Friday, March 13, 2009

Steven Seagal Is Against the Dark!

At long last, I am finally back with my review of Steven Seagal’s latest film Against the Dark. Those of you who have been with the blog for a while know I’ve really developed a soft spot for Seagal over the past year or so. After reading Vern’s masterful critical work Seagalogy last year, I plunged headlong into the world of Seagal and have never looked back. Over the course of viewing his 20+ films, many of which were direct-to-video releases, I came to accept that he is indeed an auteur who has woven a coherent set of themes throughout his body of work. What surprised me most of all was how entertaining even his lowest budget offerings were. Granted most of the time the entertainment value was derived from their bizarre stylistic qualities, but that turned out to be just fine with me. Only a few were tough to stomach (e.g. Submerged and Flight of Fury), usually due to the fact that they were low on action or zaniness.

One interesting offshoot within the Seagal canon was a couple of films that actually contained elements of fantasy/horror. The aforementioned Submerged directed by genre veteran Anthony Hickox (Waxwork, Warlock) was one, and the other was Attack Force. Both of these began their respective lives with villains who were mutants (Submerged) and aliens (Attack Force), but through creative editing ended up being somewhat straightforward thrillers with human antagonists. Surprisingly this actually added to the entertainment value, as it made the films all the more strange and disjointed. Despite the fact that their final incarnation dispensed with the fantastic elements I still refer to them as the Seagal horror cycle, particularly since they were the closest he has ever come to delving into genre films . . . until now!

Yes my fellow Superfans it has finally happened, Seagal has made a full-blown horror film called Against the Dark. I heard about this back around Monster Fest when the film was titled Last Night. The premise circulating at that point was that Seagal would be leading a strike team into a hospital overrun with vampires. Of course I immediately assumed the worst, that once again the film would undergo drastic editing and the vampires would be magically transformed into European mobsters or some such device. I can now report to you that the original premise arrived pretty much intact, although perhaps not translated in quite the way I expected. There is a hospital overrun with vampire type creatures (actually just mutants who crave blood and hate sunlight), and Seagal does go in to clear the place out with his leather clad team. The thing is he really isn’t in it all that much. A better synopsis would have been that a group of no name actors wander around a hospital for 70 or so minutes, and Steven Seagal randomly shows up and waves a sword around here and there. Perhaps not the satisfying result some were expecting. Nevertheless I’m taking a rather controversial stance here, judging by widespread reactions within the Seagalogical community on the Internets, as I think this is still a decent entry and certainly far from his worst outing (Flight of Fury).

First the facts. The proceedings are kicked off with a screen displaying the definition of the word infection. Immediately I was reminded of the opening of Blade Runner in which the word replicant is explained. While I can’t be 100% sure, I’m guessing the makers of Against the Dark were either a) hoping we would be reminded of Blade Runner, or b) were paying homage to another gritty sci-fi thriller they loved. Either way this is a pretty risky maneuver considering they are making an ultra low-budget Steven Seagal DTV film that hasn’t a prayer of comparing to Blade Runner on any level. More likely it’s liable to highlight for viewers what an underwhelming endeavor they are about to undertake for the next 90 minutes. But I digress. The film quickly gets down to business and shifts to a scene of a young boy being chased by a horde of the mutants. Just when things are looking grim Seagal and his team of leather clad hunters sweep in and kill all the mutants, giving us the first great Seagal line of the film: "We're not here to decide what's right and wrong, we're here to decide who lives and who dies." As per custom with Seagal one-liners these days this makes absolutely no sense. Actually it reminds me of my favorite line from the worst movie of all time Megaforce (1982), uttered by ill-conceived action hero Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) in response to a lame joke by ex-Warrior Michael Beck: “That’s completely inapplicable to anything going on here, and it’s dumb.” Truer words were never spoken.

Having not seen the visuals, what you have to realize is that Seagal’s fellow hunters do not have a look of concern on their faces regarding the moral implications of their actions. This makes Seagal’s pronouncement regarding the issues of “right and wrong” somewhat puzzling. I mean it could be that his character is feeling a sense of reservation on their part, but let me assure you they didn’t look all that reserved as they were slicing and dicing the mutants. Perhaps the screenplay is trying to communicate these hidden thoughts that are percolating just beneath the surface, but if so the tactic is not at all effective. Instead it becomes the opening shot across the bow, letting us know that we can expect at least some degree of the absurdity we’ve come to expect in the DTV era. For what it’s worth, Seagal and company do make good on the second part of the pronouncement as they do frequently decide who lives and dies . . . usually erring on the side of dies.

