Saturday, May 24, 2008

Steven Seagal is Shadow Man!

So here it is at long last, the final entry in my Seagalian odyssey. It’s been a long, strange trip, and I have no regrets (with the possible exception of Flight of Fury, but even it had a few choice moments). While it certainly wasn’t the highpoint, Shadow Man was a very solid entry in the DTV catalog. It featured all the trademarks I have come to expect (e.g. poor dubbing, bizarre dialogue, dangling plot ends, etc.), but didn’t make the missteps of not giving us enough Seagal or becoming boring. Not only that, but it actually recalled moments from Above the Law and played into Seagal’s recurring theme of government corruption. Great stuff, absolutely a must see. I had planned on writing a proper review of the film, but reconsidered in favor of analyzing 10 things I learned over the course of these 28(!) films . . .

#1 – “You must first learn to heal.” A variation of this quote appears in several Seagal films, including Shadow Man. Drawing on Buddhist principles, Seagal points out that martial arts and its associated skills are to be used as a positive force. Only in extreme circumstances should they be employed in a violent fashion. Strangely, Seagal often finds himself in extreme circumstances, as he regularly seems to be focused more on the hurting and less on the healing. Although healing will come in very handy for the trail of broken bones left in his wake.

#2 – “Luck is a funny thing, it can change in the blink of an eye.” This quote, which appears in a slightly more extreme form in Urban Justice, has at its heart the notion that “things change” (as Seagal explains in Shadow Man). This is certainly true in most of our lives. The dynamics of our circumstances and relationships are always in flux to a greater or lesser degree, and our ability to adapt is crucial. The theme of adaptation, while not necessarily made explicit in Seagal’s films, is certainly an underlying tenet of Seagalian philosophy. Given its random nature, luck is indeed a funny thing. The ability to make one’s own luck, or increase the probability of a positive outcome, surely helps when taking on the likes of drug lords and corrupt government officials (not to mention Henry Silva) . . . and is arguably a must when seeking to create an energy drink that releases the untold energy of mother earth.

#3 – “We’re outgunned and undermanned, but you know something? We’re gonna win. Wanna know why? Superior attitude, superior state of mind.” This statement, in my mind, is the very essence of Seagalian philosophy. The world can throw everything but the kitchen sink at you, but if your mind remains above the fray you will prevail. Seagal could have easily quit the game when Hollywood turned its back on him, but instead he has experienced the most prolific period of his career. Not only has he produced more movies, but he has launched his own media empire including everything from music to energy drinks! That’s what we call talking the talk, and walking the walk!

#4 – “No one beats me in the kitchen!” As Casey Ryback points out to cutthroat mercenary Everett McGill in Under Siege 2, on his home turf he is unstoppable. I guess this is sort of a play on “home is where the heart is” when you think about it, which is a timeless sentiment dramatically stated in this Seagalian framework. In addition to being a retreat of sorts in the traditional sense (i.e. a restorative locale for achieving inner peace), the Seagalian spin implies that home is also a place of primal strength which gives one an edge over interlopers. This neatly ties in with the whole making your own luck business from #2. Clearly, things can change in the kitchen in the blink of an eye.

#5 – “You may think you’re above the law, but you ain’t above mine.” Taken from his inaugural film, this statement exemplifies a central theme of Seagal’s body of work. Namely that the rule of law is the ultimate principle to which one must adhere. Time and again Seagal exposes the corruption that is rampant in government, protecting the innocent from compromised officials. However, the statement also points out an interesting caveat in this belief set. The officials are going against the written law of the land which they have lost respect for, but Seagal introduces a personal element by referencing his own set of laws. It seems that Seagal himself is operating by a different rule book as well, albeit one that errs on protecting the rights of the downtrodden. Perhaps the purest expression of this philosophy is the film Out for Justice in which Seagal mows through a score of troublemakers to track down the maniacal William Forsythe (arguably more for the purpose of revenge than for justice). Miranda warnings are nowhere to be found, and Seagal even goes so far as to arrest the man’s innocent elderly father (for reasons known only to Seagal). The result is somewhat of a paradox that echoes the old adage “do as I say, not as I do.”

