“Steele left this buried in my chest 12 years ago. I swore one day I would return it to him.”
STEELE JUSTICE is one of those special action movies that is serious but feels more like the parodies of action movies than you realized was possible. Martin Kove – the KARATE KID bad guy and valuable supporting player in movies like DEATH RACE 2000, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, BARE KNUCKLES and BEYOND THE RING – actually gets to play the hero of this, and it’s one for the record books.
I’m sure you’re already making some assumptions about what kind of a movie would be called STEELE JUSTICE, so I would like to go ahead and verify the following points for you:
1) Yes, his name is John Steele
2) Indeed, he is a Vietnam vet
3) You are correct, he is also an ex-cop (fired)
4) You bet your ass there’s a title logo made of steel letters that clanks onto the screen
Writer/director Robert Boris only has two other action-ish movies on his resume (he wrote ones called EXTREME JUSTICE and DIPLOMATIC SIEGE in the ’90s), but most of his career was spent on comedies and TV movies about Jimmy Hoffa and Marilyn Monroe. He was the screenwriter of ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, SOME KIND OF HERO and DOCTOR DETROIT. So for his one Rambo era movie he turned every dial as high as it would go.
I mean, the poster describes it pretty well. Like Dirty Harry, he’s pointing a gun straight at the viewer. Like Rambo, he’s wearing a tank top and a headband and a huge bandolier. Like John Matrix he has warpaint on his face. And what the hellb he also has shotgun shells strapped to his biceps. And why not fingerless gloves also. And oh what about a sword on his back. And what about he’s dressed like this in the middle of L.A. not the jungle.
The opening is a flashback that re-imagines ‘Nam with ’80s action movie one-liners, which makes it so much more fun in my opinion. But not fun enough to not be traumatizing. In the present (1987), Steele is said to be an alcoholic and seems to have come back, you know… not quite right. The character is obviously inspired by Rambo, but those movies, especially FIRST BLOOD, treated Rambo’s psychological scarring from combat as drama. For Steele it’s just a cute quirk of his. The movie sometimes treats the way it torments his wife Tracy (Sela Ward, the president in INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) seriously, other times seems to imply she needs to loosen up and get over it.
He’s supposed to be fun-crazy, like Riggs. He works for “The Department of Wild Horses,” but when he finds out the horses he’s delivering are going to be made into dog food he lets them loose in town. So all the sudden he’s ex-military, ex-cop, ex-Department of Wild Horses. His wife finds him depressed and drinking from a full bottle of Wild Turkey at a bar (live country music provided by the The Desert Rose Band) just before they come to arrest him.
“My friend might have something to say about that,” he says, and pulls out his poisonous snake, Three-Step, named for the amount of steps you can make before you die because motherfucker you just got bit by Three-Step. I don’t know how long those type of snakes normally live, but he must be taking at least decent care of him because he’s been carrying him around since the war. Three-Step gets more play than the two katanas Steele’s also been carrying for the same period. (When he finally uses them in the final duel they quickly get knocked out of his hands.)
In this bar scene the joke is that he fights and then pretends he’s gonna stop and then starts again. “Okay, okay, I’ll go. See, I can change. I can control my temper. I can be calm. Like hell I can,” and then he’s fighting again. And he does the same thing to cops, he says “I’m sorry, I’m real sorry man, I just lose my temper when I drink. I get this way when I’m drunk.” And then he swings a night club at one of them and it turns into a big brawl.
But the movie is not about his troublemaking. It’s about his troublestopping. Another ‘Nam friend besides Three-Step is Lee (Robert Kim, PAYBACK). They survived being betrayed and machine gunned in the back and now live in the same city stateside and Lee is a police detective. Steele is so close with the family he takes a bath at their house. He happens to submerge himself underwater just as some Black Tigers (the local Vietnamese mafia) burst in and machine gun Lee and most of his family.
When Steele finally hears something he comes out wearing only jeans, jumps over a railing onto a guy, runs out onto the street and tries to machine gun the gunmen as they drive away. When he realizes they’ve gotten away he throws the gun down the street, which in my opinion is not proper gun safety.
Steele is a great warrior but a piece of shit human, so he shows up late to the funeral and then sees the killer there and runs and jumps off of a tombstone onto him and starts fighting him. There is a time and place for that sort of thing and yeah I guess come to think of it that could only really happen during a funeral so I take it back, that was awesome. Unfortunately it turns out to be a local politician’s son and he has to stand down. But he takes it upon himself to look after Lee’s daughter Cami (Jan Gan Boyd, A CHORUS LINE) and go on a one-man rampage against the gang and you know the drill.
Sort of. All the expected shit is there but also plenty of stuff you wouldn’t have taken for granted would be there. There are cocaine busts, stolen experimental military vehicles, a big muscleman with a tattoo of a panther covering half of his face, Al Leong as a henchman (credited as “Long Hair”), a guy in a Body By Jake t-shirt (because Body By Jake was one of Kove’s personal trainers), a rat with a grenade strapped to his back, a gunfight during a music video shoot for Animotion lead singer Astrid Plane, with dancers in spandex with big hair dodging bullets. Steele gets arrested, so he punches out the twenty or so guys in the holding cell, pretends to be unconscious himself, and then attacks the guard when he comes in.
Do you need a self surgery scene? We got one. Al Leong shoots him with a poison dart so he pulls it out, leaps through a window into a conference room with a catering table set up, cuts open his arm with a large knife, sucks out some blood, spits it out, then picks up a hot pan and cauterizes the wound with it. I imagine that was his plan for if Three-Step ever turned on him. I’m not sure if the jump counts as a step or not.
This is actually a DEATH WISH 3 situation where the police purposely send a vigilante on a rampage to do their dirty work. As the tagline says (and Ronny Cox paraphrases in the movie), “He’s not recruited. He’s unleashed.”
Watching this the first time I liked it but thought it was maybe a little draggy in parts, not quite the fever dream pure ’80s action essential oil I’m making it sound like. Then I kept describing it to friends and the more I talked about it the more amazing it sounded so I watched it again and yeah, I think everybody needs to see this one. The tone kinda reminds me of SNAKE EATER: sometimes it clearly knows it’s being funny, but overall it seems serious, even in the silliest parts. And it’s kind of a thrill to see a movie that glorifies Martin Kove like this. The cockiness that he puts to such villainous use in other movies is presented here as macho charm.
You ever heard someone called “a musician’s musician”? This is a 1987’s 1987 movie. Let me give you an example. Within all the ridiculousness I’m describing, there’s some completely sincere MANHUNTER type husband and wife drama. He broods on a beachfront swing set, she comes and quietly tells him she can’t take it anymore. “It’s over between us,” she says. “I’ll take care of Cami. But if you love us, don’t ask us to watch you commit suicide. Not anymore.”
As she walks away he purses his lips, some rockin music starts, and it goes right into a training montage. “Fightin fire with fire / with the force of thunder and steel.” The song would fit right into a Stallone movie and is by a band called Hot Pursuit.
Later the bad guy has Tracy hostage and refers to her as his wife.
“Ex-wife,” Steele says, and blasts her through a fucking wall!
But ha ha the joke is that it wasn’t a shotgun shell or anything, it was only a non-lethal beanbag that slammed her chest so hard it carried her off the ground and smashed her body through a structure like a rock going through a window. Ha ha and then he bickers with her about whether or not it hurt. You know how couples are.
So you see, STEELE JUSTICE is so 1987 it could only exist in our exaggerated memory of what 1987 was like… or so you would think. But I have seen it and it is real.
I think this trailer will convince you:
Thanks to david j. moore for forcing me to watch this by comparing it to STONE COLD.
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.