Robin’s Underrated Crap: Action Jackson (1988)

Well, we’re currently a few weeks away from the opening of The Expendables 3 and I started thinking about the idea of an Expendables-type film about failed action stars. There are some actors out there with otherwise solid careers whose attempts to become a solo action star did not work out. Carl Weathers is a perfect example of this. After finding success as Apollo Creed in the Rocky series and rubbing biceps with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, Weathers finally attempted to take the reins himself and carry his own action vehicle. Unfortunately, the project he chose was Action Jackson, one of the most hilariously stupid action flicks ever made. Yes, even by 1980s action movie standards, this one is pretty idiotic, though it provides quite an interesting time capsule of the genre during that decade. Overall, Action Jackson has a few too many dead spots to be considered an all-time “bad movie” classic, but it’s got enough jaw-droppingly hilarious moments to qualify as a guilty pleasure. And that’s why I deem it worthy to be featured in an all-new edition of “Robin’s Underrated Crap”.

Action Jackson takes place in Detroit and takes about two minutes to establish what kind of movie it’s going to be. It opens with a scene where an auto-worker union official is murdered by a group of assassins called “The Invisible Men”, who torch him with a flamethrower and send him plummeting out of a high-rise window. The staging and editing here is just hilariously bad, as the killers come bursting through the window and then just seem to magically disappear and reappear whenever the scene calls for it. Rarely have I ever seen a movie so brashly establish that they have no fucks to give about logic.

You might recognize the victim in that scene as Ed O’Ross, who played drug dealers in both Lethal Weapon and Red Heat. You might also recognizable his murdered secretary, Mary Ellen Trainor, who played the police psychiatrist in the Lethal Weapon series and the anchorwoman in Die Hard. One of the most fun aspects of Action Jackson is seeing how many actors you can recognize from other famous action films of the 1980s. Die Hard fans in particular should have a blast as, among others, Robert Davi (“Special Agent Johnson”), De’voreaux White (“Argyle”) and Al Leong (“Uli the Chocolate Bar Eating-Terrorist”) all pop up in supporting roles. In fact, you could almost call this film a character actor/bit player version of The Expendables. Anyway, after a long build-up establishing him as the baddest cop ever, we soon meet our protagonist, Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers), who scares the living shit out of a young purse snatcher. And because this is the eighties, Biff Tannen himself, Thomas F. Wilson, plays one of the other cops.

We soon learn that Jackson has been demoted to a desk job after an unpleasant run-in with a wealthy auto executive named Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson). Of course, Jackson has an angry police captain (Bill Duke, who starred alongside Carl Weathers in Predator) who yells at him all the time. It turns out Jackson got demoted for using excessive force while arresting Dellaplane’s son, which leads to the funniest exchange in the movie…

Captain: Just because Dellaplane had a few family problems –
Jackson: The man’s son is a sexual psychopath! If I had family problems like that, I’d have myself neutered.
Captain: You almost tore that boy’s arm off!
Jackson: So? He had a spare!

To no one’s surprise, Dellaplane turns out to be the villain in the story, as he is using the Invisible Men to murder his rivals in the auto-worker union. Dellaplane has two women in his life: his wife, Patrice (Sharon Stone) and his mistress, Sydney Ash (Vanity), an aspiring singer whom Dellaplane has hooked on heroin. Patrice soon gets suspicious about her husband’s illegal dealings and starts providing information to Jackson. One of the Invisible Men tries to kill them and after a chase scene, the assassin tries to run Jackson over. He survives by doing a RUNNING SOMERSAULT OVER A SPEEDING CAR! The only clip I could find of this scene is in Italian, but, man, it’s well worth watching.

Because Sharon Stone wasn’t a huge star yet, Patrice is killed off by her husband before the movie is half over and Jackson is framed for the murder. After becoming a fugitive, Jackson is forced to align himself with Sydney in order to learn Dellaplane’s dirty secrets. He garners her cooperation in the most logical manner possible: by threatening to drive into a wall until Sydney agrees to help him.

