Steven Seagal: It Should Have Been Me

Some think the martial arts action hero and part-time cop a joke others think he's the man. Here's the film by film evidence for the defence.
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Some think the martial arts action hero and part-time cop a joke others think he's the man. Here's the film by film evidence for the defence.

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Steven Seagal: What a hero

Sometime in 2007, I got a text from my brother in Kyiv which read, ‘I’m sitting in a bar having a drink with Steven Seagal,’ and my head flew apart like it had been punched by the man himself. I was the Seagal fan: it should’ve been me. I was the one who owned all his movies on DVD, while our kid possessed just one – The Foreigner, one of his, ahem, less coherent efforts – and even that only as a VHS tape. He wasn’t equipped to meet Seagal. It should’ve been me, damn it.

But when I stopped to think about it, what would I say to him? More to the point, would any of it be to his liking? Because let’s face it, here was a man on whose wrong side you didn’t want to get. I don’t know how tough being a 7th dan black belt in aikido makes you, but he was it. And that’s without mentioning his added black belts in judo, karate and kendo (OK, I mentioned them). And let’s not forget his twenty years’ experience as a sidearm-toting deputy sheriff in Louisiana – the subject of his reality TV series Steven Seagal: Lawman – and that this is the guy who broke Sean Connery’s wrist without batting an eyelid while training him for the fight scenes in Never Say Never Again.

Yet my appreciation of Seagal is also centred on an idea of him as a figure of fun – not quite the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that his publicity machine would have us believe, more a riddle baked in a fortune cookie at the end of a pony tail. From the days when I became aware of him through video trailers for his early movies like Out for Justice and Marked for Death, it was his unlikeliness as an action hero that made him stand out from Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes and all those other straight-to-DVD stars in waiting. None of them had the puffy, narrow eyes, counter-receding hairline and long face like a petulant emoticon that would’ve sunk a dozen other men’s screen-tests without trace. Though women have told me he’s handsome, to me he looks too regular to be a movie hero, yet here he was fully-fledged, straight out of nowhere. And I liked that.

In fact, Seagal never had to do a screen-test since his film career started with one of his martial arts students, film producer Steve Ovitz, betting that he could make a star out of anyone. Or so the legend goes. So you can remove ‘In fact’ from the beginning of this paragraph.

It is true that Seagal had achieved an impressive measure of maverick success already before he made his debut in 1988’s Nico (called Above the Law in the U.S., in keeping with his penchant for three-word titles). As a young man in the 1970s – he was born in 1951 – Seagal became the first foreigner to operate an aikido dojo in Japan, and the pre-credits opening sequence of Nico plays like a real-life biography, self-referencing the legend from its very inception – the chicken before the egg (though I’d never dare label him a chicken).

Though women have told me he’s handsome, to me he looks too regular to be a movie hero, yet here he was fully-fledged, straight out of nowhere. And I liked that.

Proper big-screen stardom came with his fifth film, Under Siege, frequently derided by movie pundits as Die Hard on a boat. It’s probably fair to say that all the best screen time was stolen by Tommy Lee Jones, who went on to Oscar glory with the same director – Andrew Davis – just one year later with The Fugitive. Its box-office success, nonetheless, gave Warner Bros the hots for an Under Siege 2, which in turn gave Seagal the leverage to direct as well as star in the film that came out between them, 1994’s On Deadly Ground.

According to Vern, the online film critic who’s published the only book on the star so far – the highly entertaining Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-kicking Films of Steven Seagal – this is the best film in the Seagal canon, and it’s easy to see its superficial artistic appeal. Apart from making an emphatic statement for the environmentalist lobby, it boasts some awesome photography of Alaska, a great score by Basil Polidouris and Michael Caine as the oil-baron baddy. It also features a large dollop of quasi-Inuit-lore mumbo-jumbo and some of the most buttock-clenching violence you’re likely to see, if you can get your hands on an uncut version in this country.

Most notably, On Deadly Ground expressed the definitive template for almost every one of Seagal’s soft-spoken heroes from his thirty-odd movies. As R. Lee Ermey’s character puts it:

‘Anytime the military heads an operation that can’t fail, they call this guy in to train the troops... You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear without his toothbrush and tomorrow afternoon he’s gonna show up at your poolside with a million-dollar smile and a fistful of pesos.’

On Deadly Ground bombed, along with his other environmental message movies, Fire Down Below and The Patriot. But Seagal’s one-dimensional tough-guy characters continued to prove their bankability in comeback successes such as 2001’s Exit Wounds, and he carved himself a nice little niche market starring opposite rappers like DMX and Ja Rule who would pull him in a new audience, while still attracting a gallery of co-stars that includes Kris Kristofferson, Bill Duke, Tom Arnold, Harry Dean Stanton, Marg Helgenberger, Claudia Christian, Brian Cox, Isaac Hayes, Lance Henriksen and Imelda Staunton. Yes, it seems that even the Vera Drake Oscar winner is happy to be marked for death.

