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!


Joe said...

Okay Jim, I've taken the plunge. I watched "The Foreigner" and "Belly of the Beast" this afternoon. Initially, I was a little depressed by the sight of DTV-era Seagal's sagging jowls... but I got over it. I'm not convinced that his heart is in it as much as it used to be, but these were nevertheless very respectable b-movies. Now... where to go from here?

Jim Blanton said...

You've taken your first step into a larger world my friend : )

It is a shock to the system to see the physical changes if you have been watching the classics. Truly though, once you've seen a few that's no longer an issue (and in my opinion works for the entries where he's playing world weary characters).

The point you make about his heart not being in it is also something Vern mentions. That varies from film to film. The Foreigner is an important entry in that it establishes the only recurring Seagal character other than Casey Ryback, namely Jonathan Cold (who returns in Black Dawn). As a hardcore fan I enjoy it, but it is one of the less interesting DTV films overall. Belly of the Beast on the other hand is a different, and much more exciting animal : )

Here are three I would recommend visiting next:

1 - Out For A Kill - This one represents one of the most surreal/insane DTV era entries. Almost Lynchian. Seagal plays an award-winning Yale professor of archaeology/retired master thief, framed for drug smuggling.

2 - Into the Sun - This is a solid action film that is just a whole lot of fun. Better still, it's set in Japan in some of the neighborhoods Seagal lived in there during his early years. Consequently, he looks like he's really into the proceedings. Plus it features several songs from his album Songs From the Crystal Cave! Also features the most awkward love scene in all of Seagalogy!

3 - Urban Justice - Vern cites this as Seagal's comeback film, and I would largely have to agree. It's a straightforward revenge film that recalls some of his best (e.g. Out For Justice).

Congratulations on taking the plunge!