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Hard to Kill Reviews

Said to be Warner Brothers' choice to fill the studio's in-house he-man gap--which has been steadily widening as Clint Eastwood edges toward retirement age--Steven Seagal, in 1988's ABOVE THE LAW and now in HARD TO KILL, has played characters that make Eastwood's Dirty Harry look like a poetry-loving peacenik. Moreover, while Harry Callahan battles criminals as an upstanding (if overzealous) employee of the San Francisco police department, Seagal's enemies tend to be authority figures gone bad. In ABOVE THE LAW, he was up against CIA covert action. In HARD TO KILL, the villains are badge-carrying members of the Los Angeles Police Department (the LAPD's image has taken a beating in 1990, between HARD TO KILL and INTERNAL AFFAIRS), led by a senator who gained office by having his opponent murdered by the mob. The politician, Vernon Trent (Bill Sadler), is running a high-profile re-election campaign, using a catchphrase in his television commercials--"You can take that to the bank"--that becomes crucial to the film's primitive plot. "I'm gonna take you to the bank," Seagal mumbles back to one of Trent's TV ads, "I'm gonna take you to the blood bank." And who can blame him? HARD TO KILL begins on Oscar night, 1983. (Steven McKay's script, which is not without its moments of wit, includes a character cheering Ben Kingsley's Best Actor award for GANDHI.) LA cop Mason Storm (Seagal) is having a busy evening himself. On undercover surveillance, he videotapes the meeting during which the murder contract is made. When his cover is blown, he gets away temporarily, but he is overheard calling in his report by corrupt cops working for Trent. On his way home, Storm stops at a liquor store to pick up some champagne to celebrate his undercover coup with his wife (Bonnie Burroughs) and son. Right on cue, five gun-wielding thugs come into the store and blow away the cashier. Storm goes into action, quickly crippling three of the thugs (HARD TO KILL boasts a fitting visual motif in its repeated closeups of Storm breaking arms, legs and necks with his bare hands). Says Thug 4 to Thug 5, "He's just a punk! Take him!" Famous last words, of course; with his hair barely mussed, Storm heads home, the five thugs safely incarcerated at the city morgue. Tucking in his son, he opens the champagne and begins a session of passionate lovemaking with his wife--stamina is evidently this man's middle name--but before you can say "coitus interruptus," the dirty cops who overheard Storm's report are at the bedroom door, guns blazing. Storm's wife is killed. His son is missing, presumed dead. Storm himself, declared dead at the hospital, revives only to remain in a coma. A clean cop, O'Malley (Frederick Coffin), enlists the help of a doctor to keep Storm's survival secret until he can recuperate and give information on his assailants. Cut ahead seven years, to 1990: O'Malley has been forced off the force, with Trent's dirty crew now running the show. Storm, in a coma center under the wily alias of "John Doe," is cared for by goofy nurse Andrea (Kelly Le Brock, Seagal's offscreen spouse), who passes the time admiring Storm's manly attributes ("Puh-lease wake up," she moans while peering under his sheets) and giving him a goofy Fu-Manchu beard and mustache. Of course, since this is an action movie, Storm soon recovers and proceeds to aid his assailants in making their corpuscular contributions to the Red Cross. Luckily, HARD TO KILL doesn't make too much of its by-the-numbers plot. Writer McKay also doesn't make the common action-movie mistake of making his bad guys incredibly stupid to make the hero look smarter. Instead, McKay keeps the goons on top of Storm every step of the way, using the "How's he gonna get out of this one?" principle to keep the action in high gear. Director Bruce Malmuth--formerly most famous for enraging the citizens of New York's Roosevelt Island by tying up their cable tramway to film his 1981 contribution to the Sylvester Stallone legend, NIGHTHAWKS--demonstrates a masterful facility for staging the mayhem and maintaining a rooting interest in his limb-twisting hero. He also has a talent for sly in-jokes, such as pinning the plot on Storm's ability to get the incriminating videotape to Los Angeles newscaster Jerry Dunphy, best known to those in the know as the real-life model for TV's air-headed "Mary Tyler Moore" anchorman Ted Baxter. As an actor, Seagal shows improvement in refining his low-key persona and gravelly, soft-spoken delivery, which owes more than a little to the man he is meant to replace in the Warners star firmament. In fact, Seagal may be no more than a film or two from filling Eastwood's shoes outright. As it is, HARD TO KILL has just enough going for it between the explosions and bone-crunching fight scenes to qualify as two hours of solid, high-decibel action entertainment. (Graphic violence, profanity, adult situations.)