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Hipster Holy Grail: Steele Justice (1987)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Steele Justice almost scratches the dumb '80s action movie itch.  It's got needlessly convoluted villains, hyper-masculinity that teeters on homoeroticism, overblown character quirks, and more than a few oddball choices that catch you by surprise.  The one thing it doesn't have: action scenes.  Without those, it falls short.  I'd still basically recommend it to anybody planning a bad movie night - just don't get too excited.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5 (Novice Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open the film in the Vietnam War.  A joint forces unit of Vietnamese and American soldiers is gearing up for a raid of nebulous importance.  The men on the ground who'll be carrying it out are John Steele (Martin Kove) and Lee Van Minh (Robert Kim), who aren't really identified too much beyond "soldier," but who ostensibly are special ops type dudes.

Steele and Lee kick some ass and fight their way to a bunker.  It's kind of boring, to be honest, but it does establish three important facts: 1) Steele is adept at killing; 2) Steele carries a sword strapped to his back, apparently just because it looks cool; and 3) Steele has a poisonous snake named "Three Step" as a pet, which he regularly wears like a necklace.  Once established, Three Step blends in pretty naturally.  You forget sometimes that the dude is wearing a live snake.

Anyway, they get to the bunker, but it turns out to be empty - apparently they were fed some bad intel.  Then Steele notices a rat with a live grenade strapped to its back, and he realizes they've been set up.  He and Lee dodge the ensuing explosion and climb out of the bunker to come face-to-face with the treacherous General Kwan (Soon-Tek Oh), the head of the Vietnamese branch of operations.

Kwan briefly explains that he's had some kind of villainous plot going that will allow him to steal $20 million worth of "CIA gold."  He then kicks over a box of doubloons, revealing that the gold does, in fact, exist.  How $20 million factor into the war, why the CIA is involved, why they chose gold doubloons to transport it, how Kwan managed to steal it, and why any of this means that Steele and Lee need to be killed are all excellent questions.  Let's move on.

Kwan orders his men to shoot Steele and Lee, but they only end up wounded.  Kwan leaves them behind, thinking that the Viet Cong will capture them and take care of the rest.  So, pretty good setup for a revenge movie, right?  Probably the rest of the movie will involve Steele breaking out of a POW camp and making his way back to -

- oh, never mind.  In the very next scene, Steele drags Lee's barely-conscious body to a shore where Kwan is loading up his booty on some rafts with the help of a bunch of other soldiers, both American and Vietnamese.  Steele draws a gun on Kwan and demands his surrender, explaining the murder plot to his C.O., Harry (Joseph Campanella).

Harry kinda just shrugs and goes, "Well, shit, that's a serious problem, but what am I supposed to do about it?"  So Steele takes that opportunity to shoot the shit out of Kwan's boat and launch a dagger into his chest.  Nobody seems to react, despite the fact that Kwan is a general and, in theory, they're working together.  Then there's briefly a conflict when Harry says that there's only a medical evacuation allowed for one soldier, not two, but Steele's like, "Fuck you, guy, both Lee and I are getting out of here," so Harry just shrugs again and goes, "Yeah, alright, good point."  So... uh, then Steele takes another boat, loads Lee on it, and sails away.  Presumably to a doctor.  And then freedom.

Cut to mid-80s Southern California, where Steele and Lee settled after the war and made new lives for themselves.  We'll later find out that both of them became cops, but the only one we get to see at work is Lee, who is in the middle of a sting operation to catch some Vietnamese gangsters in a cocain deal (Al Leong among them).  At Lee's command, the police carry out a bust and pull over a truck full of bags of salt, which allegedly are full of the coke.  But then they do the ol' dip-n-stick routine and taste the goods, and it turns out to be talcum powder instead.  (Why wouldn't the bags just be full of salt?  Let's move on.)

