“You don’t recruit him! You unleash him!”
That’s what they say about John Steele, the man who Martin Kove plays in 1987’s Steele Justice. John Steele served in Vietnam and he was one of the best and most fearless members of the special forces. On the final day of the war, he was on the verge of arresting the corrupt General Kwan (Soon-Tek Oh) until Kwan suddenly announced that the war was over and the Americans were leaving. Steele laughed, shrugged, and turned his back on Kwan and started to walk away. Was Steele planning on just walking back to America? Well, regardless, Kwan shot Steele and his friend in the back. Fortunately, Steele survived. Steele may be stupid but he’s strong.
Years later, both Steele and Kwan are now living in California. Kwan is a prominent businessman who is also the secret leader of the Vietnamese mafia. Naturally, his main henchman is played by Al Leong. If Al Leong’s not working for you, are you even evil? John Steele has not been quite as successful. He was a cop until he got kicked off the force. Then he got a job transporting horses across California. Despite his cool guy name, John Steele doesn’t seem to be that good at anything that doesn’t involve killing people.
But then Kwan murders Steele’s best friend and former partner, Lee (Robert Kim). In fact, Kawn not only murders Lee but he also kills Lee’s entire family. The only survivor is Lee’s daughter, Cami (Jan Gan Boyd), a piano prodigy who is supposed to be 14 years old even though she’s being played by someone who is in her 20s. Steele and Lee’s former boss, Bennett (Ronny Cox), gives Steele permission to track down the people responsible for Lee’s death.
John Steele sets out to destroy Kwan. The film gives us a lot of reasons to be on Steele’s side but it’s hard not to notice that a lot of innocent people end up getting killed as a result of Steele’s vendetta. Any time that Steele goes anywhere, Kwan’s people attack and a bunch of innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire. For example, Steele’s ex, Tracy (Sela Ward), agrees to look after Cami. It turns out that Tracy is a music video director and, of course, she takes Cami to work with her. The video shoot turns into a bloodbath, with even the members of the band getting gunned down. And yet, not even Tracy seems to be particularly disturbed by that. One might think that Tracy would at least sarcastically say something like, “Hey, John, thanks for getting the band killed before I got paid,” but no. Tracy just kind of laughs it all off. At no point does Steele or Bennett or really anyone seem to feel bad about all of the people who get killed as a result of the decision to unleash John Steele. Those people had hopes and dreams too, you know.
I really like Martin Kove on Cobra Kai. I love how his portrayal of the over-the-hill and burned-out John Kreese manages to be both intimidating and pathetic at the same time. I’ve also seen a number of interviews with Kove, in which he’s discussed his career as an exploitation mainstay and he always comes across as being well-spoken and intelligent. That said, Martin Kove appears to be totally lost in Steele Justice, unsure if he should be playing John Steele as a grim-faced avenger or as a quick-with-a-quip action hero. Whenever Steele is angry, Kove looks like he’s on the verge of tears. Whenever Steele makes a joke, Kove smiles like an overage frat boy who, while cleaning out his old storage unit, has just discovered his long lost copy of Bumfights. It’s a confused performance but, to be honest, no one really comes out of Steele Justice looking good. This is a film that features a lot of talented actors looking completely and totally clueless as to why they’re there.
On the plus side, Steele Justice did give this world this totally intimidating shot of Martin Kove, preparing to be get and give justice. Recruit him? No, just unleash him!