Without giving away any spoilers for those who aren’t already familiar with our July features, I thought I’d say just a few words as to why Rob and I chose Out for Justice and Belly of the Beast for our celebration of Seagalogy. Given that Seagal has made almost 30 films, it was a daunting challenge to select two representative titles from his early and later eras. For the early years does one pick “important” outings such as his debut (Above the Law), his blockbuster (Under Siege), or his message film (On Deadly Ground)? And in the prolific DTV era does one place a premium on quality (Urban Justice), insanity (Out of Reach), or sheer ineptitude (Submerged)? Tough calls all around, so here’s a little insight into how we arrived at our decisions.
Out for Justice (1991)
While tastes certainly vary, this one is arguably Seagal’s best. It’s a well-mounted film that recalls 70’s era exploitation classics, blessed with the backing of a major studio. While not strictly speaking a revenge film (after all Seagal is a cop looking for justice), the tactics employed by the hero are way over the line as he tries to take out his childhood friend’s killer. The audience isn’t encouraged to worry too much about the fact that Seagal’s character (outrageously named Gino Felino) has mob ties and flaunts procedure however, as William Forsythe’s villainous Richie is equally over the top. In fact, Forsythe may have the distinction of being the very best Seagal villain - no small feat given a gallery of rogues that includes the likes of Henry Silva, William Sadler, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Eric Bogosian, Everett McGill, Kris Kristofferson, etc. The single-mindedness of these two characters drives the film, pushing aside any temptation for the plot to “go deep.” This focus is the film’s greatest strength, and sets it apart from Seagal films that concern more complicated circumstances.
And therein lies the rub. While this is Seagal’s best film, it’s somewhat of an anomaly in that it doesn’t feature Seagalian themes as prominently as most of his early classics do. Police corruption doesn’t come up, although Seagal’s character does sort of negotiate with the mob. But that’s unusual too in that Seagal isn’t usually the corrupt party. Furthermore there’s no hint that Felino has a CIA background, and he doesn’t even touch on environmental issues. There are really only two areas in which the film displays trademark Seagal touches. Firstly, Seagal portrays Gino Felino with a heavy (and some might argue unconvincing) Brooklyn/Italian accent. This qualifies for what Vern would call the “adopted culture” theme that runs throughout Seagalogy. Namely that Seagal often portrays a character from a culture other than his own. Secondly, there is also a strong family element in Out for Justice. Seagal talks with many characters about life in the neighborhood, and is also working out issues with his estranged wife. One of my favorite scenes in all of Seagal’s films occurs when he tells his wife the sad tale of his father’s knife sharpening business. Classic in every sense. Despite these two Seagalian elements, I would still argue that this is not your typical Seagal outing.
So how could we possibly go with this one over say Above the Law or even Hard to Kill? Easy. Out for Justice is just plain relentless and awesome!
Belly of the Beast (2003)
The DTV era is perhaps even tougher in terms of pulling out a single title as representative of the period, or as being the best. Quality is extremely uneven to say the least, and there are different, yet equally important criteria to consider in making a decision. One could try to pick a film that is the most competent, or that most closely resembles the classic era (e.g. Urban Justice). Or if you tend to be of the crowd that enjoys those “so bad they're good” movies, then you’ll likely go for the more outrageous features. Since Rob has never seen a Seagal DTV film this one was riding on my shoulders. I aim to please so I figured it wise to go with a film that was a little bit of both. Belly of the Beast manages to incorporate much of the insanity of the DTV era (e.g. bad dubbing, plot threads that go nowhere, over the top action, etc.), but packages it in a film that never feels cheap or small. Part of that is due to the fact that the film is directed by legendary Hong Kong action choreographer Siu-Tung Ching (A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow II), and features amazing fight sequences. The other part is that Seagal looks like he’s really invested in the proceedings (which isn’t always the case in the DTV era), as evidenced by his enthusiasm and the minimal amount of dubbing.
I don’t want to delve into too much detail here since likely many of you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this yet, but let me just say there are action sequences in this that truly are incredible. Perhaps the best one takes place midway into the film, in which there is a shootout in a train yard. Nothing I can say will prepare you for how cool this sequence is. It’s like John Woo on Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink! One thing I love that Vern mentions in Seagalogy about this scene is how Seagal takes a moment to explain to his partner what’s about to go down. Basically a sniper is about to shoot a thug Seagal needs to get information from. So Seagal lets his friend know that he can’t allow that to happen. However taking out the sniper will also draw fire down upon Seagal and his friend from the thug and his gang. As Vern points out it’s a rare thing to see an action hero give such a generous heads up to their long suffering sidekicks. What a guy!
Anyhow, Belly of the Beast is filled with numerous magical moments that elevate it to near classic status. With just a tad more polish this one could easily stand along with Seagal’s great films. Actually I like it quite a bit more than some of his big budget stuff like The Glimmer Man or Exit Wounds. So there : )
Well, that’s how our Seagal tribute features were picked. Not exactly scientific, but effective nonetheless. Do you agree or disagree with the wisdom of our selections? Feel free to respond to this with your Seagal favorites, or acknowledge our genius if you like (we won't argue).