In the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market. However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did. This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on. Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s. First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up. Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances. All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie. So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer. With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.
When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department. After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force! Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.
This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller. It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him. The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect. He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways. There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime. The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living. It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective. It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.
Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly. Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent. Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them. He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting. As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film. Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin. Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief. Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.
And of course, Griffith delivers on the action. I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out. He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis. While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery. If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out. Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.
Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso. He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat. He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss. However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.
Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin. While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with. I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen. As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.
I dearly love Tony Todd. Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here. He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor. A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.
These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively. There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page. A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining. I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre. Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here. Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.
The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street. His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality. James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on. Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well. I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.
Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like. The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is. If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance. Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of. Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural. There’s never action just for the sake of action. It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work. He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead. While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office. It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.