Speaking of #6 – “I’m gonna keep comin’ back until someone remembers seein’ Richie.” Speaking of Out for Justice, this particular phrase underlies Seagal’s placement of value on the quality of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again is another way of putting it. In Out for Justice Seagal kills or maims practically everyone he cross examines in order to put Richie out of business. One might protest this methodology, but you can’t argue with the results. Or can you? In actuality, Seagal finally gets tipped off by an honest child street vendor who randomly happens to see Richie enter his girlfriend’s house. If Seagal had sat home all night and done nothing, he still would have found Richie. Of course I guess that endless stream of injured thugs will think twice about withholding information, and perhaps even become future stool pigeons just to be on the safe side. So in that regard it’s not a total loss. And again, Richie was brought to justice . . . sort of. Chalk one up for Seagalian Law.

#7 – “I’m gonna take you to the bank Senator . . . the blood bank.” A straightforward message regarding the importance of making donations to your local blood bank that also manages to tie in the theme of political corruption. Or killing two birds with one perfectly executed aikido strike!

#8 – “One thought he was invincible, the other thought he could fly. They were both wrong.” Here Seagal addresses the folly of vanity. When one becomes lost in delusions of grandeur, they unknowingly risk grave personal ruin. In the case of these two thugs from Marked for Death, Seagal serves them a heaping helping of humble pie that proves to be fatal. Okay, so they may never learn from their mistakes, but on the positive side they’re sure not to repeat them. That’s what you might call tough love in the Seagal universe.

#9 – “What does it take to change the essence of a man?” Seagal poses this question to a man he has just beaten to a pulp in a bar fight, and the answer he receives is “time.” Seagal acknowledges that he also needs time, and the two walk off together. On the surface it would seem that Seagal is telling us that we all have an animal side to us, and that time is required to overcome our darker self. However, there’s a bit of a mixed message. As On Deadly Ground (from which this quote is taken) plays out, practically every evildoer Seagal runs across is killed within moments of the encounter. Thus, very few receive the necessary time to change. So I suppose we’re also being cautioned that while we need time to change, it may be a luxury we can’t afford. Particularly if we’re associated with Big Oil, or happen to be John C. McGinley.

10# - “It ain’t over ‘til the wolf howls.” This final lesson from Shadow Man is a new spin on the classic “fat lady singing” wisdom, reminding us that one must never give up in the face of adversity . . . there is always hope for a positive outcome. It’s a healthy (and superior) attitude to have, and is certainly applicable in the realm of Seagalogy. Again, Seagal could have given up and retired long ago. Instead, he’s been working like crazy and putting out some incredibly entertaining films. The sheer volume of work of course means there are some rough diamonds in there, but there’s some surprisingly solid stuff too (e.g. Belly of the Beast). Either way, the cinematic world is a better for the presence of Seagal. We should all remember to strive when challenged by overwhelming odds, and a big thanks to the Shadow Man for the solid piece of advice.

So there are 10 lessons I’ve learned over the course of the past several months while taking in these Seagalian masterworks. But perhaps even above all of these (and the law), I’ve learned that the DTV realm is not such a bad place . . . in fact it’s pretty amazing. Several of us at Fantasmo have lamented the loss of the cool, grindhouse-like films we used to enjoy seeing at theaters during our younger days (in fact that’s sort of the reason Fantasmo exists). Now everything at the multiplex is just so cookie-cutter and predictable. No friends, you can no longer waltz down to your local mall cinema and see schlock like Def-Con 4, Dead End Drive-In, Alligator, Terrorvision, Battle Beyond the Stars, etc. These sorts of films now have huge budgets and WB stars, and are homogenized beyond all recognition. Even when we get remakes (e.g. The Hitcher, Prom Night) they are just bland retreads that a) add nothing new to the mix, and b) take all the bite out of what made them cool in the first place. Where does one go to get these sorts of films now?