Somewhere along the way, the gangsters got the better of Lee and swapped out the real cocaine with this garbage, and now his whole case is useless.  Fortunately, his boss, Bennett, played by a shockingly low-key Ronny Cox, is pretty chill about the whole thing.  He essentially tells Lee, "Ah, don't worry about it, shit happens," and then pats him on the back like a coach comforting his little league team.

This is the first of many times that I suspected Bennett was going to be the evil mastermind of something-or-other, because I've never seen Ronny Cox act like a gentle old man before.  About the most severe he gets in this movie is "mildly annoyed."  He must have been tired when he showed up to set.  Maybe he only filmed his scenes the morning after a long shift on RoboCop.  Anyway, Lee decides, "Yeah, I guess I won't worry about it," and he goes home no worse for the wear.

We cut away from this to catch up with Steele.  He appears to have hit hard times - he's now working as some kind of ranch hand / bitch to a wealthy asshole who owns a lot of horses.  I'm not sure what you call such a guy.  A horseman?  A horser?  Anyway, the horse guy keeps giving Steele a bunch of shit and it's getting on his nerves, so he decides to fuck with his boss by firing a shotgun into the air and scaring all the horses into a stampede.  They go running away and Steele has a nice laugh about it, then goes to a bar to get drunk.

Cut to a rebel bar where the confederate flag is on full display, despite being located in SoCal.  Now, look, the confederate flag is already a problem - people like to say it's about "pride" or whatever-the-fuck while totally ignoring all the rest of the contexts in which waving it around just makes you an asshole.  But if you're going to be one of those "Southern Pride" types, the least you can do is actually live in the South.  Putting that shit up in California is inexcusable, and it casts a dirty shadow on Steele since this seems to be his preferred place to get drunk.  Hmm.

Steele's inebriation is interrupted by his ex-wife, Tracy (Sela Ward), who has come looking for him because the movie needed her to be introduced right about now.  They chat a bit about their past and Steele's fall from grace - we aren't explicitly told anything just yet, but we learn that Steele was kicked off the force because of his uncontrollable alcoholism, which led to his divorce from Tracy, which led to him being perpetually broke and in trouble with the law.

To put a fine point on it, the horser shows up with some police officers and has Steele arrested for recklessly firing that shotgun earlier.  But before the cops actually arrest him, Steele takes out his pet snake and threatens them with it, then gets into a half-assed fistfight.  Because.  Y'know.  White privilege.  If you can punch a cop and live, why wouldn't you?

Lee shows up to spring Steele from jail and takes him back to his house in the suburbs to clean up.  And when I say, "clean up," I mean that as literally as possible - one of the very next scenes is Steele sitting in a tub while Lee sits next to him and has a friendly chat / pep talk.  Lee is delighted to have Steele as a guest in his house, and Lee's family - wife, mother, and daughter - have varying levels of comfort with him.  Lee's daughter, Cami (Jan Gan Boyd), is pretty psyched, though.  We missed it during the cut from Vietnam to California, but apparently there's a whole lifetime of memories where Steele acted as a secondary father figure to her.

The idyllic pleasantries are not to last.  Unfortunately, those gangsters from earlier - the Black Tigers - are none too pleased with Lee's attempt to bust them.  To reaffirm their control on the Vietnamese community and strike fear into anybody else who might try to mess with them, one of the higher ups, Pham Van Kwan (Peter Kwong), leads a hit squad to Lee's house.  They shoot up the place and kill his wife and mother, then mortally wound Lee.  Then, after most of the damage has already been done, Steele jumps into action.  He kills one of the Black Tigers, then shoots wildly into the street and repels the rest of them.

Steele calls the police and has a minor confrontation with Bennett about the shooting.  Steele's pissed off and pushes Bennett to strike back, and Bennett keeps saying that they'll do what they can, but Steele needs to settle down.  Then, when Steele is out of earshot, Bennett smirks and tells Tom Reese (Bernie Casey), another cop, about his secret plan, which is actually kind of genius.  Y'see, Bennett is aware that he exists in an '80s action movie, and he's further aware that Steele is the type of guy who will go into Vengeance Mode and kill massive amounts of people.  Since Lee was unable to bust the Black Tigers, Bennett figures, hey, why not provoke Steele into a murder rage and let him take care of all the dirty work?

