The best of the best with the brains behind the brawn
Before The Fugitive put him in the history books, Andrew Davis directed the best movies Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal ever made, by understanding just how to build a movie around their limitations. When we crow about great action directors, we’re always talking about their set-pieces. John Woo’s bullet ballets, Bigelow’s geometrically-staged tussles, Friedkin’s squealing, claustrophobic car chases, Nolan’s surgical wallop, and for the most obvious example, Peckinpah’s slow-mo mayhem. But we rarely talk about how they craft performances, especially when working with that lowliest form of thespian: the action star.
Action stars didn’t always have their own box office lane. Sure there was the waddling Rushmore figure of John Wayne, Steve Reeves’ lumbering through swords and sandal epics, the other stiff-lipped cowboys, and the poorly dubbed martial artists from Asia, but they occupied their own universes. As late as the 70s, even Walter Matthau found himself in action thrillers like Charley Varrick and The Taking of Pelham 123. But the 80s brought us the branded action star, who were judged solely on their ability to credibly beat the living shit out of a room of bad guys, and land a quip as the cherry of that mayhem sundae.
Clint Eastwood might have been a kind of proto-action star, but by the 80s, even as he was still strapping on a .44 to play Dirty Harry, he was defying expectations by directing low key character pieces like Honkytonk Man and Bird. Yet, the blockbuster success of Arnold and Sly taught the industry that the right body, with the right look, all by itself, might do the trick. Actresses will appreciate this phenomenon as something they experience all the time, otherwise known as “casting.” And so the decade gave us Chuck Norris, Sho Kosugi, Michael Dudikoff, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Jackie Chan, who were all judged almost exclusively by their base charms and physical prowess.
But one director had an uncanny knack for getting the most out of his action leads, including established ass-kickers, rookies, and full-fledged icons: Andrew Davis. Davis might be easy to dismiss as he never quite belonged to the steroid inflated 80s or the hyper-stylized 90s. The truth is, his closest peer was John McTiernan, who had a similar MO but delivered a trio of movies that transcended the decade: Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, with an unfussy competence that was its own kind of genius.
Davis didn’t have that kind of run but managed a substantial track record of his own. A Chicago native, he was mentored as a cinematographer by the legendary DP Haskell Wexler, working on the landmark Medium Cool (1968) and earned his nickel through the 70s shooting the likes of Private Parts and Mansion of Doom. His debut was Stony Island (1978), a slice of life portrait of an aspiring R&B group in Chicago that made no waves among critics or audiences.
His next directing gig wasn’t much more memorable. The survivalist slasher exercise The Final Terror was shot in ’81 but couldn’t find a distributor until the leads, Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah, got famous elsewhere. By then, Davis got his hands on a script that had originally been written in the late 70s as the fourth Dirty Harry vehicle: Code of Silence. It was rewritten, and Chuck Norris stepped in to play the lead. By then, Norris was a household name as a martial arts star, kicking his way through a string of forgettable B-pictures, with a few exceptions like Lone Wolf McQuade and Silent Rage. At this point, he was coming off his biggest hit, the ludicrous Missing in Action, which had struck a nerve, as Americans were ready to go back and win Vietnam in their fantasies.
At no point in his first ten pictures did Norris do more than smirk or squint, but his poker face cast some kind of anti-charismatic spell, with him barely registering the presence of other actors, loaded guns or the mobs of henchmen trying to kill him. So Davis was well aware of Chuck’s limitations.
Code of Silence introduces us to Eddie Cusack (Norris), an honest Chicago cop, trying to end a mob war between the mafia and a Colombian cartel boss (Harry Silva). The script is solid, but still a relic of its time, with a ridiculous climax, though Davis is constantly trying to ground it with location shooting and by casting a gang of terrific character actors to carry the load for his star, which proved a stroke of genius.
Davis cast Dennis Farina when Farina was still working as an actual cop, and his easy-breezy tough-guy persona was already in full bloom here. The other cops walk and talk like they still stink of cigarettes and perogies, played by the likes of Ron Dean, Bert Remsen, Joseph Kosala, and Ralph Foody. They’d eventually be part of a Davis repertory group showing up time and time again to convince us we’re watching an actual police department at work.
The script is structured nicely, striking some unexpected notes by implying that the cops are simply another gang, alongside the cartel and mafia. One subplot concerns a drunk old cop (Foody) shooting an unarmed Hispanic teen, knowing his rookie partner (Joe Guzaldo) will cover for him. Guzaldo will confide in Norris what really happened, and his mix of guilt and confusion is only heightened against that trademark Norris calm. Cutting back and forth between the two actors, we start to feel more from Norris off Guzaldo’s panic.
