Steven Seagal is an easy target for jokes nowadays. People say things like “he’s so fat, if you pull on his ponytail, bacon grease will shoot out of his eyes.” I for one would never say such a thing. I just have too much respect for his late 80’s/early 90’s run of action classics. Also, I’d be scared that he might track me down and wrap his sausage fingers around my neck. I have enough worries in my life without the specter of Seagal’s sausage fingers hovering over me.
Seagal is VERY deep into the direct-to-video stage of his career, so much so that his good movies might be considered an early blip in said career. Even so, I hold out a small glimmer of hope that he’ll rekindle that “Above the Law” magic. His latest offering is the awkwardly titled Maximum Conviction, since every possible prison action movie title has already been exhausted, except for the use of the word “penal” for obvious reasons.
Anyway, Seagal and Stone Cold Steve Austin are former secret CIA operatives who are hired to shut down a prison with the aid of several grunts. Not only do they have to handle angry tattooed men wearing bright orange jumpsuits, but there are also two female prisoners who are temporarily being held in the prison awaiting relocation, and one of them has a super important microchip sewn into her abdomen (I think a flash drive would’ve been more up to date, but okay). This chip contains super secret government information that is worth a lot of money or whatever. This setup seems a bit forced, but I’ll let it go for now. Whatta ya know, an entire group of rogue U.S. marshals, led by Michael Paré, show up to the prison armed with machine guns, hoping to secure the microchip and cash in. Seagal and Austin decide to take on the marshals rather than give up the inmate, because real men finish a job they agree to do regardless of impediments, I guess.
Basically, it’s another Assault on Precinct 13 ripoff. There are some shoot outs in a dark and dingy prison and some hand-to-hand fight scenes, not only with the marshals but with several convicts who manage to escape. Austin and Seagal mostly kick ass independently of each other and the movie cuts between the two but, unlike the original Assault on Precinct 13, the geography isn’t very clear throughout, so it basically becomes a series of mini action setpieces. My favorite bit is when Austin, only armed with a knife, plays cat and mouse with several of the heavily armed marshals.
If you’re holding out hope that Seagal is going to return to greatness at some point, Maximum Conviction will only disappoint. Sure, he actually fights hand-to-hand in several scenes instead of simply employing a body double for all of the physical stuff like he’s done in other recent movies. However, his level of acting commitment is done with, shall we say, minimum conviction. Instead, he seems annoyed that somebody pulled him out of his trailer in order to prop him in front of a camera and force him to read off cue cards, mumbling in his ridiculous new faux-southern accent. I guess he has to keep up appearances as an authentic bluesman, lest he not be taken seriously as a musician. Oddly, Seagal even has some soft focus close-ups. I have to assume that, as a producer on the film, he demanded the soft focus because he didn’t want the camera catching any of his wrinkles. Seagal might be turning into the Nora Desmond of action stars.
Austin is really no better, apart from at least conveying vague intensity. I’ve seen several of his action roles and find his career up to this point a bit puzzling. Based on his wrestling career, I’d imagine he could be a viable action star, maybe a more badass, funnier version of The Rock. However, he seems to just rattle off dialogue in a monotone rather than offer up any hint of the charisma and humor of his Stone Cold persona. He certainly looks the part of somebody who can kick your ass, but maybe he’s concentrating too hard on looking like someone who can kick your ass rather than just BEING that guy, like he did when he wrestled. A guy that carries around a wallet that says “bad motherfucker” on it doesn’t need to act like a bad motherfucker because he KNOWS he’s a bad motherfucker, so much so he owns a “bad motherfucker” wallet without a hint of irony. So you see my point.
The whole thing is passable action fodder, even though the cinematography is sloppy (a lot of mismatched blocking and even some mismatched exposures), and the editing and coverage never allow for the building of much suspense or the all-important establishment of geography, which is pretty important in a siege film. It basically aims to be a low rent version of dumb, flashy Hollywood action movies of recent vintage rather than offering an alternative (like, for example, Tactical Force, a previous Austin vehicle which throws in knowing camp and amusing characters). Perhaps a sense of humor about the material would have helped. It seems the only “comic relief” in the movie is to have Austin say the word “fuck” repeatedly. I’m sure Oscar Wilde has a famous quote about swearing being the enemy of wit or something, but I’m too lazy to look it up. You know what, I’ll go ahead and take credit for that one until further notice. Sure, it pretty much invalidates most of my reviews, but it sounds good and that is what’s important.