Saturday, November 1, 2008

Steven Seagal is Kill Switch!

Okay, I’m taking a very brief pause in getting back to Australian horror to give a review of the latest Seagal offering. A couple of folks have asked me what I thought of Kill Switch, so I figured I’d go ahead and post a review. For those of you relatively new to the blog, last Christmas I received a book called Seagalogy as a gift. The book examined the work of Steven Seagal and put forward an argument that he should be viewed as a true auteur, given that each film bore his personal stamp and creative trademarks. I then plunged headlong through Seagal’s extensive filmography to see if Seagalogy author Vern was correct in his assertion – and I can honestly say I believe he was. My journey ultimately culminated in a Fantasmo this past summer which featured two Seagal films, an aikido demonstration, and a live interview with Vern. Truly superior!

Those of you who attended that momentous occasion may recall that Vern provided us an advance review of Kill Switch, which wasn’t due out until October 7. I was particularly interested in this review, as Vern had (in my opinion) accurately asserted that Seagal’s last two direct-to-video (DTV) films (Urban Justice, Pistol Whipped) marked a return to higher quality work. As such, it was somewhat disheartening to hear from Vern that he felt Kill Switch represented a step backward for Seagal. Well, I’ve now had a chance to see Kill Swtich and can say I’m of two minds. On the one hand it is a step backward in terms of moving in the direction of competent, polished filmmaking, but on the other hand it’s wildly entertaining. Let’s look closer . . .

First a brief breakdown of the plot from the DVD cover per Amazon:

“Detective Jacob Stillwell (Steven Seagal) is one of the most celebrated homicide detectives in the country. His brutal delivery of street justice is legendary among the men and women of law enforcement. But on this latest case, he may have finally met his match Lazerus, a cunning and perversely violent killer who is on the loose and terrorizing the inner city. Stillwell s desperate pursuit of Lazerus takes him into the dark, depraved Memphis underworld of street sex and senseless violence.”

I’m always fascinated by Seagal’s DTV cover synopses because rarely do they reflect with any accuracy what the film is actually about. This one is fairly decent for a change. Seagal is in fact a homicide detective, and he is somewhat celebrated. Well, that may be an overstatement of the case. He’s a known quantity in the Memphis police department, and with the FBI (who think he’s crossed the line). And a waitress in a bar recognizes him from local television. So if that counts as celebrated then so be it. And in many instances he certainly does deliver brutal street justice (he really makes good on this point). There is also a perversely violent killer named Lazerus, although I would take issue with the cunning part as Seagal manages to capture him after a brief visit to the local library for research. On the one hand it speaks well of the library as such a wonderful resource, but even I have to admit it seems like it would take a little more than that if this guy is that cunning. More on the depiction of libraries in Kill Switch in just a moment. The final piece here is that Seagal is actually named Jacob King (not Stillwell), so that minor detail is erroneous.

So by and large you have some notion of what you’re getting into with Kill Switch based on that. There are some more relevant details though. We also learn from flashbacks that Seagal’s little brother was murdered by a serial killer (actually listed as “Flashback Killer” in the credits) at a childhood birthday party while Seagal watched, and this may or may not be the reason why he is so intent on pursuing such criminals and enacting brutal street justice. Truly these flashback scenes are a little bizarre, and the fact that they are never discussed forces the viewer to make some leaps in filling in the gaps. That’s par for the course in Seagalogy but it still seems unusual that it’s never discussed, particularly given that King isn’t actually a lone wolf type. He has a loyal partner/best friend in the form of Storm Anderson (Chris Thomas King), and a live-in girlfriend who’s also on the force (in whom he curiously shows little interest). Either way, the guy’s got a history and he seems to be exorcising his inner demons through the medium of police work.

An additional plot thread that has to be mentioned is the fact that King is also on the trail of another serial killer (intriguingly named Billy Joel) who likes to embed explosives in his victims, and for my money the guy is far more cunning/tough than Lazerus. He survives (with a couple of cuts) perhaps the harshest beating ever inflicted by Seagal on a perp in the opening minutes of the film, which ends with him being thrown out of a high window onto concrete. He then manages to get released from jail on a technicality, kill his legal team, kill Seagal’s live-in cop girlfriend (spoiler), and stalk Seagal throughout the film. Your mileage may vary, but that’s far more accomplished than a serial killer who gets apprehended as the result of a trip to the library by Seagal! To be fair Lazerus also apparently has a sideline writing music lyrics, evidencing some artistic ability, but that just doesn’t raise him to that “next level” if you ask me.

