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January 3, 2012

Steven Seagal in the Springtime





Out for Justice

Just when you thought there was no reason to face a grim 2012—okay then, just when I thought there was no reason to face a grim 2012—comes, like the song of the meadowlark on an ash-gray New Year’s morn, word of a thing called Steven Seagal: Lawman, in which the gouty straight-to-video action star is slated to “team up with controversial Sheriff [and fellow publicityholic] Joe Arpaio” to wage war upon “drug smuggling and illegal immigration.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m giddy. Will Seagal attempt to mow down a phalanx of border thugs single-handed, only to discover that in real life his pump-action shotgun won’t fire multiple rounds without pumping? Or will he challenge a whole gymful of cartel mercenaries to hand-to-hand combat, only to find them stubbornly unwilling to crumple in agony at a flick of his thick, squishy wrists?1 Will Sheriff Joe then rescue him and force him to wear the famous pink underpants outside his jungle fatigues for the duration of the series? Will the two down-on-their-luck buddies disguise themselves as women to live in the one apartment they can afford? The mind reels.

And once it tires of reeling, the mind, as is its wont, rights itself and then floats back to those kinder, gentler days of Bush I and Clinton when Steven Seagal made actual movies that played in actual movie theaters in front of actual throngs of people, when his name was uttered in sentences that also included names like “Arnold” and “Sly,” and when people honestly wondered why he never seemed to lose his shirt while dispatching villains—or to sweat, for that matter.

Here, then, are one man’s doting reminiscences on the oeuvre of Steven Seagal’s heyday. Or the heyday of his oeuvre. Or… Oh, heck. Here’s what I remember about some of his greatest hits.


Hard to Kill (1990)

Seagal pulls off the finest acting of his career during the latter half of the first act, when his character is comatose for seven years. See for yourself how he gamely nonreacts to the placement of Kelly LeBrock’s pussy on top of his head.2

Despite otherwise immaculately grooming her charge during his long sleep (including some creative manscaping down below, judging by her comments), Nurse LeBrock has let Seagal’s beard grow lo, these many years, so that, should he suddenly awaken during an untended moment, he will thoughtfully stroke his chin and realize, “Holy crap, I’ve been in a coma for seven years!” before strafing everyone who comes into his field of vision with automatic weapons fire.

No, no, he couldn't do anything like that in any event. That would violate the “Long Simmer” rule of the Seagal formula, in which most of the action is front- and rear-loaded, and the second act wholly given over to his character’s slow recovery from the first act’s wounds, during which time he painfully explores heretofore untapped regions of his psyche and his poorly agented female costar.

You can go here for a more complete plot summary, but in Hard to Kill, basically, some guys try to kill Seagal’s character, “Mason Storm,”3 only to find him unaccountably hard to, er, kill. The con-sarnedly unkilled Seagal recovers and kills all who tried to kill him. Then all the slain actors rise from the floor to dance a merry jig behind the closing credits, as per Elizabethan custom.


Under Siege (1992)
a/k/a “Die Hard on a Boat.”

Someone—I’m guessing director Andrew Davis, who built on his acquaintanceship with Tommy Lee Jones here to make the excellent The Fugitive a few years later—came up with the brilliant idea of having Baywatch actress and Playmate Elena Eleniak emerge woozily from a giant cake and shake her bosoms at very near the midpoint of the film, thus providing fans with the shot of adrenaline needed to weather a particularly long Long Simmer. The appearance of these cumbersome globules was, to mix metaphors, like a dip in a cool oasis amid that broad, featureless desert.

I find it rather remarkable, in retrospect, that someone in Seagal’s team didn’t patent this concept and insist on having a topless Elena Eleniak pop out of a giant cake at the exact midpoint of every Seagal movie ever made thereafter, whether or not the presence of a giant cake or a topless Playmate made sense. After all, it barely makes sense here, even though a whole phalanx of writers obviously labored mightily to crowbar it in. And who would have complained about a gratuitous topless Eleniak during the long, hard Act 2 slogs of Exit Wounds or Fire Down Below?

