Examining the recent cinema of Steven Seagal

Feature Matt Edwards 17 Oct 2012 - 06:57

Is Steven Seagal’s recent action output worthy of our attention? Matt checks out four of the star's latest films to find out…

In our articles about the cinema of Chuck Norris and Hulk Hogan, we looked at the earlier films of their cinematic odysseys, to see where those heroes came from. In the case of Steven Seagal, his earliest films are his most famous. We’re all well aware of Seagal’s filmic origins. His more recent on-screen antics, though, have a mysterious aura around them, almost as if no one is watching them. It’s about time somebody took a look at these films and reported back on just what Seagal has been up to.

This article will assess Seagal’s four most recent leading roles in feature films. That means no Machete, no reality TV series and no episodes of True Justice (a show which has had episodes released as films in the UK). 

Driven To Kill (2009)

Percentage of Fights Won: 100%

Best Quote: “Why don’t we wait and let him kill everyone, then show up and sign the paperwork?”

Police Conduct: Deplorable

Steven Seagal IS Ruslan, a former Russian mob affiliate turned author. Arriving in New Jersey for his daughter’s wedding, he finds himself concerned at her choice of husband (he’s the son of a mob boss). His ex-wife’s new partner is a worry, too. He’s wealthy, but ultimately a bit of a shit, so Seagal has his eye on him.

Just as everyone, bar the bride-to-be and her mother, leaves for the wedding, knife-wielding bastards break in and stab the ladies to pieces. When Seagal finds out that only his daughter has survived (although she’s in a super-inconvenient coma), he hides her away so he can work out who is responsible, and what the most painful way to demonstrate his displeasure at their actions to them would be. 

Driven To Kill is a film passionately in love with knife fighting. If it knew what fists were for, it would punch you for questioning why it keeps depicting brutal stabbings. It doesn’t know what fists are for, though, because it’s never tried to strike anyone with anything that can’t cut off a human face. At the end of the film, Seagal fells the main villain with a gun. While that might not sound knife-like, Driven To Kill is so hopelessly devoted to fatal penetrations that Seagal stabs the villain in the eye with it.

There’s something about how I’ve come to perceive Steven Seagal that made it difficult to get used to the idea of him doing things that an ordinary person might do. The first page of my notebook was filled with comments like ‘He’s wearing a t-shirt!’ and ‘I can’t believe he’s actually jogging – amazing!’

Once I got over that, three things about Seagal’s performance stood out for me. The first was his dialogue delivery, which could politely be described as barely audible and impolitely described as mumbly and awful. He speaks like he’s recently had a filling and his mouth is still numb on one side. I kept expecting him to have to use a tissue to mop away a little stream of dribble. I knew that I’d end up writing about his body fluids.

The second notable thing Seagal brings to the screen is his hairline, which is so triangular that it’s actually unnerving.

Thirdly, my goodness his fights scenes are great. Not ‘chubby old guy with silly hair throws a punch and looks exhausted, isn’t it funny?’ Rather, Seagal is legitimately good at fighting in films. As an older guy, he occasionally requires the assistance of a sneaky edit, and kicks aren’t his friend. Still, the speed he moves his hands is stunning and he demonstrates a level of expertise that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting. 

Although Seagal fights righteously, his behavior in Driven To Kill is ludicrous. Early on, he interrogates a pawn shop owner the only way he knows how; he asks questions while eating a sandwich. No, I mean he punches him a lot. Later he fires a machine gun into the air in a residential area for no reason. He visits a strip club and looks puzzled by the concept of a lap dance, when really it’s the dancer who should be feeling confused. I felt confused just watching it. I can’t speak for Seagal or the stripper, but I’m still feeling a bit confused by it now. 

Perhaps my favorite part of this film was the section of the finale that Seagal spends collecting sharp instruments. The resultant blade-bomb explodes and some bad guy ends up being pierced so many times that you’d think Seagal had mistaken him for a potato he was preparing to bake. While the explosion and face agony of the recipient are fine, the excitement I felt watching Seagal putting it together reminded me of that lap dancing scene. More confusion.