Following this brief intro, we switch to a group of survivors wandering around an abandoned (except for mutants) hospital. And this is where the film loses a bit of steam. What we are essentially treated to is the equivalent of a (just barely) above average Sci-Fi network original movie. The survivors are all fairly bland, but just interesting enough that you can stand the film. They are tasked with the inexplicable chore of evacuating the hospital via an automatic door that will for some reason lock them in if they don’t make it in time. To be fair they undertake the journey to find medicine, but this detail gets shoved to the wayside pretty quickly. Basically they move through non-descript, junk-littered hallways and fight the occasional mutant. This is intercut with random scenes of Seagal and company working their way to the hospital, and a military camp where Linden Ashby (Mortal Kombat’s Johnny Kage) and Keith David (Marked for Death, The Thing, They Live, etc.) argue over whether to nuke the site or wait for Seagal’s hunters to clear the area old school.

That’s the setup of Against the Dark, and pretty much all you need to know about the plot (such as it is). More important in my mind are the elements that work and don’t work. So here is a brief rundown:

What works:

#1 – Seagal
Every moment Seagal appears is pretty much gold. From the aforementioned one-liner to several more bizarre moments, he is in top form. There’s one moment in particular where he confronts a mad scientist character in the hospital and says he’s going to do to him what he’s been doing to other people. Within the context of the scene I can assure you this statement makes no sense and generates a big laugh. Also I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the scene where Seagal introduces himself to a young girl after dispatching a mutant. She asks him who he is and he tells her his name is Tao, which is followed by a wonderfully cheesy dramatic music cue.

Another little tidbit worth noting is best enjoyed after viewing the documentary on the DVD. In an interview segment Seagal says that he likes how this character has a lot of depth, as evidenced in a scene where he expresses remorse over the infection of a female hunter on his team. This is quite a stretch, as in the finished film the remorse amounts to a grunted curse word. Really deep let me tell you. Even so, it just makes the film that much more entertaining.

#2 – The Hospital
I’m a real sucker for elements in these DTV films that go the extra mile in terms of bizarre stylistic touches. There are so many shots of the exterior face of the hospital in this, that the director must have been really impressed with the visual. Now you’re probably thinking to yourself this was just shorthand for the director establishing location changes. Maybe so, but I would argue that is totally unnecessary as it’s pretty clear where these folks are as 99% of the film takes place in the hospital. But back to what I love about it. The hospital exterior is marked by an intriguingly designed logo that is a cross between a goat and the devil (at least that’s my take). I can’t explain it, but it’s a small detail that just makes me associate this with fond memories of other unusual touches in the Seagal horror cycle (e.g. the “alien” weapons in Attack Force). In a way it reminds me of a Cronenberg device where the real world is intruded upon by a touch of the fantastic (e.g. Jeremy Irons’ mutant operating instruments in Dead Ringers).

#3 – Coherency
Yes despite all of its bizarre qualities Against the Dark actually has a pretty coherent narrative (no small feat in the DTV era). The story is easy to follow, and the inexplicable developments that do come up are fairly minimal.

#4 – Creatures & Effects
The effects and creatures in this work pretty well for a DTV movie. Rick Baker is probably not looking over his shoulder or anything, but these folks manage to deliver the goods on a budget. And this actually is a pretty hard effects film of the Romero school, so it should please those who are fond of zombie mayhem.

What Doesn’t Work:

#1 – The Lack of Seagal
This is the primary complaint with the film from most fans. Seagal’s role is basically reduced to a cameo. He has priceless moments from beginning to end, but we spend a LOT of time with the survivors in the hospital. BUT . . .

Okay, as I said this is the primary complaint from most fans. However I have a different take on this that makes the film work for me. This is not the first time a Seagal film has featured less of Seagal than other players. Executive Decision actually killed him off after a few brief appearances, arguably as a ploy to bring in more viewers to a lackluster Kurt Russell/John Leguizamo film. In my writeup I chose to accept Executive Decision as an experimental film that posed the question of what would happen if Seagal were killed of 40 minutes into a Seagal film. On that level it works as an intellectual exercise.

Well, in Against the Dark (prepare for spoiler) Seagal does not get killed. He does however spend very little time in the film. But when he does appear it is gold. One could make the argument that this is pretty similar to an early DTV film of his called Ticker, in which Tom Sizemore is actually the star. Seagal has some great lines when he’s onscreen, but his actual screen time is pretty slim. Furthermore, the non-Seagal goings on in Ticker are far less interesting than those in Against the Dark for my money (your mileage may vary). Either way, those decrying Against the Dark as a sham are right only to the extent that Seagal gets top billing. Honestly though, the folks who brought you Executive Decision and Ticker are milking his limited presence for all its worth . . . and they had other name actors. I can’t really blame Against the Dark for exploiting its biggest asset.