DTV that’s where! These Seagal films have proven to me that those films I grew up on still exist, it’s just that now they’re made for the home market. I’m telling you, without exception each of these Seagal DTV films have something to surprise even the most jaded cult film fan. It’s inspired me to go out looking for more DTV greatness. I’ve just begun checking out the latest offerings from Van Damme and Lundgren (which were great), and look to expand beyond the action genre soon. Hey, one need look further than Shark Attack 3 to know there’s a lot more to see out there than straight action films! Granted, there’s going to be plenty of junk in the mix . . . but that’s why there are so many great review sites out there . . . to help one separate the wheat from the chaff. My thanks go out to Vern for bringing Seagalogy to me (and the world), and for reminding us all that there is still life for cult filmdom in the age of the blockbuster. If you’d like to learn more about the strange and wonderful world of Seagalogy, don’t forget to check out Vern's book ( which will be re-published on June 10.

On an unrelated note of local coolness, Starfleet Atlantic’s annual Sci-Fi Yard Sale will be held on June 7 (rain date June 14th) from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. A variety of science fiction collectibles will be up for sale including: books, photos, art, posters, autographs, models, etc. If you’d like to have your own table, they are available for the bargain price of $5.00! The event will take place at 4844 Linshaw Lane, Virginia Beach (Haygood/Aragona Village area). For more information call (757) 499-2359.

Well, Rob and I are off for the next week shooting the third season of The House Between, so updates will be a bit sporadic. However, I hope to post some fun pics from the set during the next week so look out for those!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

R.I.P. Diabolik

Received some sad news today, the great John Phillip Law reportedly passed away earlier this week. While he’s best known at Fantasmo from his starring role in the Mario Bava masterpiece Diabolik, Law appeared in numerous cult films over the years including Barbarella and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. No matter the nature of the film, Law was one of those actors who brought something special to even the cheesiest role. One of my personal favorites was the 1988 film Space Mutiny in which he co-starred with the inimitable Reb Brown (Captain America, Yor). In that unforgettable B-classic he played the evil Commander Elijah Kalgan, and was ridiculed mercilessly by the MST3K cast. Truly, the film is a classic in its original form as well – if you get a chance you should definitely check it out! Law was certainly one of the greats of cult filmdom, and his presence on the scene will certainly be missed.

Steven Seagal is Executive Decision!

Rob, myself and several Team Fantasmo All-Stars will shortly be commencing filming of the third season of John Kenneth Muir’s The House Between (woo-hoo!), so blog updates will be on hold for the last week of May. I am however hoping to get up a review of the final Steven Seagal DTV film in my long journey (Shadow Man) before we start. It was an amazing finale to the ride, which came close to ending with the pretty terrible Flight of Fury (which may be the worst of the batch . . . yes even worse than Ticker). So, look for that before the week is out. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a brief bit of wisdom passed along to me by Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. concerning the 1996 Seagal film Executive Decision (Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the film, I’m going to reveal a major plot point involving Seagal . . . you have been warned).

Falling between Under Siege 2 and The Glimmer Man, Executive Decision marks an interesting moment in Seagalogy. It’s the first official supporting role for Seagal, although the advertising campaign at the time tried to keep this a secret. Executive Decision co-stars Seagal and Kurt Russell, with the opening introducing Seagal as a tough-as-nails military commander. When a plane is hijacked by terrorists threatening to unleash a deadly chemical agent, Seagal has to team up with Russell (a bureaucrat-type) to take back the plane in a mid-air operation. The film makes it clear that Russell is a Jack Ryan/nerdy fellow who belongs behind a desk, while Seagal is the competent hero. Meaning we’re to believe that Seagal and Russell will form a grudging partnership throughout the course of the film, leading to a conclusion in which they save the day by employing their unique (albeit different) skills. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan . . .

About 45 minutes into the film as the two are boarding the hijacked plane via a risky tube link between planes, events take an unexpected turn. The tube between the planes becomes unstable, and Seagal sacrifices his life to ensure that Russell and company make it aboard the airliner safely. He bravely closes the hatch between himself and Russell and gets sucked out of the stealth plane the strike team flew in on (shortly before it explodes). Now I suppose it’s possible he could somehow survive this (crazier things have happened, and it is after all Steven Seagal), but the movie hints that this is not the case. And therein lies the rub. I’ve always (and even more so now) had a problem with them killing off Seagal this early in the picture. It seems like a gimmick . . . and of course it’s completely implausible as this is Seagal we’re talking about. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if Russell’s character weren’t such an incompetent buffoon. I normally like Russell, but here he’s just given a character that’s hard to warm to. So I’ve never been a fan of this movie, and didn’t bother re-watching it when revisiting the classic Seagal films.