Joining a pre-A-list Jones on the Vile Villains list is a decidedly post-A-list Gary Busey, all of which means that a bored viewer can draw up the equivalent of one of those March Madness basketball brackets as the inevitable one-on-one acting face-offs consecutively unfurl: Seagal vs. Busey! Busey vs. Eleniak! Eleniak vs. Seagal! Busey vs. Jones! Seagal vs. Busey II! etc., etc. Once Seagal gallantly drapes his jacket over Eleniak’s formidable pastries, you know they’re not reappearing and that you have to devise your own amusements from here until that inevitable Seagal vs. Jones showdown that ends with Seagal stabbing Jones in the head and then shoving his face through a computer monitor.

Oh, spoiler alert. I guess. Sorry.


On Deadly Ground (1994)

For aficionados of Seagalobilia, this is his crowning achievement—and the overstuffed oration that he delivers in the denouement the crown jewel. The success of his early work accorded Seagal momentary status as a fully puffed-up action figure of Stallonian stature. In this brief window of time he could get anything he wanted, and what he wanted—God bless his soul—was total creative control on production of a major motion picture. He insisted on directing and starring. He wanted his giant cake and wanted to eat it too, in other words.

What can I hope to say about this movie that hasn’t been said by critics far more capable than I? Even the righteous professionalism of the author of the film’s Wikipedia page seems to fight a to-and-fro losing battle with the urge to mock, as evidenced by the section-heading “References to Testicles” tucked smack between the more traditional “Cast” and “Critical Response.”4

After the obligatory botched-killing-and-leaving-for-dead of Seagal’s character, “Forrest Taft,” at the end of Act One, Act Two opens with a fabulous, hallucinatory Vision Quest sequence occurring, supposedly, in the tent of Eskimos nursing him back to health (with Joan Chen filling the LeBrock smock), into which so much loopy imagery is crammed that it seems criminal that they didn’t at least ring up Eleniak and her baker to see if they were free. But of course, it all comes down to that environmental speech at the end. Let’s let that poor Wikipedia workhorse out of his stable here. Trust me, he tried so gamely, so very very gamely, to adhere to company standards of impartiality, but Seagal just overwhelmed him:

As an epilogue, Taft, far from being arrested for sabotage and multiple murders (self defense), is asked to deliver a speech at the Alaska State Capitol about the dangers of oil pollution, and the companies that are endangering the ecosystem. This speech is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's monologue at the end of The Great Dictator…

I would have gone with “reminiscent of a bagpipe concerto performed by an amateur senior citizens in a wind tunnel,” but that’s just me.


Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)
a/k/a “Die Hard on a Train.”

By government fiat, this was aired at three-month intervals on prime-time TV in Japan throughout the latter half of the Nineties. At NU in that period I had a colleague, a corpulent, hairless fellow who resembled a gigantic, cantankerous fetus. Apart from a desire to spend long periods gestating, I had nothing in common with this person and passed many a lunch hour with him in awkward silence until we discovered our shared passion for Steven Seagal films. Our bonding nearly reached Starsky-Hutchian levels the day following yet anotherUnder Siege 2 airing.

“...And you know the sequence where he gets thrown off the train and has to figure out a way to catch up and get back on it?”

“Right, right. I mean, how many times has James Bond alone worked that cliché?”

“So he hotwires a truck and high-tails it after the train…”

“And there just happens to be an uphill grade right along the tracks, so that the truck is higher up than the train…”

“Hee-hee! And he jams a stick onto the accelerator, then climbs out the window while the speeding truck magically keeps going straight…”

“And jumps from the truck onto the top of the speeding train…”

“And lands on his feet!

“Oh, isn’t Seagal just the best?”

“None of that athletic dangling-by-an-arm business for him, no sir-ree.”


Executive Decision (1996)

Following Above the Law (1988), Marked for Death (1990), Out for Justice (1991), and the early career pillars cited above, this marked Seagal’s bold foray into films without prepositions.5

At this point in his career, he had inspired various reactions to his body of work. For every person like me and my giant fetus friend who reveled in his every effort, surely there was a sour moviegoer out there who took Seagal’s efforts the wrong way—in fact, thinking, “By god, I’d really like to see that guy sucked into an engine of a passenger jet in mid-flight and shredded—if possible without detriment to the passengers, but after that speech at the Alaska State Capitol I’m willing to sacrifice them, too, if that’s what it takes.”

