It is not hard to imagine a world without Steven Seagal movies. Video store bargain bins would be that bit emptier, late night TV schedules would be spotted with sad 90-minute bursts of white noise, and the on-board entertainment industry that services 3rd-class long-distance South American buses would be hard hit, but otherwise, life would probably go on as normal. But if it’s impossible to claim any sort of real importance for his back catalog, his sheer productivity and impressive dedication to not really ever fucking with a formula, means that Seagal has established a kind of low-level ubiquity. You may not think you have, but you have seen a Steven Seagal movie, probably more than one, and not just his “Citizen Kane” — “Under Siege.”
Today Seagal, action star, producer, occasional writer, one-time director, 7th-dan black belt Aikido instructor, guitarist, high-profile Buddhist and Reserve Deputy Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, celebrates his 61st birthday. And while we’d usually do one of our “Essentials” features to celebrate, let’s be honest, the meaning of the word “essential” is simply not elastic enough to stretch to even his finest work. However we have to say, as far outside our wheelhouse as Seagal is, we have a sneaking affection for him, if only because he has not taken the path more frequently traveled by other ’80s action stars: he’s not in “The Expendables.” He also never made a bid for Serious Acting Credibility. He hasn’t even gone the “JCVD” route of turning his life into some kind of parodic art experiment, though perhaps avid viewers of “Steven Seagal: Lawman” will tell us otherwise. And despite his recent foray into comedic commercials that lampoon his persona (proving that he has some timing and self-deprecation in him), for the most part he has steered well clear of comedy and persevered, with stoic self-seriousness, in delivering clunky direct-to-video action thrillers long after most would have turned the lights off and gone home.
He’s found perhaps a slightly more comfortable place now with TV show “True Justice” on Reelz, but in honor of his birthday, here are 6 movies of his that maybe just edge ahead of the others in terms of quality, badassery, or defining his unique, stolid, bizarrely earnest appeal.
“Under Siege” (1992)
The sine qua non of Seagal movies, it’s several degrees sub-“Die Hard,” but “Under Siege” is still the closest thing to a real action blockbuster on this list. With its top-shelf villainy (from the ever good-value Tommy Lee Jones and the ever slimy Gary Busey) and somewhat coherent plot and competent direction from Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive,” here re-teaming with Seagal after 1988’s “Above the Law“), it’s really head and shoulders above the rest of his filmography in terms of making the crossover between his avid action/martial arts fan-base to the mainstream. Seagal plays the world’s unlikeliest ship’s cook (“I’m just the cook”), who turns out, of course, to be a highly trained lethal Navy SEAL (“I… also cook”). Initially overlooked because of his lowly status, he gradually wins back control of his nuclear battleship from terrorists by means of killing them all, averts the annihilation of Honolulu, saves his comrades and snogs a Playmate (Erica Eleniak). It was his fifth feature and Seagal is actually pretty good in it. If it’s true that he owed his career to some kind of bet made by super-agent Mike Ovitz who allegedly used Seagal as testing ground for his theory that he could make anyone a star, then it shows that given better material to work with, Seagal could probably have been as big a star as some of his contemporaries. But it didn’t work out that way. Perhaps drunk on impending mega-stardom, Seagal’s next move was to direct and star in dull, preachy eco-actioner “On Deadly Ground” which tanked. Never again would his career hit these heights. “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” would try and fail miserably, though at “dire,” it still nearly qualifies for a spot on this list, but gets a further points deduction for having Katherine Heigl in it.
“Above the Law” (1988)
So really, there’s “Under Siege,” a big gap, and then all the rest, jostling for far-off second place. We’re going to award that spot (because we can’t give it to the gap) to “Above the Law,” not because it’s very good or anything, but because it was Seagal’s first film role and proved to be the archetype for a great deal of what would follow. Seagal, in marked contrast to the puffy immobility of his later roles, is young and lithe and downright pretty on occasion, and his mullet holds merely the promise of ponytails to come. Teaming for the first time with his “Under Siege” director Andrew Davis, here we can see their Scorsese/DeNiro relationship is in but its nascent stages, yet Davis already then clearly had a better way with action than some of Seagal’s subsequent directors — the fight and stunt scenes here are more fluid and comprehensible than the impossible physics and bewildering cutting of some of those later films. Plus, Pam Grier and Sharon Stone make for appealing eye candy, albeit in totally subordinated female roles. Nico Toscani (Seagal) is a disillusioned ex-CIA covert ops agent turned cop, who is teamed with Jacks (Grier) and is tasked with taking down a drug gang. But in the same twist that occurs in 95% of Seagal movies, the gang turns out to be involved with the VERY SAME BAD GUY who caused Nico to leave the CIA! A church blows up, a villain sidekick gets a memorable death plunging from the hood of a car that’s protruding from halfway up a skyscraper, and Nico cracks the Big Bad’s back in grisly fashion. It’s the kind of film where people say “C’mere, you!” before diving into a fight, but for all of that, it’s not even half as cheesy as films that would follow. Including…
“Out for Justice” (1991)
This is the one where Seagal’s fellow cop and best friend is killed and Seagal spends the rest of the movie going to every place the perpetrator has even been known to hang out, and beating up and/or killing every single person he meets until he finally finds the murderer (with whom he again has personal history) and kills him too. With “Out For Justice,” we are three movies into Seagal’s career and reaching the midpoint of what could, relatively speaking, be called his golden age. It should be noted that in contrast to the near somnambulism of some of his later performances, here Seagal is a much more nervy presence, bobbing his head when he talks, and apparently actually attempting a character portrayal of sorts: an Italian American who “wanted to be a wiseguy,” sample dialogue: “You were still sucking your thumb when your brother was around town sucking dicks.” Wildean. There are some neat fight scenes, of course, especially one where he takes on all comers in a dive bar armed with a cue ball wrapped in a napkin, and another in a deli in which he skewers one guy’s hand to the wall with a cleaver and dispatches another with a salami. But it’s the storytelling flourishes that will keep you coming back for more — he actually saves an abandoned puppy midway through, and ends the film reuniting with his estranged wife for a romantic walk on the boardwalk, where he kicks a guy in the groin such that he falls down groaning “My balls! My balls!” while the puppy pees on him, they chuckle and the credits roll. Amazing.