Reese thinks that's kind of a dumb idea, what with all the collateral damage and innocent bystanders, but he's not upset enough to do anything about it.  So, they sit back and wait for a movie to happen.

Cut to Lee's funeral.  Cami, the sole survivor of her family, sits with various police officers and well-wishers.  Then General Kwan shows up to give her his condolences.  This is not an unusual thing for the people of the city, however, as Kwan is a well-known and beloved businessman in their community, despite all the stuff that happened back in the war.  Apparently the whole CIA gold plot was left out of all the paperwork.

Steele only seems to be tangentially aware of this, though, and he interrupts the funeral with a flying face-kick when he notices that Pham is there.  They fight for a bit and Steele tries to get him arrested when he points out that Pham is the one who shot and killed Lee.  Instead of taking that accusation seriously or looking into it, the police just sneer at him.  You see, Phan is Kwan's son, and is also a well-respected pillar of the community.

In actuality, I think Bennett was well aware that both Kwan and Kwan Jr. are corrupt as shit and responsible for Lee's death, but he's still trying to get Steele into Vengeance Mode at this point.  So, he's just going to keep prodding Steele any chance he gets.  This leads to Steele getting arrested for assault because he attacked Pham.  Naturally.

Now, a quick side note here before I get into Steele's continued misadventures.  The movie makes two big points around this time about Kwan's objectives.  First, Kwan wants Steele dead, and more specifically, he wants him to be killed with the dagger that Steele threw at him at the beginning of the movie.  (He's kept it with him all these years and even bought a nice display case to keep it in when he's not trying to murder Steele with it.) Second, for reasons I don't fully understand, Kwan wants Cami to be murdered.  I think this may have something to do with cleaning up loose ends or striking fear into the community or whatever, but it honestly just feels like he's being a dick for dick's sake.

I want to belabor these points because Kwan will spend roughly the next hour of the movie wasting every possible opportunity to accomplish either goal.  Steele is regularly on the wrong side of the law and cornered, yet there's almost never any hit squad after him.  And Cami is virtually left alone and unprotected for the better part of the movie, but Kwan never sends anybody after her unless he knows that Steele is on his way to save her.  I guess he also knows he's in a movie and he just doesn't want to screw with the timeline.

Anyway, Steele's in jail for assault.  And for the first (and only) time, Kwan sends some hitmen after him.  They corner Steele in the communal holding cell where he has to stay, and they try to shiv him with that dagger - but Steele gets the better of them by pulling a carelessly misplaced mop through the bars of the cell and using it to knock them out.  Then Steele decides to punch out all the other guys in the cell, too.  Then he lies down and pretends to be asleep, so when a guard eventually comes by - no rush, just taking his time - and notices that everybody in the cell is unconscious, he unlocks the door to investigate.  That's when Steele punches him out, too, and makes his escape.

Along the way, he holds Reese hostage and demands that he help him find and protect Cami.  Reese has a pretty good reaction to this, which is to be aggravated by the inconvenience of it all.  Steele and Reese leave the jail together and head off as unlikely partners to go kick some Black Tiger ass.

Cue the music video.  By which I mean, Tracy is directing a music video and you get to watch it while Steele and Reese drive recklessly toward her.  Cami is hanging out on set, and it's only a matter of time before the Black Tigers show up and try to kill her.  And that matter of time is... exactly when Steele gets there.  Go figure.

So, this all leads to what should be a pretty kick-ass action scene.  A couple cars full of Black Tigers show up and shoot up all the performers in the music video, then force Reese, Steele, Tracy, and Cami to hide next to and inside of a shopping mall.  There's a lot of potential for action here and a lot of room for clever staging or nifty stunts.  And to the movie's credit, Al Leong does get in at least one pretty spectacular tumble when he goes flying backward over a table.

