Steele Justice (1987) is a Martin Kove action movie from 1987. It tried to ride the action movie wave of the time. Alas, Kove was not able to harness his Karate Kid cred and ascend to the heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger…or even Jeff Speakman, for that matter. Let’s take a spoiler-filled look at the film.
Steele Justice begins with a squad of GI Joe rejects on hovercrafts. They hover through what looks like a Georgia swamp doubling for Vietnam.
Kove plays John Steele. He leads this motley crew with a samurai sword strapped to his back and a pet snake, named Three Step, wrapped around his neck. He carries a bullpup shotgun with two knives mounted on either side of a telescopic sight…or a laser sight. Maybe it’s both. Steele’s face looks like it was painted by a junior high student for a homecoming game.
This whole movie might have been made by a junior high student. It has a swaggering machismo/adolescent fantasy element to it that brings to mind Larry Hamma mixed with Robert E. Howard. Basically, if Ron Burgundy wrote and directed a movie, Steele Justice would be it.
Steele Justice was actually written and directed by Robert Boris. His most notable credits include Some Kind of Hero, Doctor Detroit, and Frank and Jesse. Steele Justice must have been his application letter to Cannon Films. Maybe he is still waiting for their call…
Steele and his best friend, Lee, hightail into the jungle. Their deadly skills are so sympatico that they can cross streams, metaphorically, as they kill a couple of Viet Cong nobodies with overlapping shots. Upon arising from their crouched poses, they enter an underground complex.
Boris clearly had a vision of an epic nightmarish underground complex, something that was a cross between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Edgar Allen Poe. Instead, we get a set decorated and lit like a county fair spook house, complete with a mannequin nailed to the ceiling.
The scene culminates with a rat plodding aimlessly into frame with a grenade strapped to its back.
“It’s a trap!” Lee yells.
Steele is a man of solutions, however. He shoots the rat and blows the whole place up. In which case, it is almost like he solved nothing at all. Truly, this movie dares to tread boldly into the realm of stupid, look it in the eye, and call it friend.
Steele Justice of Peace
Steele and Lee narrowly escape and are greeted by a group of ARVN dudes that were supposed to help but abstained. They call themselves Black Tigers. Due to their urban-camo uniforms, ascots, and berets, I prefer to call them Fabulous Force Five.
Fabulous Force Five is led by Soon Tek-Oh, as Qwan. He is clearly evil. We can tell from the way he stands with one foot on a low tree branch. He is so smug. The Ron-Silver bastard. I hate him already.
“Welcome to the party, Steele,” Qwan says. He also reveals that he liberated $20,000,000 in CIA gold from the underground complex before Steele showed up. He asks if Steele would perhaps like to object to this little dalliance into self-interest while his Fabulous Force Five underlings brandish their weapons…fiercely.
Steele does not object because he has a self-interest in living. He and Lee walk away, only to be machine-gunned down at point-blank range by a female member of Fabulous Force Five. Why they have a female member, I don’t know. Maybe she is passed around as a beard on Parents’ Day. Steele gets it bad in this scene. He endures a direct hit to his right buttock.
Displaying bad-guy logic at its finest, Qwan kills the Fabulous Force Five Female for failing to kill Steele, then leaves Steele alive. One member of Qwan’s crew carries the crate of gold away. $20,000,000 in gold weighs approximately 600 pounds. The guy must use a Shake Weight and a Thigh Master.
Despite his obvious buttock pain, Steele manages to drag Lee back to the hovercraft, where Qwan is about to hover away to a life of ease and contentment. Steele now objects to this and shoots one of the knives mounted on his shotgun into Qwan’s heart.
Satisfied at a job well done, Steele and Lee abscond into the night. Qwan is left behind to pull the knife out of his heart with a constipation grunt. Judging by the look on Qwan’s face, he perhaps harbors some resentment toward Steele for this sequence of events.
Cut To: Southern California, Today
Lee has joined forces with Bernie Casey as a policemen duo backed by a rock-and-roll soundtrack as they chase a drug dealer down. Ronny Cox is their boss. They don’t high-five each other, but you can tell it is one of their most secret desires.
