin is given nothing to do but glower and threaten his underlings, so I suppose it was probably a smart move for him to do his best Scarface impression, since the character would’ve been a complete void of a character otherwise. In addition, Danny Trejo appears in a glorified cameo as a rival gang leader, and although his only scene is substantial, his character has no real reason to be in the movie at all. The character provides no useful exposition, plays no part in the story, and has no real purpose whatsoever. The character only seems to exist so that Danny Trejo can be in the movie. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
All that said, the only important question for a movie like this is: are the action scenes any good? Well, yes and no. The fights are typical Seagal, though he’s about six steps slower than what I can remember from his glory days. The biggest problem is that all the fights are more or less the same: They start with someone pointing a gun at Seagal’s head (usually sideways), until he manages to snatch it away and perform some of his usual arm-flailing Seagal action stuff, before finally unleashing one of those glorious, jackhammer kicks of his. But aside from those over-the-top deathblows of his, the rest of these fights are mostly kind of pedestrian, though they’re not badly done by a long shot. The gunfights, on the other hand, are incredibly dull: director Don E. Fauntleroy treats each squib like it’s a goddamn money shot, dwelling on each slo-mo bullet hit for ages. The end result is an action scene that’s 20% gunfire and 80% guys falling down in slow motion.
The gunfights are few and far between however, and what’s left is a moderately enjoyable Steven Seagal flick. Urban Justice hardly reinvents the genre, but then it doesn’t really want to. It’s simple and workmanlike, and it demands nothing from its audience other than their time. If nothing else, Urban Justice made me realize that while Steven Seagal’s star may have fallen, his ability to kick ass while remaining perfectly motionless has not. “Kick” being the operative word here.
Since there are no special features, something must be said about the cover: either they airbrushed the hell out of Seagal or they used a 15-year-old picture, because the Steven Seagal that’s featured on the DVD cover doesn’t even remotely resemble the Seagal we see in the movie. Look, I know you can’t put a realistic, full-body photo of Steven Seagal without terrifying potential impulse buyers but still, who do they think they’re fooling here? There’s so much visual chicanery at work here that the cover should come with a disclaimer: “Leading man may be larger than he appears.”
6.4 out of 10