Friday, December 28, 2007
Being a cult movie fan and a librarian, I’m always on the lookout for great books relating to the subject. One of the items on my Christmas wish list this year, which thankfully found its way under the tree, was a recently published volume on the films of Steven Seagal (aptly titled Seagalogy). The book is written by Vern, a regular contributor to the Ain’t It Cool News Web site, and a fellow well-versed in all things Seagal. Essentially Seagology is an examination of Seagal’s films, and to a lesser extent his side projects (e.g. music albums, energy drinks, etc.). While I’m certainly not the expert that Vern is, I’ve always found Seagal to be a fascinating character, and his career arc has been incredibly interesting to watch. Now you’re probably saying to yourself the guy is no different than any other Hollywood action hero (e.g. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Van Damme, etc.), but that is far from the case. (Note: Chuck Norris was left out of the above list for reasons related to my personal safety. Same goes for Kurt Thomas aka Jonathan Cabot). As Vern demonstrates through the course of the book, Seagal’s films are characterized by a unique voice and consistent thematic content, making his body of work something special. Is he right? Let’s take a closer look shall we . . .
My experience with Seagal began with his debut film Above the Law (1988). Seagal portrays Nico Toscani, a Chicago cop of Italian descent who also happens to be ex-CIA and an expert in aikido. This character profile will undergo numerous variations, and reappear in many Seagal outings. As Vern points out, Seagal has a fascination with martial arts/Eastern philosophy and government agency corruption, so these elements tend to find a place in most Seagal plots (regardless of how labored their insertion may be). In Above the Law, Seagal’s Toscani does battle with the great actor Henry Silva, a CIA operative who’s using drug money to finance guerrilla warfare. While the action scenes are thrilling, there is quite a bit of attention paid to highlighting the nefarious activities of government agencies and the lack of oversight employed to keep them in check. The film even wraps with Seagal addressing Congress on the abuses of these agencies. This focus on corruption clearly announces a cinematic agenda on the part of Seagal from the word go. Indeed the majority of his films will advance some sort of progressive cause (e.g. animal rights, environmental pollution, evils of big business, etc.) amidst numerous scenes of Seagal breaking the limbs of thugs (which he does so well).
While Above the Law has much that is familiar to action fans (e.g. shootouts, fist fights, car chases, etc.), it also stands out from the crowd due to the performance of Seagal. Firstly, his aikido style is quicker and more brutal than most martial arts seen on screen up to that point in time (and even now). It isn’t flashy like a lot of the kung fu one sees in movies, but rather all business. Secondly, Seagal has a presence that is entirely unique among action stars. He’s a bit of an enigma (wrapped in a riddle), and one can almost sense that the mystery he promulgates is a smokescreen for a fellow who’s a bit of a charlatan (with the exception of his marital arts skill). This gives his onscreen persona an unintentional hilarity, in that viewers come away thinking he’s full of hot air. Additionally, from the way he holds a gun to the way he runs, the man moves in a way that is unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen. His movement often appears awkward (with the exception of aikido), and comes off as both strange and amusing. Nevertheless, he makes it abundantly clear that you do not want to mess with him.
It also bears mentioning that the release of this film marked somewhat of a watershed moment in action film history. The 80’s had been largely dominated by four major action stars: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bronson (yes), and Norris (of course). Certainly all would continue to work in the 90’s, but their true heyday was largely over by the close of the 80’s. Indeed, the arrival of Seagal heralded a virtual free for all of new action hero wannabes, vying to ascend to the throne of Top Dog (veiled Chuck Norris reference). Surely you remember these names: Michael Dudikoff, Jeff Speakman, Olivier Gruner, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme (the horror), etc. All had varying measures of success (Van Damme unfortunately the most), but Seagal was the one who almost pulled it off. Now you might suggest that some of these folks arrived on the scene prior to Seagal. That may be technically accurate but, as Seagalogy illustrates, none arrived on the scene as a full-blown star. That’s right, Seagal not only had a leading role, his first film was a star vehicle. Even Schwarzenegger appeared in bit parts at the beginning! Not Seagal. He didn’t have time to waste on such things.