Meanwhile, Steele works for the Wild Horse Management Bureau after getting kicked off the force. Get it? He’s a wild horse that can’t be tamed…or something. As an employee of the WHMB, Steele defends horses from unscrupulous owners who may or may not turn them into glue. Steele does this the only way he knows how — with a shotgun and a smile. That damned smile…
At this point in the film, Steele’s babe enters the proceedings. Tracy is played by the lovely Sela Ward. Steele and Tracy meet up in a honky-tonk bar. Is Tracy unimpressed by Steele’s irresponsibility? Yore darn tootin, pardner! But that smile. That damn smile. Tracy can’t help but be enticed by Steele’s rascally charm into a bout of tongue wrestling.
Steele also reveals he still carries his pet snake, Three Step, around with him wherever he goes. If Steele was a soy boy, we would make snide Freudian comments about how he is compensating for something. As things stand, Steele laughs in the pasty-white face of such notions. In fact, my grandmother walked by, accidentally caught a glimpse of Steele, and was instantly cured of menopause.
This is a good time to issue a warning to the more socially conscious among us. One must remember, Steele Justice was made during a particularly insensitive time. It did not have the benefit of CRT to know white men are the true villains. Rather, it unjustly depicts Asians as evil.
What’s that? No one cares how movies depict Asians, including Asians, because they are too busy being successful, valuing family, lighting up criminals, and maintaining an odd fascination with tentacles. Oh…well then…I have to admit, this throws me off a bit. I was all ready to virtue signal and get invited to a drag show. Maybe in the next review…
After losing his job, Steele hangs out with his buddy, Lee. Drug dealers then arrive at the house and machinegun Lee and his family at point-blank range. Fortunately, the movie has established this is no big deal. Everyone should get up off the floor any second now with minor buttock wounds.
Hey, why aren’t they getting up off the floor? What is with all of the blood? I don’t like this…
Meanwhile, Steele is taking a bath during the massacre. After quickly drying his hair, Steele chases the drug dealers away with MAC-10-Fu and laments the sudden rule change on point-blank machinegunning. His friend, Lee, alas, is dead.
Qwan reenters the movie. He is now a wealthy businessman who builds medical centers for puppies…or something. Truly, he is someone the viewer can trust. Qwan has a slogan: The Future Is Unlimited! I’m not sure I buy that. Steele Justice was made in 1987. We have now seen the future. It is indeed limited. I literally have to sell 15 copies of one of my books to take my wife to McDonalds. You know how long it takes me to sell 15 copies of one of my books. I have a small family and no friends…so a long time.
After Lee’s death, Steele and Ronny Cox have a heart-to-heart conversation about the state of Steele’s life, organized crime, and vengeance. This results in Steele stoically walking away into his destiny, which is probably halfway between Dirty Harry and John Rambo with a quarter of the budget and talent.
Bernie Casey questions Cox’s methods and wonders if Steele is back on the force.
“He isn’t being recruited,” Cox intones. “He’s being unleashed…”
Qwan shows up at Lee’s funeral to give his condolence to Lee’s daughter, who survived her family’s slaughter because she was out getting sushi or something. It is also revealed that the man who killed Lee is part of Qwan’s entourage. The assassin is played by the Peter Kwong. He was the lightning villain in Big Trouble In Little China.
At this point, Steele arrives fashionably late to his best friend’s funeral. He recognizes his pal’s killer and awkwardly makes his way through row after row of gravestones. He then brawls with the assassin, and by “brawl,” I mean, gets “clobbered.” This bombshell is then revealed: the assassin is Qwan’s son!
Steele wonders how to proceed now that he knows Qwan is officially the bad guy. Apparently, Steele is all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. His first step is to consult a lawyer about the possibility of making a citizen’s arrest. I am not making this up. It is an actual scene in the movie. The lawyer is played by Sarah Douglas, who was the evil super chick in Superman 2.
Suffice it to say, Douglas advises against the whole citizen’s arrest idea.
It turns out that Qwan saved the knife Steele shot into his heart. Sure, he’s evil, but you have to admit, that is kind of sweet of him to be so sentimental. Qwan passes the knife onto his son to return to Steele. Couldn’t he just mail it? Oh, wait…I get it! Boy, that Boris sure knows how to lay out a yarn!