Which brings me to perhaps why I don’t mind the lack of Seagal all that much in this film. As I said when he is there it’s gold. This was crystallized for me in a random visit to Fantasmo All-Star and original Superfan Tony Mercer’s abode a week or so ago. I noticed that Tony had a copy of The Third Man lying on top of his DVD player, and this sparked a discussion about the film. Tony had only gotten halfway through it, and said he was having trouble finishing it because he didn’t care for Joseph Cotten in a leading man role (I sympathized as I also am not a big fan of Joseph Cotten in leading man roles). I then asked him if he had reached the part where Orson Welles showed up. He said he had not. I assured him that the Welles appearance really made the film come together. Welles’ brief onscreen time as the despicable Harry Lime allows that film to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Ordinarily one might expect that the bulk of enjoyment in a film should come from following the character we spend the most time with (Cotten). Really though, The Third Man (for me) is concerned primarily with Harry Lime. Cotten is our guide, but Welles is our goal.

I half remember an interview snippet that had Welles saying a “Harry Lime part” was actually the best type of part an actor could hope to receive. He was given a rich character with fantastic dialogue, and basically was allowed to steal the entire movie from the rather bland leading characters (i.e. those who had more screen time). I always thought that made a lot of sense, and certainly rang true with my experience in viewing The Third Man. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen The Third Man you really ought to.

So why bring this up. For the simple reason that I would submit that Seagal’s Tao is the Harry Lime of Against the Dark. Our rather pedestrian escorts wandering the hospital (a collective Joseph Cotten if you will) are merely guides to get us to the golden Seagal moments. When he shows up he is in top DTV form uttering ridiculous one-liners and dispensing brutal street justice Jacob King style (uncalled for Kill Switch reference). Tao brings the picture together in a way that makes the journey worth taking (at least if you are the type of individual to take a journey into the realm of DTV Seagal films).

#2 – The Hospital
While there’s much to like about the hospital, it’s never even remotely believable that it would be quite the labyrinth the movie makes it out to be. We never have any sense of the internal space of the building, as all the halls look interchangeable. Even crazier is the fact that the building is on a countdown (which we literally see at one point on a readout) before going into a lockdown mode preventing anyone from escaping. I haven’t been in a lot of hospitals, but I would wager that no ordinary hospital has a master clock that will lock up the building with blastproof doors like some sort of sci-fi compound. On one level I enjoy this absurd detail, but the blandness of the building’s interior sort of kills the deal.

#3 – Coherency
While it is nice that this has a straightforward, easy-to-follow plot, this negates the enjoyment typically derived by the wild gaps in logic typical of DTV Seagal. I miss the crazy jumping between voodoo dreams and gangster saga melodrama of Today You Die, the pen pal rescue adventure madness of Out of Reach, the totally out of left field ending in Kill Switch, etc. A lack of coherency is often a plus in Seagalogy.

#4 – The Weaponry
As Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. pointed out to me, Tao’s sword looks like a poorly constructed fan prop you would expect to see at DragonCon. He’s spot on. The sword actually breaks during a climactic battle. I find it hard to believe that Tao would carry such an inferior weapon. You certainly wouldn’t catch that kind of thing in the likes of Attack Force.

#5 – Lack of Seagal/Keith David Teamup
As mentioned previously, Keith David is (sadly) in this film. While he does a good job with what little he’s given to do by the script, it is an utter disaster that he never shares a scene with Seagal. These two had such great chemistry in Marked for Death that it’s hard to fathom that you would have them in the same film yet never have them meet! It would be like Michael Mann making Heat with De Niro and Pacino and deciding they didn’t need to share any scenes. Come on makers of Against the Dark!!

You may have noticed that several of the strengths of the film are also in the weaknesses category. I firmly believe that most strengths have a flipside weakness, and certainly Against the Dark features qualities that are no exception to that rule. The trick is mitigating the weaknesses and emphasizing the strengths. The saving grace for Against the Dark is that Seagal is always “on” in the small amount of screen time he’s granted. There are also just enough outrageous DTV elements to keep the more mundane aspects of the film from taking over. And the performances by Keith David and Linden Ashby are decent enough to get past the contrived should we/shouldn’t we nuke the hospital debate interludes. The combination of these elements qualifies Against the Dark as being several notches above the bottom of the Seagal DTV era barrel. For me the bottom is occupied (from bottom up) by Flight of Fury, Submerged, and Attack Force. The first two are tedious and boring, with very little going on to warrant repeat viewings. Attack Force is really neck and neck with Against the Dark. I give ATD the edge as it at least doesn’t dub Seagal’s voice with a poor substitute for 75% of his performance.