And as this contingent grew in number with every passing Seagal release, no doubt it subsumed a fair number of screenwriters, producers, and other Hollywood cognoscenti within its mass, and that’s how Seagal’s truncated role as “Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis” came to be.

At the risk of spoiling things for you, Kurt Russell gets star billing while indestructible-seeming Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travers is, in fact, sucked into an engine of a passenger jet in mid-flight and shredded—without detriment to the passengers.

This begs the question: Was Seagal deceived? Was he given only the first third of the script? Did he assume that Halle Berry would nurse his shredded remains back to health during a very special Long Simmer until, miraculously reconstituted and just a wee bit stiff, he was able to take out the terrorists in his own unique idiom? You got me.


Later Career

Happily, Seagal the actor was reconstituted from detritus--as he always had been before and always will be, God willing--into a direct-to-video action star. His martial arts moves and action prowess--not the swiftest or stalwartest to begin with6--have shown signs of rust. Not since late-model Duke Wayne has a leading man compelled so many henchmen to wait in stolid, stationary patience for the honor of being punched, kicked in the face, chopped, kicked in the nuts, strangled, kicked from a swinging chandelier, lethally titty-twisted, stripped of both eyeballs, thrown through a window or just plain shot.

And now comes word that he will costar in a reality series. Which brings us back where we started, does it not?






1 From John Connolly's 1993 Spy magazine piece on Seagal:
At the same time, someone at CAA…arranged for Seagal to demonstrate his martial-arts skills before a group of Warner Bros. executives. Dressed in full regalia - baggy black pantaloons and white robes - Seagal put on a show that deeply impressed the executives. "It was quite miraculous," Warner Bros. president Terry Semel told the Los Angeles Times. "With just a toss of his hands, Steven would send the other guy flying. It was pretty astounding." What Mark Mikita - who participated in the demonstration - finds astounding is that none of the executives seemed to know that the whole thing was orchestrated. "I still can't believe those guys at Warners didn't know it was a rehearsed demonstration," Mikita told Spy. "It shouldn't have fooled anybody, Seagal could not toss me or anyone else in the air unless we were in on it."



2 Okay, yes, that was a kitten. Totally uncalled for and beneath even a writer of my ilk.




3 There was a misguided attempt early in Seagal’s career to make the Lansing, Michigan-born actor into a gritty East-Coast Italian-American. Two of his first three characters were called “Nico Toscani” and “Gino Felino.” This backfired nightmarishly on those responsible when Seagal went all Meryl Streep on them, unleashing his Italian accent and gesture-rich body language on an unsuspecting world. From 1991 onward—it may actually have been a footnote embedded in a writers’ union contract—Seagal characters were given only the manliest, most heroic, and most Anglo-Saxon names producers could concoct.

Here is a list of character names. All but three belong to actual Seagal characters. Can you find the ringers?

John Hatcher, Jack Cole, Shane Daniels, Peter North, Jack Foster, Jack Miller, Jack Taggart, Jack Mioff, Matt Conlin, John Sands, John Seeger, Jonathon Cold, Chris Cody, William Lansing, Nathan Detroit, Jake Hopper




4 Long-suffering Wikipedia writer: “In the bar fight scene, Taft grasps one of his opponents in the groin eliciting the unlikely exclamation ‘My nuts’ and then immediately kicks another man in the groin causing him to say ‘My balls.’”




5 Yes, I realize that the “to” in Hard to Kill is not a preposition. Dammit, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a doctor! The real issue is, do you think Seagal knew that?




6 Connolly in Spy (1993) again: "Randy was driving [a Zodiac raft] in circles while Steven and I carried the gear out to him. The surf was unbelievable, really tough... He started screaming and panicking and was sure he was going to die and all that crap." Goldman says Seagal had to be helped onto the vessel. "Widner had to pull Seagal by his hair; I pushed his ass onto the boat with my shoulder."