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Action Jackson was clearly an attempt to establish Carl Weathers as an alternate Arnold Schwarzenegger and start an African American action franchise. Besides Weathers (Predator) there’s also Bill Dukes (Predator and Commando), Charles Meshack (“My friend is dead tired” guy from Commando), and Sonny Landham (Predator). That’s just what I caught. I suspect the Vanity role was probably offered to Rae Dawn Chong, too, since the whole thing seems like it could have been filmed during cigar breaks in Schwarzenegger vehicles.

Set in Detroit and cast mostly on the cheap, outside of those named above, AJ is pretty cheesy. Craig T. Nelson makes a good villain in that you can’t really see him without hoping someone caves his face in. And it might as well be noted stew master Weathers. Weathers definitely plays Jackson as a much less super-heroic character than they seemed to be going for with the script. It was a good choice on his part, as Weathers is a likeable actor and able to elicit a sympathy that a lot of action stars of the era were incapable of achieving. The film builds up a mythos around the Action handle that Jericho Jackson, the man, has no interest in pursuing. Hints are dropped in awkward expositional dialogue that he is practically a saint. He has a Harvard law degree yet became a cop…for some reason. In spite of all the hazing he takes from obviously inferior (and white) colleagues he never just walks away to make some money. I guess he just cares too much.

Saddled with all the tropes of the fallen hero (public disgrace, loss of rank, ex-wife), Jackson gets caught up in a convoluted plot between carmaker Nelson, the UAW union and a ton of unnecessary back story that has to be dropped in via awkward lines delivered flatly throughout the movie. The worn cop clichés aren’t the only marks of a 1980s action movie. Nelson also employs an unstoppable team of ninjas who perform various assassinations of UAW leaders who stand in his way. Nelson himself spars with a flunky, hilariously performing “martial arts” while clad in a black polo shirt under a gray gym sweatshirt.

Weathers as an actor has no chance to be matched in the film. Sharon stone scarcely had time to learn her character’s name onscreen, though her character does prove too addlebrained to work out that perhaps his chauffeur wasn’t working on his own and was really doing Nelson’s bidding the whole time. Nelson does OK as a cookie cutter villain, hitting all of the right notes with an admirable hamminess. Bill Dukes just seems utterly uninterested in his thankless chief role. I don’t blame him, as the role is underwritten for Dukes ability. Vanity’s idea of projecting the need for heroin is to stop smiling for thirty seconds. Vanity’s chief character traits are showing her breasts at a moment’s notice, carrying her horse-sized heroin needle in a classy velvet case and making no bones about the fact that she considers herself a piece of ass above all else, even in her not-at-all difficult “quitting cold turkey” scene. Her lines are uniformly cringe inducing.

I do have to mention the racially motivated undertones of the film. They’re pretty hokey on both sides. Nelson’s plan of assassinating a key figure is to dress another black guy as Jackson and pin it on him. He outright states that his guests won’t be able to tell the difference. His ninja squad seemingly could do this without breaking a sweat, yet he still feels inclined to frame Jackson for I guess being uppity or something. Jackson arrested his son but Nelson already has plans to have him shanked in the prison shower, because that’s what you do when you’re evil. Multiple times the one white beat cop in Detroit is made to look foolish by his partner and the chief, which would be fine if it weren’t such painfully obvious pandering. It’s another spot where the movie wears its intentions on its sleeve.

That’s the overall problem with the movie, it’s clumsiness at handling what could have been a good action cop movie. Yes, it’s loaded with cliché, and lame acting and hokiness. That can still be great fun, though, if it didn’t seem so lazy and slapdash. A lack of commitment from the very beginning of the film to any sort of quality while still trying to ground it in some base of reality ultimately derails Action Jackson from being what it could have been, which I believe the box office backed up. 2 stars

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