Hopefully the above gives you a pretty good idea of what’s going on during Kill Switch’s 90-minute run time. On the surface it’s a hunt for the serial killer(s) by a rogue cop with unconventional methods, who has a troubled past driving him. As with all Seagal DTV outings though, the surface is just an excuse for a deluge of outlandish (and often inexplicable) plot threads and events. Not to mention some outrageous artistic choices on the part of Seagal. Here are some standout elements to look forward to in Kill Switch:

#1 – I mentioned that the film is set in Memphis. For those of you who have been checking out some of Seagal’s later work, this is probably already ringing danger alarms. You see, at this point in time Seagal has mysteriously adopted a heavy Southern accent (both on and off screen from what I can tell). Now if you’ve at minimum seen some of his early stuff (e.g. Above the Law), you will know that this is not his native tongue. Furthermore, his track record at successfully carrying off accents is questionable at best (e.g. Out for Justice). Speculation is that he’s become so into his blues/music career, that he has wholly adopted the culture (dialect included). In his past few films the accent has been prominently on display, but here in the heart of Memphis it has been taken to a staggering extreme.

#2 – I’ve seen a lot of action movies in my time. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. I have never in all that time seen anything like the editing used in this film. As many viewers have noted, a great deal of the DTV Seagal films employ heavy use of stunt doubles for Seagal during fight scenes. Past attempts to obscure this fact have used the expected pony tail and clothing accessories, along with quick editing cuts to hide the double’s face. In Kill Switch the quick editing is taken to an extreme that, in my experience, has never before been witnessed in the history of cinema. The cuts are made in such rapid succession that it makes for a stomach churning ordeal, and I do mean stomach churning. Whenever these fights would start I became nauseated.

I don’t say this lightly. Stuff like Blair Witch and Cloverfield didn’t cause me to even bat an eye as they did with some. This goes beyond shaky cam though. It’s so quick it’s almost a strobe effect in Kill Switch. It’s no exaggeration to say that it makes the pacing of a Michael Bay film seem like Ingmar Bergman. Worse still the tactic doesn’t even work. They still have inserts of Seagal’s face that clearly do not fit into the context of the fight. In some respects it’s worth seeing Kill Switch just to see this novel (if ill-advised) approach to filmmaking, but be sure to take a couple of seasick pills beforehand.

#3 – There’s a totally unnecessary moment in the middle of the film where King’s partner Storm tells a story in flashback mode about how he and King hunted down a serial killer/cannibal dressed as a clown. It’s not that the flashback is poorly done or anything (in fact it’s quite bizarre), it’s just that the film comes to a screeching halt to have this moment that connects to nothing. Trademark Seagal DTV era madness.

#4 – I alluded to this earlier, but Seagal has an attractive live-in girlfriend who’s also on the police force. This would not be so unusual in and of itself (although as is customary in the DTV era the girlfriend is MUCH younger than Seagal), except that he seems to have no interest in her at all and she serves no real purpose. You could make the argument that her death at the hands of Billy Joel would provide some sort of dramatic moment, but upon Seagal’s discovery of her death it seems more like an inconvenience than anything, much less the impetus for rage driven revenge.

#5 (Major Spoiler) – Perhaps the most insane moment in any Seagal film ever. No kidding. Throughout the entire course of the film we are led to believe that King’s life is pretty much confined to Memphis and his own circle of friends, colleagues, etc. He has a partner who he appears to have spent many years with, a fantastic apartment, a devoted girlfriend, and a history as a celebrated homicide detective. There is not even the most remote hint that there is anything beyond that life for King. He is well established as that guy. Okay. After King kills Billy Joel (spoiler) he leaves a note at his apartment letting his partner know he's leaving the force and town. Why not? I mean he’s been through a lot. Maybe he’s tired of chasing down killers and delivering brutal street justice. Who wouldn’t be?

