Excessive Force (1993)

PLOT: After a gangster goes free, a cop on the edge wages battle against organized crime and internal corruption while also repairing a romantic relationship, playing jazz piano, avoiding death, and kickboxing with his friends. Can he focus on a single task long enough to actually complete it?

Director: Jon Hess
Writer: Thomas Ian Griffith
Cast: Thomas Ian Griffith, Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd, Burt Young, Tom Hodges


He was a rich industrialist presiding over a company that illegally dumped toxic waste. He freely used racial slurs in reference to an elderly Asian man. He deployed twisted Machiavellian tactics against a young and virtuous martial artist. Despite it all, there was something strangely likable about Karate Kid III’s pony-tailed prick, Terry Silver. The primary reason for this perception was the performance of Thomas Ian Griffith (truly the best part about the film). When you’ve conquered the Mountain of Cult Action Movie Villain Status, there’s only two ways to go: total obscurity, or the Valley of Aspirational Lead Action Star Roles. Starting in the early 1990s, Griffith rattled off starring roles in a dizzying series of action films, of which 1993’s Excessive Force was just one. The title alludes to the film’s action quotient and the inciting incident of police brutality, but also the Herculean effort required to turn the former Terry Silver into a respectable hero.

Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) has been pursuing ruthless mob boss Sal DiMarco (Young) for over three years, and on three separate occasions within that frame of time, DiMarco has slithered away from formal charges. The latest legal case -- following a sting operation and a botched drug deal -- has been thrown out by a gutless judge due to Terry’s physical coercion of a potential witness. Worse yet, DiMarco thinks that the $3 million lost by his dealer in the chaos ended up in the hands of the cops. This means that Terry and his partners Dylan (Hodges) and Frank (Todd) are in the criminal’s cross-hairs. Soon-to-be Captain Devlin (Henriksen) is doing his best to steer his boys in blue away from the danger, but gangsters have a habit of doing gangster shit when money is concerned.

If you like action, romance, and 17-year gaps between a film’s worldwide release and when it got released in Belgium, this is the film for you, gentle reader. The story, written by Griffith, allows his skills (and hair) to shine in a gritty Seagal-esque urban cop role, and no amount of expository dialogue, turtlenecks, or red scarves could have tied him down (despite sartorial efforts to the contrary). He surrounds himself with a strong supporting cast up to the task of playing colorful support characters. Henriksen is forceful and occasionally chilling as Devlin. Tony Todd, with limited screen-time, plays Terry’s ball-busting partner and the two have a natural chemistry. The same goes for James Earl Jones, playing the elderly jazz bar owner and saxophonist, Jake, who’s trying like hell to steer Terry away from the streets and towards his passion for jazz piano. Lewis, despite not having a hell of a lot to do here other than act like a fabulous model and irritated ex, delivers the best line of this or any 1990s action film: “so you just break into my house, get drunk, and feed your cat?" If you disagree, feel free to fight me on the Internet.

Excessive Force is chock full of action film tropes, from big themes of corruption and redemption to more minor details, like cops moonlighting as jazz musicians (see: clarinet-playing Chow Yun-fat in 1992’s Hard-Boiled). The action packs plenty of firepower overall, but because the film fails to build up an opponent as Terry’s physical equal, it hurts the audience’s investment in the outcome of each fight scene. Nor is there any context given for why Terry uses martial arts at all; there’s some kickboxing near the beginning of the film with Frank, but it’s framed as nothing more than friendly competitive exercise between friends. They might as well have been jogging or doing Bikram yoga. Did we need a scene with Terry talking to his dying master or educating the members of the force on the practical application of kenpo karate? Not necessarily, but it would have helped the story to acknowledge that Terry’s fighting skill was dangerous. Instead, he’s painted as an emotionally unhinged, jazz-playing, kickboxing cop, and while these are all cool qualities in isolation, they don’t really make any logical sense as a whole.


All of the right pieces were in place for a great film -- a solid cast, plot twists galore, and mainstream polish -- but after you tally all the points, Excessive Force feels a little conventional. There are good supporting performances and Griffith has the right amount of leading man swagger. However, the story is a bit weighed down by the struggle-juggle of too many plot points and character quirks. Good, not great, but still good.


Amazon, Netflix (disc only).

4 / 7

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