Steven Seagal's success is largely the result of a complex script selection and development process that is best expressed in chart form.
The biggest difference between Steven Seagal and other action stars is that Seagal's first movie was a starring vehicle for himself. That never happens. You know what Chuck Norris' first movie role was? An uncredited part in a Dean Martin picture. Jean-Claude Van Damme's film debut? Credited as "Gay Karate Man" in something called Monaco Forever.
So, if being internationally famous for playing unstoppable badasses for a living is usually enough to turn a man into an egotistical douche of the highest order, try to imagine what happens to a guy's ego when he gets all that fame and fortune right away, without having to go through the humbling process of bit parts and villain roles. Now, with that in mind, you might be ready to understand some of the choices that Steven Seagal has made over the course of his career.
On the Run (or Dangerous Man or something)- Keoni Waxman, the director of The Keeper, just finished up a movie where Seagal plays a recently-released convict fighting the Chinese mob. Comparing the old plot synopsis on the Voltage Pictures website to the the new plot synopsis on Waxman's site should help you understand what goes into the writing process on one of these direct-to-DVD projects. Having seen the film, we can tell you that they really shouldn't have bothered. TRAILER
Machete- Yes, Seagal will be in the new Robert Rodriguez revenge film, sharing the screen with Danny Trejo for the third time in his career.
Born to Raise Hell- And there's no way in hell that's going to be the title on the DVD cover. Seagal liked making On the Run so much that he jumped straight into another Keoni Waxman project, playing another ex-convict, but then the producers replaced Waxman with the fight coordinator from Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
On Twitter, Seagal (or his assistant or somebody) said that he's halfway through a new album (as yet untitled) with producer Willie Mitchell.
Action films in general have a reputation for dipping into the realm of right wing propaganda now and then, so Seagal's movies (often influenced by his left-leaning personal beliefs) can seem refreshingly different, or they can seem just plain bizarre, depending on how you look at them.
From the start, with his screen debut in Andrew Davis' Above the Law, Seagal has been adding his own stamp to these films. Above the Law is basically a loose remake of Davis' Chuck Norris vehicle Code of Silence. Both movies feature martial arts experts playing rebellious Chicago cops who fight corruption, and they even have a lot of the same actors, but while the Norris film is content to take on police corruption, Seagal's movie tackles America's role in the Vietnam War, CIA involvement in drug smuggling, the plight of Nicaraguan refugees, and (in a roundabout way) the Iran-Contra scandal.
Seagal's third film, Dwight Little's Marked for Death, starts off with a prologue about the futility of the War on Drugs and corruption in the DEA. Then, these themes are never mentioned again for the remainder of the film.
Seagal's politics never really took over a film altogether until his directorial debut, On Deadly Ground. (on Cracked: 5 Kick-Ass Action Movies That Are Pure Propaganda) Seagal stars as a sort of an expert firefighter who works for a major oil company and specializes in putting out oil well fires. If this seems like an odd thing for an action hero to specialize in, keep in mind that the most effective way to extinguish an oil well fire is to blow it the fuck up. With dynamite. By the end of the film, Seagal has dropped the oil company's CEO into a pool of crude oil and blown up an entire oil refinery around him. Then, Seagal spends three and a half minutes talking about global warming and alternative energy sources. It's fucking awesome.
Félix Enríquez Alcalá's Fire Down Below is the only other Seagal film to tackle environmental issues, and the environmental threat here is just some sort of generic toxic waste. You can tell that it's poisonous because it's green. Amazingly, Seagal plays an undercover EPA agent. (on Cracked: The 6 Least Plausible Jobs Held by Steven Seagal Characters) He carries a gun. He arrests people. Apparently, nobody involved in the production had the slightest clue what the EPA actually does.
In Seagal's first direct-to-video feature, Dean Semler's The Patriot (not to be confused with the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War picture), Seagal faces off against a right-wing militia group that releases a deadly virus in a small midwestern town to make a point about, well, probably something kind of stupid.
For the most part, Seagal's post-Patriot output is kind of short on political messages, aside from the sort of CIA villains and corrupt cops that pop up in about half of all the action movies that have been made since the eighties. One notable exception, though, is Ching Siu-Tung's Belly of the Beast, an indictment of Thailand's military. For a little context, the Royal Thai Army was recently in the news for overthrowing the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and they've been making veiled threats about possibly overthrowing the new government as well. Belly of the Beast is also notable for including a scene where Seagal beats a transvestite to death.
