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
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.
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
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."