But most of the ensuing action is pretty dull.  Steele hides behind some stuff, then shoots a couple of guys and gets away.  Somewhere along the way, he gets hit with a poison dart, but all it does is slow him down a bit.  Oh, and Reese gets shot, but it likewise doesn't seem to actually do anything.  So... that's a wrap on the mall scene, guys.

Cue the recovery montage.  Tracy finds a nice quiet place for Cami to hide and for Steele to get over his poison.  Then he does some training and eventually gears up so he can finally go into full Vengeance Mode.

This, unfortunately, is the worst part of the movie.  I'd like to tell you that it gets full-out crazy, but John Steele is kind of a reverse-Commando; the more he gets in his element, the less interesting the movie becomes.  Steele's vengeance campaign starts promisingly when he tries to find some Black Tigers and he crashes a truck through the front window of one of their hideouts, but after that its mostly just a lot of him grimacing in between other people chatting.

Sadly, this means that one of the movie's best ideas is totally squandered: there's a sequence where Steele robs an Army arsenal in order to gear up for his assault on the Black Tigers.  That should be a really funny, over-the-top action scene.  Instead, he basically goes to Harry - who is apparently still in the service despite showing no leadership skills whatsoever - and says, "Just gonna borrow some of your shit," and then Harry shrugs and goes, "Well, damn, if you have to...."

Somewhere in here we also get a reveal that Kwan has been working with somebody on Steele's side the whole time.  This, too, is squandered.  The way the movie's been set up so far, you're expecting Bennett to be crooked.  For one thing, it's Ronny Cox, but for another, he's been taking all the bad news to date awfully well.  It would make sense if he's so chill about the Black Tigers because he's been working with them the whole time.  But, no, Bennett's a totally straight-laced character.  The one who's been secretly funding and assisting Kwan the whole time is... Harry.  Who hasn't been in the movie for like an hour.

Y'know what, Harry just sucks overall as a character.  I don't even know what rank he's supposed to have.  What is he, like a general or something?  He's not a good soldier, he barely acts like a leader, he never has a clear motivation, and when it is revealed that he's been working with Kwan all along, it's such a non-event that you're just kinda like, "Oh, was that supposed to be a secret?"

But whatever.  The point is, we're basically set up now for the big, epic climax where Steele gets some justice.

It's... okay.  In true Steele Justice fashion, the setup for the scene is a lot of fun, but the payoff less so.  See, Pham is getting set up for a big coke deal out of an enormous garage somewhere.  He has a big pallet of cocaine parcels, and the guy who's buying it does the ol' "let me see how pure this is using my tongue because it's just that good" trick.  But then he spits it out and gets infuriated - turns out the parcels are full of talcum powder.  Again.

Somewhere along the way, Steele carefully swapped out the coke with dummy bags, then put the real pallet of cocaine on a winch and suspended it from the ceiling overhead.  So when Pham and company realize they've been duped, Steele uses the garage's PA system to announce that he fooled them, then starts shutting all the roll-down doors to the garage.  Then, for no good reason, he releases the winch and drops the cocaine everywhere, and in the ensuing chaos he drives into the scene with a mounted artillery gun and starts shooting everybody to shit.

That part is pretty good.  So is the bit shortly after when Steele sets a trap for Pham with Three Step, who bites and kills him despite Harry's assurances that the snake isn't poisonous.  So, Pham's dead.

But then things start to drag.  Steele and Harry have a short little shootout scene, but since it's not especially clever and since Harry is barely a character, there isn't much tension or excitement.  Then Kwan finally comes into the scene, and you think there might be an epic fight at last - especially since you finally see Steele draw his sword for the first time ever.

