The Appeal of Seagal
Steven Seagal is something of an enigma, as his behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and his claims more outlandish, he has become a joke. His bloated appearance and penchant for long coats make him a figure of fun, but the many claims of sexual harassment laid against him, means the joke is starting to wear thin. We all laughed when he famously stated that he is a reincarnation of a Buddhist deity, then becoming Anderson Silva’s and Lyoto Machida’s special coach in the world of MMA, supposedly teaching them a finishing kick, which he himself would of struggled to perform even 10 years ago. Yet with the aforementioned harassment scandal, his treatment of animals on his show Steven Seagal: Lawman and his love of Putin and recent Russian citizenship, it is easy to ask; who the hell is this guy and what was his appeal in the first place? Despite his nonsense, there is no doubt that the man is unique and his original set of films are immensely entertaining. Come with me as I explore why.
Blending Fact with Fiction
The first unique thing about Steven Seagal, is that he had no bit parts or slow crawl into acting. He immediately got a starring role and writing credit on 1988’s Above the Law (aka Nico). After being the first foreigner to open a dojo in Japan, teaching Aikido after studying Karate as a young man, he moved to Hollywood to set up a dojo there. He helped train some stuntmen and bodyguards and managed to get hired as the martial arts instructor on 1983’s Never Say Never Again, supposedly breaking Sean Connery’s wrist. He then performed an Aikido demonstration in front of some Warner Brothers executives, as well as being good looking and being an imposing figure, standing over 6ft 3inches tall (plus being very slim at this time, but never muscly!) he had an unusual style that hadn’t been showcased before. They were immediately impressed, signing him up to a multipicture deal. Seagal had been unleashed upon the world!
Above the Law, is the start of the blending of fact with fiction, as it contains semi-autobiographical elements of Seagal’s life and fictional ones that he would slowly start to suggest aren’t so fictional after all. In his debut film, Seagal plays Nico Toscani, who like Seagal, studied Aikido in Japan eventually opening his own Dojo. Unlike Steven, he is then recruited by the CIA to take part in some Black Ops on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. After trying to defend some locals from torture, dished out by his superior and eventual antagonist; Kurt Zagon, he is kicked out and becomes a Chicago detective. In an interview on Australian talk show The Voice, when asked about Above the Law, Steven says that the part about the CIA mission is based on a true story, but he can’t go into the details. Later in the interview he talks about the Special Forces in terms of; ‘when we trained in such and such’, but of course he can’t give any more details! This is an interesting technique of suggesting he has done extreme and covert things, without actually saying it; intriguing indeed. Above the Law was very popular and is an entertaining film, it is skilfully directed by Andrew Davis and has a solid supporting cast in Pam Grier and Sharon Stone. There is no doubt that Steven is the main appeal though, his unique back story and confidence (or cockiness, however you want to look at it) was a hook for audiences.
The Unusual Style
Above the Law is credited as the first western movie to feature Aikido, and it is certainly one that put the style on the map. This undoubtedly made Seagal stand out in the world of action heroes. Chuck Norris had Karate kicked many villains wearing jeans and cowboy boots whereas Jean Claude would become known for this jumping spinning back kicks and splits in unusual places, however the way Seagal would dispatch villains with little effort by stepping out the way, throwing them into furniture, twisting their limbs, locking and breaking arms and legs at will, looked exciting and felt like something new. This was especially true at a time when Hollywood could not compete with Hong Kong in terms of choreography. They would set up one technique and cut, unable to feature multiple moves due to the lack of timing, first spent on the fights themselves and secondly between the actors. Seagal’s immaculately performed set pieces stood out and showed an effortlessness rarely experienced by western audiences. Seagal’s films were especially violent and featured weapons frequently, either used by Seagal or turned around on his attackers.