For some reason, Steele gets arrested and put in jail. I’m not sure of the details behind this. A man can only track so much plot. Prison goons are sent to kill Steele. They are no match for Steele, however. He defeats them with Mop-Fu and bitchin’ electric guitar squeals. Steele escapes in the aftermath, which is too bad. He likely could have dated any man in that prison after this display of dominance.
Steele Justice League
Next, we get a glimpse into the life of Tracy. She is a choreographer for the Solid Gold Dancers. Do you remember those? Bruce Willis’s wife, Chelsea Field, in The Last Boy Scout came from among their number. We are then treated to a music video/montage featuring Astral Plane.
This culminates in an attack by Fabulous Force Five as they try to murder Lee’s surviving daughter. Kove and Casey intervene. Are dance members caught in the crossfire? You bet!
Just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any more awesome, it does this. Boris, you glorious maniac. Surely, there is a book hidden in the catacombs beneath Hollywood that prophesied of your coming, and everyone missed it. That is why Hollywood is so lost today.
Amazingly, Steele Justice ascends to yet another level of madness. One of the bad guys, played by the candy-bar-eating dude from Die Hard, Al Leong, ditches his weapon to shoot a blowgun at Steele! He hits Steele in the arm with a poison dart. Steele proceeds to save himself by using items from a buffet table as surgical implements. To quote Belloq: “It’s beautiful!”
Just give Boris a lifetime achievement Oscar at the next Academy Awards, already!
Steele Justice gives us no time to bathe in the warm glow of all of this, however. The surprises continue to pile on top of each other. Qwan meets with his drug supplier to finalize the details of a big shipment. Guess who plays his drug supplier? Shannon Tweed!
After dealing death, Steele needs to recharge. He stares off into the ocean while Lee’s surviving daughter plays Fur Elise on the piano. It’s these kind of artistic touches that give Steele Justice heart. It might be a transplanted pig heart, but that still counts.
Steele wears a pink sweatshirt tied around his shoulders in this scene. He is also bare-chested. What can you say, the man knows fashion. Steele treats us to a Rocky-style training montage as he pumps a stick over his head. A weighted stick, you might wonder. No, just a stick…
Thus prepared, Steele goes into an Asian pool hall and asks to see a Fabulous Force Five lieutenant. Steele gets kicked in the groin for his trouble. He limps back to his truck…and proceeds to drive it through the pool hall’s front window, Terminator-style! Steele wants the lieutenant to relay a message to Qwan.
I believe Qwan already knew this, so I’m not sure exactly what was accomplished here, but who am I to question the strategy of a man who would probably have the GI Joe codename of “Chippendale?”
Dawn of Steele Justice
Next, Steele takes Lee’s daughter along on a reconnaissance mission. This seems a tad dangerous, but I guess if she is going to be Steele’s adopted daughter, she needs to learn how to kill sooner or later. And really, it’s certainly not any worse than that whole Woody Allen thing. Lee’s daughter asks Steele about his lifestyle.
“Nothing to it, Kitten. Easy in, easy out. Your dad and I used to do it all the time.”
Er…uhm…okay. I hope he is talking about killing here.
Steele’s next step is to visit a military base commanded by his former general, played by Joseph Campanella. Steele procures a super shotgun. It looks to be a version of the “Manville Launcher.” Of course, a testosterone-laden specimen like Steele would choose a weapon manufactured by a company called “Manville.”
Steele also steals a vehicle, which makes sense, since he wrecked his driving into the pool hall.
At this point, viewers likely wonder, what is Qwan’s homelife like? Hence, Boris takes us there. When he is relaxing at his pad, Qwan likes to wear a kimono. You know that Simpsons episode where Homer wears a muumuu? It is kind of like that. I’m sure there is something traditional about this outfit, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that it is a crime against fashion.
Now Qwan’s son, on the other hand, he has style. He dresses like Sonny Crockett, and the Fabulous Force Five members he travels with wear suits and sunglasses. Do they wear them fiercely? You bet! They all gather in an industrial garage to make their drug deal, only to find out the cocaine has been replaced with talcum powder.
