Steven Seagal’s Golden Era in Film

Posted on Posted in Movies, Reviews/Commentary

Prior to reading the action movie reviewer Vern’s excellent book “Seagolgy,” I had little interest in the films of Steven Seagal.  However, Vern’s analysis highlighted the many quirks within Seagal’s work that a casual viewer wouldn’t otherwise notice.  As a result, viewing Seagal’s films became more interesting and enjoyable than I would have otherwise imagined.

The film reviews that follow fell into what Vern defined as Seagal’s ‘Golden’ era and included part of his ‘Silver’ era.  These were basically his best-remembered mainstream films before a career decline that would eventually lead to Seagal appearing in direct-to-video and television work.

 

“Above the Law” (1988) ~ **

 

This was Seagal’s first film and he had an undeniable presence right out of the gate.  His action style was different than the norm, more about quickly dispatching opponents than over-extending scenes for show.

The film started off with an excellent introduction to the mythos of Seagal, showing actual photos of him growing up and then moving to Japan as a teen.  Much of what was presented was factually correct regarding Seagal’s background, although it incorporated things like involving Seagal’s character Nico in the CIA (an organization that Seagal himself has claimed he was involved with, although no factual evidence exists to back him up).

Seagal looked remarkably skinny at times, certainly when compared to the bulky figure that might come to mind when one thinks about him decades later.  He didn’t have the ponytail yet, but his hair was trending in that direction.

An apparent trademark of Seagal films was an overly complicated plot.  “Above the Law” had that in spades.  Roger Ebert referred to the film as having fifty percent more plot than needed and that was an astute observation.  As crazy as it might sound for a 1980s action film, there truly was way too much going on and “Above the Law” was hard to follow at times.  There were government conspiracies involving the CIA and a Senator and even Seagal’s mafia family and his priest.  I mean, it really was nuts how much was going on.

The director was Andrew Davis, who later directed “The Fugitive” and had a nice career with various action films in the 1980s and 1990s.  This film’s budget was only around $10 million, but it felt like it fit in with other action films of the era just fine.

“Above the Law” was even more interesting in hindsight after reading Vern’s 20 pages of analysis in his book.  He pointed out some really weird things that went unnoticed by me upon my initial viewing of the film.  One example was Seagal having a family photo that included his police partner and Vern’s speculation that the partner was having an affair with Seagal’s character.  The film didn’t directly allude to that scenario but one could figure from their banter and behavior that something was very odd about the partnership.

Also under my radar, Sharon Stone played Seagal’s very-attractive wife.  She was somewhat unrecognizable due to spending much of the film crying or otherwise acting upset.  Certainly, she had many reasons to be upset with her place within the film since her life really sucked.

 

“Hard to Kill” (1990) ~ ***

 

“We’re gonna win. And I’ll tell you why: superior attitude, superior state of mind.”

~ Steven Seagal, “Hard to Kill” (1990)

“Hard to Kill” was my introduction to Seagal.  It was shared with me soon after it debuted on video by an uncle who was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with the man’s work. “Oh, you don’t know about Seagal?” he said prior to sharing this film with me.

Indeed, on first viewing “Hard to Kill” I thought that it was great.  In hindsight, there was a clear later influence on the first “Kill Bill” film – to the point that I searched without success to see if Tarantino has ever acknowledged any direct inspiration.  In this case, Seagal’s character ended up in a coma for seven years after having his wife killed on Oscar Night 1983.  He woke up in 1990, ready to remind the bad guys that he was indeed hard to kill.

The antagonist was a U.S. Senator in a conspiracy plot, not dissimilar from the ambitions of the villain in other 1980s action films made around the same time (such as “Action Jackson”).  He was played by “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” villain William Sadler and he was effective no-nonsense baddie whom I’d rank as under-appreciated

Seagal’s buddy on the police force turned out to be the greatest friend anyone ever had during the seven years in which Seagal was out of commission.  The buddy managed to convince doctors to disguise Seagal as ‘John Doe’ while he was in a coma, paid for Seagal’s son to receive private schooling, and later brought guns to Seagal post-coma.  [Spoiler]  He even died while saving Seagal’s kid at the end.  He was arguably the film’s most admirable hero.