In 1990’s Hard to Kill Seagal plays Mason Storm (more on these amazing names later) a cop, who after filming a corrupt senator, is murdered along with his wife. But of course Seagal is only temporarily dead and spends 7 years in a coma, sworn to revenge after a hilarious training montage, aided in recovery by his real wife of the time; Kelly LeBrock, playing a nurse. Steven shows his proficiency with a gun, as well as knives, meat cleavers and even a broken pool cue. Here again he uses Aikido to dispatch multiple attackers, often using one body to block himself from an attack, and then turns their own weapon against them. Another theme that was starting to become apparent is that Steven Seagal barely gets touched by an attacker. This sort of makes sense as in an ideal world if you were so proficient at Aikido, your movement would be enough to keep you out of harm’s way. Still a glancing blow or being knocked to the floor may have kept him a little more grounded and built suspense.
So we have Steven Seagal’s unique blending of fact and fiction coupled with a rare style that worked very well in the Hollywood of the early 90’s, but there is more. His acting ability and often ludicrous lines really enhanced his appeal, giving great replay value to his films.
One liners are a given for any great action star, coupled with charisma, it is what makes the difference between an average star and an action great. Seagal does have some one liners, and has charisma of sorts, yet it is more to do with his delivery of lines and his general demeanour that makes him so hilarious to watch. No matter what character he plays, he is always cocky and sure of himself with a constant smile on his face, even if he has a gun pointed at his head. He also half whispers, almost mumbling his lines, add this to some very silly sentences and you have a recipe for success. Marked for Death also released in 1990 is one of his finest movies, here he plays John Hatcher, a burned out undercover Drug Enforcement Agent, who retires to the small town he grew up in. He tries to ignore the Jamaican drug dealers who have moved in, but when he gets into a fight with them in a bar, he is marked for death! Luckily there is a Jamaican detective and a consultant who is an expert in voodoo, on hand to explain the plot to us. When his niece is injured in a drive by shooting, he vows to take them down and delivers this gem to the doctor looking after her.
‘Let me tell you something Doc I want you to treat this girl like the President of the United States and money isn’t a consideration’
‘We treat all our patie..
‘Let me tell you something, President of the United States OK.’
Delivered in his hushed tones, makes this exchange even more fantastic than it already is. You can see the need for John Hatcher to show he cares for his niece, I am just glad they did it in such a ludicrous way!
1991’s Out For Justice is probably Seagl’s best acting performance, as it tries to form a character and has more dialogue scenes than some of his other offerings. He plays detective Gino Felino, whose partner is gunned down in broad daylight by Ritchie an acquaintance, turned drug addled psychopath, they grew up with. The film works hard to establish Gino as being formed by the Bronx of New York, speaking in Italian and visiting Mafioso’s in Italian restaurants. He constantly talks about growing up on the block with Ritchie, determined to track him down even telling his parents that he is going to kill him. Of course that doesn’t stop Seagal displaying his old cocky self, culminating in a marvellous bar scene, where he walks in bullying the occupants shouting out ‘Anyone seen Ritchie!’ then asking the barman if he is a boxer, pointing out various boxing paraphernalia behind the bar. ‘You’re a boxer, you’re a tough guy?’ he asks him before the aging man swings a punch, of course being instantly dodged and hit back with fervour.
Seagal’s next film was his most popular and mainstream - 1992’s Under Siege features a standard hostage scenario on board a military ship, as it is hijacked by Tommy Lee Jones’ terrorist disguised as a rock star. Unfortunately for them, one of the chefs on board is actually Casey Ryback – an ex-Navy Seal demoted to a cook after punching his commanding officer. Steven is quite restrained in his acting here, almost playing second fiddle to the budget, effects and Tommy Lee, who always delivers. But we can still revel in the character of Ryback, his backstory will become a familiar one for Seagal in the following years. This feeds into the idea behind Above the Law, emphasising that Steven Seagal is not all that he seems and has a secret life, which can’t be talked about too much, but you can certainly feel the effects of his specialist training. Nonetheless it ends with a classic line, as one of his crew mates does a little dance and says ‘show us a move Casey’ he responds ‘here’s a move for you’ then proceeds to kiss the girl, whom he rescued after she fell asleep in the cake, she was meant to burst out of! As ever he does it with a smug smile on his face.
