Every once in a while I’ll get in a gentlemanly argument with a motherfucker about whether Michael Bay single-handedly ruined the future of action cinema forever, or whether he’s just an asshole. And invariably a Bay-defender will claim that although his movies are not fun to watch and you don’t know what’s going on while you watch them, Michael Bay “blows things up real good.” I think the idea is supposed to be that Regular Folk like to watch a big fiery explosion with no brains involved and if you got a problem with that you must be some kind of snob.
Well I am not a snob and I think you guys know that. The problem is that in my opinion he DOES NOT blow things up good. He blows things up and then by the camera placement and quick cuts forces us to wonder whether we are in fact watching an explosion or a closeup of Billy Bob Thornton’s shoe or perhaps the reflection off a bead of sweat dripping down Josh Hartnett’s adam’s apple.
So let me tell you who blows things up good: Craig R. Baxley. He’s a stunt co-ordinator (he did THE WARRIORS) turned director. He first directed on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD but ACTION JACKSON is his first theatrical work.
Carl Weathers plays Jericho “Action” Jackson, a Detroit police sergeant recently demoted from Lietenant. Why was he demoted? BECAUSE HE RIPPED A GUY’S ARM OFF. That is how you know this is gonna be at least an okay movie. Even better, he defends his action by saying, “He had a spare.” The bad guy is the one-armed man’s dad, Craig T. Nelson from COACH, and you know he’s a bad guy because he’s got Al Leong (DIE HARD) as his limo driver. Just like you know Action is a cop because he has Bill Duke as his boss.
The story is generic ’80s cop movie shit: Action thinks that the rich auto manufacturer father of the sex maniac whose arm he ripped off is assassinating union bosses, so he teams up with the guy’s wife (Sharon Stone, ABOVE THE LAW) and his junkie mistress (Vanity) to investigate. Then he gets framed for murder, etc. etc.
All that’s kind of boring, and it’s a little disappointing that we never get to see him face down the one-armed sex maniac. (Maybe they were saving that for part 2.) But the movie is completely worthwhile for its peppering of pure Baxleyism.
My first exposure to Baxley as a director was STONE COLD starring Brian Bosworth. I remember a part in there where a motorcycle flies out a window. Alot of directors would’ve stopped right there. But he has the motorcycle collide with a helicopter. That’s awesome, you can’t get any better than that, can you? Well, yes, because then the helicopter crashes and lands on a car, and the car blows up. That’s Baxley for you, he’s a second unit director turned first unit. So he’s always looking for ways to juice up the action. In the opening scene of ACTION JACKSON some thugs come to murder a union boss. In this scene alone there is more glass broken than in any Seagal movie save for THE GLIMMER MAN. And at the end of the scene they shoot the guy with some kind of explosive shell, and he catches on fire. And then he falls out the window. And he plummets from a skyscraper, on fire, and lands on a table where some people are having dinner below. (somebody could’ve said, “Be careful, the plate is hot.”)
Those type of touches aren’t non-stop, unfortunately. Action has to do some investigating and what not. In fact, there was a point almost halfway through the movie where I started thinking I don’t know, for a guy called Action Jackson he sure doesn’t see alot of action. As soon as I thought it, Vanity asked him, “Hey, why do they call you–” and just then a guy tries to run over Action in a taxi cab.
This leads to what I believe is the first ever high speed car chase where the guy chasing forgot to bring a car. Action Jackson runs after the guy and manages to keep up for several blocks. Then he climbs onto a parked car and does a spectacular flying leap onto the taxi, leading to the standard T.J. Hooker “holding onto the top of the bad guy car” routine. (Unlike T.J. Hooker, Action Jackson states out loud that it was probaly a bad idea.) When the car finally stops he shames the driver into trying to run him over instead of just shooting him. That’s a brilliant stroke because what he does is run up the front of the car and do a flip off of the car. The driver takes his eye off the road to figure out what the hell just happened and when he turns back he’s about to crash into a parked car. And like many movies of this type, instead of trying to steer away or hit the brakes, he just holds his hands up to cover his face. A total quitter. Anyway, his car launches into the air, spins, crashes into the side of a garage, tears through the wall, and crushes a couple of cars inside the garage. (Sadly, it does not explode. But I guarantee you Baxley tried. There must’ve been a safety issue or something.)
The climax of the movie takes place at a big party held at the bad guy’s mansion. There is a guy swinging on a string of Christmas lights. There is a guy impaled. There are some knifings. Action finds out that Craig T. Nelson has Vanity at gunpoint in his bedroom, so he has to act fast. Instead of wasting time by running up the stairs, Action steals the Ferrari-like car that this guy manufacturers, and rams it into the house. Then he drives the car up the stairs and into the guy’s bedroom. This is the closest we will ever see to a movie where a sitcom star is run over in his own bedroom. But Action gets out and fights Craig T. hand-to-hand. It’s okay, because the car is still there the whole time. It’s still weird to have a fight in a bedroom if there’s a car parked there.
Craig T. Nelson makes a pretty good bad guy. He’s mostly the rich asshole type but in order to have a fight scene at the end there is one scene earlier to establish that he knows how to fight. He’s at home sparring with a young, muscular Asian guy, so you figure he is having his martial arts lesson. But you figure wrong. After he defeats the guy he says “Lesson’s over” and walks away. I guess you could argue that he is better than his teacher but I assume this is supposed to mean that he actually is a martial arts teacher in his spare time. I guess either way is pretty cool.
Sharon Stone is okay, she gets more to do than in ABOVE THE LAW where she just whines and cries. Contrary to what some dude said on IMDb, she does not get naked in this one. Vanity does get naked and shoot up, if you’re into that. She is more the female lead in this one. She also performs a couple songs but one thing I have noticed, she was not as good without Prince. I don’t want to be controversial but in my opinion Prince was the real talent behind that whole deal.
Alot of people enjoy bad puns and one-liners in their ’80s action movies and if that’s what you’re into, there is plenty to offer here. And I mean I’m talking terrible one-liners. The worst is probaly when Vanity’s huge bodyguard appears out of nowhere to rescue Action Jackson. He jumps down from a catwalk and says, “Hello, I’m Mr. Ed!”
What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t make any sense as a pun, as a literal statement, even as a reference. What does a big bodyguard dude have to do with a talking horse? A total non-sequitur.
Another one I don’t get, in the same scene Action Jackson says, “Chill out,” and then blowtorches a guy. How does that work? You can’t say the opposite of what you’re doing, that doesn’t count as a pun. Later he does a better job when he says, “Barbecue, huh? How do you like your ribs?”
(Alot of people catch on fire in this movie, by the way. It’s the kind of thing where if you bump into some electrical equipment you will immediately burst into flames.)
Baxley was even better by the time of STONE COLD (his third movie) but I liked this one too.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.