Monday, June 15, 2009

Steven Seagal IS Ruslan (aka Driven to Kill)

I reviewed Star Trek here a couple of weeks back, and now it is time at last for me to chime in on the other BIG SUMMER MOVIE. Not your Terminator. Not your Wolverine. Not your Transformers. No I am of course referring to Steven Seagal’s summer DTV entry Ruslan. Now for those of you keeping track at home, you may have noticed I am not calling the film Driven to Kill as it is titled on the DVD box cover. This is because it was originally titled Ruslan (after Seagal’s character), and even said so in the trailers. And frankly Ruslan is just a much cooler title than the generic, DTV-era friendly Driven to Kill. So as far as I’m concerned this movie was, is now, and always shall be Ruslan. End of story. Having gotten that business out of the way I am happy to inform you that this one is pretty solid. It continues the trend begun by the likes of Urban Justice in which Seagal plays a tough guy out for revenge. It is not only slickly put together (by Seagal DTV-era standards), but also is downright coherent. Not to worry though there are plenty of ridiculous touches to keep the proceedings interesting, and I will cover the highlights in turn. Buckle up friends because as the tagline states, "they took down his daughter, so he’s taking them down!”

As I mentioned Ruslan is a revenge film cut from the same cloth as the earlier Seagal film Urban Justice. In that sense I was somewhat predisposed to enjoy this one. The beauty of Urban Justice was that it didn’t get bogged down with a labyrinthine plot the way a lot of Seagal films do, but instead focused on the basics. Seagal’s son is killed by a gang and he comes to town to deliver payback to the culprits. That’s all there is to it. Because of the simplicity, time was allowed for stylistic flourishes that made Urban Justice a standout. I would even go so far as to say it was character driven (but not to kill). That is something lacking in many of the lesser DTV-era films, which seem to exist for no other reason than to usher Seagal through a chain of absurd events. The setup for Ruslan is practically identical to Urban Justice, only the circumstances have changed. Seagal plays a former Russian mobster whose daughter is attacked by Russian gang members on the eve of her wedding. Seagal in turn sets out to deliver payback to the culprits. So honestly if you have a soft spot for the revenge genre by way of Steven Seagal, it’s a safe bet that you will be pleased with this one.

First off, you probably caught on to the statement I made that Seagal plays a “Russian” mobster. No doubt you also made the connection that Seagal is not Russian. This is a classic example of the phenomenon Vern pointed out in Seagalogy, in which Seagal frequently (in fact near constantly) adopts a culture as part of his character. As of late this has mostly been a hybrid of Cajun/Asian cultures (e.g. Kill Switch), so it’s nice to see that he’s branching out with this one. The big question is whether or not his accent is successful. It’s tempting to be highly critical of Seagal’s attempt at a Russian accent, because it vaguely resembles his attempt at a Cajun dialect. It’s sort of this low, grumbling speech pattern which truthfully I don’t know that I’d identify immediately at Russian if I wasn’t aware of his character’s origin in the film. That said, having the benefit of such knowledge I feel comfortable in making the call that the accent is okay . . . when he remembers to do it! Yes as is so often the case in films where the leading actor has to speak in something other than their native accent, the real monkey in the wrench is consistency. Unfortunately Seagal not infrequently falls victim to reverting to a not-quite Russian enough accent. However since he seems to have adopted the Cajun style (at least Cajun as filtered through Seagal)/low rumble as his onscreen persona of choice, the fact that his Russian is hit and miss is often inadvertently disguised. Only a trained Seagalogist can truly tell the difference in most instances.

Another element I loved about Ruslan is that it adheres to the Seagalian trademark of the main character having a reputation for being incredibly skilled in the combat/killing arts. As discussed most enjoyably in Seagalogy, there is almost always a scene in Seagal’s films in which the villains a) are horrified to find out that Seagal’s character is after them, and b) proceed to lay out all the reasons they are afraid. What I found interesting and highly entertaining about Ruslan, is that this theme keeps repeating every time Ruslan comes on the scene. Mostly it’s derived from the fact that he has been retired, and everyone he encounters feels the need to highlight this detail and subsequently reference his checkered past. I’m sure there are examples of other Seagal films where this sort of repetition has been present, but for whatever reason it stood out significantly to me in this one.

Along similar lines, I also admired the shorthand used in the film for establishing particular aspects of Ruslan’s personality and existence. Great examples of this occur in the beginning and closing segments of the film (spoilers to follow). The film opens on a scene in which Seagal is wooing a young lady, and she is pestering him to teach her how he does a particular magic trick. The trick involves putting a huge spike under a styrofoam cup, and playfully swapping it quickly with 3 other cups (just like three card monte). Instead of just guessing which cup the spike is under however, Ruslan ratchets up the suspense by smashing his hand down over the cups where the spike isn’t. She asks him how he knew which cup the spike is under, and he explains that he didn’t. The trick according to Ruslan, is not caring where the spike is. This simple sequence quickly illustrates just what type of dude Ruslan is, and also manages squeezes in another obligatory Seagalian trademark in which Seagal manages to successfully court a lady far younger than he is.

