As many of you know, I’ve been on a big Steven Seagal kick as of late after reading Seagalogy by Vern. This has led to me re-watching every major Seagal effort up through Fire Down Below in the past month or so. It’s been a rewarding journey thus far, but now I’m about to cross the threshold that separates the fair weather fans from the true believers . . . I’m about to begin my journey into the DTV-era full force. I’ve only previously seen Black Dawn (thanks to Fantasmo All-Star Craig’s well-timed Christmas gift) and Out For A Kill, both of which were mostly not so good. Before going into back catalog territory though, I decided to kick things off with the newest Seagal flick (released just last week) Pistol Whipped. Vern mentioned in the interview we did that he thought it turned out well, and indicated that Seagal was moving in a positive direction. His recent review on Ain’t It Cool News had me completely sold, to the point that I was looking way too forward to picking it up first thing on release day. Was I setting myself up for a tremendous disappointment, or was this to be the best Seagal movie in years? I’m happy to report that this one does not disappoint . . . for the most part.
In Pistol Whipped Seagal plays Matt (no last name is ever provided), a former cop presumed to be dirty by his colleagues. In addition to that black mark, he is also an alcoholic, addicted to gambling, divorced, and a lousy father. The film opens with a flash forward shootout, followed by Seagal having a heart-to-heart chat with a priest about his many foibles. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the opening was riveting, it felt very DTV from my limited experience, but I was pleased that Seagal was neither dubbed (that I could tell) or doubled. Plus the shootout features the classic Seagal trademark of firing his gun without looking at the intended target(s). From there, the plot kicks in when Seagal is strong-armed into a meeting with a mysterious gentleman known only as The Old Man (played by the great Lance Henriksen), who agrees to pay his gambling debts off. The hitch is that Seagal will have to assassinate an assortment of local bad guys. Cue lots of gunplay and broken bones.
First I’ll start off with what I didn’t like. Given that it’s a DTV title, at times Pistol Whipped has a cheap feel. But really that’s to be expected, and I can’t get too upset about that . . . it only makes me wish it had production values that were just a tad higher. I also didn’t like that it uses a lot of gimmicky jump cuts and slow motion shots that apparently are supposed to make the film seem stylish. Instead they come off as cheesy and amateur. You see this sort of thing a lot in low-budget movies, and it rarely works (even in big studio films for that matter). And finally, it doesn’t have a really strong villain. This in my mind is its greatest flaw. The best Seagal films all feature top notch villains (e.g. Henry Silva, Tommy Lee Jones, Eric Bogosian, etc.). Without a strong opposing presence, there’s an emptiness to the central conflict that really brings things down. Fortunately, the presence of Lance Henriksen and Paul Calderon in strong supporting roles helps to compensate somewhat.
All that being said, Pistol Whipped still comes out ahead for one simple reason – Seagal appears to be invested in the film (if for no other reason than he does his own lines and rarely resorts to a double). In the other DTV efforts I’ve seen, he really seems to be just phoning things in (perhaps literally in some cases). So much so in fact, that they don’t even seem like Seagal films in the least. In Pistol Whipped, the man is front and center for the majority of the film, and really conveys a sense of world weariness. Part of this is due to his physical appearance. I’ve seen comments where folks have said Seagal slimmed down for this a bit, but I sure can’t tell it. No matter, I think his size/shape actually serves this role well. He seems a bit like the Apocalypse Now-era Brando, in that he’s taken on an almost otherworldly quality. No longer is he the invincible hero, but rather an enigmatic shadow with traces of what he once was mixed in with intervening years of hard living.
Actually, an even better comparison might be with Stallone in the recent Rambo film. In Rambo, Stallone’s physical stature is overwhelming. He’s like an oak tree. Compare that with Stallone in First Blood Part 2 or Rambo 3, where he’s certainly muscular, but much leaner. Really, his Rambo 2007 is what one might expect to see after a 20 year gap. The same goes for Seagal. He’s never been the bodybuilder type, and his current look is not really out of line with what one would expect in the 20 years since Above the Law. It’s actually pretty natural, and I think maybe too much is made of this fact. Sure if you do a double-feature of Above the Law and Pistol Whipped you’ll get a bit of a start, but try doing the same with the following and see if a similar effect is not observed:
John Wayne: Stagecoach/The Shootist
Burt Reynolds: Deliverance/Cop and a Half
Malcolm McDowell: Clockwork Orange/Star Trek: Generations
Clint Eastwood: A Fistful of Dollars/Unforgiven
Harrison Ford: American Graffiti/Firewall
Mark Hamill: Star Wars/Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back
Ryan O’Neal: Barry Lyndon/Zero Effect
Steve Guttenberg: Can’t Stop the Music/P.S. Your Cat is Dead!
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The point is that Seagal takes a bit of a beating for essentially being human. At this stage of the game, I think it’s actually working for him in these sorts of roles. He’s almost 60, so it’s a bit unreasonable to expect him to look like he’s still in his early 30’s.
Despite any reservations some might have about his physique, rest assured he still gets the job done when it comes to fighting. That’s another area in which Pistol Whipped delivers. There is plenty of aikido on display in this one, at least to the extent one would see in post-Under Siege Seagal pics. Unfortunately (depending on one’s point of view) the aikido to gunplay ratio ends up favoring the latter, but at least the gunplay bears Seagal’s signature. Not only do you get the aforementioned firing while not looking at the intended targets, but you also get two of my other personal favorites: a) Seagal dramatically ejects a spent clip and in the process exposes himself to his assailants, and b) he plays with the slide action of his pistol by using his finger on the front of the barrel. You see these time and again in Seagal pictures, and they are always welcome fixtures.
Aside from Seagal’s mere presence, some solid action, and welcome Seagal trademarks, the film also works due to the surprising weakness (only moral) of Seagal’s character. I’m not well-versed enough in DTV-era Seagal to say for certain, but this does seem to be a bit more of a darker hero than we’ve seen him play before. His character in Marked for Death was disillusioned, and his rogue cop in Out for Justice a bit heavy-handed, but this guy is genuinely unlikeable. Again, he drinks, he gambles, he weasels out of visits with his young daughter, and just generally doesn’t give you a lot to work with in terms of engendering empathy. In addition to his physical stature selling the part, Seagal also adopts a mumbling Cajun(?) accent that communicates this guy is really on the rocks. Sometimes the words are barely intelligible, and incredibly this delivery is quite successful. I’ve seen reviews that have harped on this point, stating that Seagal just can’t act. On the contrary, I think this performance stands out as something quite different in his filmography. To the extent that . . .
. . . I would truly like to see Seagal do a non-action picture. Vern mentions in his book that Seagal is trying to put together and direct a film about the blues called Prince of Pistols. Given the title, I’m sure action is involved, but I wouldn’t mind a bit if it was strictly about music. Apparently Seagal has a pretty accomplished musical act, and to see him do a straight dramatic piece would be pretty interesting. If you were to transplant his performance in Pistol Whipped to such a film, I think you’d end up with something unique and oddly wonderful. Maybe he could get in a bar fight for old time’s sake, but otherwise I’d be comfortable if it was aikido free. Just a thought.
So in summary, is Pistol Whipped worth your time? I would say that if you go in with an open mind, and a bare minimum of good will, you’ll have no regrets. For those who don’t like Seagal much to begin with, I wouldn’t expect it to create any converts (best hope for that would be Out for Justice or possibly Marked for Death). In my case, while it is nowhere near the top of my Seagal list of favorites, I thought he turned in a worthy performance and gave us enough of his trademarks to qualify this a legitimate Seagal film. And you can take that to the bank!