Excessive Force (1993): Hold the Line

Matty dukes it out with Cobra Kai star Thomas Ian Griffith’s first brush with the big leagues.

In early 1992, amidst much behind-the-scenes shuffling, New Line Cinema announced the start of four prospective franchises. To plug the horror gap as the drawing power of their previous cash cow, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, dwindled, New Line commissioned Man’s Best Friend (1993); a killer dog shocker the studio believed had multi-sequel potential. Comedy and family fare would be represented by National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993) and Surf Ninjas (1993) — the shingle’s tentative answer to The Naked Gun Trilogy, and a play to the same demographic that made their 1990 hit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so successful, respectively — while action was going to be shouldered by future Cobra Kai favourite Thomas Ian Griffith. Positioned as a major in-house action star in the Steven Seagal/Warner Bros. mode, Taekwondo practitioner Griffith’s first New Line project was, alas, also his last for them. Lensed between March and April ‘92, EXCESSIVE FORCE debuted in U.S. theatres in February ‘93 and tanked at the box office. It did, however, do decent enough business on VHS to warrant New Line backing a standalone DTV follow-up with a completely new cast (the wonderfully titled Excessive Force II: Force on Force (1995)) — something that the film’s three single strike stablemates all failed to achieve [1]. 

Writing and producing in addition to starring, Griffith’s script concerns Terry McCain: a Chicago detective whose martial arts skills and maverick attitude rankles his superiors as much as the bad guys he goes toe-to-toe with. When his latest assignment, a high profile drug bust, goes south after $3million of mafia money mysteriously vanishes, McCain and his team end up in the firing line of a vengeful don (Burt Young) — though mob-sanctioned hit squads quickly become the least of the wiry bruiser’s worries when it becomes clear that the real villain is on the other side of the law…    

Having impressed New Line with his pitch for Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990) (a project that ultimately went to Jeff Burr) and handling of Alligator II: The Mutation (1991) (which they released), Jon Hess was assigned Excessive Force’s reins. Sadly, his flaccid direction is this generally entertaining caper’s weakest attribute. Mechanical at best, the helmer’s flat style works well enough in the scenes of tough talk and macho posturing but fails to capture Griffith’s martial arts talents with the grace, fluidity, and impact they deserve. Thankfully, the exciting wah-wah guitar licks of Charles Bernstein’s effective score covers the cracks, and Griffith’s natural charisma and immense physicality transcends the cumbersome blocking. In hindsight it’s easy to see why Excessive Force didn’t establish New Line as chop-socky action peddlers when their inaugural contribution to the form repeatedly flubs the most basic beats.

Nevertheless, Excessive Force is great fun. Shot on location, the snow speckled streets of The Windy City ooze atmosphere, and, despite his more obvious missteps, Hess’ zippy sense of pace — heightened by Alan Baumgarten’s taut editing — is excellent [2]. The film’s ensemble is fabulous, too. As noted, Griffith is a captivating performer and he’s ably supported by Young, Lance Henriksen (as McCain’s curmudgeonly captain), Tony Todd, W. Earl Brown, and James Earl Jones. The latter gets several of Excessive Force’s finest moments. Introduced tooting on a sax in a jazz club, whereupon he’s joined on stage by Griffith, tinkling the ivories, Jones’ arrival is at once a glorious character moment and a grin-inducing blast of B-movie delirium. Even better is the cracking monologue he delivers later on; an impassioned diatribe that underlines the film’s intriguing — if underdeveloped — subtext re: Chicago’s multicultural populace. The same cannot be said about Charlotte Lewis’ love interest, mind. Not only is her part woefully thin, Lewis herself has the emotional range of a brick.

USA ● 1993 ● Action ● 83mins

Thomas Ian Griffith, Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd ● Dir. Jon HessWri. Thomas Ian Griffith 

[1] Here in the U.K. Excessive Force caused a minor furore when distributor Entertainment in Video accidentally issued a version of the film that hadn’t been approved by the BBFC. Going straight to tape, Excessive Force’s original cassette had to be recalled and exchanged in favour of a BBFC-mandated cut a few days after it landed on shelves. Happily, the twenty-eight seconds pruned by the board were reinstated for EIV’s DVD in 2006.
[2] Baumgarten, who’s since gone on to splice American Hustle (2013) and Venom (2018), provided a similar service for New Line on Dead On: Relentless II (1992) and The Lawnmower Man (1992)

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