So Above the Law was a triumph, and Seagal went on to appear in a string of successful films. I remember back in those days that every time a Seagal film was released, it automatically went to the top of the weekend box office. This went on for years! Can you even fathom such a thing? One aspect of Seagalogy I particularly like is that Vern divides up the Seagal filmography into eras:
The Golden Era: Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked For Death, Out For Justice
The Silver Era: Under Siege, On Deadly Ground, Under Siege 2, Executive Decision, The Glimmer Man, Fire Down Below, The Patriot, Exit Wounds, Ticker, Half Past Dead
DTV (Direct-To-Video) Era: Everything Else
This is a spot-on division of Seagal’s output, particularly with respect to Vern’s decision to place Under Siege in the Silver Era. Golden Era Seagal really is a heady period. The films flow one to the next, with Seagal laying out hard-hitting justice to corrupt officials and drug lords. Most importantly, justice is largely dispensed via aikido and limited gunplay (beginning with Under Siege aikido takes a back seat to bullets and explosives). Out For Justice is quite a capper to this period, as it represents the grittiest and most accomplished of the four films, and is also arguably Seagal’s best film. Under Siege then marks a turning point for Seagal. It was his first (and only) true blockbuster, and catapulted him to the level of mainstream superstar for a brief moment in time. As Vern identifies, this represented an opportunity for him to capitalize on his hard won clout and take his place as America’s favorite action hero. What he chose to do with his new power was perhaps ill-advised, but without question daring. Three words friends: On Deadly Ground.
On Deadly Ground saw Seagal unleashed. As mentioned previously, Seagal always managed to incorporate some kind of message into his films. Usually it dealt with government corruption of some sort, but more often than not the action was prominent enough to make the underlying theme almost subliminal. With On Deadly Ground, Seagal had full directorial control and input into the script. As such, the film is loaded with messages ranging from animal rights to the evils of big business. The real showstopper though is the finale in which Seagal gives a lengthy speech on man’s abuse of the environment. Not since the closing minutes of Above the Law (which by comparison was just a warm up) had Seagal so clearly enunciated his progressive views. Unfortunately, while the message may have been heartfelt and somewhat accurate, it was a bitter pill to swallow in a cheesy action movie headlined by a fellow whose greatest talent was the variety of ways he can break a limb. Consequently, the movie bombed with action fans and activists, sending Seagal down the slow decline to home video. Despite its financial failure however, On Deadly Ground is still quite a spectacle and more than just an action film. As such, it serves to add to the mystique of Seagal which separates him from the pack. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s head and shoulders above the generic action movies that were coming out left and right at the time . . . and now.
Although he toned things down after the failure of On Deadly Ground, fans just didn’t connect with him after that. The mainstream public likely became convinced he was a joke, whereas the faithful probably felt he had abandoned his hardcore action roots. No matter the reason, his box office power gradually eroded to a point where he was no longer a sought after commodity. To make matters worse, his physical appearance echoed his career decline, leading to films in which Seagal was clearly doubled by other actors rather than performing his own fight/stunt work. Ultimately, he has been relegated to direct-to-video features (churning out as many as four a year!), which for the most part are barely watchable. You still find the messages and themes typical of Seagal, but they are sandwiched into films that are neither visually interesting nor exciting. In fact, Seagal is in them very little. As mentioned, he is frequently doubled and often dubbed(!) by other actors. If you want to see a horrendous example of a DTV Seagal feature, check out Out For A Kill (available at the Chesapeake Public Library : ) Funny and sad.
As I said, Seagal’s career trajectory is truly fascinating, and his early/middle work is something special. If you’re a Seagal fan or just curious, you really should pick up a copy of Seagalogy. It’s a fun read, and it does a great job of capturing what makes Seagal an atypical action hero, worthy of analysis. It has inspired me to go back and revisit some of those early works, and I’m a better person as a result . . . or something. On a parting note, the book also features the best quotes from Seagal’s films. One that stands out as defining the man, particularly in light of his unwillingness to give up on filmmaking and embracing of Zen-like principles, comes from 1990’s Hard To Kill: “We're outgunned and undermanned. But you know sumpin'? We're gonna win. You know why? Superior attitude. Superior state of mind.” What wisdom. Of course he also said the following in the same movie: “I'm gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank!” Pure genius.