This description probably makes Action Jackson sound like a fun movie and it often is, but the film’s biggest drawback is a very talky, exposition-heavy second act, where the plot literally goes around and around in circles and leads nowhere. Action Jackson was written by Robert Reneau and even by the standards of the action genre, his script is just plain bad. It’s like Reneau decided to write a first and third act for his story and then just thought his could characters kill time for awhile during the midsection. A good chunk of the second act involves Jackson searching for an informant named Papa Doc, who apparently has a lot of dirt on Dellaplane. We know the guy’s name is Papa Doc because they repeat it about 10,000 times in the dialogue. Jackson goes into a bar and discovers that Papa Doc has been murdered and that a bunch of thugs are now keeping his testicles inside a jar. After a bizarre moment where Jackson pretends to be a holy messenger and starts shouting gospel, he beats all the bad guys up. This is an amusing enough scene, but, man, it adds NOTHING to the plot!

Oh yeah, and the movie fills even more time with a pointless scene where Jackson gets into a fight with a pusher who is supplying heroin to Sydney. The pusher is played by another Predator cast member, Sonny Landham, who played the role of Billy in that film. Apparently, Landham was a complete lunatic during the filming of Predator and Carl Weathers could not stand him, so legend has it that producer Joel Silver decided to play a little joke on Weathers. Silver hired Landham to play the pusher in Action Jackson, but did not actually tell Weathers about it until he showed up to film the scene. So, yeah, this is pretty much a fight between two actors who legitimately hate each other.

Anyway, after all the nonsense involving Papa Doc, Jackson is directed to some random hairdresser named Dee, who provides Jackson with all the information he needs about Dellaplane and his upcoming plan to assassinate a prominent union leader. Um… what? Who the fuck is this character anyway? Why does she know all this stuff about Dellaplane and his plan? If this woman knows everything, why the hell did Jackson waste all that time looking for Papa Doc instead of just talking to her in the first place? So after having the hero diddle around for a half hour, the screenwriter just decides to introduce a brand new character out of nowhere to explain the entire plot?! I know I shouldn’t be so hard on an action movie script, but this is some of the laziest goddamned writing I’ve ever seen! But I digress. Action Jackson finally starts getting fun again during its third act, as Jackson tries to stop Dellaplane and the Invisible Men from carrying out their assassination. Right before the climax, Jackson roasts a henchman with a flamethrower while reciting a hilarious one-liner about a barbecue and ribs. Oh, and you might recognize the henchman as yet another Die Hard alumnus: Dennis Hayden, who played Hans Gruber’s Texan terrorist pal, Eddie.

The climax of Action Jackson is almost worth the price of admission alone. After foiling the assassination, Jackson attempts to rescue Sydney from Dellaplane’s house… by driving a Ferrari UP THE STAIRCASE into the bedroom!

Anyway, after Jackson kills Dellaplane, his angry police captain decides to promote Jackson to lieutenant and exonerate him of the murder of Dellaplane’s wife, even though Jackson never did provide any solid evidence that he was innocent. Sydney tells Jackson that she’s now an ex-junkie, they kiss, and the end credits role. Uh, yeah, sure, Sydney, it’s only been about a day since your last fix. I’m sure all heroin addicts kick their habit that quickly. As you probably guessed, Action Jackson did not jumpstart Carl Weathers’ career as an action star and his biggest role since then has been playing an extremely frugal cheapskate version of himself on Arrested Development. The failure of Action Jackson isn’t really Weathers’ fault though, as he plays a lot of ludicrous material with an admirable amount of deadpan seriousness. However, even brainless action films should have their own internal logic and a coherent plot than goes from A to Z, but the filmmakers on this one just did not seem to care and the entire project is one big colossal mess. I think Action Jackson might be looked upon more fondly if it had consistently maintained the goofy cartoonish tone of its action scenes and not gotten so bogged down in mindless plot stuff. But in the end, it’s still an interesting curiosity piece that perfectly encapsulates the 1980s action film. If given a choice between Action Jackson and many of the bland, generic PG-13-rated action flicks that are released by Hollywood today, I’d choose Action Jackson in a heartbeat.

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