A few dated elements stuck out after seeing “Hard to Kill” again for the first time in over twenty years.  One hilarious issue was Seagal’s coma-goatee, a look for the man that would guarantee a chuckle from any modern viewer.  In short, he looked like Worf on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The best part about the coma-goatee was that the character didn’t ever wear either a beard or a goatee in any other situations throughout the film.  It made no sense why he had that particular look while in a coma.  Anyhow, the goatee disappeared after Seagal came out of the coma.  Around the same time, Seagal’s character completed an acupuncture and incense-based recovery/training sequence.

Just like with Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” Seagal then went about taking his revenge and rescuing his child.

Per Vern’s book “Seagalogy,” “Hard to Kill” was the movie that really leapt everything forward in defining the Seagal style.  It built on “Above the Law” – bringing out more the Seagal trademark philosophical lines and such.  Similar to Seagal’s first film, it initially featured him living a family lifestyle, he was identified again as a Christian,  there were corrupt cops, mob ties, a trustworthy partner, etc.  There was also a weird little animal rights flourish when a white horse escaped captivity at the very end of a lengthy action scene.

Perhaps Vern’s most hilarious analysis on “Hard to Kill” was in evaluating the nurse character played by Kelly Lebrock.  While Seagal was in a coma, she sexually harassed him and looked at his private part(s).  She helped Seagal escape to a ranch that she was house-sitting for someone, resulting in the ranch’s eventual destruction and loss of both the owner’s Jeep and the aforementioned horse.

Also of note with Lebrock’s character was the weird dynamic that the script apparently addressed but that the film chose to avoid (probably for the best).  From Seagal’s perspective, he lost his wife and went to sleep.  Days later (at least from his perspective) he was being seduced by Lebrock.  All of these dynamics were complicated emotionally and not something that the film was really in a position to dive into.

Finally, per Vern, “Hard to Kill” featured the single greatest one-liner in all of Seagal’s filmography.  The Senator antagonist had a political campaign line that was repeated throughout the film – “You can take that to the bank.”  While plotting his revenge, Seagal noticed a campaign commercial playing that featured that line and said to the television:  “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent.  To the blood bank.”

Yes, it was that good.

And one more aside on Seagal, film auteur – it was already evident that he viewed himself as making a much more artistically complicated film than he was actually producing and certainly more complicated than the average viewer would have grasped.  Vern pointed out the crazy use of a destroyed Louis XIII portrait as being a historical analogy for the film’s Senator character and made a case for why such visual touches were much more intentional and more of a Seagal trademark than any sane person would realize.

 

“Marked for Death” (1990) ~ **1/2

 

Further blurring Seagal’s filmography was the fact that in “Marked for Death” he was still playing the same kind of super-law-enforcement character as he had played in his first two films.   The quirky character details in “Marked for Death” were perhaps more in line with “Above the Law” than with “Hard to Kill” though.  This time, Seagal’s character was a burnt out Chicago DEA agent who decided to call it quits after his partner was killed while on a mission in Columbia.  While spending time with his sister and her family, Seagal noticed some drug dealing in the area by Jamaican immigrants.

Seagal gained his most memorable ad hoc partner thus far with Keith David, who kept egging Seagal’s character to take action with him against suspicious Jamaican immigrants in their neighborhood.  It probably wasn’t a great idea for Seagal to be living with his family members if he was at the same time doing things that brought attention on him by drug dealers, but that didn’t stop him.  After the Jamaicans injured Seagal’s niece, he decided to give in and seek justice with David.

The duo ended up teaming with an undercover Jamaican cop and that trio spent the third act in Jamaica.  They flew down whilst giving chase to a drug kingpin named ‘Screwface.’  Yes, that was actually his name.  The ending had a nice fake-out false climax involving a ‘disguised twins’ gambit that helped to redeem what might have been an otherwise by-the-numbers finale.

