For those who don’t know, I have an irrational love of Steven Seagal movies. My Seagal obsession is nowhere near the level of reverence I have for Huey Lewis, but it’s definitely on the high side of the normal range. If I’m flipping through the channels and run across Hard to Kill or Above the Law, I have to drop everything and watch it.
It’s hard to explain Seagal’s appeal to those who don’t intuitively grasp it. Even when Seagal was at the peak of his career, a lot of people couldn’t figure out what his appeal was. He’s too tall and lanky, for starters: your typical action star is between 5′ 7″ and 5′ 10″; Seagal is 6′ 4. Seagal is reasonably good looking but has a sort of pinched, constipated look about him. He often dresses strangely, and even in 1988 his pony tail wasn’t exactly the height of fashion. He looks like a complete dork when he runs, and frankly he often comes across as something of an asshole on screen. And then there’s his offscreen persona, which could safely be described as “colorful.”
I think Seagal’s appeal has to do with the sheer force of his personality. It’s hard to be neutral about Steven Seagal. When I watch a Tom Cruise movie, the fact that Tom Cruise is kind of an asshole is always there in the back of my head, along with the fact that Tom Cruise is actually only four feet tall. But if Cruise is playing a nice guy and standing on a box, I can still enjoy the movie. With Seagal, on the other hand, it’s all up there on the screen. You can see his assholishness. You sit there watching this guy with a ponytail wearing some kind of silk robe with dragons on it beating the shit out of some random hoodlum on the street whose biggest crime was probably selling stolen stereos on a street corner, and you think, wow, this guy is an asshole.
There’s a scene in Marked for Death where Seagal tells a doctor who is treating his injured friend to treat her “like the President of the United States.” The doctor protests that all of his patients receive the same excellent care, but Seagal is having none of it. “Like the President of the United States,” he growls again, jabbing his finger at the doctor. And you can’t help feeling a little bad for the doctor. Somehow, through the sheer force of his assholishness, Seagal has made you forget completely about the half-dead girl the doctor is supposed to be treating and caused you to focus on the poor doctor who just wet his pants because he thinks Steven Seagal is going to break his arms (breaking arms is sort of a trademark of Seagal’s). If it were any other actor in Seagal’s role, it would have been a completely different scene. In fact, I don’t know of any scene like it in any other movie. It’s pure Seagal.
I used to think these performances arose from Seagal’s complete lack of self-awareness: that is, I thought that he was such an asshole that he has no idea that when he tries to act sympathetic, he comes across as just a bigger asshole. But the more I think about the matter and study Seagal’s performances (and his offscreen life), the more I think that he possesses a kind of hyper-awareness that causes him to come across as an asshole, and that he was deliberately acting like an asshole trying to act sympathetic in order to make the scene more interesting. To put it more simply, maybe Steven Seagal is a character Steven Seagal is playing.
It’s these sorts of conundrums that the mononymous Vern explores in Seagalogy: The Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. For example, in Hard to Kill, the bad guy is a Senator named Trent, whose catch phrase is “You can take that to the bank.” When Seagal’s character realizes that Trent is responsible for the death of his wife, Seagal vows, “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank.” Vern writes:
[The line is] delivered with such sincerity that I don’t even know anymore if it’s so bad it’s good or so good it’s awesome. It’s like on the old video games, if the score got high enough it would just flip back over to zero and start over. That might be what happened when he said that line in Hard to Kill — it was so bad that it flipped over and became great. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know but the point is, I wish I said that shit to somebody. That was great. Good job Seagal.
Vern’s writing, like Seagal’s performances, is either so bad it’s good or so good it’s awesome. He has a rambling, conversational, completely un-pretentious style that occasionally sneaks up on you and, Seagal-like, snaps your funny bone, leaving you screaming on the floor.
At the nadir of his career Seagal made a string of movies that are as close to being unwatchable as any movie can be, and I have to salute Vern for sitting through every one of them — most of them multiple times. Occasionally Vern’s commentary on these movies reminded me of Art Bell talking to some conspiracy theory lunatic on his radio show, Coast to Coast. The caller would be going on about the Roswell aliens scheming to fluoridate our water supply or something and Art Bell would just calmly interject comments and ask follow-up questions as if the guy was making perfect sense. Anybody else would be yelling, “Holy shit, are you even listening to yourself? Do you have any idea how crazy you sound?” But Art Bell knew the secret of his show was treating all of the nonsense with utter seriousness. In a similar vein, here’s Vern commenting on the movie Attack Force, which was so godawful that I couldn’t make it through the first ten minutes:
Like Submerged, Attack Force began life as an entirely different genre of movie, but was changed in post-production…. Contacted by co-screenwriter Joe Halpin…, I couldn’t resist asking if Harvester (as it was then titled) would really end up having aliens in it, or if they would disappear like the “biological mutants” of Submerged. He wasn’t sure. “Who knows,” he wrote. “We shot it a couple of ways — and now it’s up to the studio and Seagal to agree on a version. Aliens are in one and European mobsters are in another.” … Halpin’s answer goes a long way toward explaining the state of Seagalogy at this point in the DTV Era.
You think? They rewrote the movie AFTER THEY SHOT IT. Vern goes on to say that “the result is less of a disaster than I expected,” which makes me think that he must be an Auschwitz survivor or something. Plan 9 from Outer Space was a masterpiece compared to Attack Force. And if Vern’s account is accurate, Seagal made at least another dozen movies nearly as bad. It’s a miracle he can write a coherent sentence at all after sitting through the fruits of Seagal’s DTV career. I had a hard time just reading about all these movies, Vern’s irreverent commentary notwithstanding.
Seagalology originally ended on a bit of a down note, but in 2012 Vern updated it with the chapters on the work Seagal did since the book was first published. I haven’t seen most of Seagal’s more recent movies, but Vern seems to think they’re a few steps up from the dreck he churned out in the early 2000s, if not quite up to the Golden Age standards of Above the Law, Hard to Kill and Out for Justice. It’s nice to hear that Seagal is still working and making more of an effort to produce quality movies, although to be perfectly honest, I got a little bored toward the end of this book. Vern may have taken his mission a little too seriously when he decided to detail every single one of Seagal’s dreary, boring, and forgettable movies. A very entertaining book overall, but you’re not missing much if you skip a few chapters toward the end.
Four out of five stars.