One final aspect I will touch on relates to a concern Vern cites in his review of ATD. He expresses some doubt as to whether ATD adheres to his thesis that Seagal puts his personal stamp on every picture he does, in that Tao is a character that could have been played by any random action hero. I hope I can alleviate his doubt on this point . . .

#1 - First and foremost, the name Tao plays into Vern’s observation that Seagal likes to adopt cultures when crafting a character. He’s been Italian, Russian, Native American, Japanese, etc. Tao is a reference to Chinese philosophy, and clearly Seagal is not Chinese. The fact that he is named Tao is one of the most blatant examples of adopting a culture (at least in terms of nomenclature) that we’ve seen to date. Add to that the fact that he carries what looks to be a katana of some sort, and I think you have a strong case for adopted culture here. Of course he also speaks in the mumbling Southern accent he’s cultivated since Submerged (and recently perfected in an over-the-top way in Kill Switch), so you could make the case that there are two adopted cultures.

#2Tao is clearly some sort of martial arts expert that I think we can infer has a background in the military/law enforcement. He has been able to organize a team amidst the mayhem taking place, and is systematically wiping out the infected. He is also coordinating this effort with Linden Ashby, so we know he’s not a random civilian who happens to own a cheap looking sword. So this plays into the theme often seen in his films in which he is a present/former agent of law enforcement.

#3 – Not only is Tao former law enforcement, and of questionable Chinese ancestry, he is also a renegade of sorts. Yes he’s working loosely for the military, but clearly head honcho Keith David is not enamored with his efforts/methods. As in many of his movies, Seagal’s character is at odds with a government bureaucracy that cannot get the job done. Can you say Nico Toscani? I knew you could : )

#4 – Finally, there’s even a little bit of family baggage going on here. As pointed out by Seagal himself in the documentary, his team of hunters is a tight clan. This is seen clearly when he expresses remorse over the infection (and subsequent execution by Tao) of a fellow hunter. I would submit that we haven’t seen this level of emotion since the death of Hugh Palmer in On Deadly Ground!

And to make all of the above even more impressive in terms of supporting the auteur theory, Seagal manages to pack this into about 10-15 minutes of screen time!

So there you have it Superfans and Seagalogists, my long-winded take on the long in coming matchup of Seagal and the (somewhat) supernatural. It’s certainly not his finest hour, but it is also several notches above his worst. My recommendation is to watch this as a double-feature with Flight of Fury. In the light of that ill-conceived remake of a lackluster Michael Dudikoff film, ATD will seem like pure cinematic genius!


george booker said...

Glad you pointed out how unfortunate it is that Keith David is reduced to this. Nothing against DTV culture...I've yet to embrace it, but I've heard some arguments at Fantasmo that make sense positing DTV as the modern equivalent to previous B houses like drive-ins. Also, I'm finding many of the best discoveries in my two favorite broad genres, comedy and horror, in the virtually DTV realm...kicked off in the early aughts with "Wet Hot American Summer" and "May". David, however, seems too valuable a presence for the absurdist DTV Seagal cycle. It looked for awhile he was carving a good niche for himself as a character actor in great movies (I'm reaching back to his embodiment of an intimidating father in "There's Something About Mary" and his embodiment of unsavory sleaze in "Requiem For A Dream") and this seems like a bit of a waste. What is wrong with you, casting directors?

Jim Blanton said...

Hey George,
Seagal was my gateway to DTV, but I must say there are quite a few gems I've discovered. B-movies of the past were the same situation. You had to wade through a lot of junk to discover the good stuff. What I like about it most of all is that it gives actors like Seagal and Lundgren a venue to do their thing, since the Hollywood machine isn't interested in eclectic fare.

That said I agree with you 100% that it's sad to see David in DTV of this level. He's way too good for it. And even more disappointing is that he doesn't even interact with Seagal. He's one of those actors like Lance Henriksen who elevates even the worst schlock (and certainly his work here is a highlight of the film).

Speaking of Henriksen, he just turned up in the not half bad DTV sequel to the 1995 Peter Weller film Screamers. It's primary deficit is a cliched ending, but overall it works very well . . . and Henriksen's presence is a major plus!

Fantasmo All Star Craig said...

Jim- man, how did you overlook Henriksen's appearance in a recent DTV film called Pistol Whipped?

And guess what I just got, still on the card???

Jim Blanton said...

You know though, I don't consider Pistol Whipped to be schlock on the order of Against the Dark : ) That one was actually pretty decent . . . and Henriksen's presence of course only helped matters!

I am jealous sir. You have become one of an elite club of action figure owners, privileged to grant a home to Nico Toscani in miniature. I should hope that someday I will find myself in that enviable position!