By: John M Jerva
I wonder what this newer generation thinks of when they watch an action movie from the 80’s. I’m sure there are those politically correct morons out there that totally miss what the film is going for and then proceed to try to cancel it because, you know, they know what’s good for us. I feel sorry for youngsters nowadays as they truly missed out on one of the greatest decades of action cinema.
Most people know actor Martin Kove as the deliciously unstable karate Sensei from The Karate Kid films as well as the new hit show Cobra Kai. Kove’s character of John Kreese just oozed slime and unbalanced rage and it’s that role that sort of pigeon holed him into playing villains throughout his career. Let’s not forget that he left John J. Rambo hanging out to dry in Rambo: First Blood Part II and even got to turn in a unscrupulous turn in the Cirio H. Santiago helmed Firehawk.
But there was a time boys and girls when Kove was almost an action star and to this day I view it as one huge missed opportunity for fans like myself. Sure he’s gone on to play some decent roles in later flicks but in 1987, he was the pinnacle of 80’s action hero bravado.
I give you defense exhibit A in the form of the over the top actioner Steele Justice. In the movie, Kove checks all the boxes that one needs to excel in action hero bad assery as he stars as John Steele. Yep once again we have an action hero named John. Love that name. Steele is one bad ass Tunnel Rat fighting the war in Vietnam during the end of the conflict and along with his South Vietnamese ally Lee, Steele runs one last mission before our forces pull out.
Unfortunately, the last mission is with supposed ally General Bon Soong Kwan (the late, great Soon-Tek Oh) who is the biggest weasel in the South Vietnamese army. Kwan makes it his sole purpose to betray Steele and Lee and run off with a cache of stolen CIA gold thus leaving our two heroes for dead in the process.
You can’t keep a good man down however and Steele recovers from being shot multiple times to pick himself and Lee up to make it back to the rally point and puts a knife in Kwan’s chest from his cooler than cool shotgun for good measure. Steele’s superior Harry played by the late, great Joseph Campanella of No Retreat No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers fame was instructed to bring Kwan back but Steele puts a cork on that idea.
Fast forward to present day L.A. in 1987 and Lee is a member of the police department’s Asian Task Force who are after the dreaded Vietnamese Black Tiger gang. This group of criminals not only deal in drugs but they also terrorize the local Vietnamese community. Yeah, they’re bad guys alright. Little do the cops know that the Black Tiger gang is run by Kwan and his equally ruthless son Pham (Peter Kwong). Kwan may be a philanthropist by day but he’s really a snake in the grass like he was back in the war.
Steele is having a hard time readjusting to civilian life and unfortunately has proceeded to spend his days losing jobs and drinking himself into oblivion while pinning for his ex-wife played by Sela Ward. Steele was a cop at one time but that didn’t work outdo he’s an action movie cliche as our story starts out.
Just as Steele is reunited with Lee and his family, Lee is brutally murdered along with his wife and grandmother leaving only his daughter Cami (Jan Gan Boyd) alive. Steele breaks out into hero mode of course and manages to take a few of the gang members out but it is unfortunately too late. Now Steele must clean up his act, protect Cami and bring down Kwan, Pham and the Black Tiger gang once and for all. “Steele’s back!”
I remember when I first saw Steele Justice when it hit VHS back in the day and was immediately hooked as it was an action movie right in my wheelhouse with a better than great tagline that reads “You don’t recruit John Steele, You unleash him.” Watching it today and it might seem a little dated but for fans like me, there’s nothing better than a politically incorrect action flick with Sensei Kreese as the one man army hero. I’m one of the few that feel Kove should have gotten a better break when it came to headlining action films. Steele Justice was his take on Rambo and I loved his look when he’s all tact up in gear which consisted of shotgun shells draped across his chest and arms as well as double mini Katanas strapped to his back. That’s right boys and girls, Steele just doesn’t use firepower. He also brandishes a pair of rad looking swords and he knows how to use them.
Steele Justice might take a while to get our hero back on track but once it does, it is non-stop 80’s excess with enough action and beat downs to satisfy thirsty genre peeps like myself. Kove delivers the goods and in gloriously cheesy, over the top 80’s fashion to boot.