As mentioned earlier, Seagal likes to craft his characters to be specialists, often with mysterious backgrounds, but they are always topped off with amazing names. We have already had Mason Storm, Gino Felino and Casey Ryback. They sound like the names Homer Simpson wanted when he changed his name to Max Power in The Simpsons. They really add to the mystique and silliness of how tough his characters are, despite them admittedly all being very similar. However my favourite is the lead character in Seagal’s directorial debut, the much derided but essential 1994’s On Deadly Ground. Steven is Forrest Taft, a specialist in oil fires who works for Aegis oil, run by the ridiculously evil Michael Caine. Naughty Michael is cutting corners on a new oil rig based in Alaska, as it needs to be up and running before the rights revert back to the local Eskimo tribe. Despite Forrest being a great asset to Aegis, as soon as he suspects that they are using faulty equipment, they immediately try to kill him, of course failing – you can’t kill Forrest Taft! He is taken in by the local Eskimo tribe, where he goes on a spirit quest. He quickly realises the error of his ways and decides to take down Aegis oil and Caine himself. Unfortunately for the mercenaries hired to take down Forrest, it turns out that he has a background so secretive, the film doesn’t even tell you what it is. It just lets us know it is probably CIA but ultra-classified. Don’t get me wrong the film is a mess, but a delightful one! The central idea seems to be the transformation of Forrest Taft from a man with no morals, into an environmentally conscious hero, but it is so clumsily performed by Seagal, it doesn’t make much sense.
At the start of the movie Forrest is called a whore by his co-worker, which he replies ‘for 350,000 dollars I would fuck anything once!’ OK then, so he has been corrupted by money. In the next scene he defends a drunken Inuit from being bullied by a barrel chested local, playing a hand slap game, beating him into submission, before proclaiming; ‘What does it take to change the essence of a man?’ while wearing a Native American style coat, complete with tassels. OK then, he is already righteous and he just briefly worked for Michael Caine without knowing who he was. However at the end of the movie Michael Caine, scorns Forrest’s new Inuit girlfriend saying: ‘We bought hookers better than this for 5 bucks in Bangkok.’ This is quite a revelation, they have known each other for a long time and Forrest has shared nights of debauchery with him, it seems hard to believe they were best buddies crawling the red light district together, with bottles of Chang in hand. But who am I to question the motivations of Forrest Taft, he is a complicated man, too complicated for one film it seems, we really needed a trilogy to fully understand him. Of course he defeats the evil oil company and his (sort of) transformation into eco warrior is complete, as he delivers an infamous speech about the environment, which although being long was actually cut down significantly by Warner Brothers. As clumsily tacked on as the speech is, there is nothing in it that is incorrect or controversial, if anything it is ahead of its time, talking about global warming and other important environmental concerns. The fact that it is suddenly shoved in after such a clumsily put together action vehicle, clearly didn’t sit well with viewers.
Unfortunately audiences and Warner Brothers did not like On Deadly Ground as much as I did! It was a failure and so less money was attributed to 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark territory. Seagal’s only sequel to date, I guess the name Casey Ryback was too good to retire as he battles terrorists on a train. The film is fun but of lesser quality than his previous efforts. This was the start of his slow decline into eventual straight to video hell, weight gain and fighting sitting down. His last cinematic starring effort was 2001’s Exit Wounds, memorable for DMX, Steven fighting two bouncers and early 2000’s rock music. It was a surprise hit, but it was all downhill from there with hundreds of efforts appearing on Netflix and straight to streaming, including six movies in 2016 alone! I hope I have demonstrated some of his early appeal that those Warner Brother’s executives saw in his Aikido, charisma, cockiness and his connection to Japan. I have been entertained by this strange blend of a man and I don’t think we will ever unpick the fact from the fiction, which I hope some of the stories we have heard recently, are firmly the latter. Don’t worry, if they are proven to be fact, I’ll be the first person to flip him on his arse, deliver a mumbled one liner and then go and save a puppy.