Marked for Death
Out for Justice
On Deadly Ground
The Glimmer Man
Fire Down Below
Half Past Dead
Belly of the Beast
Since one of the plot threads in Bruce Malmuth's Hard to Kill involves Seagal avenging his wife's murder, he has to run into her killer sooner or later. Fortunately, Seagal just happens to be holding a broken pool cue when this meeting takes place. Feeling somewhat angry, Seagal jabs the splintered cue into the man's chest by way of his fucking neck and explains, "That's for my wife. Fuck you and die." Then, he kicks the dude in the face.
When the time comes to take down Marked for Death's funny-named Jamaican drug lord, Screwface (Basil Wallace), Seagal does not fuck around. No, first, he CHOPS HIM IN THE DICK WITH A FUCKING SWORD, then he cuts his head off, and then he shows the severed head to all of Screwface's buddies so they know for sure that he's seriously fucking dead. This does not do the trick. See, Screwface has an identical twin brother he never told anyone about, so Seagal has to kill him all over again. (on Cracked: 10 Scenes of Brutal Violence Guaranteed to Make You Laugh) Obviously annoyed by this point, Seagal takes out Screwface's eyes, throws him through a wall, breaks his back, and throws the now-paralysed man down an elevator shaft. The poor, blind, crippled bastard lands on some piece of metal down there and gratefully accepts the warm embrace of death as he is fucking impaled.
When Seagal goes Out for Justice in the John Flynn film of the same name, that means he's ready for all kinds of wonderfully horrific violence, including pinning one dude's hand to a wall with a meat cleaver and messily blowing off another dude's leg with a shotgun. So, when crazy crackhead villain Richie Madano (William Forsythe) tries to attack Seagal with a corkscrew, you know you're in for something special. And you're right. That corkscrew goes right into Richie's fucking skull like he was a bottle of cheap wine. (on Cracked: The 5 Biggest Mismatches in Movie Fight History)
When you think of the ultimate martial arts pairings in film, Steven Seagal vs. Tommy Lee Jones probably isn't the first one that comes to mind. To be fair, though, Jones' crazed ex-CIA character in Andrew Davis' Under Siege puts up more of a fight than most Seagal villains. Actually, their little knife fight is pretty cool, and it gets even cooler when Seagal buries his knife in the top of Jones' head and then shoves that same head through a computer monitor, you know, just to add insult to death.
In On Deadly Ground, the most outrageous death is reserved for some nameless guard, but whoever that guy is, he will forever be immortalized as the dude who gets stabbed in the eye with a hunting knife and then has his face shoved into a wall so hard that the blade comes out the back of his goddamn head.
It's not surprising for an action movie villain to fall off of something and then land on something else that ends up impaling him. In fact, it's sort of a genre cliché. However, Donald (John M. Jackson) the copycat serial killer/hitman (he killed Seagal's ex-wife and then crucified the corpse) in John Gray's The Glimmer Man goes the extra mile by picking a particularly interesting way of being impaled. After a short fight, Seagal apparently gets bored and just casually shoves this guy through a window. Donald then lands on the spikes of a wrought-iron fence, one spike under his chin and one through each of his wrists, in what may be cinema's first accidental crucifixion.
In the big samurai swordfight climax of Into the Sun (directed by a man who calls himself mink), Seagal just happens to spot the cowboy-hat-wearing yakuza who killed his fiancée. In Japanese, Seagal says to the dude, "I shall beat you to death." And then he does. Specifically, he hits that dude in the head with his sword until the dude fucking dies.
Michael Keusch's Shadow Man might not be one of Seagal's better-known, better-liked, or better-made movies, but it does bear the distinction of being the only movie where he hits a dude in the chest so hard that blood leaks out the dude's back. See, in this movie, Seagal plays a master of something called dim mak, and he demonstrates this technique early in the film by hitting a watermellon in such a way as to make it explode from the inside out. Then, closer to the end of the film, he uses the same technique on one of the movie's villains. Needless to say, it kills the living shit out of that guy.
Seagal's big showdown with the Russian gangster villain of Jeff King's Driven to Kill ends with Seagal sticking a gun into the dude's eye (seriously, he gets about two inches of the barrel in his eye socket) and then pulling the trigger.