We can probably all agree that the entire Jamaican immigrants/drug dealing gangsters angle would not at all fly in later politically correct environments.  It must have even been somewhat dicey at the time of release since the film had a disclaimer at the end in which it was mentioned that less than 1% of Jamaican immigrants were involved in the drug trade.

A few curiosities about the film involved a relative lack of what was becoming the usual Seagal references to Asian cultures.  Oddly, this was the third straight film to feature a Seagal character visibly affirming their Christianity.  Also, the film featured notably more nudity than Seagal’s prior films and more of the typical strippers/prostitutes that you’d expect in this kind of vintage film.  And don’t forget about a Jamaican pseudo-sorceress who had to get naked in a bathtub and dump milk onto herself while ceremonially marking Seagal’s character for death.  Finally, Danny Trejo had a relatively early career appearance in the film.

I want to be clear that “Marked for Death” was entertaining and, on the whole, a decent little action movie.  Action fans looking for a new fix would enjoy the movie just fine and even pickier people wouldn’t be bored.  “Marked for Death” rose slightly above being a simple retread of “Above the Law,” but it wasn’t unique enough to stand tall on its own.

(An extra half star was awarded in my rating simply for Keith David’s involvement in the film)

 

“Out for Justice” (1991) ~ ***

 

While viewing these films, a friend asked if there were any ‘good’ Seagal films and if any truly fit that moniker this would probably be it.  While I might have a nostalgic soft spot for “Hard to Kill,” it would be difficult to call that a better film than “Out for Justice.”

Rotten Tomatoes only ranked “Out for Justice” at 19%, while “Under Siege” was a 75%.  That said, I’d argue that “Out for Justice” has probably aged better and might be regarded a bit more favorably today.  Amongst fans of Seagal, “Out for Justice” was generally considered his best film.

Seagal played Gino, a New York cop while life was centered around his old Brooklyn neighborhood.  When Gino’s partner Bobby was killed by the mobster Richie, Gino decided that it was time to go (say it with me!) out for justice.

Compared to most of Seagal’s films, “Out for Justice” didn’t have one of his typical jam-packed over-complicated plots.  Richie wasn’t even a high-ranking mobster nor was Seagal intent on seeking revenge higher up the food chain.  The film took place during a single day time period and was all about Gino tracking down Richie.  There were some ties between the men in their old neighborhood and Seagal’s character turned vigilante as the film progressed.

For a villain in a mainstream action film, Richie had a fairly compelling motive for killing Bobby.  You see, Bobby was cheating on his wife with not one but two women.  And one of those women happened to be Richie’s girlfriend.  In light of that fact, one could understand why Richie was so upset.  Bobby’s wife got wind that her husband was a cheater and sent a photo of Bobby with Riche’s girlfriend to Richie.  Bobby’s wife miscalculated though and didn’t realize that Riche would kill Bobby over the situation.

Sure, there were some lowlights to be aware of in “Out for Justice.”  For example, Seagal decided to do a Brooklyn/East Coast accent that didn’t entirely work.  Also, at one point he wore an absolutely ridiculous beret and sleeveless shirt that looked like it was from a different movie.

There was also an odd, tacked-on two-scene subplot involving an abandoned dog that was unnecessary but did provide the opportunity for a creative kick to the ‘gonads’ by Seagal.

Of course, there were some highlights.  At one point, the filmmakers seemed to be offering a homage to “The French Connection” that involved a police car repeatedly driving over curbs underneath an elevated train.  A key death at the end has been referred to by Seagal as his favorite bad guy demise in any of his films.  Also, the film featured a bar fight scene that many consider to be a genuine classic of action cinema.

It was amusing that Seagal alluded to mafia-type connections in his personal life during this phase in his career given that he would later get involved in a real-life mafia shake-down situation.  That was an interesting story unto itself, but I digress.

In total, “Out for Justice” was a decent action film that still stood well when considering its contemporaries in the early-1990s.  There was a downright cool shot of Seagal during the opening credits that gave me hope that the film wasn’t going to be a crapfest and it delivered more than expected.