The roll call of weirdness doesn’t end there. Familiar faces from British TV in his movies include Linda Thorson from Emmerdale, and once upon a time, Tara King in The Avengers; Eva Pope from Peak Practice, Holby City and Waterloo Road; Nick Brimble, Emmerdale again; Alison King from Coronation Street; and Alex Ferns, best remembered as Evil Trevor in EastEnders. (I guess it’s easier and cheaper to fly English-speaking actors to the Czech Republic or Bulgaria from Britain than from the U.S., another example being the Romania-filmed 7 Seconds, which saw the unlikely pairing of Wesley Snipes and Tamzin Outhwaite.) Finally, we can add Luke Goss and Vinnie Jones to the list.

In Seagalogy, Vern, perhaps with tongue in cheek, calls Seagal an auteur for the consistency of his characters and plots (make that character and plot) and for the motifs that run through all the films. But for me, it’s not the consistencies but the contradictions that make him interesting. A devout Buddhist with a titty-bar scene in almost every movie. A man of peace who doesn’t seem to mind dishing out severe beatings and fatal choke holds. An environmentalist who’s usually seen driving an SUV. A weapons expert who looks awkward holding a gun. A man who seemed to put on enough weight, hairline, wrinkles and tan somewhere in the late Nineties to come back looking like his own older, larger more hirsute brother from Hawaii. An ordinary Joe who wasn’t being ironic when he said he hoped the public would think of him as more than just a sex symbol.

The output of Seagal Enterprises suggests someone whose diary must look pretty scary. Aside from his film-making and policing duties, he markets his own energy drink, Lightning Bolt, appearing in its TV commercials. He also tours with a live band, Thunderbox, on lead vocals and lead guitar, playing his self-penned blues and reggae numbers. In Kyiv he borrowed an amp from my brother to jam with Thin Lizzie’s Eric Bell on stage, then spent the following day auditioning girls for his movies.

The last decade has seen a long string of straight-to-DVD releases of varying quality, mostly shot in Eastern Europe or East Asia, the character and basic premise changing little, though less coherent in some than others. Studio re-editing has created scenes with Seagal’s voice dubbed by poor imitators, plots that switch from thriller to horror halfway through (but not in a good way like From Dusk till Dawn) and obvious stand-ins for Seagal in added fight-scene footage. The best of them for my money are Belly of the Beast, which pre-dated the similarly themed Liam Neeson thriller Taken, and Renegade Justice, a simple tale of revenge in the ’hood with black stand-up comedian Eddie Griffin and all-purpose bad injun, Danny Trejo. Submerged is worth a look for Vinnie Jones, probably the only co-star who pulls off an onscreen brutality to match Seagal’s.

An ordinary Joe who wasn’t being ironic when he said he hoped the public would think of him as more than just a sex symbol.

The rest are strictly for fans only. And the fans aren’t complaining. Over the last decade, Seagal has put out these movies with production-line efficiency, averaging two or three a year, and the fans have equally efficiently been whipping them off the supermarket, superstore and petrol-station shelves for a tenner a time. It must have been a black day for Seagal when Woolworth’s closed its doors for the last time, but I doubt that it explains the absence of a new DVD in the Seagal canon for some time now. More likely is the Stateside litigation he’s been embroiled in recently, which if you want to go into it is all there on the internet.

Anyway, he has got a new film coming out. But not straight to DVD, and not a generic Steven Seagal movie. In Robert Rodriguez’s Machete he makes another big-screen comeback as a drug dealer. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like one of the bad guys, so this is clearly new territory for him. What are the fans going to say about it?  Well he gets to wield a couple of swords and go mano a mano with his old mate Danny Trejo so that’s OK. Let’s face it, we’re never going to pay to see him do Shakespeare. The cast list looks designed to rival Stallone’s The Expendables, and its prettier too. Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin and Robert De Niro.

The reflected glory of appearing in a movie with De Niro is something Seagal can’t be unaware of or immune to. He’s joining a select pantheon. And he’s crossed a line as an actor that he refused to cross before: he apparently turned down the baddie role that his pal Jackie Chan offered him in Rush Hour 3. Not that anyone else thinks he can act, of course. But being a movie star isn’t about acting – look at Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Serious acting is about finding the truth, but being a star is about turning your life into a narrative that the public want to follow. And whether Machete ‘revives his flagging career’, as his critics will inevitable put it, or prove to be his swan song, he’s not going to stop doing the stuff that Steven Seagal does, and everybody will still know who he is.

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