“Exit Wounds” (2001)
Ok, we’re controversially moving into “late period” Seagal here, and out of the relative canonical safety of his first 5 films, but having recently watched “Exit Wounds” we’re quite happy to go brazenly out on a limb and assert that it’s one of Seagal’s very least bad films. Admittedly it suffers from some truly appalling editing, mostly serving the fact that the once nimble and dexterous Seagal has rather calcified here and just isn’t as limber as he used to be, making the bullet-dodging antics and chop-socky (beg pardon, Aikido) a harder sell than before. But we’re grading on a serious curve and actually, as a film it’s relatively watchable, with the younger crew, headed by a game DMX (reuniting with his “Romeo Must Die” director and co-stars Isaiah Washington and Anthony Anderson), actually bringing some life to their fight scenes. But perhaps that’s just in contrast with the shrub-like zen of Seagal, whose opponents are often shot in slowmo, perhaps to compensate. Tom Arnold shows up as an annoying TV host, Eva Mendes briefly appears and, awful dialogue notwithstanding, the moral inversion of the cops being largely the bad guys, and the gang-bangers being the good guys, or millionaire tech wizards in disguise, makes for at least momentary flares of interest between punch-ups. Mind you, it’s still terrible.
“Hard to Kill” (1990) & “Marked For Death” (1990)
Yes, this double entry is a cheat, but we’re pairing these because, released the same year, on many levels, they’re companion pieces, like a pair of inseparable priceless Ming vases or a Twix. Apparently they’re also the two films that martial arts aficionados point to as the best examples of Seagal’s particular brand of Aikido. Now, we scarcely know Aikido from Bukkake, but it’s a discipline in which he has/had a great degree of credibility — he was the first westerner to run an Aikido dojo in Japan. The odd thing to the casual viewer is that Aikido is, so we discover, largely about “concern for the well-being of the attacker” and “becoming one with an aggressor’s movements so as to control them with minimal effort,” which doesn’t sound exactly cinematic, and is why, perhaps, in later films especially, Seagal manages to get away with moving very little, never nipping and jabbing where lumbering and hulking will do. Anyway, back in his heyday, his style was a bit more peppy, and that’s on display in both these films.
“Hard to Kill” is the better movie, for our money, because it wears its cheesiness up front with the whole coma plot: Seagal is, wait for it… a cop (!) called, wait again… Mason Storm, who awakens from a coma to find his family murdered, then teams up with world’s unlikeliest coma nurse, his then real-life wife Kelly Le Brock, to exact revenge on the perpetrators with whom, yes, he has a long personal history. Whatever about the Aikido, there’s lots of smashing plate glass and car chases, but most crucially for Film History, it marks the first appearance of the Seagal trademark ponytail. “Marked for Death” is the one with the Jamaican drug gang, sorry, posse, led by the crazy-eyed dread-locked Screwface (Basil Wallace), a sort of Voodoo, sorry Obeah, priest who targets Seagal (disappointingly named John Hatcher). Here the soapiness doesn’t arrive till later (the old twin brother twist), but prior to that there’s a lot of shooting, arm dislocations, ooh, and a decapitation, which is always a treat.
Honorable Mentions. Well, Mentions. Seagal’s recent return to the multiplex, after a long decade of direct-to-video, in “Machete” we deemed unfit for inclusion because it’s not really a Seagal movie per se — same goes for “Executive Decision” which actually stars Kurt Russell. Shame, though, because working off the warped baseline we are, these two are veritable masterpieces.
There was some enthusiasm for Seagal’s environmentalism diptych “On Deadly Ground” (also his sole directorial outing) and “Fire Down Below.” Not having seen the latter, and considering the former stinks to almighty high heaven, this writer chose not to include them. In fact, “The Patriot” also has some of those eco-themes, but we’ve totally forgotten it. Something about a virus?
And finally “The Glimmer Man,” Seagal’s attempt at a “Lethal Weapon“-esque buddy action movie with Keenan Ivory Wayans is not the absolute worst thing he’s ever done and it’s nice to see Seagal subtly send up some of the new-agey, alternative philosophies he’s been associated with. If you discover it on cable late one night, or on a 36-hour bus ride from Lima to La Paz, it will do until you fall asleep.
Apologies if we’ve missed you favorite. Feel free to show “concern for our well-being” by delivering us a smack-down in the comments.