 

“Under Siege” (1992) ~ **1/2

 

Everyone remembers “Under Siege” for what it was – “Die Hard on a battleship.”  Indeed, the parallels were valid.  Unfortunately, “Under Siege” wasn’t necessarily one of the better “Die Hard” imitators – it was certainly no “Speed.”

The opening of the film detailed the history of the USS Missouri, including some callbacks to its role in post-Pearl Harbor U.S. revenge on Japan.  During this sequence, the filmmakers did an oddly convincing job of making it appear that then-president George Bush (Sr.) was briefly in the film.

People might remember “Under Siege” as a film where Seagal was simply a cook on a military ship, but it was hinted from the first scene that Seagal’s character – Casey Rybak – had a decorated military history.  In fact, he was a former Navy SEAL who had been busted down to chef after striking a superior officer.  Of course, Casey had been in the right given the officer’s negligence having led to a SEAL death.

Seagal didn’t seem to entirely mind being a chef, even though he butted heads early on with ship’s commander Gary Busey.  The pair was on a collision course even before Busey engineered a takeover of the battleship.

Tommy Lee Jones came out of nowhere in a less-than-respectable role as a faux rock star, initially introduced while hitting on a Playboy model.  Both Jones and the model were brought to the ship by Busey as part of a surprise birthday party for their captain.  The real surprise was that Jones and those brought to the ship (minus the model) were former CIA-affiliated mercenaries that the CIA had unsuccessfully tried to ‘retire.’  Busey aided the group in taking over the USS Missouri, seemingly motivated by payback for a poor performance review by the Missouri’s captain.

After that takeover was completed, Jones’ group was revealed to have a submarine that the mercenaries had previously stolen from North Korea (?!?).  Their master plan was to off-load the Missouri’s valuable Tomahawk nuclear missiles to the submarine and then sell them for hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously Seagal had something to say about this plan and it didn’t work out in the end.

Gary Busey was at his Busey-licious best, but he ended up being frequently upstaged by Jones’ odd performance.  The villains in general were a problem in the film, as the filmmakers made some strange decisions.  One such example was Busey playing for laughs in a cross-dressing scene soon after the ship takeover.  A related problem involved Jones trying without success to play for laughs in nearly every scene.

On the surface, one might think that Tommy Lee Jones and Busey would be an interesting villain combination, but both played such cartoony characters that the stakes never seemed overly high.  The antics of both main villains made it very hard to take either seriously.

As dumb as the villains came off, the U.S. military leadership came off as even more moronic.  Somehow the lax military security of the era managed to let the USS Missouri be taken over.  Faced with a crisis, the military response plan and general decision making was straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.”  It’s hard to imagine anything about this movie as being plausible in a post-9/11 readiness world and one had to question if the film’s plot points were ever plausible in any era.

The contracted Playboy model in the film was named Erika Eleniak and she was actually a Playboy model.  Eleniak was also a former child actress, playing the memorable role of the girl whom Elliott kissed in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”  While attractive, she was saddled with a very bad short haircut and certainly wasn’t an actress of note.  Yes, there was a predictably-underwritten romance subplot involving Eleniak and Seagal.

Oddly enough, “Under Siege” was technically the only Seagal film to be rated ‘fresh’ by Rotten Tomatoes after earning a 75%.  There would be worse summer action blockbusters ahead for the world and this one wasn’t anything to get excited over.  It could have been a better film simply by reigning in the villains a little bit and cleaning up their plan.  The many particular action sequences were well done and those exploits were satisfying, but this was certainly a missed opportunity that felt too derivative coming so quickly after “Die Hard” and its sequel.

 

“On Deadly Ground” (1994)

 

You tell your father I’m nothing but a mouse hiding from the hawks in the house of a raven.” ~ An actual quote from Steven Seagal’s character in “On Deadly Ground”

Understand this right away:  In “On Deadly Ground,” Seagal played an oil fire super-fighter with a convenient world-class military tactics background who underwent a mystic spiritual journey and became an environmental terrorist.  And that’s not exaggerating things – that’s exactly what happened.