That being said, Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. put a perspective on Executive Decision that I hadn’t really considered before. Essentially, Executive Decision is a “what if” film. The question here is what would happen if Steven Seagal were killed midway into a Seagal film? Seen through that prism the film becomes much more intriguing. Seriously, what would happen if Seagal died off 45 minutes into Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Out for Justice, etc., and the sidekick or helper character had to complete the adventure? Of course we all know that it’s absurd to even consider the possibility that Seagal could be taken out of action, which is why Executive Decision is so off-putting when unprepared emotionally to accept such a ridiculous premise. However, if you can get past that and appreciate the film’s ultimate question, it does become a rather unique intellectual exercise. The problem is that you still have to sit through another 88 minutes of watching Russell, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, and John Lequizamo flounder about, which is a tall order. If it were Keith David in Marked for Death this might be tolerable, but that just isn’t the case. In fact, when you look a little closer at the Seagal sidekick roster, it quickly becomes evident that the same problem would exist for many of Seagal’s films. Consider just a few possibilities:

Hard to Kill: Kelly Le Brock

Out for Justice: Jerry Orbach

Under Siege: Erika Eleniak

Under Siege 2: Morris Chestnut

On Deadly Ground: Joan Chen

The Glimmer Man: Keenen Ivory Wayans

Fire Down Below: Marg Helgenberger

Exit Wounds: DMX

You get the picture. Actually one other exception to this rule (along with Keith David) is Today You Die with Treach (who did a pretty good job). Otherwise it’s pretty rough. This shows an interesting pattern of Seagal picking lackluster sidekicks, who ultimately serve as a means of contrasting how necessary Seagal is to resolving the given crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like some of these folks (Joan Chen was great in Twin Peaks), but in the Seagal environment they simply don’t cut it in terms of carrying the film. With this in mind, I’m also not 100% sold that the sidekick(s) could save the day as they do in Executive Decision. I guess the filmmakers think it’s plausible since there are technically a team of sidekicks, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But there’s no way I’d buy Erika Eleniak taking down Tommy Lee Jones, Morris Chestnut outwitting Eric Begosian/Everett McGill, Marg Helgenberger besting Kris Kristofferson, etc. Please.

So, while Executive Decision does provide us with the answer to an important question, that answer comes at a heavy price. Minus the presence of Seagal, Executive Decision is a rough ride. It’s one worth taking for the purpose of discovery, but it’s a hard sell for repeat visits. Personally for a fine Seagal supporting role, I far prefer Ticker. Although it’s an inferior film in terms of talent roster and production values, it a) doesn’t ask us to suspend disbelief and accept that Seagal could be killed, and b) correctly depicts Seagal saving the day rather than the sidekick. So yeah, definitely watch Executive Decision, but take everything with a grain of salt!

Episode 37: Dark Futures

Hey Superfans!

It’s taken us a while to lock it in, but we finally have a date set for our BIG June show. On Friday, June 20, your Team Fantasmo invites you to join us as we take a look into . . . the future! Being huge fans of films such as Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Death Race 2000, etc., Rob and I like to visit the post-apocalyptic/dystopian sci-fi subgenre now and again. While there have been many takes on a dark future for mankind, perhaps none have been as influential as Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Although the film was not initially successful during its theatrical release (when it competed against happier fare such as E. T.), its innovative design has since become the template for a host of sci-fi films over the past 25 years. One of the complaints critics had early on with the film was that it had some tonal inconsistencies, particularly a jarring happy ending forced on Scott by the studios. Scott has gone back to the editing room a number of times to adjust these issues, and has finally achieved his vision this year with the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. For this very special Fantasmo, we’ll be putting the film back on the big screen where it belongs, with a stunning new high-definition image. But that’s not all . . .

