Perhaps now is not the best time for a Steven Seagal retrospective since he seems to have defected to Russia and allegations of his abuse stretches from the making of On Deadly Ground to recently. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Seagal movies though so the 30th anniversary of Above the Law on Sunday, April 8 make this weekend a good time to hash this out.
When Seagal and Kelly LeBrock divorced, there were reports that he’d been abusive and I believed them. This was in the early ‘90s so there was no internet but it was a prominent enough news story on TV tabloids. Penthouse of all places had reports of his on-set abuse in 1998 (the link goes to Eonline reporting from Penthouse). LeBrock herself recently told the Daily Mail she would tell all in an autobiography.
On Entertainment Tonight promoting The Glimmer Man, Seagal denied “woman beating” and the other popular drug dealer and mafia rumors. Even in the ‘90s, I believed the women so why did I keep watching Steven Seagal movies?
When I continued watching Seagal movies I wasn’t separating the art from the artist. I was observing his art in light of the artist. I thought Seagal not only played heroes, but the exact same type of hero with the exact same values in every movie. Either that’s the hero he wanted to be or at least knew he should be, even though his actual character only diverged further from his persona.
Maybe I shouldn’t have paid for tickets to keep Seagal’s movies at the top, but I was interested in exploring that chasm between who I thought he was and who he portrayed. Today I take a much firmer stand against supporting talent I believe to be abusers. By the way, I would have happily continued watching Kelly LeBrock vehicles through the ‘90s and today but sexist, ageist Hollywood didn’t make them for me. The free market decided they were done with Seagal soon enough and sent his movies straight to video, where he continues to play the same character, adding twists like his New Orleans accent.
The Mysterious Stranger
I did not see Above the Law in theaters. It was still a little rough as Seagal’s first acting job after a career as a bodyguard and trainer, but Andrew Davis had the right idea to make Seagal’s persona the story rather than whatever generic script they had. Seagal didn’t have the pony tail yet and his slicked hair got mussed in fights, but Nico Toscani (Seagal) was the prototypical Seagal hero, with the fast Aikido hands.
Nico had a special ops past where he defied corrupt orders. Now he’s fighting corruption on the force. Secret training and dirty cops/corrupt agencies would also become common themes both in Seagal’s movies, and real life rumors which were largely debunked.
Hard to Kill was my introduction to Seagal and it’s still my favorite for a pure action story. Mason Storm (Seagal with his greatest character name) gets the dirt on a senatorial candidate Trent (William Sadler) but gets attacked in his home by Trent’s moles on the force. His wife is killed but Mason survives in a coma, because Steven Seagal IS hard to kill!
This began the tradition of “Steven Seagal IS” titles. Nico wasn’t above the law so it didn’t work. He was against criminals who thought they were above the law. Had they gone with the original title Nico, “Steven Seagal is Nico” would’ve worked.
Even Arnold and Sly alternative movies where they WERE the title (The Terminator, The Running Man, Eraser, Rocky, Rambo, Cobra Demolition Man) with more thematic titles (Total Recall, True Lies, Cliffhanger, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). Seagal was so intense, every title from here on had to be something he WAS.
Mason wakes up and rehabs himself back to help with the nurse (LeBrock) who helped him escape. He practices his aikido and uses acupuncture, with a small pony tail. Once again, the noble Seagal hero uses his aikido and eastern wisdom to defeat corruption.
With a full grown pony tail now, Steven Seagal IS Marked for Death. This time he’s up against a Jamaican drug posse who comes after his family. Perfectly generic, the Seagal formula became a well oiled machine and Screwface (Basil Wallace) one of his most memorable villains.
Out for Justice was where Seagal started getting lofty ideas. Originally titled The Price of Our Blood, the studio smartly made it Steven Seagal IS Out for Justice. Seagal plays Gino Felino (second best name?), a cop who steps in when women are being abused (ahem) and rescues abused dogs. His childhood friend Ritchie (William Foresythe) is a criminal who shoots a rival in public, so Gino spends the whole night looking for Ritchie.
There is a theme about how two people from the same background can take wildly different paths. Mainly it’s about how tough Gino is. He beats up the same bar full of people who won’t tell him where Ritchie is twice.
Under Siege gave Seagal a big studio tent pole. It was Die Hard on a boat. Casey Ryback (Seagal) is just a cook, but when he becomes John McClane it turns out he was really an ex-SEAL so classified not even the sailors on his battleship knew about him. He had to cut his pony tail to be military regulation though.
Under Siege was more about geography of the ship and military procedure than fast hands. It was Seagal’s biggest hit though, and making Ryback a cook was just a fun way to say he’s an expert in everything. Military operations and kicking ass of course, but also making the best bouillabaisse you’ll ever have on a battleship.
The World’s First Environmentalist Action Hero
So Seagal got to make his vanity project On Deadly Ground where he tried to save the environment. Just after the Exxon Valdez spill, Seagal plays Aegis Oil firefighter Forrest Taft (3rd best name?) Forrest finds out his boss (Michael Caine) has been polluting the Alaskan environment so he brings the corrupt Aegis down.
As “director” (realistically the technicians made it look like a movie and his AD Robert A. Ferretti coordinated it all, I learned at an On Deadly Ground Q&A), Seagal got to make his environmental movie. He gets in touch with his spiritual side and has a vision quest in the wilderness. He’s even named after the land! Get it?
I always loved the addition of environmentalism to Seagal’s mythos. There had been actors who were political in real life, but had there ever been one who truly used his work to forward causes that could have an impact in the real world? Maybe Billy Jack fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples.
People mocked On Deadly Ground for ending with Seagal giving an environmental speech. I always supported the speech. Seriously, after 90 minutes of awesome action, you can take 3 minutes to hear his message. I would’ve heard the full 15.