While this wasn’t Seagal’s last theatrical film, fans of his would likely cite it as a not-positive turning point.  It was the first film that Seagal directed and really his only directorial effort.  This was as pure on film as it ever got with Seagal.

Some surprises right away:  Michael Caine was billed as the second lead!   R. Lee Ermey and Billy Bob Thornton also appeared!  Obviously Michael Caine had a few sketchy years there in the mid-1990s while Billy Bob was just starting to work his way up the Hollywood acting ladder.

Seagal was featured in a hilariously cocky opening that introduced him as an oil fire specialist.  After putting out a nasty oil rig fire, he soon discovered that Michael Caine’s oil company was cutting corners in order to meet certain conditions related to a land right agreement with local Native American that might otherwise soon expire.  After Seagal’s efforts were detected, he was beaten to near-death by some of Michael Caine’s henchmen.  Seagal survived though and ended up hooking up with a local native woman (played by the Chinese Joan Chen) who showed him the importance of the environment.  Believe it or not, Seagal’s character went on a ‘vision quest’ and found a greater truth.  Energized, Seagal’s character made a comeback against Michael Caine and shut down his operation.

Seagalogist Vern, amongst others, have declared “On Deadly Ground” to be the ultimate Seagal film.  Given Seagal’s role as the director, this film took everything odd and quirky about his previous films and amped them up to their highest-ever levels.

Bar fight?  Check.  Ridiculous outfit?  Check.  Animal-loving?  Check.  Ponytail?  Check.  Mysticism?  Check.  Environmentalism?  Big check.

I really need to add an aside on that bar fight.  It didn’t end like all other Seagal bar fights with him simply clearing the room.  Rather, it ended with his primary opponent – an oil worker – in the following exchange that concluded the confrontation:

Seagal:  “What does it take to change the essence of a man?”

Oil Worker: “I need time to change. Time.”

Seagal:  “I do too.”

I had to rewind that exchange several times before it sank in.  The whole thing was just so out-of-left-field.

I downplayed the decent amount of action-adventure in my synopsis.  The film was so peculiar while not being a complete bore on the action side of the house.  Make no mistake though, the drama was so weirdly serious yet over-the-top that one can’t help but keep watching.  This was a classic, misguided film.

After all of the mysticism and other strangeness, the film’s biggest problem was a bizarre coda in which Seagal gave an Al Gore-style environmentalist speech to a captive audience on screen (and a captive audience in theatres).  It’s such a strange moment in the film that it ended up overwhelming everything that came prior in the movie and its placement meant that it would be the last thing that people saw before finishing the film.  Seagal must have shaken his head when Al Gore won an Oscar a decade later for delivering a similar message.

10% for this film on Rotten Tomatoes was tough but not unexpected.  Seagal did win the Razzie for ‘Worst Director’ but the founder of the Razzies included the film on his list of “The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.”

I couldn’t even rate this film on anything but a slack-jawed scale.

 

“Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (1995) ~ **1/2

It probably wasn’t a surprise that Seagal had to atone for “On Deadly Ground” by doing a sequel to “Under Siege.”  The “Die Hard” clone trend had largely run its course by 1995 though and this sequel to a clone felt as by-the-numbers as one might expect.

Seagal was back as Casey Rybak, all-around-butt-kicker.  In a bit of a surprise, Katherine Heigl, at the time roughly 16 or so, played Casey’ chip-on-her-shoulder estranged niece.  She had reason to be bitter toward Casey, as he’d not been a very good uncle over the past few years.  In the time since the first film, Casey has left the military and started a restaurant in Denver.  Heigl’s character – Sarah – joined Seagal on a train ride from Denver to Los Angeles for the purpose of visiting the grave of Sarah’s Father who appeared to have been Casey Rybak’s brother.