The team behind Driven To Kill clearly felt that they were making a film with enough killings and criminal shenanigans in it to demand that the police be present, but they really couldn’t give a shit about them. For much of the film the cops are happy for Seagal to cause carnage and kill tremendous amounts of people. Perhaps they’re just enamored with him after bumping into him in a lap dancing club.

In truth, Driven To Kill isn’t particularly good. It’s predictable, cheap and silly. It’s the sort of film where a character wakes up from a coma the minute the villains have been killed, as if she’d been pretending to be in a coma the whole time (who would do that?). It is, however, a surprisingly fun film. I enjoyed it far more than I had expected to enjoy any of the films I’ll be covering here. 

The Keeper (2009)

Percentage of Fights Won: 100%

Best Quote: “Let me tell you this; they’re dead and you’re not.”

Police Conduct: Passable, given that they’ve been hampered by a dingbat.

Based on the title of this film, I was hoping for a violent action movie based on a Premier League goalkeeper with a taste for revenge. What I got was a violent action movie where Steven Seagal plays a guy called Roland. It doesn’t sound right, does it? I had an easier time accepting Seagal as an author than I did as a Roland.

Steven Seagal IS Roland, a cop who’s betrayed by his partner after they raid a drug den and find a cool $2m in cash. Seagal won’t steal the money and so his partner gets all shooty. Obviously, he survives the shooting and slays his former partner in the hospital. Quickly making a full recovery, Seagal heads to Texas to help an old friend who needs a new bodyguard for his daughter. Unable to trust anyone around him, Seagal must protect, and then rescue, this rather attractive young lady from the mob.

The first half an hour of The Keeper is almost a separate mini-film. You get the impression that the main story they wanted to tell is a sequel to a film that, with good reason, doesn’t exist. So, they spend 30 minutes having Seagal get shot, get revenge, get better and get to Texas. While entirely pointless, this does mean we get a chance to see Seagal’s home, and I’m pleased to report that it’s decorated with lots of trophies for great police work and even a SWAT certificate.

Seagal once again mumbles his way through a role, this time teasing us with hints of a Southern accent, albeit one that we can’t hear properly. We’re also teased with the possibility of Seagal wearing a cowboy hat, although after being presented with it he hardly wears it at all.

The villains lined up for Seagal to violence are typically poor. The mobsters are impossible to distinguish from the rentagoons he takes out in every film. Of note is the boyfriend of the young woman he’s protecting, a gifted boxer of weak character. Why they wrote him as a fighter, I’ve no idea, as the guy gets bullied by everyone in the film. The mobsters bully him, Seagal bullies him. I’m pretty confident I could have got him to write this article for me with a few hurtful comments about his mother’s promiscuity. It’s not just that he’s a pansy - he’s also an idiot. He gets followed by Steven Seagal at one point and doesn’t notice. How? The guy couldn’t stand out more if you put a cowboy hat on him.

Again, we have a police presence in this film, and again it’s difficult to understand. Here, the Sheriff takes an immediate dislike to Seagal, only to change his mind in the next scene for no reason at all. Still, he’s less silly than Seagal’s friend, who lies to Seagal and the police about the reason his daughter was kidnapped for a laugh. I like a good plot twist as much as the next guy, but perhaps next time just have Seagal be a ghost and have the cowboy hat represent resolving unfinished business. At least that way we’d get to see Seagal tip his Stetson to us before swaggering off into the afterlife.

Without many decent fights to keep him busy (this is more a shootout type of film), Seagal needed to try something new if he was going to steal the show, and it should come as no surprise that he delivers the goods. After being shot at the beginning, he feigns death to fool his shooter. The problem is that Seagal peeks - he keeps having a little look around, and he struggles so desperately with subtlety. It gets worse when he’s in the hospital, fooling the doctors with a faux coma while also keeping a watch out and even stealing a gun from someone’s purse. It’s a very funny scene.

While it has its moments, The Keeper isn’t as good as Driven To Kill. It’s still a fun enough action film, though, and is absolutely worth checking out for Seagal’s ‘chop through the throat’ move he fells a villain with.