He repeats the trick when Norris is meant to comfort the daughter of a mobster (Molly Hagan) he’s trying to protect. This is Hagan’s debut and she does a fine job breaking down. Her instability makes his poker face seem like a kind of willed reserve. Like the old Eisenstein trick, the Norris blankness, when inserted between another actor’s actual emotions, takes on a life of its own.
This is not to say that Davis doesn’t know his way around a fight scene. Up until the end, he lets things play out in medium and wide shots so we can behold what Norris does best. He treats Norris as a dancer, and should. The manic cutting of Bay and Luhrmann always seem to shrink the action and grace of what’s in front of their cameras. Spike Lee is one of the only contemporary directors who understands how seeing the whole of the dancers’ bodies can provide both energy AND awe.
Davis knows this too. However, this is still a Norris vehicle, so the ending devolves into him playing the usual one-man war machine, but with the nice touch that he’s left alone by his fellow cops, as payback for not covering up for that old drunk cop. The climax is patently silly, made all the more so for operating like The Seven-Ups for most of its running time.
Still, it made enough bank to knight Davis an action director and earned Norris the best reviews of his career. Norris would shrug that praise off and return to Cannon, where he could play god in his own private universe of right-wing fever dreams, before spending nearly a decade making Dads happy on Saturday nights on Walker, Texas Ranger. Andrew’s next challenge was to launch an action star instead of merely managing one.
Steven Seagal was an accomplished martial artist who taught a number of Hollywood stars at his LA dojo, including the super-agent Michael Ovitz, then at the peak of his powers. Ovitz helped orchestrate his sensei’s movie debut, where Seagal would get story credit and Davis sharing screenwriting duties with Ron Shusett and Steven Pressfield. Yes, the Pressfield who’s built a mini-empire around his War of Art self-help books.
The result is Above the Law, which grafts Seagal’s real-life bio onto the origins of the lead character, Nico Toscani. It opens with childhood photos of Seagal as the actor explains his love of America and martial arts, before veering into make-believe by adding a stint with the CIA… on his way to becoming a Chicago cop. It’s unbelievably hokey, but there’s an earnestness to the whole endeavor that’s hard to resist.
Davis understands what he’s doing here. He’s building a mythology, with enough of the truth for action hounds to feel like our hero could actually empty that room of baddies. Here, Seagal trades in his actual martial arts prowess to play a super cop, a myth he’d eventually believe himself, leading to unsavory political affiliations and law enforcement high jinks that solidified his eventual reputation as a mean-spirited moron, with frequent charges of sexual harassment and domestic abuse.
At the time, Seagal was a breath of fresh air after the steroid-bloated bodies of the decade. He was a slim fellow with a small paunch and introduced the world to an acrobatic version of Aikido, where he throws adversaries around like rag dolls before pulling them into his fist or elbow. There’s a kinetic energy to this that was unlike anything we’d seen before. And again, Davis serves it up in medium and wide shots, occasionally popping into a close-up to accentuate a broken arm or some other nasty piece of damage.
This story takes place in Chicago too, where Seagal’s cop aims to stop an old associate from his CIA days from killing witnesses to some state-sanctioned crimes. The Big Bad is played by Henry Silva again, who doesn’t waste his time trying to be sympathetic though does find little ways to make his one-note villain sing. Seagal gives Davis a little more to work with than Chuck, but it’s less of a range than one or two more gears.
Once more, Davis surrounds Seagal with his cast of salt of the earth Chicago cops, Italian gangsters, and pasty-faced bureaucrats. He snagged Pam Grier as Seagal’s partner, and Grier provides her usual lived-in, blue-collar chic that stuck it to the man for a decade. The warmth and acting chops of his supporting cast do plenty to make us like Seagal, since their affection for him helps us develop our own. If Foxy Brown finds him charming, why shouldn’t we?
The script isn’t as consistent as Code, ignoring the most interesting element to Seagal’s character, in that his own family is part of the Italian mob. Little is done with Seagal’s gangster ties other than having his uncles prove quite capable of protecting his family when he decides to go play a lone wolf. But the story logic is sound, and it refrains from the kind of the excess that earned some unintentional laughs in Code of Silence.
Davis makes even better use of Chicago, showing different neighborhoods of the city as if this happened in an actual place, which again, lends credibility to the proceedings. And just like in his Norris picture, the movie uses the bureaucracy of the police department as an antagonist, which is usually a great way to isolate our hero. This doesn’t always age well since we’re now more willing to consider what a cop who breaks all the rules looks like in real life.