Not surprisingly for a Seagal film, there was a lot going on plot-wise.  Not long after Rybak’s train left Denver, mercenaries took it over.  The mercenaries who took over the train were led by a hacker who had experience developing a satellite-based super-weapon.  Some former military personnel on the train knew the access codes for the satellite and gave them up while under torture.

Using the satellite, the mercenary team tests it out on a Chinese weapons facility as well as on an airplane carrying the ex-wife of one of the operation’s backers.  The ultimate threat revolved around using the weapon to blow up a nuclear reactor that was located under the Pentagon, a detail that was apparently accurate in real life.  To raise the stakes even further, an additional ticking close involving an oncoming train carrying gasoline was also added to the plot.

Let’s just say that things turned out much line one might expect, with a helicopter naturally factoring into the climax.  Was there a giant train collision at the end?  I don’t want to spoil the finale, but you’d expect as much wouldn’t you?

On the plus side, the villains were less cartoony than Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones.  That said, they weren’t overly memorable.  Although, they did have a much better and solid plan than the bad guys in the first “Under Siege.”

The production scope was pretty vast as well, with the satellite getting plenty of use.  Beyond the aforementioned targets, viewers witnessed the satellite’s use in the destruction of several stealth fighters.  The score by Basil Poledouris was above average.

Less interesting was the presence of a porter on the train who kept hitting on Casey’s under-age niece and, in general, the stiff estranged-niece subplot.  Despite a decent plan by the villains, major elements of the plot didn’t add up at times.  In fairness though, it felt slightly more logical than the very illogical first film.  A trivia bit involved Seagal as Casey writing his memoirs on a vintage Apple Newton.

Roger Ebert actually gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, but the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes only came out to 34%.  I personally found “Under Siege 2’ to be about as good as the first “Under Siege,” with a certain number of flaws weighing down what might have been a more-interesting film.  Graded against other action films circa 1995, “Under Siege 2” was probably not that bad, but that was faint praise given how uninspired most action films were during that time period.

 

Conclusions

Some might wonder what came next for Seagal after this slew of initial films?

Well, Steven Seagal made a surprisingly good cameo in 1996’s “Executive Decision” but then had the lead in the “Se7en” wannabe “The Glimmer Man.”  Seagal appeared in another environmentalist film, “Fire Down Below,” in 1997.  From there on out, things went into a slide toward Direct-to-Video (DTV) low-budget action films, give or take last gasps at theatrical work like “Exit Wounds.”

Weirdly, those last couple of theatrical films actually did feature decent performance at the box office when considering the budgets involved.  By that point, Seagal was cranking out three or so direct-to-video films though and beginning to be identified as a direct-to-video star.

After several years of those direct-to-video films being ground out, some being better than others, Seagal ventured into lower-profile television gigs.  As ridiculous as it might sound, Seagal worked part-time as a deputy sheriff in two small southern towns for the series “Lawman.”  He then moved into a scripted police show called “True Justice” in which he played more of a mentor figure.  Seagal’s career in direct-to-video also continued.  Some praised his theatrical appearance in “Machete” (2010).

After spending time studying the works of Seagal, I can better understand why he steadfastly refused to appear in the “Expendables” film series.  While those films might have given his career a small boost, he really didn’t fit in with the other action heroes of his era (or really, any era).  Having ignored and even mocked Seagal’s films, it was interesting to actually dig into them.  Seagal’s early career and stardom was best summarized in something that I’d stated earlier:  Steven Seagal was convinced that he was making better films than he actually produced.  There’s something both awful and wonderful about that notion.

Aside:  I highly recommend reading Vern’s book “Seagalogy” in full even if you don’t plan on watching most of the films that he covered.

A particular example of the appeal of Vern’s style was evident in his review of the DTV film “The Foreigner,” in which Seagal played an ex-KGB double-agent (American under cover) mixed up with intrigue in Eastern Europe.  For a supposed good guy, Seagal’s character did hilariously bad things to innocents through the film.  The film culminated with him foiling the bad guy by exploding a bomb inside a train station (with unaware innocents still inside).

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *