It should have been just a little bit better. That’s what keeps going through my head about this film. Released in 1988, it stars Carl Weathers, and it was clearly attempting to capitalize on the style of action movies popular at the time (most prominently Lethal Weapon). It could have worked. Sylvester Stallone transitioned into action movies during the 1980s, why not his Rocky partner Carl Weathers?
The film was the debut of former stunt man and second unit director Craig R. Baxley as a primary director. (In fact, Baxley’s final credits in either capacity was the previous year in Predator, which also features Weathers). Unfortunately his relative inexperience shows in the uneven quality of the film.
Every cop film needs a thrilling hair stylist informant scene, right?
Most of the acting and the characterization in the film is pretty solid, if somewhat exaggerated. Weathers plays the title role of Detroit police officer Sgt. Jericho “Action” Jackson, and in a relatively fresh (for the time) twist, he’s an officer who has already been busted down by his supervisor for being overly aggressive in the pursuit of his duties. In fact, at the beginning of the film, he’s been on desk duty for a couple years and isn’t even permitted to carry a firearm on duty. Nevertheless, his reputation is still strong and his fellow officers use his name to intimidate suspects they bring in — to give a rough idea, picture the internet’s “Chuck Norris” meme but substitute “Action Jackson”.
It’s a role that really could have worked well for Weathers in the long term. He’s comfortable in it, feeling completely natural as a cop who is normally calm and collected but prone to excessive force. In a way, he embodies both aspects of the typical buddy cop film, being both a cool intellectual and a loose cannon at the same time. He just needs some good foils to play off, one opposed and one allied.
This almost comes together. Craig T. Nelson plays the villain in the film, Peter Dellaplane, a corporate leader in auto manufacturing who is slowly bumping off business rivals and union leaders. Nelson has always been a solid actor, and he does well here as Dellaplane. He’s cocky, sure of his power. If there’s a flaw in the performance, it’s that the character is simply too over-the-top; it’s more due to the writing than Nelson, but about the only way this guy could be more obviously-evil is if he were carrying a neon sign saying “Bad Guy”. This is a guy who throws dinner parties solely for the sake of setting up assassinations. Nelson seems all too aware of the extremity of his character’s actions and hams it up just a bit, making a shallowly-written character more interesting.
Sharon Stone plays Dellaplane’s naive and innocent wife, who becomes suspicious of her husband’s activities. Stone was a known actress by this time, but not yet the top-tier name she would become. Her character is similarly underwritten, but Stone delivers a skilled performance in the role. There’s enough to it to see how a slightly different film, featuring Stone as the allied foil (i.e., the buddy in the “buddy cop” picture) would have worked tremendously well. She and Weathers have a real chemistry on screen together. Unfortunately her character is underutilized, as the writers instead decided to have Action Jackson share most of his screen time with Dellaplane’s mistress, a heroin-abusing lounge singer played by Vanity, a musician who was becoming obscure even by that point.
It works about as well as most Vanity projects.
As a singer playing a singer, Vanity naturally gets to sing a few songs during the film. The songs are decent, but forgettable (in that I can’t remember a single note). As a character, both the writing and Vanity’s acting skills fall short. Her character is supposed to be acting as the foil to Weathers’ Jackson and providing some of the comedic thrust of the film (being an 80s action film, comedy is required by law). But the conflict and comedy are both derived almost entirely from her desire to get a fix for her heroin withdrawal. It’s not funny, and it lacks the shades of grey that makes for a good conflict between allies. As her attempts to score a hit repeatedly put her and Jackson in danger, there’s no sympathy for her side of the argument; she’s simply in the wrong, while Action is in the right, and the audience gets as irritated with her as Action does. The few times she does start to show a bit of a level head are enough to make the audience wish that her character had been written that way throughout, as she almost becomes entertaining then.
With a film titled Action Jackson, one has to expect a lot of action in the film. Fortunately, Baxley delivers. Shoot-outs in residential areas and factories, hand-to-hand combat, and car chases all figure into the film with the bombastic nature that one expects from a late-1980s action movie. It’s sometimes a little hard to take seriously, but it’s up in the air as to whether this is because it goes over-the-top too often or too little. Quieter moments are usually where the film tries to insert a little comedy. As noted, this doesn’t work very well when it’s relying on Vanity, but many of the bit characters in the film are entertaining. That said, even though there’s a young punk who is something of a recurring character in the film, there isn’t anyone among the bit characters who stands out on their own enough to really become memorable.
The film is one long stretch of “almost, but not quite”. It almost has the right level of believable action to work as an action movie. It almost had a villain who was the right mixture of corruption and cleverness. It almost had a strong, dynamic partnership, had it just gone the Weathers/Stone route instead of Weathers/Vanity. Almost, almost, almost. What’s not “almost” is Carl Weathers; he’s definitely great in his role, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t in a better film overall.
Still, the film is not without considerable entertainment value. It just has to be tempered with the right expectations. If you enjoy 1980s action films with a healthy portion of cheese, Action Jackson is a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. It’s just not going to stand up to the top entries in the genre.