A second shorthand device which I feel is worth noting is how the film establishes that all is right in Ruslan’s world. Following the aforementioned styrofoam cup chicanery, the film follows Ruslan through some of his more mundane adventures of daily life (e.g. going to the grocery store, typing up a novel, and talking on the phone). Oh that reminds me, before I go any further I realize I neglected to mention that not only is he a former Russian mobster, but he’s also a reformed Russian mobster turned novelist. How’s that for crazy?!? Anyhow as I watched these initial scenes in Ruslan, for whatever reason I was struck by how rigidly constructed the “everything is right in Ruslan’s world” montage was. For example there is a picture postcard mini-scene of the guy carrying a brown paper grocery bag under his arm that is perfectly filled for carrying, complete with a perfectly placed pineapple peering out of the top. As a regular grocery shopper I have never walked out of a grocery store with all my weekly needs satisfied with a single brown bag complete with a perfectly placed pineapple peering out of the top. It’s like the director is hitting us over the head with how idyllic this guy’s existence is . . . minus of course interludes of dangerous styrofoam cup demonstrations. It’s difficult to explain, but following his “the trick is not to care” philosophy by means of dangerous sleight of hand, this casual everyday life moment comes off as pretty absurd. It's almost a reverse order tribute to the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet! Better still is that the film closes with the exact same montage, right down to an identical grocery bag. Ruslan likes his pineapples!

A final touch that has met with some mixed reviews, is that Ruslan is sort of partnered with his son-in-law to be throughout the film. You see it just so happens that the groom is the son of a former adversary, who still has a grudge against Ruslan. The groom however doesn’t want to go into the family business, therefore the wedding is not a problem (at least that’s the idea). In any case there’s tension because his father thinks he isn’t tough enough, so when the bride is shot the son-in-law insists on helping out with the revenge to prove he is a tough guy. In practice he ends up being somewhat of an annoying/inept sidekick to Ruslan, ultimately proving that he’s definitely not cut out for the tough guy business. There are some humorous moments of awkwardness between he and Ruslan, such as when they infiltrate an unsavory gentleman’s club. It’s just an oddball sequence that doesn’t make much sense, in that Ruslan should not be shepherding his daughter’s husband into such a locale during a revenge mission. On the one hand he’s supposed to be the protective father, yet he’s encouraging the son-in-law to skirt the boundaries of infidelity. Perhaps it’s all just a test, as with Ruslan you just never can be too sure.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention a few important technical details about the film. Foremost among these is that Seagal is not (as far as I can tell) dubbed in the film at all. Considering that he’s required to use an accent I’m fairly puzzled by the absence of this. My hope is that it's part of a march toward better quality in his DTV work. Almost as important, the fighting in this one appears to be done largely by Seagal, and double work is competently staged (no shaggy wigs and obvious stuntmen here). Interestingly this film marks the beginning of a new production deal for Seagal, and speculation on the Internets is that he has more control over the finished product. If that is in fact the case, Ruslan marks a potential turning point in the DTV-era, and certainly is a positive step in the right direction. Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. offered up an interesting point about this, and recent high quality DTV efforts, suggesting that Ruslan, Against the Dark, Pistol Whipped, and Urban Justice comprise a growing segment of “coherency” in the DTV-era. Each of these has a plot that flows logically, which is no small feat when one considers the likes of an Attack Force or Submerged. If this keeps up, Seagal could become as successful as Dolph Lundgren in producing high quality DTV films. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

I hate to end this positive review on a down note, but I must express some disappointment at a recent development. Last week I was shocked to see a headline featuring Seagal on the Internet Movie Database. Usually the headline area is reserved for folks like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. I immediately got excited thinking maybe Under Siege 3 had been greenlighted, only to discover that it was about Seagal turning down a role in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables because of an ongoing feud with DTV producer Avi Lerner. This followed other equally disappointing news that Van Damme turned down The Expendables to do an “official” sequel to Bloodsport. I greatly admire the fact that Stallone is trying to produce the greatest action movie ever made by assembling every action star of the last 20 years under one tent. Lundgren, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Statham, Li, etc. are all on board for what promises to be a truly amazing event. So to lose two titans of the late 80’s/early 90’s is a bit of a blow. It’s still going to be a cool film, but just imagine had in included Seagal and Van Damme. Sigh.

Okay, for the sake of not ending on a negative note there are still a couple of lights ahead. Firstly Seagal’s Lawman series coming to A&E will be pure gold. Secondly we also have another DTV movie coming up called The Keeper in which Seagal appears to play a cowboy of sorts, who tracks down a kidnapped girl with his Iphone. His absence in The Expendables is a blow, but these will surely go a long way toward making up for it!

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