Still, Seagal’s performance is buoyed here by the veteran actors around him, and Davis doesn’t force him into emotional beats he’s not equipped to handle, cutting away before we’d expect tears or rage. He knows that American action stars let their fists and guns do the talking (and emoting). It was a surprise hit, and this time, Davis minted a new action star. Seagal would go on to occupy an endless stream of action junk of diminishing quality and increasing profits. He was bankable, in a way that makes the word dirty.
Davis got to do some fine work with real actors by helming The Package, a spy flick with Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones that eschews the globe-trotting to drag the action back to Chicago within the first half-hour. It’s a competent little picture that suffers from being a 70s paranoid thriller repackaged into a late eighties, last-gasp Cold War exercise.
Next, Davis would re-team with Seagal in the best movie, top to bottom, Seagal ever made. Under Seige boasts a delicious popcorn premise (Die Hard on a Navy battleship). Tommy Lee Jones returns to the Davis gang as a whack job villain holding the ship hostage, chewing scenery in a way that should make his madhouse warden in Natural Born Killers less of a shock to the system.
Under Siege requires even less of Seagal as an actor. He plays the ship’s cook, who turns out to be a legendary Navy SEAL. The star is only in the movie for roughly 41 minutes, while Tommy Lee and his fellow conspirator Gary Busey get more actual screen time. In the press leading up to its release, there was talk of this upgrading Seagal to a mainstream star, but it only further solidified what he did best: kick ass, and crack some deadpan lines that actually land. Audiences loved the joyful, energetic ride, with it earning a nice chunk of change and even some critics’ nods of approval. Seagal would never deliver a hit of this scale again.
Davis, however, would next serve up the best movie of his career: The Fugitive. This time, he understood how to use a completely different kind of action hero. Ford has little physical competence, building his iconic career off looking as awkward and terrified as we’d imagine the real Han Solo or Indiana Jones might be. That self-effacing physicality is such a big part of our love for Ford that we cease to notice how goofy it is.
But Davis knows that Ford, the actor, has plenty to offer. Ford had recently proven his chops with his series of off-persona turns in Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Frantic, and Presumed Innocent and this remains the rare occasion when Ford applied those chops to one of his crowd-pleasers. Based on the hit TV series of the same name, the picture concerns Richard Kimble (Ford) who goes on the run after being convicted of killing his wife, while the real culprit, a one-armed man, roams free.
Davis stays in Chicago and again deploys his Real Cop Gang to arrest Ford for the murder of his wife. And there, in the interrogation room, as Ford realizes that he’s the suspect, we get one of the most electrifying scenes of his entire career. His halting delivery, the angry bear yelp and tears, has rarely been matched in any scene of similar ilk. And Davis lets Ford’s performance hold the spotlight in a basic close-up.
Working with a proper budget, he stages Ford’s escape from custody with a nifty collision between the prison bus and a train, even if the effects don’t quite age well. It was part of a front projection process he used for Under Seige but it’s less effective here. Tommy Lee Jones is back under Andrew’s direction, as the US Marshall hunting Ford and ends up leading the movie along as if it was on a leash. It’s the role that turned Jones, always a top-notch actor, into a movie star.
Davis knows what he has in Ford and Jones, and lets them own the movie. There’s no need for complex action choreography. In the movie’s most famous moment, when Ford leaps from a sewer drain into a waterfall, what we remember is his terror and Tommy Lee Jones’ shock that he jumped. How many times have we seen people leap from buildings or cliffs? But mostly, Hollywood likes its heroes to shrug such feats off, because they don’t understand why humans love stunts. Here’s a hint to the suits: It’s not because they’re easy.
Unlike his previous projects, the script is one of the best of its kind, with story mechanics that have rarely been matched in these affairs, because studios prefer plots to be spider webs instead of tightropes, as they pursue multiple quadrants. Davis doesn’t phone in a single moment, where even something as slight as Ford getting recognized by a subway passenger who’s reading a newspaper with his face on it is given room to play. It’s a beautiful human exchange that would have gotten cut today to hurry things along.
Even the climatic battles stay true to Ford’s limitations with each awkward punch, run and tumble feeling like a doctor who has no experience in this sort of thing. And Davis exploits Ford’s gracelessness for all it’s worth here. And as a result, the action scenes remain relentlessly tense and believable.
The Fugitive is rightly considered a classic of its kind, garnering a box office windfall and even earning Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar. Davis moved on to projects of varying quality, never quite finding this special gear, so far. He did a fine job remaking Dial M for Murder with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen, and the fondly remembered Holes but the misfires outnumber these.
Such are the vagaries of a Hollywood career, but what should continue to impress us is how much he did with what he was given. He seemed to understand what we were looking for from Norris, Seagal, and Ford, and what each could deliver in terms of performance. And as we look at any great action director, we should find a great director period, which extends to making the most of the greatest special effect we’ve ever had: movie stars.