Just Look Away

Posted on January 21, 2011

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Steele Justice

This 1987 revenge movie was not reviewed by Rotten Tomatoes, where a paltry 61% report liking it.

Why bother?

Uhmmmmm…IDK? No, wait, that’s mean; and this is the part where I say good things about the film. It “stars” Martin Kove. Apparently, after his “breakout role” as John Kreese, the bad karate instructor in Karate Kid and Karate Kid II, and a bit part in Rambo, he and his hair were ready to headline a movie. Sela Ward and Ronnie Cox are in it, and I felt bad for them.

On a more serious note, the 1980s were full of movies either set in Vietnam or featuring characters that served in that conflict. Lethal Weapon, for example, came out in 1987, and Mel Gibson’s character was a Special Forces sniper and Vietnam vet. Sylvester Stallone managed to make three Rambo movies between 1983 and 1988. The psycho Vietnam vet was a staple of fiction and film at that time. Martin Kove is a big, handsome guy who’d been working in Hollywood for sixteen years when he made this film. He was a familiar quantity to film-goers and TV viewers, and I’m sure writer/director Robert Boris was thrilled to get him.

I watched it.

The movie opens in Southern Calif…I mean Vietnam, in the mid-70s. John Steele is an Army lieutenant in some kind of special operations unit. His unit is on a night mission where they’re supposed to cooperate with a Vietnamese spec ops unit called Black Tigers. Steele and his buddy Cami decide not to wait for the Black Tigers. They go into an NVA tunnel complex on their own, but nothing is there except dead bodies and explosives. They barely escape with their lives, only to discover that Gen. Bon Soong Kwan, leader of the Black Tigers, is a criminal stealing an NVA payroll – several chests of gold coins. General Kwan leaves Steele and Cami for dead, but underestimates Steele. Our “hero”regains consciousness and drags Cami back to the boats and the US forces – who are cooperating with Gen. Kwan for a cut of the take, until Steele shoots Kwan.

Jump to the present day, where Steele is a violent, alcoholic, divorced, loser ex-cop living in Southern California. Gen. Kwan is still alive, and has come to LA to run a criminal empire behind the cover of industrial interests. Cami is on the Asian Crime Task Force, run by Bennett (played by Ronnie Cox, in an early version of the police officer he plays in the Beverly Hills Cop movies). The ACTF makes a bust that really hurts the Black Tiger criminal empire. Then Cami gets Steele out of the drunk tank and takes him home to clean him up. Gen. Kwan sends his goons to get revenge, and to teach the Vietnamese community what happens when they talk to the cops. Steele manages to save Cami’s daughter, but Cami is killed. Ronnie Cox says something about you don’t recruit Steele, you turn him loose, and there’s a lot of running, shooting, and explosions. I think there was a training montage. By then I’d lost all interest.

The Verdict

This movie is terrific – as an example of what not to do. In fact, the only way I can salvage anything from having watched it is to rant about some lessons that writers, directors, and producers can learn from it.

If you’re going to name your main character “Steel” or “Hard” or something equally ridiculous, the actor playing that character needs to shave his head, get some tattoos, and buff up. He needs to embody the characteristics of the name. After all, he got beat up a lot on the playground as a kid unless he was as tough as that name. Some guy who uses camouflage face paint to create a goofy mask, and doesn’t go into battle until thoroughly shellacking his hair with mousse, doesn’t cut it.

If you’re going to make a movie where the critical set-up involves a military operation, make sure your cast and crew have some basic understanding. Make your star take all the product out of his hair. Make his camouflage face paint actually camouflage, not some kind of clown mask. Arm the unit with typical weapons, rather than all shotguns. If you’re going to base it on something historical, do your research. “Tunnel rats” were small men, generally under 5’6″, and lightly built. They worked solo. Cami might fit the bill, but Steele is way too big. In fact, if you can’t afford to film on location with technically competent people, just don’t do it. This movie should have started with Cami getting Steele out of the drunk tank. He could explain to a guard that he and Steele served in Vietnam together, and that they were partners on the police force until Steele fell apart. Now your set-up is done, you’ve saved a ton of money, and Kwan’s reveal as a bad guy would be a genuine surprise. You’ve got more time to develop character and plot, too.

If your lead character has a deadly snake for a pet, how about you actually put a deadly snake in some close-ups? “Three Step” is a corn snake in every scene. Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend to Jack – that’s how you tell a deadly coral snake from a  relatively harmless corn snake. Stop insulting your audience. Plus, a movie like this doesn’t need a plucky animal sidekick. You’re not going to sell any plush merchandise to the kiddies. Don’t waste your screen time.

If you’re going to make a movie about a specific ethnic group, hire actors from that ethnic group. I think the world of Soon-Tek Oh (who plays General Kwan), but he’s Korean. Stop casting generic, “universal Asians.” Haven’t we moved past black-face, and casting Mediterranean actors as American Indians? Okay, deep breaths. Put the pet peeve back in its cage. Korean would have worked. We referred to the Korean allies serving in Vietnam as “ROK Tigers,” and I’ve read many respectful things about their courage and toughness. A rogue Korean unit would have worked just fine.

A basic rule of writing is that the climax of any story happens when the hero must face his greatest fear to gain his greatest desire. If Steele was afraid of anything, it never came up. I think his greatest desire was to reunite with his ex-wife (played by Sela Ward), but that was never clear. I’m pretty sure Gen. Kwan kidnapped Cami’s daughter (Steele’s god-daughter) and Steele’s ex-wife, which would have combined desire & fear, but by then I wasn’t paying attention. The worse your actor is (and Martin Kove is a fine character actor, he just wasn’t ready to headline a movie in 1987), the simpler and more obvious you have to make things. The fear has to be something the audience will understand – like heights, drowning, burning, bugs, or snakes. Even if the audience doesn’t have the same fear, they understand that many other people do. They’ll accept that your main character has it. You must make the desire equally obvious and understandable. For example, the reunion motive would have been better served if we saw Steele crying over a wedding photo that he carries in his wallet, or if we saw that he decorated the inside of his pick-up truck with snapshots from their married life.

If you don’t know anything about high-tech, experimental infantry weapons, don’t use them. Don’t lengthen the barrel of an MM-1 (it might have been a Striker shotgun they pretended was a grenade launcher, it was that kind of movie). Don’t stick a bunch of doo-dads on an ordinary weapon. It’s far better to have your hero make do with civilian weapons, or with older weapons as they did in Uncommon Valor. You can probably get those cheaper anyway. People always cheer for underdogs.

If your movie ends with a climactic sword fight, make sure your actors know how to use swords and hire a decent fight choreographer. Just because Martin Kove was in The Karate Kid, don’t assume he knows how to fight. Going back to my points about accuracy and ethnicity, stop assuming that every culture in Southeast Asia uses katanas. Samurais are Japanese, not Vietnamese (yes, I do know that the Japanese occupied “French Indo-China” during WWII, but I’m not sure the writers knew). In this movie, you’ve got two characters who’ve both been shot and survived. Their fight needs to be a series of encounters during which they both get progressively hurt worse and worse, punctuated by chases. We, the audience, have to be in some suspense over which character will turn out to be tougher. Otherwise, the swords need to be more relevant sooner.

This movie is made of so much fail that I’m sorry I wasted so many words on it, even if current research suggests that longer blog entries are more widely read.

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