A Dangerous Man (2009)

Percentage of Fights Won: 100%

Best Quote: “Where I come from we f**k cops in the mouth when we run out of farm animals” 

Police Conduct:  Villainous.

Regarding Pictures: I struggled to find any good images for this film, so instead I’ve included a picture from The Keeper.

Steven Seagal IS Shane Daniels, a man who served six years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Shortly after being released, he beats up a couple of guys, sees a cop shoot a guy, falls out with the Chinese mafia and makes friends with the Russian mob. He also finds an attractive young lady in a car boot, and agrees to help her rescue her uncle from Chinese villains. 

The opening to A Dangerous Man filled me with hope. Immediate slow motion, then Seagal smashes a carjacker in the face and runs after him. Honestly, the rest of the film could have been real time footage of Seagal eating toast and I’d still have been satisfied. Fortunately for me, there was still plenty of great stuff to come. 

Seagal gets to do more fighting in this film, which is great news. He’s skilled, vicious and a little bit cheeky when it comes to combat. He kicks a man into a car through the window in one scene, and in another he gets bored while choking a man to death so instead kicks him into a whirling saw-blade. 

It’s lucky he fights so well, because this film sees his acting performance somehow manage to get worse. When released from prison, he gives an impassioned speech about what he’s lost, and even though six years of suffering is worse than 40 seconds of suffering, I still felt like I was getting a raw deal for having to hear him. Other than that, it’s all mumbled nonsense and that facial expression he has; like someone is trying to explain the internet to him, but they haven’t started with where to find the porn.

He’ll need those websites, too, as his wife sent him a letter telling him that she was moving on while he was locked up. He reads it at night, outside, in the rain, which is supposed to highlight how emotional the moment is, although that ‘where’s the boobs?’ expression on his face undermines things a touch. Also, the rain completely ruins the letter.

He remembers his wife fondly. Well, I think that was the point of the flashback scenes where she’s giving him an ever so awkward lap dance, but I can’t be sure. What I can be sure of is that I felt more confused than ever.

The screenwriter of A Dangerous Man got a parking ticket while he was writing the script, and he was livid about it. At least, that would explain the portrayal of the police in the film. They wrongly imprison Seagal, are all corrupt toss-bags and are occasionally brutally killed to death. It’s the wrongful imprisonment part that stands out as the most insulting. It would have been easy for the police to tell if he was guilty - if the guy died with a terrified erection, Seagal’s the killer. By failing to realise this they come across as incompetent boobs.

A Dangerous Man is the second film here to feature Russian gangsters in a positive light. That’s weird, isn’t it? Just as weird are the Chinese baddies, who spend all their time bickering, failing and watching scantily clad women half-heartedly dancing. Combined, all of the villains still manage to seem less intimidating than a comments section death threat.

A Dangerous Man climaxes, but unfortunately the final fight is ruined by hyperactive cinematography. It looks like the cameraman got into a fight with the sound guy while they were filming. Fortunately, things are just about saved by Seagal, who does a cool ‘walking away from an explosion’ thing, after setting off a bomb that he’s inexplicably planted.

Again, not a brilliant film, but A Dangerous Man has much in it to enjoy. These modern Seagal movies are all right.

Born To Raise Hell (2010)

Percentage of Fights Won: 100%

Best Quote: “Midgets are a little short. Money should never be.”

Police Conduct: Do as Seagal says, not as he does.

Steven Seagal IS Bobby Samuels, an Interpol agent working in Budapest. He spends his days busting drug dealers, mourning the death of his former partner, being unimpressed by his colleagues and also something to do with 9/11. The traditional Russian mobsters are conducting themselves well enough for Seagal’s liking, but a wild, violent gypsy gangster is a cause for concern. It seems that there will be chaos until he’s taken out.

“Evil exists within every man” begins Born To Raise Hell. I was thrilled; Seagal voiceover! I remain thrilled that this element of the film was present, even if it’s just badly written exposition, if only because there’s so little else to enjoy here. There’s also a great part of the finale where Seagal just stands there, shooting a door for ages. It felt like a metaphor for the research I did for this article.