Steele presents himself as the fly in the ointment. He also reveals that he has the real cocaine on a pallet suspended from the ceiling. He then blows up the chain holding the pallet, and the cocaine falls to the ground, where it is now within easy reach of the bad guys.
I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps, there was a pyrotechnic malfunction? A charge was maybe supposed to blow the cocaine up? Then, after Boris saw the mistake, he said, “No, we’re keeping it! This is way better!” Improvisation is a hallmark of genius, after all.
G.I. Steele: A Real American Zero
Steele crashes the party with another GI Joe vehicle. It is a miniature armored car with a minigun mounted on top of it. The bad guys return fire with handheld Browning 30-caliber machine guns, but they are no match for Steele. Do you think Martin Kove took a discount on his salary when he learned that he’d get to fire a minigun? Probably. What’s interesting is that Steele Justice actually beat Predator to the punch by featuring a minigun. Steele Justice came out about a month before Arnold’s classic monster flick. I must admit, Steele Justice had a pretty good weapons wrangler on staff.
We should also touch upon Steele’s outfit in the climax. He is shirtless, of course, and he basically has shotgun shell bandoliers wrapped around every part of his body. I didn’t even know they made shotgun bandoliers for biceps. Then again, I am in an innocent in the ways of badassdom.
Plot twist: Steele’s former general is also in cahoots with Qwan! Campanella takes out Steele’s truck with a rocket launcher. Qwan’s son goes to flex over Steele’s corpse, but Steele is nowhere to be found in the wreckage. You know who Qwan’s son finds instead? Three-Step!
The snake bites Qwan’s son. Steele counts out “One! Two! Three” as Qwan’s son tries to walk away. Then the man falls over, dead. Take note, budding screenwriters. This is called a “payoff.”
Steele and Campanella face off, Old West-style. That’s right, they have a showdown. Earlier, it was established that Campanella is the faster draw. Obviously, Steele was just toying with him at that point, the way a father wrestles with a son. Steele blasts Campanella down.
At last, Qwan joins the party, as well. In fact, he uses the same line he did in the beginning of the film. He brought a sword and Tracy with him. Qwan threatens Tracy’s life. So you know what Steele does? Think of the most awesome thing you can imagine and then double it, and you will be in the general vicinity of his reaction. Steele reminds Qwan that Tracy is his “ex” wife. He then raises his Manville Launcher and blows Tracy and Qwan through a wall!
Qwan dusts himself off and runs away. Steele goes to check on Tracy. She is a bit incensed that Steele blew her through a wall.
“Relax,” Steele says. “It was only a riot bag.”
Oh, you wacky trickster, Steele! Steele and Qwan eventually end up in that pipe-ridden industrial building that showed up in every 1980s action movie. They have a sword fight. Steele shoots another grenade, so I guess that is officially one of his moves. Electric guitar squeals happen.
“The only law is Black Tiger law!” Qwan says.
In response to this questionable declaration, Steele turns Qwan into an airburst by pulling the pin on one of Qwan’s grenades and throwing him over the side of a building. It’s probably how Qwan would have wanted to go anyway.
“And the only justice is me,” Steele says.
Ronny Cox arrives and congratulates Steele on a fine job of taking the law into his own hands. Steele contemplates a return to the police force. He leaves with Tracy and Lee’s daughter instead, flashing Cox with one last smile.
That damn smile…
Steele of a deal
Steele Justice is a fine example of the movies that oversaturated the 1980s action market and eventually killed it. Steele Justice has some good ideas, but they are not fully realized. It simply couldn’t compete with the gems Arnold and Sly put out at the time, nor did it have the scrappy underdog quality of a Van Damme movie.
However, viewing Steele Justice through modern eyes is fairly entertaining. Its unapologetic attempt to be badass is wonderfully misguided and good for multiple laughs. Kove is not a great action hero, and it seems like even he knows it. His performance has an element of I-am-never-getting-a-leading-man-role-again-after-this-am-I?, but he’s not bitter about it. He is good-naturedly resigned. Meanwhile, Soon Tek-Oh is having a great time. He was probably glad to play something other than Asian businessman/policeman/gardener again. Rather, he is back in Missing In Action 2 form.
Overall, I was not moved by Steele Justice, but I was “justified” in being amused.