The thing is King does not go off to start a new life somewhere from scratch. Not in a DTV era Seagal film, no sir. Instead he drives to a country manor which looks to be far removed from Tennessee, where he has a blond (young) Russian wife and several children. She greets him at the door without missing a beat, and takes him upstairs to the bedroom. End film. The previous record holder for an ending this unexpected/unexplained was Today You Die. But even in that film there were dream sequences and images that the ending recalled, even if it made no sense. Here the Russian wife and kids has no foreshadowing. It’s just plain jaw dropping, which is no small feat at this stage for a Seagal film. In fact, it actually helped to cement an idea that had been forming in my mind . . .

You know how there are formulas that get recycled over and over again in film? For example the mismatched buddy cop movie (e.g. Lethal Weapon). Basically you have a tried and true setup in which you just plug in new characters. I had a little distance behind me between my Seagal immersion program and watching Kill Switch. This perhaps helped to provide a bit of perspective. You see what struck me during Kill Switch was how familiar it all was, despite the fact that the goings on were entirely ridiculous from the acting, to the story, to the execution. Having seen so many of these DTV films, I truly believe there’s a pattern to the madness. Nutty accents, dangling plot threads, obvious stunt doubles, leading ladies who are far too young, etc. The uncalled for ending was the icing on the cake. These elements, while seemingly random and unprofessional, are far too common and predictable at this point to be unplanned. If you had just watched something like Seagal’s Submerged or Attack Force and had never seen another DTV era movie you might think the whole thing was a jumbled mess. But no! I submit that the chaos is a finely tuned machine meant to defy categorization. It may score on the point of not being pigeonholed, but since these Seagalian touches are becoming predictable it’s hard to classify these films as novel anymore.

That being said, Kill Switch is still a lot of fun. Unlike say a Submerged which is boring in addition to being crazy, Kill Switch never ceases to be entertaining (although the nauseating editing gives it the old college try). In fact, I think this is one of the better absurd/surreal DTV entries. It may not recall Seagal’s glory days the way Urban Justice did, but it is pretty satisfying nevertheless. Another facet I thought interesting was that this one is written by Seagal. Considering he’s adopted a philosophy of non-violence in his personal life, and is enmeshed in blues culture, it’s surprising that he would pen a gritty, ultraviolent crime piece such as this (and it is absolutely one of the most violent Seagal pictures to date). Particularly odd are the touches such as the cannibal clown and Russian wife ending. Vern posited in his book that On Deadly Ground represents the ultimate Seagal film as he wrote and directed it. Consequently it is “pure” Seagal. That may be true, but it makes me wonder where this one falls. It’s possible the director demanded the cannibal clown and non sequitir epilogue, but that seems hard to believe. I’m thinking that is also “pure” Seagal . . . which raises a whole other set of questions.

One last bit I have to mention which really strikes home. Earlier I made reference to the fact that Seagal is able to track down Lazerus as a result of a visit to the Memphis Public Library. There’s a little more to it than that. He goes to the library and asks a Goth outfitted female librarian for assistance. She rudely points him to the stacks where he finds some occult literature that figures into Lazerus’s M.O. Later she approaches somewhat apologetically and lets him know she’s heard a band using some of the lines he’s researched as lyrics, and brings up Lazerus. This ultimately leads Seagal to Lazerus. Afterward, she randomly happens to cross paths with Billy Joel (the mad bomber not the piano man) and gets together with him for a fling . . . and then subsequently gets killed.

As a librarian I’m always fascinated by the way libraries/librarians are portrayed in film. More often than not it’s as an older authoritarian type. With that in mind, I was pleased to see Seagal breaking the mold by putting a hip young person in as the role model. That good will was a little squelched when he portrayed her as rude and unhelpful. Of course then she was entirely responsible for helping him catch Lazerus. But then he has her get together with a stranger (not The Stranger) who brutally dispatches her. What in the world is the message here?!? The way I read it is that librarians, while indispensible in terms of providing accurate information, are rude and dangerously poor judges of character. I have to say I disagree with that depiction. Let’s hope that Seagal does a better job on that front next time (of course it could be he doesn't like Goth culture or had a bad experience at the Memphis Public Library who knows). Despite this not insignificant shortcoming, Kill Switch still gets a solid recommendation!

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