In addition to Blade Runner we’ll also be showing one of our favorite underrated sci-fi gems of the past few years, a cool little number called Equilibrium. Starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale, the film is a cross between Fahrenheit 451 and The Matrix. Great stuff! Plus, we hope to be announcing the presence of a special guest very soon who was one of the co-stars of Blade Runner. Keep watching the blogs for exciting updates! Here are your official Episode 37 details:

When: Friday, June 20, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road


8:00 p.m.: Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Rated R)

10:30 p.m.: Equilibrium (Rated R)

So there you have it! Two great sci-fi epics on our incredibly futuristic big screen . . . the way they were meant to be seen!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Movie Review: The Killers (1964)

I’m taking a brief break in my final run-up to the last films in the Seagal oeuvre and actually watching some quality works to clear my head a bit. This week I saw an absolutely amazing (and fairly obscure) Lee Marvin film from the mid-60’s called The Killers. The film is loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway story, and is a very quirky, noir film featuring Marvin as an assassin who is troubled by a hit on a washed up race car driver (John Cassavetes). The Killers is truly an amazing little picture that features an incredible array of talent, and foreshadows much of what was to come in crime films of the late-60’s and 70’s . . . and what was later revived by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. It has oddball hitmen, a flashback narrative, inventive camera work, and career-best performances from a number of individuals. Most incredible of all is that it was shot for television! Unfortunately it has been largely forgotten over the years, a situation that definitely needs to be corrected . . .

I began The Killers with only minimal knowledge of what to expect. I had read enough to know that it was a respected Lee Marvin film (at least by those who had managed to see it), and that it featured a great cast. What blew me away though as the opening credits rolled was just how many notable people were involved. The film stars Marvin, Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager (more in a moment on that), Claude Akins, Norman Fell, and (get ready for this one) Ronald Reagan (as the villain no less). It was directed by the legendary Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and written by Gene L. Coon (Star Trek). And the music was by an obscure fellow by the name of John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, Planet of the Apes, etc.). Not too shabby of a talent roster, eh? And let me tell you every one of these folks is on top of their game, but I’ll get to that as we go along.

The film opens up with nerve-rattling sequence in which Marvin and Gulager descend on a home for the blind where Cassavetes is teaching an auto shop class. They ruthlessly question the blind students (including women and children) as to his location and march in and shoot him well over a dozen times. For a film of this vintage the sequence is remarkably violent, and sets a tone that will be maintained for the duration. As I mentioned the film was indeed shot for television, and in fact would have been the first made-for-television feature. Would have been. That’s because the film was deemed far too violent to be shown on television in the 60’s. And truth be told it would hold its own in many ways with the television content of today. Blood is kept to a minimum, but the attitude and no holds barred behavior of all the principal characters are on par with what one would see in today’s crime films. I’ve read reviews that mention The Killers as a precursor to Bonnie and Clyde, and that’s certainly a valid statement.

Upon killing Cassavetes, Marvin is intrigued by the fact that he made no attempt to flee. Cassavetes had received enough of a warning (via a phone call) that the assassins were on their way, yet he simply waited at his desk to receive them (and be killed). This sets Marvin and his loyal partner Gulager on a journey to discover Cassavetes’ background and the possible existence of a stolen truckload of money. Along the way they find that Cassavetes’ promising racing career was ruined after he fell under the spell of a groupie (Angie Dickinson), and ultimately ended up working for her crime boss (Ronald Reagan). Naturally this will all culminate in an unforgettable climactic showdown.

In my experience, noir films tend to follow a basic pattern like the one seen in The Killers. You have a morally questionable protagonist thrust into a seemingly unwinnable situation, and a resulting climax that usually is not of the happy ending variety. What makes any noir film stand out from the pack though is the direction and performances, and The Killers is rich on both counts. First let’s start with the latter. I can’t say enough about how terrific all the actors are in this film. Everyone turns in first rate performances. Cassavetes is outstanding as the troubled driver, Akins is surprisingly vulnerable as his best friend mechanic, and Dickinson is at her sultry best. Even Norman Fell is wonderful in his small, but important role as Reagan’s weasely sidekick. But the real standouts here are Marvin, Gulager, and Reagan.