The only further joy I took from Born To Raise Hell came from Seagal’s figurative boner for Russian mobsters showing through again, and from Seagal’s more literal boner for one of the female characters. That’s right; someone gets a Seagal sexing! He’s fully clothed, obviously, and the scene takes place entirely in slow motion. I think someone who worked on the film must have read an article about sex in a magazine once and thought it sounded romantic and fun. Seagal’s hands are, sadly, much slower here than in his fight scenes.

For all its implied Seagal-thrusting, Born To Raise Hell is almost unwatchable. Every scene finds the director dipping into a bag of visual tricks, and the point of each visual trick is that he hates your bastard eyes. I don’t know what my bastard eyes have done to deserve this film, but I’d like to assure everyone involved that they’re plotting revenge. If the guy doesn’t have a vendetta against his audience, he was surely bored silly by the filmmaking process. That would explain why a three second segment of the film, a man walking on a street, needed to feature five cuts.

The worst segment of the film starts with the Born To Raise Hell team getting ‘man drops cup of coffee’ wrong. Warmed up, they move on to making a very uncomfortable hash of a rape scene. I was able to enjoy all three of the previous film despite of their shortcomings, entirely because there was a degree of fun to be had. There’s an insistence here that you take the film seriously, which just makes everything somber and awful.

The other three films I’ve covered would make brilliant drinking games. You drink every time a character is awed by Seagal, twice if it’s a villain. You drink every time Seagal throws a kick. If you exclaim ‘holy shit!’ you finish your drink. If Seagal gets punched, you’re watching the wrong film, because Seagal never gets punched. The only drinking game I could come up with for Born To Raise Hell was ‘have a beer and put a different film on. Maybe Die Hard?’

It’s so light on self-awareness that most of the crew thought they were badgers. Fifteen minutes in, Seagal’s new partner is told “The sidekick always dies” and I assumed they were having fun with the cliché. Another 20 minutes in, we find out his wife is eight months pregnant. Very good, guys. Thirty minutes later, he’s dead. I can’t argue that I wasn’t warned.

Born To Raise Hell is everything I feared I would be getting from these films. Seagal is in full mumble-mode and is by far the best thing in the film. I would recommend taking up spelunking on laxatives as a hobby before I would recommend watching this film.

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Great article :) I've been a fan of Seagal since the 80's, and I've seen all of his movies (apart from the True Justice series) and your spot on with this. None of the films are actually good, the sets are cheap and the acting is terrible, but they are just fun 90 minute slabs of entertainment not to be taken too seriously. Even though I think it's only Seagal for about 40% of his own scenes (I swear he uses a stunt double for a few walking scenes) it's still cool to see the man chop someone in the neck.

Van Damme's recent cinema output is actually great though, asin they are real films and he actually tries.

I think, I'm afraid, that Stephen Seagal is now an elderly man trying - perfectly understandably - to fund his retirement. I would suggest that his last decent film was "Exit Wounds" (2001). Since even before then, he has been slowly putting on weight and resorting to increasingly ridiculous hair pieces and "Mane" spray. His best work - and it was indeed brilliant of its kind - was in such "mid-period" movies as "Fire Down Below","The Glimmer Man", the "Under Sieges" (1 & 2) and "On Deadly Ground". His early period films when he was a beanstalk instead of a steroid block were also very good. However, it is a telling observation that he has more hair now than he did in "Hard to Kill" in 1990 when his bonce was defintely visibly thinning. I like him, and I like his movies pre-2000/2001. It is, I think, also significant that (according to the International Movie Data Base or IMDB) no less than 16 of his films since 2000 went straight to video. Still, I hope he has a well-funded retirement. He deserves it.

Good reviews, even better screencaps!

Quite like his blues band though....

I will now partake in the Steven seagull drinking game thanks!

Russian Ruslan..Ha ha.

Good old mafia, guaranteeing work for the elderly.

Seagal should do a movie with Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. The most memorable scene will be the 3 of them collectively drinking shots of their own urine before going into battle. Percentage of fights won: 120%

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