Let’s go over the 80’s action check list with Steele Justice shall we. First of all, we have our opening action sequence where Kove’s Steele is introduced riding an awesome air boat…check. His name is John Steele and that’s simply kick ass…check. We have Soon Teck-Oh playing yet another Asian villain…check. Steele’s partner in crime is ruthlessly murdered by the baddies…check. Our hero is down and out for the first half of the movie only to right himself just in time to get his justice…check. There’s an unapologetic disregard for innocent bystander safety…check. Steele and the Black Tigers rudely interrupt a music video shoot where background dancers are mercilessly slaughtered…check. Steele trains hard to reignite his particular skill set with a glorious training montage ending with him suiting up for action in true Commando style…check. Oh did I forget that Steele has a pet snake called 3 Step that is poisonous and when bitten, the victim dies after taking three steps…check. The soundtrack is totally action 80’s greatness with synthesizers, percussion and electric guitars…oh yeah, check, check and check!
One of the best elements of Steele Justice is that veteran genre actor Ronnie Cox (Robocop) is in it and he plays Steele’s former police chief Bennett. You know all the police chiefs in other 80’s action movies that constantly yell at the hero because he has a total lack of respect for authority and constantly goes around destroying the city? Yeah not Bennett. He wants Steele to do his thing and even condones his actions for the greater good of nailing Kwan and his criminal empire. Now that’s refreshing if you ask me.
We also get the great Bernie Casey who you might remember from Street Knight with Jeff Speakman. He’s the ex-Roger Murtaugh to Steele’s Martin Riggs and he’s almost ready to retire. Uh oh, that’s not a good sign. I’d wear a bullet proof vest if I was him.
Of course, the best part of Steele Justice is the rousing finale where Steele goes all one man killing machine. This includes our hero riding an all terrain attack vehicle while spraying bad guys with countless rounds of ammunition from a mini-gun. I always wondered to this day how Steele drove the vehicle while shooting the mini-gun as he’s all by himself but that’s a plot hole I can look past because the scene is just friggin’ cool.
The climax also includes Pham being introduced to 3 Step and is ceremoniously bitten and dies an agonizing death after taking…you guessed it…3 steps. There’s also the betrayal from one of Steele’s supposed confidants that you see coming a mile away.
This all culminates in the eventual showdown between Steele and Kwan where we see both men duke it out with hands, feet and swords. One pet peeve of mine is that Steele didn’t use those sweet mini Katanas more but he at least takes them out at the end to take on Kwan and gets to spin them around a bit. Or was that his stuntman? Hmmmm.
One thing missing from today’s action pics is the awesome villain kills. To this day I think Chuck Norris taking out Richard Lynch in a rocket launcher duel in Invasion U.S.A. is one of my all time faves but here we get to see Kwan blow up via grenade which is always a cool way to see the bad guy get what’s coming to him or her. There’s nothing like the 80’s when it comes to bad guy kills. Change my mind I dare you.
Of course, after all is said and done and Steele has decimated an entire criminal empire blowing up half of L.A. in the process, there are absolutely no consequences for his actions and he’s free to ride off in the sunset. In fact Bennett tries to offer him his old job back so I guess if you kill dozens of people and commit massive property damage, then the only thing left to do is hire the guy that did it.
All in all, Steele Justice is the perfect exercise in complete 80’s over the top cheesy action awesomeness. There’s bad acting, questionable actions taken by the characters, insane and authentic practical stunts and set pieces and a hero that should have died countless times before the end credits rolled. Martin Kove is a genre legend but he should have been given more opportunity to excel as a leading man of action. They don’t make them like this anymore and I don’t think I would want them too as there is a special magic to these older action flicks that could not be duplicated today.
Steele Justice is pure 80’s action bad assery and one of the best examples that this decade ruled when it came to putting these types of films out. Sure everyone remembers Rambo and Commando but for me Steele Justice was the pinnacle of B movie excellence. There’s no denying that this movie isn’t as good as the others mentioned but for fans like me, it was films like this that fed our enormous appetite for things that went boom. Most people won’t understand our love for movies like this one and I love that as I feel we are members of an elite club. Membership has its privileges.