Marvin is probably best known to most folks for his iconic performances in films like The Dirty Dozen (which was the basis for how I perceived him for many years), but he appeared in a number of films starting with The Killers which broke all the rules. These included the delirious masterpiece Point Blank (1967), the wildly irreverent Prime Cut (1972), and the uncompromising WWII film The Big Red One (1980). Granted he did many great action films along the way, but these were all as daring and original as anything you could find then or now. Prime Cut in particular will cause the jaw to drop on even the most jaded cult film aficionado. What these all show is that Marvin’s talent was far more than as a standard tough guy hero. Amongst his iconic roles he would actively seek out artsy/challenging parts that defied audience expectations, and The Killers is a perfect example.

While the film starts off with Marvin acting out the tough guy role, once he has dispatched Cassavetes his character becomes something quite different. He begins to ponder the motivations of his prey, which leads him down an introspective path. On the surface he is concerned with the possibility of a payday in the form of recovered loot, but underneath he is far more interested in the man’s loss of the survival instinct (something his hitman character cannot comprehend). It is his contemplation of the essence of a man that drives the action, rather than the standard plot device of the stolen money, lending the film significantly more weight than your average crime outing. Marvin’s nuanced performance manages to pay service to his tough guy image, while also providing subtle moments revealing his troubled conscience and loss of stability. The result is a landmark performance, that easily ranks as one of his best.

In contrast to Marvin, the movie features Clu Gulager as his partner in crime. Gulager is a total wild card, often engaging in unpredictable behavior and offbeat commentary. I’ve seen reviews comparing him to the Vega brothers from Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction and that’s fairly close. I would say he’s more of the Reservoir Dogs variety Vega. He shows no mercy (neither does Marvin, but he’s less smug about it), and is prone to throwing out odd statements and observations (the man thinks very highly of steaks and Miami). I must confess my familiarity with Gulager is largely from character work in horror films (e.g. Return of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), but after seeing this performance I’m amazed he didn’t become a more prominent actor. He is pitch perfect in the role, and really does set the template for future characters of this type. Every time he is in the spotlight one is put on edge wondering what he will do or say next. He’s amazing to watch because he is so invested in the part, and perhaps he was so convincing producers steered clear of him. Even if he’d never shown up again, Gulager would have made a solid contribution to cinema history.

And then there’s Reagan. After being totally sucked in by Gulager’s performance, I never would have suspected there to be an equally memorable villain in the film. But about midway in we’re introduced to Reagan’s character and he is something to behold. Now I know Reagan comes with a little baggage as folks obviously have strong opinions based on individual political philosophy. I’m here to tell you, regardless of what you think of his political life you will be blown away by what he does here as an actor. Apparently this was the only time he ever played a villain, and he was not too keen on it (he took the part as a favor to a friend). Despite his reluctance he really goes for broke, oozing menace every moment he’s onscreen. He is an excellent adversary for Marvin and Gulager, and it’s quite something to see them interact with each other. If you only are familiar with Reagan’s Bonzo films, then prepare for an entirely different experience.

Of course great performances are only part of the equation. Another big reason The Killers works is director Don Siegel. Siegel was a fairly prolific action director who certainly brought an understanding of the filmmaking process to the table. But he also had a flair for subtext. One need only look at the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to see that Siegel was someone special. In that film he took a B-grade sci-fi plot and turned it into a metaphor for the Red Scare. A similar spark must have ignited with The Killers as he infused the proceedings with a dark humor and unrelenting brutality that was completely unexpected. The film was no less than an early warning shot across the bow of mainstream Hollywood, which unfortunately went unheard due to the film’s origins. Although it was released theatrically, it was intended for television and therefore not likely given proper credit. Consequently, when Bonnie and Clyde came along it received the lion share of the credit for the revolutionary shift in Hollywood due to its prestige status. Happily, the film marked a resurgence for Siegel who went on to helm a number of wildly successful films with Clint Eastwood, including the similarly rebellious Dirty Harry.

