Pity the aged action hero! One minute your phone is ringing off the hook with offers and the next you’re dancing in a Japanese TV commercial in order to pay the maintenance contract on your walk-in humidor. It’s not just that you get used to the kind of lifestyle that grotesquely large pay cheques entail, it’s a pride thing too: Why aren’t you invited onto chat shows? Why don’t people recognise you in restaurants? Why do people feel entitled to make eye contact with you all of a sudden? Forced to confront their own mortality as well as the world’s pig-headed refusal to treat them like Babylonian deities, many creaking action heroes have seized the initiative and stepped down to smaller films where the voluminous pay cheques of yesteryear are replaced by a healthy share of the profits. Though franchises such as Taken and The Expendables may be the first things that spring to mind when you think of arthritic ultra-violence, B-list action heroes have also been getting in on the act. In fact, Steven Seagal has spent the last fifteen years producing thirty different films that look almost exactly like Force of Execution.
The film revolves around the relationship between an aging crime lord (Seagal) and the assassin he trained (Bren Foster). Loyal to his mentor, the assassin heads off to murder a police informant only to be distracted at the last minute by an ambitious gangster (Ving Rhames). Despite fifteen years of loyal service, the crime lord reacts to his protégé’s failure by giving him the sack, breaking all his fingers and dumping him in a crappy apartment on the bad side of town. Spiritually bereft and unable to work because of his debilitating injuries, the assassin makes friends with a local cook (Danny Trejo) only for the cook’s business to be threatened when the ambitious gangster tries to replace the crime lord at the top of the criminal pecking order. Realising that he made a terrible mistake by casting his protégé aside, the crime lord gets the cook to fix his broken hands (using two different scorpions and a set of chisels) and recruits him for a final battle before retiring.
The important thing to remember when watching Force of Execution is that it is a film that was produced by an overweight sixty one-year old man who is desperately trying to maintain his image as an action hero. Most of the film’s problems stem from the fact that it is trying to both satisfy the PR requirements of the producer and function as a decent action movie. Sadly, these two aspirations are not exactly compatible.
The tension between these two goals is immediately obvious as the film opens with Steven Seagal delivering a monologue about being incredibly hard and then beating someone to death. This fight scene has absolutely no connection to the rest of the plot and it is shot almost entirely from the waist up but it does make Seagal look quite good as long as you don’t think too much about how little he appears to move around. This genuflection before the altar of the actor-producer’s male vanity complete, the film passes the narrative reigns over to Bren Foster’s character. Despite being a virtual unknown, Foster is easily the best thing about this film; quietly charismatic and a supremely talented martial artist, he imbues a criminally under-written part with real humanity and transforms what should have been a monosyllabic slab of spin-kicking beefcake into the estranged son of a psychotic father figure. The problem is that, despite realising that Foster’s character is the centre of the narrative, the film keeps shooing him off the stage and returning to Seagal’s character who has literally nothing to do other than pose with a series of phallic objects including the world’s biggest cigar and a collection of enormous handguns that are caressed in a disgustingly suggesting manner.
That this film is less concerned with action than it is with making old men look hard is also evident in the decision to cast Ving Rhames as the main baddy. Charismatic as ever, Rhames is certainly fun to watch (he also smokes a lot of cigars but they’re conspicuously smaller than Seagal’s) but he simply cannot do action and his plan to take over the local criminal underworld means that he is the natural antagonist of Seagal’s unsympathetic crime lord rather than Foster’s broken assassin. Having two of the main actors do little other than sit around looking hard means that most of Force of Execution is given over to dull scenes in which elderly men hang around with bored-looking strippers while a cowardly underling is told to take a message to their boss. Aside from being astonishingly boring, this is a complete misuse of the film’s limited resources as while it is almost impossible to care about two ridiculous old men posturing over a pair of cluttered alleyways, the story of a young man cast aside by his spiritual father actually has some real dramatic potential.
Also problematic is this film’s chronic lack of visual panache. Clearly no great directorial talent, Waxman’s attempts to mask his aging cast’s lack of mobility are so ineffective that they only serve to make them look worse. For example, there’s one scene where Ving Rhames kills someone by kicking them and Waxman chooses to film the kick from behind and in slow motion thereby making it look as though an arthritic Rhames is struggling to lift his leg off the ground. A more canny director would have noted Seagal’s lack of mobility and ensured that his character was never in a position where he had to fight someone but rather than limiting Seagal to a series of punches or well-timed throws (moves that he evidently can still perform), Waxman has him stand still while the camera bobs around at chest height. Again, this only serves to accentuate Seagal’s lack of mobility.
Equally unfortunate is the overall look of the film. Shot almost exclusively at night in a series of run-down night clubs, Waxman not only struggles to make the characters’ city seem like a place worth controlling, he also fails to distinguish between different locales. If every single night club and home is drenched in red light and filled with bored-looking strippers, how are you expected to tell if you’re in the gangster’s club or the crime lord’s house?
With a better director and a script that did not waste its audience’s time pandering to the egos of aging actors, Force of Execution could easily have joined the likes of A Lonely Place to Die and Universal Soldier: Regeneration in the canon of unexpectedly awesome low-budget action films. Foster is a far more talented performer than this ridiculous vehicle deserved.