One of the many crappy VHS covers for Excessive Force proudly reads, “In the 70s… Chuck Norris. In the 80s… Steven Seagal. In the 90s, action has a new name… Thomas Ian Griffith.” Okay… so there’s a few problems with that. Norris didn’t really take off until the 80s. I’d say that Seagal is the action guy of the 90s, or at least the early 90s. And Thomas Ian Griffith? Even though I was familiar with many of the films he’s appeared in like The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) and Vampires (1998), it was quite a struggle to conjure up a mental image of his face. As the opening credits roll for the beautifully titled Excessive Force, it becomes clear that this is a passion project for Griffith. Not only is he the star, he wrote the script and he was one of the producers. Tough guy passion projects excite me a lot.
USA, 1993, Jon Hess
In an attempt to take down mafia bad guy DiMarco (Rocky‘s Burt Young), McCain tortures one of his mafia lackeys until he spits out a confession, naming DiMarco as his boss. DiMarco is taken to court, but the evidence is thrown out as it was attained through use of “excessive force”. DiMarco laughs in McCain’s face and says, “Excessive force!” as he walks past him. (The title of the film is said many, many times.) McCain cannot fathom why this is happened. Neither can Dylan (Tom Hodges), McCain’s faintly moustachioed sidekick. How could they not win?! It’s not like McCain used excessive force, right?!
In the wake of the trial, McCain’s buddies start dropping like flies. Before Dylan can deliver his ill-thought out birthday present of a kitten to McCain (seriously McCain is way too irresponsible to look after a kitten… and besides, I would be furious if someone got me an animal as a birthday present without it being discussed beforehand… fuck you, Dylan), he has his knees shattered and is viciously murdered by DiMarco’s underlings. His body is unceremoniously dumped at a rubbish dump. Haha! DiMarco, you joker!
Shortly after shedding a few buckets of tears at Dylan’s funeral, McCain’s other cop buddy, Frankie (Tony Todd), is blown up in his apartment. McCain is not pleased and asks his boss, Devlin (Lance Henriksen), if he can go off the radar and take out DiMarco. He also needs to look after that fucking kitten Dylan bought him.
McCain bursts into DiMarco’s stronghold, interrupting a comedic lobster eating scene, and starts whaling on DiMarco. Despite the blood on DiMarco’s hands, McCain can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. McCain leaves, for once avoiding the use of excessive force. Guess that’s the end of the movie right? Nope. We’re only 36 minutes in. The next day, McCain awakes to the news that DiMarco has been murdered! Fuck! It becomes clear that DiMarco’s criminal empire runs deeper than the mafia. McCain starts to uncover a trail of police corruption.
The marvelously entertaining opening act of Excessive Force was giving a mini-cardiac arrest. I thought I’d stumbled across a forgotten hammy action movie masterpiece. Griffith is incredible to watch. He’s absurdly uneven. His performance tumbles from blank-faced stares to manic screaming. He smiles a lot — often in scenes that should not feature smiles. He even plays piano while James Earl Jones blurts a saxophone in his face.
What Griffith lacks in acting chops, he makes up for with rampant destruction. He kicks his way through scenes, smashing nameless thugs through endless glass windows and glass tables. The action is violent and raw. The stunt work is fucking awesome. The opening act could be re-edited and packaged as an amazing short film ending with the take down of DiMarco. When the film’s actual story emerges, things calm down and slow down significantly. That said, people continue to be smashed through glass windows.
Excessive Force is certainly not totally worthless after its exhilarating opening act. There’s still plenty of action and predictable but entertaining twists. The cast give it their all. Griffith’s performance only gets more wild as the clock ticks by, Lance Henriksen fellates cigars like mad (I also think he may have been drunk in more than a couple of scenes), Tony Todd cries a lot, and James Earl Jones’s soothing voice adds a nice layer to the soundscape. Burt Young kills a guy with a pen, which is the second best thing I’ve seen Burt Young do in a movie after annihilating a pinball machine in Rocky III.
Excessive Force reminded me a lot of some of my favourite Seagal classics. It has the rampaging spirit of Out for Justice (1991) mixed with the fury of Above the Law (1988). Like Seagal, Griffith is an indestructible force on a warpath with only vengeance on his mind. The film is at its best when it’s at its most simple. It struggles somewhat when it tries to be something more. Still, the fun definitely outweighs the dull. It’s cheesy in the right spots and brutal when it needs to be. If you want to take a break from Seagal and Van Damme but still have a hankering for 90s action, Excessive Force is a worthwhile sidestep.
Excessive Force is available on DVD from New Line.