The Killers is one of those rare films you come across that manages to completely live up to its well-deserved reputation and fires on all cylinders. While it manages to be deliver on the visceral thrill of the genre, it also rewards viewers with a host of artistic touches that elevate it to classic status. Most of all it provided a first glimpse of what Marvin was truly capable of, and showed us what might have been in the form of Clu Gulager and Ronald Reagan. If you’ve never seen or heard of this film, you definitely want to get a hold of the stellar Criterion Collection edition (which also includes a 1946 version of the story featuring Burt Lancaster). The director of Dirty Harry, the President of the United States, and Mr. Roper. How can you resist?!?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Neat Stuff To Do This Summer (When You're Not At Fantasmo)!

I was reading a post the other day on a cult film Web site and came across something very interesting for us folks within range of D.C. The AFI Silver Theater is hosting some very cool films this summer including:

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (although you really should wait for the June Fantasmo of course)

David Lynch’s Eraserhead

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Harder They Come

Friday the 13th Part 3


. . . .and a whole bunch of other really neat stuff. Lots of restored prints too! They just finished screening a restored 70mm print of Kubrick’s 2001 (would have love to have seen that)! How about a restored version of Seagal’s timeless environmental masterpiece On Deadly Ground? Just couldn’t resist a Seagal reference : ) Here’s the Web site for more details:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Steven Seagal is Submerged!

I honestly hadn’t planned on writing another Seagal DTV review until my final viewing experience (which is scheduled to be Flight of Fury), but I just watched Submerged last night and can’t allow this one to pass by. I wasn’t expecting much from Submerged, as it is widely held to be among the worst (if not THE worst) of the Seagal filmography, but part of me was also really looking forward to it for that very same reason. For me, I far more enjoy the insane entries that defy all logic than the boring, marginally competent stuff like Ticker. Additionally, Submerged is directed by Anthony Hickox, who is responsible for a number of memorable horror films from the 80’s and 90’s (e.g. Warlock, Hellraiser 3). Most importantly, he directed the minor classic Waxwork (1988), and its not half-bad follow-up Waxwork 2: Lost in Time (1992). As such I was interested in seeing how he did with a Seagal picture. Unfortunately the results aren’t pretty. Truly, I had thought it impossible for another film to approach or surpass the muddled madness that was Attack Force, but Submerged has managed to do that with flying colors!

Much like Attack Force, any discussion of Submerged must begin with analysis of the supposed plot. What’s interesting about this one is that the synopsis varies by where you happen to be looking for it. Here are a couple of examples:

From the box description:

“Steven Seagal (Belly of the Beast, Out for a Kill), the free world's most "independent" anti-terrorist agent, is going down under - not to foreign ports but submerged, under the sea, where waves of deceit are set to torpedo his command permanently. Chris Cody (Seagal) is summoned from his military prison cell and promised a presidential pardon - with a hitch. An American Ambassador has been assassinated - by the U.S. Secret Service. Now the C.I.A. wants Cody to uncover and terminate this deadly operation, but they don't tell him the truth. Cody ends up overpowered and trapped beneath the waves but hardly out of his depth.”

Maybe not out of his depth, but possibly out of his mind! Here’s the description from Netflix:

"In director Anthony Hickox’s underwater thriller starring Steven Seagal, a submarine’s hazardous cargo develops a leak, accidentally releasing a lethal biological agent. The vessel and its crew soon end up trapped on the ocean floor – and under assault by a U.S. destroyer that’s turned on them, traitors within the ranks and, worst of all, mutant organisms inhabiting the deep.”

And there are certainly more synopses online which differ wildly. While neither of these do an accurate job of describing the film, the first one is a little closer to what I “think” was the plot. I say “think” because Submerged is an absolutely indecipherable mess. I’m 100% sure Seagal is a soldier released from military prison (along with his also imprisoned team) to undertake some sort of covert-op against folks experimenting in mind control, but that’s all I can say with any certainty. Oh, and they spend a brief period in the middle of the film in a submarine. There are no “mutant organisms” to be found. In re-reading the chapter on Submerged in Seagalogy, it turns out that this was another one which apparently underwent significant changes along the way to finished product. It’s very telling that you have horror director Hickox at the helm, the film was discussed in Fangoria magazine, and there is mention of “mutant organisms,” all leading one to surmise that Submerged was originally a lot closer to the Netflix model than what was actually released.