Alas, even environmentalism wasn’t true to Seagal’s real life persona. He is now a Trump supporter and Trump denies climate change (the “Chinese hoax” tweet is still there and he pulled out of the Paris Agreements). What gives, Seagal? This was supposed to be your number one cause. I weighed your support of the environment against your abuses of women to see if you could at least do more good than harm (he couldn’t, and any abuse of human beings doesn’t justify the ends). Should I not have even bothered?
The best part of On Deadly Ground is not the environment however. It’s a bar fight that happens to be the best Seagal bar fight ever. Forrest steps in to defend a Native man against a racist bully (Mike Starr) and not only schools the bully, but makes him want to be a better person. Starr’s character suggests it’ll just take time to change the essence of a man. So Seagal wants to be the reformer of bullies, yet supported the ultimate bully in the White House, perhaps the only bigger bully than Seagal himself.
In what must have been a “one for you, one for me” deal with Warner Bros., Seagal’s next movie was Under Siege 2. Casey Ryback is on a train with his niece (Katherine Heigl) whose father/his brother just died (oh yeah, dead or imperiled family is also a recurring theme, but Segal shares that with every action hero). Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) uses the train to hijack the military satellite he designed and only Casey Ryback can stop him.
The train just gave Casey more room to play with than the boat, but it also had more aikido fighting. Everett McGill is a fantastic henchman and their fight in the kitchen is spectacular. This is how you use all the gimmicks. Make the aikido chef use kitchen implements to defeat the bad guy!
Executive Decision broke the Steven Seagal IS formula, but he’s only a cameo in this Kurt Russell thriller. It’s sort of Die Hard on a plane but more about the suspense of a military operation building up to the rescue. Seagal’s role is good and impacts the drama well.
Steven Seagal IS The Glimmer Man again, yet another cop with a secret black ops past, also into eastern medicine. At this point Seagal was struggling to stay relevant. A buddy cop movie with Keenan Ivory Wayans and a Se7en-esque serial killer was a weird mix, but he still fights. He’s starting to slow down though and wear looser baggie clothes.
I love Fire Down Below. It’s not as bonkers as On Deadly Ground but it confirmed that environmental action movies were not a one-time gimmick. At least he seemed like he meant it at the time. This time, Seagal plays a badass EPA agent! It’s oil in the south polluting the land this time, and he also saves Marg Helgenberger from incest and helps a local fix his porch. The fights are getting shorter but there’s still good action scenes with second unit, and he’s all about the people.
Steven Seagal IS No Longer Bankable
The Patriot was the first Seagal movie that didn’t play in theaters. I was excited to have a Seagal movie come right into my home on Cinemax but there was no action, let alone fast hands. It was environmental. Seagal has to stop a militia’s viral outbreak, and he’s immune because of all his natural herbal regimens. It’s not as fun as it sounds.
He cameoed in My Giant as himself and seemed to have a sense of humor about his reputation. He played himself as a difficult actor who refused to do another take. Ticker was a movie where Seagal just came in to do some scenes as an authority figure but it’s actually kind of a fun homage to the mad bomber movies of the ‘90s. Dennis Hopper even plays the mad bomber.
Exit Wounds gave Seagal a theatrical comeback, although he was not in fact the personification of exit wounds. After The Matrix, Seagal got on the wirework train and it was cool to see his fast hands accompanied by anti-gravity balance. Joel Silver made Seagal get back in shape so he looked like his fighting self again.
And by his next movie, Seagal blew his comeback. Half Past Dead is a dreadful prison movie where Seagal doesn’t really fight (Ja Rule and Nia Peeples have the biggest fight scene) and he already let himself go again. He is the character who’s been half past dead though. He flatlined on the operating table and came back.
I won’t recap all the straight to video movies mainly because I can’t distinguish most of them. Vern, the author of Seagology and more reviews on outlawvern.com, did a thorough job, but rest assured his characters are still former black ops, sometimes environmentalists too, fighting corruption. Many of them even stuck to the naming scheme of titles that Seagal could BE. The big question with most Seagal straight to video is did he dub himself or did they have to get someone else to mumble like him?
There were some highlights where it looked like Seagal was engaged again. I don’t mind his weight because he can still do the fast hands, when he wants to. Movies like Driven to Kill, A Dangerous Man or Out of Reach still have him do Aikido. Kill Switch at least has someone with a pony tail do it while they cut to closeups of Seagal throwing a punch.
His TV show, True Justice, was a good vehicle too. He played the leader of an elite police team, so he’d only show up for a fight scene or two but hey, if you’ve got Seagal for a day, have him do fast hands and then let the supporting cast handle the plot.
His reality show, Steven Seagal: Lawman was basically Cops with Seagal. So no fast hands, and I call bullshit on how many locals were actually fans of Seagal and wanted selfies. I mean, as fake legends go, sheriff’s deputy seems more harmless than Russian advocate. I really don’t like his Cajun accent, which he adopted ever since Lawman. The soft spoken threatening voice doesn’t work with a drawl.
Seagal played the villain in Machete but that was an annoying missed opportunity mainly because Robert Rodriguez didn’t take it seriously. The fake trailer suggested an earnest exploitation movie, not a spoof. Seagal isn’t even a real threat to Machete and they make their final confrontation a joke.
What Does It Take?
In conclusion, whatever hero Seagal thought he could be, he failed every opportunity to do the right thing or redeem himself. Even his fictional persona had no impact on the culture at large. Al Gore had to take over the environmental movie movement and still couldn’t convince the government climate change is real. What’s left behind are some fun adventures with values ranging from enlightened to misguided, but the experiment was a failure. Apparently it takes more than time to change the essence of a man.