Seeing Steven Seagal in “Exit Wounds,” his first bigscreen actioner in a few years, makes one wonder how he ever managed to be regarded as anything resembling a movie star. Puffy-looking, sluggish and resolutely uncharismatic, he’s shown up for what he is (and isn’t) by the younger, fitter actors who surround him in this routinely made genre piece that’s been carefully designed as a “comeback” vehicle. Increasingly familiar Joel Silver mix of an action stalwart with a hip-hop personality, heavily ethnic supporting cast and highly promotable soundtrack elements should trigger a solid opening shot, followed by a fairly steep slide to acceptable ultimate B.O.
The scent of calculation cloaks the enterprise from beginning to end: Seagal’s character is a lone-wolf cop a la Dirty Harry who lives to piss off his superiors; rapper DMX (who had a small role in Silver’s similar actioner “Romeo Must Die”) is given initial street cred by appearing to play a drug-dealing villain before revealing his virtuous true colors in the late going, and there’s equal opportunity comic relief courtesy of Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson, latter of whom also appeared in “Romeo” but made his mark as one of Jim Carrey’s sons in “Me, Myself & Irene.”
In the overblown opening action sequence, Seagal’s veteran detective Orin Boyd saves the life of the U.S. vice president from the blistering assault of some renegade cops. Curiously, he’s demoted for his trouble, reassigned to the notorious 15th Precinct and sent to anger-management class, where he lasts about five minutes, and also meets voluble talkshow host Henry Wayne (Arnold).
It doesn’t take long to see that Seagal has not spent his layoff getting buff and into fighting trim. In the star’s first martial arts display, with a bunch of Asian toughs he catches breaking into his car — and then in every subsequent hand-to-hand combat scene as well — director Andrzej Bartkowiak (back for more after “Romeo”) and editor Derek G. Brechin break from the routine style of the rest of the film and resort to some furiously fast cutting to disguise the fact that Seagal isn’t actually doing much of anything.
Even more of a joke is a sequence in the 15th Precinct locker room, which seems to function primarily as a weight-training center for the country’s most muscular cops. On one occasion, the various Mr. Universe candidates are competing in a hazing-like game of seeing how long they can take having a stun gun jabbed in their guts. All the other guys are stripped to the waist, but not Seagal, who gets the treatment through all his clothes; clearly, the star wasn’t about to be compared to his hunky and much younger supporting cast (although you can bet that Bruce Willis or even Clint Eastwood in his 60s would have done it).
Based on a novel by street cop John Westermann, inspired by his real-life partner, a wild Vietnam vet, pic has very little story. Working his way back up from traffic cop under the watchful eye of Mulcahy, who only happens to be the most attractive precinct commander you’ve ever seen thanks to the casting of Jill Hennessy, Boyd stumbles upon one tense confrontation after another. Most of these have something to do with a big drug deal going down involving local operator Latrell Walker (DMX), whose brother is languishing in prison, and police attempts to bust him.
But it’s soon clear that at least some of the cops are dirty — it’s only a question of how many of them — and, eventually, that Latrell is involved in a very sophisticated and modern form of entrepreneurial investigation, however implausible it may be, that reps the only remotely fresh element here.
Although the film is rated R, most of the violence is “clean,” or relatively blood-free. But it’s also very routine and unimaginative, with Bartkowiak scaling back from some of his more stylized gambits in “Romeo” and none of it — the shootouts or the martial arts sleight of hand — showing any special flair.
The use of Toronto to stand in for Detroit has resulted in some pretty humorous sights, especially when what is supposed to be the worst part of the Michigan city is repped by Toronto’s somewhat seedy but heavily traveled and immediately recognizable Yonge Street; what’s more, a huge sign promoting Toronto’s Sky Dome is plainly visible. If filmmakers are going to continue to double Toronto for American cities, they’re going to have to be more adept than this.
Viewers who sit through “Exit Wounds” should at least do themselves the favor of staying for the end credits, which feature some truly funny off-color banter between Anderson and Arnold on the latter’s ostensible talkshow.