Alas, the swordfight that follows is pretty lame.  They do a clang-and-bang for like ten seconds, then run around in circles and taunt each other, and then Kwan kicks Steele's sword out of his hands.  Their fight eventually leads up to a catwalk where the movie redeems itself somewhat with Kwan's ultimate demise: Steele pins an active grenade to him, then punches him off the catwalk so he explodes mid-air.  Now that's more like it.  I needed like ten more minutes of that kind of nonsense.

Bennett shows up in the aftermath and offers Steele his old job back.  Steele turn him down and steals his car instead, and then he just drives away with no repercussions whatsoever.  Being white is really nice.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I'm torn this week.  On the one hand, I love the stupidity of this movie.  There's so much inane shit happening that I want to share it with friends - between Steele's snake-lace and the repeated talcum-powder pranking, I was having a blast with all the movie's hijinks.

On the other hand, this is an action movie with very little action.  That makes it a bit tedious - fun hijinks or no.  I mean, Parole Violators had more action - and some of it was actually pretty impressive.  You're telling me a movie with a reasonable enough budget that they could blow up at least two cars couldn't swing better fight choreography?

Part of the problem is that they cast Martin Kove as the lead.  Kove can be fun in scenes with dialogue or angry staring, but he doesn't have the speed and energy to be an action star.  He's too clunky, too heavy on the screen.  He works really well as a villain because he looks and moves like a big, beefy tank that'll kick your ass.  When you see him, you immediately want to see a shorter, skinnier dude square off against him and try to get the upper hand through cleverness.  Kove himself isn't very fun to watch when he's fighting - and if you need proof, check out those miserable swordfight scenes at the end where he looks outright bored.

The movie counteracts that somewhat by having Steele spend most of the movie shooting people rather than using martial arts.  Unfortunately, the movie screws up there, too, because it just doesn't know how to make a gunfight interesting.  Contrast it with the gunfights in Die Hard or Predator, which are fun to watch because they subvert expectations.  Either people are running out of ammo or there's a problem with their gun, or maybe the weapon gets knocked out of their hands.  Tension builds up because you know the characters could end the fight easily if they had a functioning weapon, but it's always just out of reach for some reason.  John Steele never has that problem.

The few times he does run into problems during an action sequence are when he's forced to take cover, and that's boring as hell.  Nobody wants to watch an action hero sit behind a rock for two minutes.

And yet, despite his godliness whenever he's killing people, John Steele is still somehow an underdog overall - outside of fights, he's a washed-up loser with no luck.  Not coincidentally, those are all the best scenes.

I think there's enough merit in the non-action scenes of this movie to recommend it.  A fair amount of this movie walks that tightrope where you can't tell if it's ironically funny or self-consciously dumb.  Tune in for those scenes and maybe go get a beer any time somebody takes out a gun.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Steele Justice technically manages to get 10 points for obscurity for having under 500 ratings on IMDb, but judging from the cult following it has, it's not really all that "hidden."  I almost want to mark it with an asterisk since I feel like obscurity is the main driving force for hipster cred.

Asterisk aside - there's a fair amount of cred to be had here.  I'll give it 20 points for the cast overall, as you've got a fair number of bit players with hipster weight behind them.  Bernie Casey, Peter Kwong, Al Leong... there's even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Phil Fondacaro, for Christ's sake.  Phil Fondacaro just randomly shows up in that confederate bar and then disappears.  That's hipster.

The soundtrack is extremely hipstery, what with it being stereotypically '80s and all.  Even better: one of the songs is a power ballad about getting strong so you can take your revenge on people who have wronged you.  So, that's worth at least 10 points.

I'll give it 5 points for having "Justice" in the title, another 5 points for having a semi-titular line when Steele kills Kwan and says, "...and I get justice," and 10 more points for the total disregard given to any logic underlying the villains' plots.  And finally, I'll give it a light recommendation bonus of another 10 points.

All that adds up to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  It's not the most hipster you can get, but it'll do the trick just fine if you're trying to prove a point.

Where You Can Watch

This one actually managed to make it to Blu Ray, so you can buy a legit copy pretty easily.  Or, if you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch it on Youtube.