Written by Robert Reneau
Directed by Craig R. Baxley
Released February 12, 1988
I like to think that there’s an alternate timeline in which Carl Weathers became a major action movie star. I know some of you may read that and think, what do you mean? He IS a movie star! Well, sure he’s famous, but I’m talking a major leading man, with a string of blockbuster hits, starting in the 1980’s, and lasting through the ealy 2000’s at least, putting him on the same financial level as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whichever one of those two is #1 and #2, Weathers should be #3. And that should include at least one ongoing franchise, ala Terminator, Rambo, and Rocky, which continues to this day.
Weathers was a large presence in the first four Rocky films with Stallone and then alongside Schwarzenegger in Predator. This should have been more than enought to launch him into leading man status. And in 1988, a year after Predator and three years after Rocky IV he got this, his first major starring role. Word is that it was Joel Silver, one of the producers Predator, who proposed this film after being impressed with Weathers’ performance in that film. He approached Weathers about doing his own film, and Weathers supposedly came up with the idea of this character, Action Jackson, as sort of an updated take on 60’s and 70’s “blaxploitation” film heroes. They took that idea to writer Robert Reneau, and he wrote this screenplay.
Set in the mean streets of Detroit, Weathers plays a pretty typical 80’s action movie hero: a bad ass law enforcement officer who doesn’t play by the rules. He’s police sargeant Jericho “Action” Jackson. He’s well known throughout the city for his brutal repuation, so much so that a criminal suspect literally faints at the mere site of him. But he’s not just muscles, he’s got a law degree from Harvard, so he has brains to match his brawn. Nevertheless he’s been confined to working at desk due a botched case a few years earlier.
Craig T. Nelson, a year before he would go on to star in COACH, played the typical 80’s action movie villain: a ruthless and greedy rich businessman. He’s Peter Dellaplane, and he’s got some evil but somewhat vague plan to take over the city’s various trade unions by killing the leaders and replacing them with his hand-picked individuals, and this is all to help him gain political power in the city, and I think he mentions eventually planning to run for Mayor or Governor or something. Trust me, the exact details are really important, you just need to know that he’s a bad guy who kills people.
And his killers are known as “the invisible men,” because they’re basically ninjas (again, it’s an 80’s action movie). These men dress in all black, are able to slip in and out of places without being seen or caught, and use martial arts and knives. So they’re ninjas in everything but name, plus they also use guns…and flame-throwers.
Jackson and Dellaplane have a history, as the case that got Jackson demoted and assigned to desk duty involved Delleplane’s son, whom Jackson brutalized. So when Jackson get wind of Dellaplane’s plans, he disobeys his superiors and investigates Deelaplane on his own.
Prince’s ex-girlfriend and protege Vanity co-stars as Dellaplane’s mistress, Sydney, a local club singer. She’s also addicted to heroine, a plot point that’s not relevant to anything, other than I guess just another reason to show how evil Dellaplane is (I guess being a murderer and adulterer isn’t bad enough) since he supplies her with the heroine. I guess you’d technically call her the “love interest” of the film, as she allies herself with Jackson and works with him to help expose Dellaplane, and they are clearly attracted to each other but there is no actual love scene between them. That’s another thing 80’s action movies tended to avoid. But at least Vanity, who was at peak-hotness at this point in her life, does briefly show her breasts in a scene with Nelson.
Also briefly showing her breasts is young Sharon Stone, in one of her earliest leading film roles, as Delleplane’s wife, Patrice. She’s eventually killed by Delleplane, who plans to frame Jackson for the crime.
Over the course of the hour and half-long film we get car chases, fight scenes and shoot-outs galore, with tons of witty one-liners, everything you could ask for in such a film. And it all comes down to big climax, where Jackson and Delleplane fight one on one. And I have to say that while Craig T. Nelson is a very good actor and gives off a formidable presence in his role, he’s not an “action star.” So there’s very clearly a stunt-double being used when he’s engaging Weathers in a martial arts battle, and it’s somewhat distracting.
All in all, while no one is deserving of any Oscars for this film, it is entertaining. I remember liking it at the time, and I even bought the film’s soundtrack, mainly because there was a song called “Protect and Serve” by an L.A.-based rap duo called M.C. Jam and Pee Wee Jam. I’d heard about them (I’d read an interview somewhere, I think in one of the Black teen magazines of the era) and was intrigued because they were teenagers like I was at the time, and a local act when most rap was still based on the East Coast, and my cousin had met them. They were just starting out,and this was their first recordered song, which ended up being released as the B-side of a song that Vanity had recorded on the soundtrack. But the song didn’t chart and I don’t believe the ablum was a success either, and the duo, who were talented rappers (who embraced Run-DMC’s style of trading lines back and forth on the song) never resurfaced. I always wondered what happened to them.
Back to the actual film. Judging it by the standards of the time and the genre that it’s in, it’s a decent film. I’d probably grade it a B. Maybe B-. But, as noted, Nelson is very good, and Sharon Stone also showed promise in this role, even Vanity turned in one of her better performances of her short-lived film career. But most of all, Carl Weathers proved that he could carry a film on his own, without a big White co-star at his side. And while not a critical success (15% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it made over $20 million on a $7 million budget. So not blockbuster, but not failure either, it turned a healthy profit. Supposedly it’s also went on to make a decent profit in video sales. In a 2009 interview Weather said he still gets asked about that film. Under the circumstances it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect that this could have launched his career as a leading man.
Apparently the rights to the film got sold soon after it’s release, which held up any further development, but even if this didn’t lead to an Action Jackson film franchise, Weathers still should have gotten bigger roles after this. I mean, Action Jackson made more than Steven Seagal’s first film, Above The Law, which came out that same year (and also featured Sharon Stone), but that was enought to launch Seagal’s career. Also that same year Arnold Schwarzenegger co-starred with Jim Belushi in Red Heat, which only made $15 million more than Action Jackson, definitely a disppointment compared to his earlier films, but it didn’t stop his career momentum.
But Hollywood is what it is, and while things are better for Black actors now, it was much harder back then. And Carl Weathers has a long list of credits on his IMDB, so he’s been working. But I still can’t help but imagine what if he’d just been given a few more opportunities?