The fact that, like Attack Force, Submerged was transformed from sci-fi/horror into another standard (if you can call any Seagal outing “standard”) action film is another real disappointment in my opinion. I would very much like to see Seagal in a full-blown genre picture of that kind. Why he, or some interested party(ies), feels that is a bad idea is beyond me. The only thing I can figure is that their profit formula is so tight, they are concerned that any deviation will ruin their guaranteed returns . . . which really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. After all the ridiculous Seagal pics that have been released during the DTV-era, I challenge anyone to back up an argument that fans have some high-bar expectations with each impending release. At this point, if they’re still tuning in, I think they would welcome wilder plots . . . such a move could only improve the situation.

Okay, having tackled the plot it’s now time to turn to some of Submerged’s other distinguishing features. Perhaps the most noteworthy element, beyond the confusing story, is that Seagal is dubbed for the vast majority of the film. I believe Vern puts it at over 50%, but I think that’s being generous . . . I’m thinking 75% or higher. When he’s not completely dubbed, it tends to be a Seagal/dub mixture. Rarely do you have entire sequences where it’s total Seagal. Interestingly though, this actor attempts not only to mimic Seagal’s raspy voice, but also his quasi-Cajun speech pattern that has emerged (not submerged) in the late-DTV era. It’s the same speech pattern he uses in entries like Pistol Whipped and Urban Justice, where strangely enough it worked. Here it’s just plain bizarre. You’ve gotta give the voice actor credit though, he’s a lot better than the Wilford Brimley-like voice from Belly of the Beast (which don’t get me wrong was a completely awesome movie)!

Also, I can’t mention this whole dialect thing without pointing out Seagal’s constant referral to his number one team member as “Alligata.” Priceless. I have vowed to now refer to all my personal acquaintances in the same manner. If there’s a better term of endearment I don’t know what it is!

Speaking of late-DTV era qualities, one thing I’ve noticed is that Seagal almost exclusively has two wardrobe choices in all of his later films: a long, brown leather trench coat or a long, black leather trench coat. This is true regardless of the settings/circumstances of the film. In Submerged he opts for the long, brown trench coat. This my friends is completely absurd. I’m no military tactician or black-ops special forces type fellow, but I would not lead a team into jungle warfare, submarine theft, etc., in that kind of gear. The rest of his team are all wearing camouflage fatigues, but here strides Seagal in long, brown trench coat, blue jeans, and a collared dress shirt buttoned to the top. He knows what he likes, I’ll give him that.

One thing that Submerged does have going for it is a fairly interesting genre cast including the likes of William Hope (Aliens), Nick Brimble (Frankenstein Unbound), and Vinnie Jones (X-Men 3). Vinnie Jones in particular does a great job as “Alligata,” actually putting in a fun performance as the wise-cracking sidekick. In truth, most of the cast do a fairly decent job (better than most of Seagal’s DTV ensembles), but the all-over-the-place story and uninteresting action sequences undermine any dividends their efforts produce. If they had simply been fighting mutant creatures, all would have been smooth sailing!

For the hardcore fan, of course you have to check this out. There are plenty of wacko moments and lines you won’t want to miss. But I suspect it won’t be one you revisit often. There just isn’t enough of interest here to warrant repeat viewings, as with a title like Belly of the Beast or Urban Justice. And it’s a real shame given the original premise, and the talent involved with folks like Hickox and the various cast members. It could be that this is one of the greatest missed opportunities in Seagalogy. In its original incarnation, you would have had a cross between Under Siege (Seagal’s biggest box office success) and Aliens (one of the greatest sci-fi/horror/action pics ever). How could you lose with that combo? Answer: you couldn’t. Instead we end up with a mish mash of ideas, executed poorly. As such, this one earns my first non-recommendation . . . for non-fans and casual viewers. Again, you aspiring Seagalogists (like yours truly) must consider this required viewing : )

Now on to the final stretch with Shadow Man and Flight of Fury . . .