Hey, remember the bad guy from The Karate Kid? No, not Johnny, Daniel-san’s rival. I’m talking about Johnny’s sensei, John Kreese. (Director John G. Avildsen likes to name as many characters after himself as possible.) Kreese was played by Martin Kove. You may also know Kove as that guy from Rambo: First Blood Part II or that guy from that 80s cop show you can’t quite remember the name of. In-between Karate Kids, Hollywood sought fit to grant Kove a leading role in an action film where he plays another John: John Steele, deliverer of Steele Justice. Does Kove have the charisma to pull off a starring role? Spoiler alert: no.
USA, 1987, Robert Boris
Back in ‘Nam, Steele got shot in the ass by a guy called General Kwan (Soon-Tek Oh), who, like every single Asian actor in this, does not look or sound remotely Vietnamese (they couldn’t even give him a Vietnamese character name). Kwan also shot Steele’s best pal, Lee (Robert Kim). A pile of gold was involved somehow. I dunno. Who cares, right? More importantly, Kwan wears a moo moo at one point during the film, which is super cool.
Anyway, the war’s over. It’s 1987. Lee survived his ‘Nam injury and is now working as a detective. He’s attempting to take down a sneaky Vietnamese drug ring. General Kwan is a respected rich guy, beloved by the Vietnamese community. But, no surprises, he’s totally corrupt as fuck. Steele is… exactly the same. Steele ends up in jail for an unprompted face-punch delivered to his ex-boss. Lee gets him out of the can and attempts to help him sort his life out. This involves an alarmingly erotic bathing scene where a red raw Kove soaks up his troubles in some filthy looking water. Lee watches on serenely.
Sadly, Steele’s new life with Lee is interrupted when Kwan’s henchmen and shitty lisping son (Peter Kwong) show up and slaughter Lee and his wife. Despite being in the fucking house and totally capable of stopping this if he’s the bad-ass he’s supposed to be when it happens, Steele is utterly ineffective. The best he can do is cradle his dead pal’s corpse as he sobs and moans half-naked in the street.
Lee’s daughter (Jan Gan Boyd in one of the worst performances in the history of mainstream cinema) survives the ordeal, but uh oh! Now Kwan and his shit pals want her dead too! Lee’s dying wish is that Steele protect his daughter. The local police chief (Ronny “RoboCop” Cox) has decided to let Steele go nuts and do his thing (whatever that may be) in the hope that he’ll kill all the Vietnamese bad guys for him. Steele does a piss poor job with both his friend’s dying wish and the police chief’s highly illegal (and frankly stupid) manipulative mission. As a side note, Lee totally goes cross-eyed when he dies. This delighted me.
Here is both the best and worst thing about Steele Justice: John Steele. John Steele is the most pathetic and ineffectual leading tough guy I think I’ve ever seen in an 80s actioner, which is terrible but hilarious. Steele spends most the film doing nothing, looking confused, getting stuck in prison, and crying. He fails to save his friends. He struggles to kill shitty henchmen (recognisable Asian-American 80s guys Al Leong and George Cheung show up to get unceremoniously murdered). He even shoots his wife with a beanbag round and laughs about it afterwards. John Steele is a useless prick.
If someone like Van Damme was in the role, the film might have gotten away with this purely on its star’s goofy presence. Kove’s wooden exterior works beautifully in something like The Karate Kid because he has the face of a villain. As Kreese, all he needs to do is scowl and be generally unlikable. As protagonists, tough guys don’t need acting chops, but they do need charisma, and Kove is pure, undiluted anti-charisma. The best example of his flat performance can be seen where Sela Ward is delivering a sad speech to him about the state of their relationship. Ward’s performance is legitimately heartfelt and believable. Kove reacts with a blank, brainless stare like he didn’t hear a word that came out of her mouth. Then, almost as if the film panics at this point, we cut to a silhouetted montage of him working out with an awesome 80s tune playing over the top, the lyrics of which dictating what’s happening on-screen. What the hell is he even working out for anyway?
Where the film shines is in its shameless devotion to the decade it hails from. Not only do we get the aforementioned workout song, the film is also rudely interrupted by a music video. Not since the robot fashion shoot montage in Cobra have I seen a more wildly inappropriate musical tangent in an 80s action film. Steele’s girlfriend is (I guess?) a music video director and the film deems it suitable to show us the result of her work. We cut between a music video set where a pop star wails with backup dancers wobbling about and a sweaty Steele frantically driving towards them to, in theory, save the day. It concludes with an impressive action scene featuring the killing of innocent backup dancers who would likely still be alive by the end credits had Steele been a better hero. R.I.P., guys.
While the action on display is sparse, it’s undeniably fun. It’s not on the level of the best 80s action has to offer, but it has its charm. All the ingredients are there — explosions, squibs, guns, bazookas, snakes — and director of Rob Lowe classics Oxford Blues and Frank & Jesse, Robert Boris, does a decent job in mixing them together in an entertaining enough manner. The film’s finale is particularly enjoyable with plenty of faceless bad guy drones being mowed down with a Gatling gun.
Steele Justice is certainly not as awesome as I hoped it would be. With a brilliant title and equally brilliant title screen to represent said brilliant title, there could only be disappointment to follow. Had I watched this without knowing its title, I may have enjoyed it more. Probably not though. This is an okay enough way to kill an hour and a half. If you have exhausted all your 80s action options, why not give this a shot, eh?
Steele Justice is available pretty dang cheap on DVD. I’d suggest a rent before a buy.