Action Jackson (1988) Review
Action Jackson was directed by Craig R. Baxley (Sniper 2, Silencing Mary), written by Robert Reneau (Demolition Man, The Hitchhiker), and stars Carl Weathers (Predator, Toy Story 4), Vanity (The Last Dragon, South Beach), Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Young Sheldon), Tom Wilson (Back to the Future, Pig Goat Banana Cricket), Roger Aaron Brown (Streets of Justice, Moon Over Parador), Bill Duke (Bad Country, Commando), Sharon Stone (King Solomon’s Mines, All I Wish), and Robert Davi (Legal Tender, Your Move). It’s about a cop whose vendetta drives him to take on a ruthless auto magnate that’s been getting away with killing his competition.
The Plot: Exceptions are present, but producer Joel Silver’s pictures are hardly recognized for their revelatory stories and unbridled creativity. After a string of hits that had nonsensical plots comes Action Jackson – and it’s no game changer.
A string of brutal murders has been coursing through Detroit, with police Captain Armbruster (Duke) wanting everyone involved in them punished as quickly and severely as possible. Meanwhile, the captain has Jericho “Action” Jackson (Weathers) safeguard the city’s Man of the Year event, where Dellaplane (Nelson) is receiving the award, which, after meeting his wife Patrice (Stone) and hearing of rumours from informant Moretti (Davi), gives the officer a renewed interest in investigating the businessman’s ventures. The overview of this is probably sounding familiar, as it doesn’t take many risks – or care of credibility for that matter.
From this investigation comes the reality that Dellaplane is using a group of mercenaries called “The Invisible Men” to take out uncooperative union supporters and officials, a losing battle if the progression of time is to be believed. With the scheme no longer a secret, Jackson is framed for Patrice’s murder and is forced to work with Dellaplane’s mistress Sydney (Vanity) to clear his name and bring the crook to justice. Reneau’s writing is threadbare but entertaining thanks to the sheer audacity of it all and some subplots involving appearances from fellow officers Kornblau (Wilson) and Lack (Brown) to break up the rapid progression.
Action Jackson’s plot is silly and full of holes and coincidences which are hard to excuse, but equally hard to care about when the film is so unconcerned with them.
The Characters: Perhaps sensing the forgettability of his story, Reneau made sure to stuff those involved with plenty of personalities and over-the-top elevations to commonplace characterization.
Jackson, despite only being known for his vigorous pursuit of justice, is more than meets the eye. His law degree from Harvard and track star status may not sound like the equation that results in a cop of his pedigree, but it adds up. The man doesn’t care about much besides his car and a fitting penalty for those who cross the laws he enforces, and that includes his reputation. Many people – including Armbruster – don’t like his inability to let offences go, but few refuse to respect his results and whip-smart remarks.
Dellaplane is a relatively standard genre villain, but the smarminess he exudes and the level of prestige he has in his industry go hand in hand with his convoluted plans, making for a suitably contemptible bad guy. Quiet, he may want his mercs to be, but he doesn’t mind getting some bang for his buck with the hits he puts out. Together with the way he treats the women around him (beating and eventually killing Patrice and giving heroin to Sydney to keep her quiet), he’s a corporate stooge for the ages.
Sydney on the other hand is nothing special as a sidekick for the hero. She fills the role adequately but doesn’t have much to her aside from her singing talents and yearning to take Jackson to bed. She, along with all of the supporting characters, are just 80s tropes turned up to eleven – but never annoying like they so easily could’ve been. Between all of them and the actors playing them, they’re a solid roster and snapshot of a timeframe.
The Action: With a title like Action Jackson, the film should earn that name. The film can be a bit stingy in terms of the number of setpieces and shootouts, but it’s the quality that counts, and Baxley delivers some strong work.
Instead of playing up the name, Reneau opens the film with some of the Invisible Men’s handiwork. For an inconspicuous operation, they sure don’t care about subtlety; all the better though. Maybe they’re rappelling into a union boss’s window, darting around his room, stabbing his hand and sending him out a stories high window with a grenade launcher blast is meant to send a message. If so, mission accomplished. This extends to their other hits throughout the runtime, such as blowing up an entire luxury ship and their laundry list of a plan to frame Jackson. All of these scenes are gloriously over-the-top and jam packed with squibs and explosions, too.
Not intending to make the film’s title a misnomer, Jackson gets several chances to shine in his titular feature. From his gratuitous saving of Patrice while he’s sniffing around to the ensuing ride on the roof of the assailant, Jericho is at his peak at all times. Baxley made sure to include some proof of his running abilities to lend the script credence and offers effectively choreographed fist and gunfights, as well as his own reckless driving sequence to round out the checklist of action tropes. All of which feature solid stunt work and Weathers’ muscles.
Since Action Jackson was made to reaffirm the genre’s stalwarts, there’s a final fight between the cop and the crook, and it’s a tough sell. Though the fisticuffs and martial arts are well choreographed, any audience member will have a tough time buying the averagely built Nelson being an equal match for the shredded Weathers, but that kind of works in the movie’s favour as it adds one last dose of silliness before closing out with every box sufficiently checked.
The Technics: Far from a refined film, Action Jackson at least has a baseline level of competence and a strong stunt team to skirt it by; added onto an unusually witty script, the film may not be an award winner, but it’s got what it needs.
Essentially a cartoon, Baxley made a good call in playing the majority of his debut as a tongue in cheek semi-sendup of the producer’s own work. Reneau’s script is full of one-liners and quips, but the additional effort in making jokes out of the captain’s rage, a frequent delinquent, and silly interactions every now and again serve to reassure the point that the movie isn’t to be taken so seriously. This allows for the wonderful stunts and implausible plot to slide by with a bit of suspension.
Directorial, editorial, and cinematographic flourishes aren’t present, and the movie can look a bit flat at times due to lacklustre lighting and the occasional jarring edit. However, with a swift pace, a short runtime of 96 minutes, and the usage of several character actors as a recognize the faces game (Al Leong, Ed O’Ross, De’voreaux White, and others show up in bit parts), there’s hardly time to acknowledge the blatant flaws until after all is said and done.
Messy by virtue of its intentions, Action Jackson nonetheless boasts all the characters, cheesiness, and action one should expect from a film of the same name. It’s not a great film, but you tell that to any one of the caricatures on display here.