Action Jackson (1988) / Action-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, some nudity, drug content, and language
Running time: 96 min.
Cast: Carl Weathers, Craig T. Nelson, Vanity, Sharon Stone, Bill Duke, Thomas F. Wilson, Robert Davi, Roger Aaron Brown, Jack Thibeau
Director: Craig R. Baxley
Screenplay: Robert Reneau
Carl Weathers (Predator, Rocky IV) stars as Detroit cop Jericho "Action" Jackson, who earned his nickname due to putting his body on the line time and again in the line of duty in roughhousing and apprehending perps. Unfortunately for Jackson, the police captain (Duke, Commando) demotes him to the role of desk-jockey due to his dangerous reputation that has given the force a black eye by going too far in trying to take down the son of a slimy, power-hungry car company tycoon named Peter Dellaplane (Nelson, Poltergeist II). Jackson begins to suspect that Dellaplane himself is behind a series of murders of union officials, and he aims to take him down, even if he has to risk his job, and his neck, by leaving the comfy confines of his office desk to do it.
Action Jackson is an attempt to create a secondary blockbuster franchise to the lucrative Beverly Hills Cop movies, giving us an African-American loose cannon Detroit cop, R-rated levels of violence, plenty of smirk-tinged humor, a kick-ass urban soundtrack, and crazy stunts galore. For cheesy action fodder, it's entertaining in that it sets the bar low in its imitation, but, even by its ineptly copycat nature, it's not without its share of fun moments. It's a far cry from Beverly Hills Cop, but it is at least a step above the dreadful Beverly Hills Cop II.
The film is directed by Craig R. Baxley (Dark Angel, Stone Cold) from a script by Robert Reneau (Demolition Man), both of whom seem to not know what kind of film they were trying to make here. Is it a cheeky cop comedy or an ultra-violent action thriller? Like Beverly Hills Cop, it tries to be both, but unlike the Eddie Murphy vehicle, which gave us comedy moments interspersed among the more serious action scenes, Baxley and Reneau try to keep both going simultaneously. Baxley, who cut his teeth in the business as a stunt coordinator who directed several episodes of "The A-Team", envisions every environ in Detroit as a stunt playground through which cars can smash through walls or people can bust through panes of glass.
Weathers is a likeable enough personality on the screen, and certainly cuts a formidable presence, but here, in his first starring role in a major motion picture, he looks like he's a bit over his head truly owning being a leading man. Scenes involving attempts at romance come off stiff, as does any scene in which he's required to say anything more than a one-liner. Whereas Eddie Murphy could ad-lib his way through terrible dialogue to come up with memorable scenes, Weathers only has his debonair looks and his brawn, neither of which is enough to carry the vehicle above mediocrity.
The supporting cast doesn't help. Vanity (The Last Dragon, 52 Pickup), who plays Dellaplane's heroin-addicted, club diva mistress, is a fetching woman to look at, but, frankly, is a terrible actress and even worse singer, and watching her and Weathers try to kiss is akin to trying to put the end of magnets with the same polarity together. Sharon Stone (Police Academy 4, Total Recall) fares almost as bad as Dellaplane's unbelievably naive wife. Craig T. Nelson gets the role of Dellaplane, and he does look tall and beefy enough to make for a formidable foil for Weathers, but carries no charisma whatsoever other than to look like a slickly dressed thug. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of cartoonish side characters who help Jackson along the way, all of whom you would think would be relegated to mere comic relief roles, and then, astonishingly, they all come to the forefront as part of the big climax at the end.
Action Jackson has a certain low-brow wit about it, a likeable-but-limited action star, gorgeous-but-even-more-limited actresses, a fine 1980s pop soundtrack (despite Vanity's maddening warbling, her Jesse Johnson-produced songs are admittedly catchy) and some over-the-top stunt work that generates a few moments of excitement, but its inherent silliness through subject matter that deals with murder, drug abuse, and torture makes for an unsettling tone throughout -- it's hard to know when to laugh or when to wince. All in all, it's a passably entertaining b-movie action-comedy, but you'll likely enjoy it more for being bad than being good.
©2013 Vince Leo