Should I Watch..? 'Hard To Kill' (1990)
What's the big deal?
Hard To Kill is an action thriller film released in 1990 and was only the second film of Steven Seagal's long career. Directed by Bruce Malmuth, the film focuses on an undercover cop left for dead after a botched stakeout and his quest for revenge after seven years. The film stars Seagal alongside William Sadler, Kelly Le Brock and Frederick Coffin. Unlike Seagal's previous film Above The Law, the film received a largely negative response from critics and went on to earn around $47 million in the US. It also helped establish a trend for Seagal films made up of three-word titles and featured the Ponytailed One playing a cop.
What's it about?
In 1983, LAPD officer Mason Storm is working undercover investigated mob activity in Los Angeles. Recording a clandestine meeting down at some ill-lit docks, he overhears a shadowy figure assuring the mobsters of his support but Mason is quickly spotted and barely escapes. Calling his friend and partner Lt. Kevin O'Malley to inform him of corrupt activities, Mason is unaware that he is being monitored by corrupt police officers who give the mob Mason's name and home address.
As Mason hides the evidence upstairs, his house is assaulted by a hit squad who murder Mason's wife and shoot Mason as well although Mason's son somehow escapes. Transferred to a local hospital, Mason is found to be alive but unconscious and O'Malley insists that Mason's condition is kept a secret to prevent the mob from finishing off. Seven years later and Mason awakes from his coma with one thing on his mind - revenge - but as news of his recovery spreads, the danger he had barely escaped from is never far behind...
What's to like?
While they are plenty of action films that plays things far too straight, it's refreshing to find a film like Hard To Kill which is so stupid, it doesn't even know it. Let's be honest, a hero called Mason Storm is more likely to have been found in an early Nineties video game like a serious action film. But the film has a very apparent tongue-in-cheek in terms of its narrative, dialogue and characters. Does Seagal genuinely believe that acupuncture and meditation can reverse seven years of muscle atrophy? The crowning moment is a wonderfully husky threat Seagal issues which is actually so funny, I spat my Coke out.
Other than its odd sense of self-sabotage, Hard To Kill offers nothing special to the action genre besides endless shootouts and martial arts. Seagal can handle these scenes much better than those where he's required to act or, more alarmingly, perform a love scene with the shell-shocked Le Brock who couldn't look more disinterested. I don't know but I imagine sharing an on-screen kiss with Seagal is like being slapped in the face with a raw steak. But compared to Seagal's action film contemporaries like Schwarzenegger, Stallone or even Van Damme, he feels devoid of charisma and lacking in urgency or excitement when the film begins yet another action sequence. At least they break up the monotony of the plot.
- Incredibly, Seagal and Le Brock were married at the time of shooting. Le Brock had actually retired from acting at this point and only did the film as a favour to her husband. She later called the film "Hard To Watch" and "Hard To Believe".
- Seagal did not get on with Malmuth and considered him a poor director, citing his own dissatisfaction with the action scenes and being excluded from the editing process. "I think it's a miracle that this guy can put one foot in front of the other" he claimed in an interview.
- This was the second of three films Seagal appeared in that were released within a year of each other. Above The Law, this and Marked For Death all had three-word titles and all featured Seagal playing a cop. This film also marked the debut for Seagal's iconic ponytail which delivers a much better performance than its host.
What's not to like?
You know as well as I do that you won't find anything original or innovative in a Seagal movie but even by his middling standards, Hard To Kill is hard to recommend. It's just too damn silly to take seriously - Mason Storm never recovers from his stupid name and you simply never invest in the character, who just feels as one-dimensional as a computer sprite. Le Brock is equally as shallow, a character whose sole purpose is to provide some eye candy on the sidelines while Seagal beats up every anonymous baddie who wanders onto the set. She has nothing to do and to be fair, that's exactly what she gives.
Sadler, who appeared as the villainous Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2 the same year, appears to understand that this wasn't the film that he wanted to be remembered for but he appears a bit more invested than the others. But this is Seagal's ship and here he stands proud in all his mumbling, monotone glory with uninspired action sequences, a narrative with more holes in the plot than a recently hoed allotment and such a dearth of ideas and excitement that the film, much like Mason himself after the initial mob hit, is dead on arrival.
Should I watch it?
I find it hard to believe that there are people who get a kick out of Seagal movies like this but even Seagal's most fervent supporters will struggle to convince me of the merits of Hard To Kill. It is one of the most forgettable action films I can recall seeing with a near-total lack of excitement or enjoyment to be had, other than the frankly hilarious line Seagal delivers in a Leslie Nielsen-style of deadpan. There really is nothing to see here so I think we'll quickly move on.
Great For: unintentional laughter, script-writing classes
Not So Great For: demonstrating Seagal's range (or lack thereof), waking you up, making award juries think twice
What else should I watch?
Call me critical (well, that's my job) but Seagal's films always seem to be tainted by a general lack of quality compared to other action films, not helped by the personality-void of its leading star. His films fall into two groups: Under Siege and its sequel and then all the others. The first Under Siege is a surprisingly competent film directed by Andrew Davis and while it is obviously just Die Hard on a naval ship, it's still an enjoyable watch. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory takes the exact same formula but puts it on a train instead. It's no classic but it stands out from the rest of the Seagal dross.
There are no shortage of action stars currently plying their trade in Hollywood and more stars are being discovered all the time. The current king, former grappler Dwayne Johnson, effortlessly jumps from action thrillers like Skyscraper to family films like Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. Tom Cruise is still jumping off really tall things in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Tom Hardy is about to tear things up as Venom while even the likes of Ronda Rousey are starting to appear in action films more often - proving that such films needn't be the preserve of just good-looking guys. In such an overcrowded market, Seagal's increasingly stale style has been left behind for some time now which means the only market he can reliably appear in is direct-to-DVD fluff. Or possibly a courtroom, if allegations are proved true.
Kelly Le Brock
Senator Vernon Trent
Lt. Kevin O'Malley
Release Date (UK)
1st June, 1990
Action, Crime, Thriller
© 2018 Benjamin Cox