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Taking Out the Garbage: The Steven Seagal Phenomenon

How did it happen? We all thought Steven Seagal’s fifteen minutes were long gone — that this bloated sad sack had degenerated from ‘almost famous’ Schwarzenegger wannabe to video hack. Shows how much we know! Exit Wounds hit numero uno at the box office this week, making more box office bucks than any other movie in Big Steve’s entire oeuvre.

Before he became the next Laurence Olivier, this 6’4′ bodyguard to the stars and sixth-degree black belt Aikido expert studied the art of meditation in Japan. That explains how soft-spoken he remains while dispatching onscreen enemies. It’s a Zen thing. Don’t make fun of him, or bad karma will catch up with you (as well as a substantial hospital bill!)

One could imagine Shigemichi Take (Seagal’s Aikido name) enjoying the peaceful life of a monk or Buddhist gardener, were it not for powerful agent Mike Ovitz. Hey, it only goes to show that anyone can be a movie star if they have the right Hollywood magician’s finesse.

Our crack team of researchers (well, okay, just me) decided to provide a retrospective of Mr. Ponytail’s films, charting the highs(?) and lows of his illustrious screen-acting career.

Above the Law (1986)

Plot: Seagal plays Chicago police detective Nico Toscani. Teamed with no-nonsense Pam Grier (Jackie Brown), he’s hot on the trail of a nefarious drug cartel. The chain of corruption leads to a sneaky CIA operative (Henry Silva) working out of the basement of Seagal’s catholic church. Woah, mama – someone is going to pay.

Commentary: Why are critics so loath to admit that Seagal actually got off to an interesting start? Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) provides solid craftsmanship and a strong sense of local color. Zen ninja Seagal breaks arms and legs with bone crunching, sadistic glee. Mindless violence, capably executed.

Grade: VHS DVD

Hard To Kill (1989)

Plot: Seagal plays a cop – what a stretch! He’s gunned down and left for dead by the bad guys, but this dude is Hard To Kill. After seven years in a coma, some Rocky training scenes, and good lovin’ at the hands of Kelly LeBrock (aka Mrs. Seagal), he proceeds to kill everyone in sight. When he pulls the trigger, they stay dead.

Commentary: Zen meditation scene check. Generic love interest check. Broken bones check. Seagal starts falling into the familiar patterns that filter into most of his dime-a-dozen films. Though the ‘cop who won’t die’ angle sounds promising, this routine action flick didn’t bode well for Big Steve’s career longevity.

Grade: VHS DVD

Out for Justice (1991)

Plot: Seagal’s a (yawn) cop – does he ever play anything else? He’s roaming the streets beating up hooligans until he comes face to face with his psychopathic childhood friend (William Forsythe, Dick Tracy), engaged in a mass killing spree. Quien es mas macho?

Commentary: Seagal versus… William Forsythe? Memo to Mr. Seagal (who co-wrote the script): Listen, Steve – you’ve got to start picking on guys your own size! Forsythe is a small, chubby character actor who wouldn’t last two rounds with Fred Rogers. Oh, and hire a director who isn’t a total friggin’ hack. The action scenes here are borderline incoherent. And you’re starting to look a little chubby, Steverino – time for a trip to the Aikido gym. Still, dig the ponytail, baby.

Grade: VHS DVD

Under Siege (1992)

Plot: Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey are evil terrorists who take over a Navy battleship – they just didn’t count on a resourceful chef (Seagal) that may have once been a government killer. Hey, at least Seagal ain’t playing another cop!

Commentary: This rare film which breaks the ‘three word title’ mold was cheered by critics. Guess they didn’t mind that it’s basically just Die Hard on a boat.

Grade: VHS DVD

On Deadly Ground (1994)

Plot: An evil Alaskan oil company (run by Michael Caine, who had to struggle for years to restore his credibility) tries to eliminate safety inspector Forrest Taft (Seagal), but he’s Hard To Kill.

Commentary: Michael Caine, have you no shame? At least he fares better than Seagal, who destroyed his career with this knee-jerk response to environmentalist concerns. This was the first of Seagal’s politically correct eco-thrillers. The ten-minute public service announcement at the end (written by Big Steve himself) has to be seen to be believed.

Grade: VHS DVD

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

Plot: Plot? PLOT? Steven Seagal kills a bunch of terrorists. What further plot do you need?

Commentary: Die Hard on a train attempting to cash in on the success of the first Under Siege. Seagal is looking pretty fat. That explains his preferred choice of black suits to disguise his bulk – hence the title, Dark Territory. (C’mon – that was kinda funny!)

Grade: VHS DVD

Executive Decision (1996)

Plot: He dies early. This is a Kurt Russell movie.

Commentary: Guy’s got to pay the rent somehow, right?

Grade: VHS DVD

My Giant (1998)

Plot: I’ll quote Christopher Null, our editor-in-chief: The plot follows ‘a talentless talent scout who recruits a Romanian giant to be a movie star.’

Commentary: To give you an idea of how large Seagal’s role was, he doesn’t play the talent scout (Billy Crystal) – nor the giant (Gheorge Muresan). Guess he wasn’t talented or big enough at this point in his career.

Grade: VHS DVD

The Patriot (1998)

Plot: Seagal plays a doctor who…yes, a doctor! Doctor Seagal protects the community against a deadly biological warfare virus. Native American supporting characters sagely nod in approval as Seagal kicks the ass of the white man.

Commentary: Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson revolutionary war epic, this one went straight-to-video. Guess he didn’t learn anything from the experience of On Deadly Ground. Steve, we love ya, baby – but you’re not John Sayles! Ease off of the social commentary, already!

Grade: VHS DVD

Exit Wounds (2001)

Plot: For full coverage of this film, check out the review by our esteemed colleague, Max Messier.

Commentary: Seagal’s pairing with rap kingpin DMX (Romeo Must Die) certainly helped to pull in a larger audience, no one expected Exit Wounds to become a major cash cow. Obviously, the moon and stars were aligned in some bizarre formation that we critics could not have forecast. What other explanation could there be?


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