November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Steven Seagal, Basil Wallace

John Wayne had that little eyebrow-raising move. Clint Eastwood has his squint. But Seagal is limited as an action hero because his face seems continuously stuck in the same expression, that of a person who has just bitten into a rotten peach and broken a tooth on the pit.

This is a perfectly appropriate expression for, say, kicking someone in the crotch or blasting them with an automatic weapon. Unfortunately, Seagal occasionally gets stuck with having to try to do some acting.

In this film he plays a burned-out federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent who retires to a quiet Chicago suburb but reverts to ferocious type when his niece is gunned down by a vengeful Jamaican drug gang. Seagal has a scene where he looks down at his critically wounded niece and, one assumes, is supposed to register grief. Instead, the camera stays on his face for what seems like two minutes without catching a hint of movement. There are faces carved on mountains in South Dakota that are better at displaying emotion.

As for the action sequences, they are foolishly staged by director Dwight H. (Halloween 4) Little. Seagal gets into a dozen or so fights, and in most of them so many bad guys fly at him so fast he barely has time to touch them, let alone lay a serious martial-arts move on them. Either he has perfected the pinky chop into a lethal maneuver or these guys all have a low death threshold.

The dialogue by Michael Grais and Mark Victor (they collaborated on Poltergeist II) never rises above its surroundings. The lines “Let’s do it!” “Don’t even think about it!” and “You’re a walking dead man!” all appear, as does that yuk-filled platitude, “The streets are hard out there. Some people make a bad choice, that’s all.”

Keith (Platoon) David lends some dignity as Seagal’s war buddy, now a high school football coach and. it would seem, avocational SWAT-team expert. Joanna (Gorky Park) Pacula makes a brief appearance as an anthropologist specializing in voodoo. She seems to lust after Seagal, but old Steve can’t be bothered. Stage actor Basil Wallace provides the movie’s only memorable touches as a blue-eyed black-Jamaican gang boss whose psychotic fits recall Robert Newton’s delightfully overacted Long John Silver in the 1950 Treasure Island.

While Seagal himself would seem to be in a woeful, blood-filled rut, he is certainly among the best ponytailed movie actors of all time, perhaps not up there with Debbie Reynolds but able to give Sandra Dee a run for her money any day. (R)

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