Back in the 1980s and 1990s, action cinema was largely defined by a certain level of machismo. The typical action heroes were muscle-bound, seemingly invincible and known for their ability to dispatch one-dimensional villains with an endless supply of cheesy one-liners. The work of Arnold Schwarzenegger perhaps best exemplifies this particular style of filmmaking, but other stars like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal played in that very same sandbox and became international stars as a result.
Today’s most popular action films have embraced a very different approach, wherein the heroes are far more fallible and human and the violence is more grounded and visceral. Think the Bourne films or Daniel Craig’s James Bond. In recent years, the old-school style of action has largely been relegated to direct-to-DVD projects and nostalgia trips like Stallone’s The Expendables franchise. However, the new Seagal thriller, Code of Honor, clearly aims to attract modern audiences with a very similar tone.
Written and directed by Michael Winnick (Guns, Girls and Gambling), the film centers on Colonel Robert Sikes (Seagal), who has launched a series of bloody attacks against morally reprehensible drug dealers, gang members and other assorted low-lives. While the media dubs Sikes a “super-vigilante,” both a police officer (Louis Mandylor) and a mysterious federal agent (Craig Sheffer) are hot on his trail, aiming to hold him accountable for his mounting crime spree. Along the way, a stripper with a heart of gold (Helena Mattsson) gets caught up in the middle of the manhunt, becoming both a target for the villains and a potential asset for those hoping to catch Sikes.
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the aforementioned old-school action probably already sees shades of resemblance between Code of Honor and the bazillion other action-thrillers that have come before it. In fact, Winnick’s film would be an excellent selection for viewers in need of a good game of action cliché bingo, as the ground that it treads has been so frequently traversed that it emerges beaten-down and distorted. From a particularly gratuitous strip club scene to a sleazy, Die Hard-style journalist (Griff Furst), Code of Honor has very little new material to offer its viewers, and even worse, what it does have falls just as flat.
Regardless of its storytelling prowess (or lack thereof), fans of Seagal who are checking the film out might simply be doing so as a pure guilty-pleasure action thrill ride. Although there are a number of action scenes in Code of Honor, none of them are particularly well-executed, and the overuse of CGI blood throughout the entire film just makes the violence seem cartoony and fake. From an opening ambush to the final showdown, not one second of action feels believable or engaging, and though he has always lacked the charisma of stars like Schwarzenegger, Seagal shows little to no energy in the anti-heroic part of Sikes.
In fact, the star – who hasn’t headlined a major theatrical release since the early 2000s – speaks not one word until the 47-minute mark, leaving the burden of telling some semblance of a story to Mandylor, Sheffer and Mattsson. These three actors are serviceable (at best) in their underwritten parts, but the horrific acting of everyone around them and a script with such ham-handed expository dialogue that the film’s poster should be slapped with a “non-kosher” warning do them no favors whatsoever.
Throughout its too-long 106-minute running time, Code of Honor vacillates between the most superficial sense of narrative logic to having none whatsoever. For the most part, the film is content to hop-scotch from one lifeless set piece to the next, buoyed by neither its cast nor its action. No amount of slow-motion explosions can make up for the complete lack of anything compelling on the part of Winnick, Seagal and everyone else involved.
Yet, the final act of Code of Honor is the point in which the film escalates from a by-the-numbers action release into something truly terrible. In a desperate move to inject innovation into the mediocre story it’s telling, the film introduces a twist that rings so false that it entirely negates everything that preceded it, dashing any viewer’s hopes that the conclusion might help justify the experience of watching this film to begin with. Alas, the end of Code of Honor accomplishes exactly the opposite, reaffirming viewers’ sinking feeling that the film they’re watching really has no clue what the hell it’s doing.