In any action film, a few sequences are going to be a little too dangerous for the actual stars of the movie to get involved, and somebody's going to have to call in the stunt doubles, but modern direct-to-DVD action films have taken this practice and expanded it to bizarre extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent work of Steven Seagal.
Now, obviously, if somebody is renting a Seagal movie, they're probably looking to see him use his famous Aikido skills, maybe throw somebody through a window or something. You know what they're probably not expecting? High-flying kung fu spin kicks. But, in 2003's political kung fu thriller Belly of the Beast (and what kind of big, beautiful balls does it take to name your fat action hero movie Belly of the Beast?), legendary Hong Kong director Ching Siu-Tung decided that there was no fucking way he was going to make a martial arts picture without the star jumping up and kicking somebody in the face. Obviously, a stunt double was required. For some reason, that stunt double was considerably thinner than Steven Seagal.
After Belly of the Beast, the floodgates were open, and gratuitous doubling became a hallmark of Seagal's fight scenes, even when nobody was spin kicking anybody in the face.
So, the laughable fights of 2005's Black Dawn (directed by Alexander Gruszynski), a baffling sequel to Seagal's 2003 spy movie The Foreigner (directed by Michael Oblowitz), seem like the result of a natural progression. After all, why pay to insure your $5 million star for a bunch of potentially-dangerous fight scenes when you can just use a stunt double for all of the fights. It's not entirely clear whether or not their stunt double looked much like Seagal, though, since the action is mostly shown through a series of close-ups of an unspecified person's arms.
In post-production, actors are often required to come back and do some voice work, re-recording dialogue that was obscured by sound problems, adding in off-screen dialogue to explain plot points, or just doing a good old-fashioned voice-over. It's usually called "looping."
In the 2004 film Out of Reach, Steven Seagal did not do any looping. Seeing as how the movie is about Seagal's character trying to rescue his young Polish penpal from a human trafficking ring and most of the plot is explained in voice-over readings of their letters, you can see how that might be a problem. All of Seagal's voice-overs, all his off-screen dialogue, and even some of his on-screen dialogue was recorded by some guy who does not sound even remotely like Steven Seagal. Trust us on this: It is fucking hilarious.
There's no way to be sure if the problem stemmed from the producers being cheap or from Seagal just being lazy. Whatever the reason, though, in the same way that Belly of the Beast led the way for other films to overuse stunt doubles, Out of Reach blazed a trail for more voice doubling mishaps.
The most blatant (and therefore the most entertaining) misuse of voice doubles came in 2005's Submerged and 2006's Attack Force. Originally, Submerged was supposed to be about Seagal fighting zombies in a submarine, and Attack Force was going to be about Seagal fighting aliens who've disguised themselves as really hot chicks, but somebody at the production companies decided that those ideas were ENTIRELY TOO FUCKING AWESOME for the general public, and the films were re-cut into generic action plots with generic international criminals as the villains. Of course, with the new storylines in place, about 60% of Seagal's dialogue was rendered completely inappropriate, and it had to be replaced. In Submerged, it's especially amusing since Seagal is doing his new bluesman accent through the whole movie, but the guy who doubles his voice makes absolutely no attempt to imitate that accent. The voice double in Attack Force sounds kind of like William S. Burroughs.
Sooner or later, somebody's going to realize that they can make a Steven Seagal movie without actually putting Steven Seagal in the movie.
If you've watched some of the Seagal's recent works, you've probably noticed that sometimes that guy with the ponytail isn't actually Steven Seagal. In the 2006 movie Shadow Man, for example, they use a double for a simple shot of Seagal's character walking through a door. Then, possibly seeing this as his big chance at fame, the double turns and looks directly at the camera.
In 2006's Attack Force, Seagal's character is first introduced with a shot of a shadowy figure who is not Steven Seagal speaking in a voice that is also not Steven Seagal. Hell, it's not even really him on the DVD cover.
In 2004, Seagal surprised absolutely fucking everybody by releasing a bland old-people's-music album called Songs from the Crystal Cave (on Cracked: The 8 Most Embarrassing Musical Performances by Non-Musicians and 5 Movie Martial Artists That Lost a Deathmatch to Dignity). Best track? That would have to be War, a raegae-ish protest song that includes the line, "You will sell us all these lies, like a can of soup."
2006 saw the release of Mojo Priest, Seagal's blues album. As horrifyingly white as the album is, it at least bears the distinction of containing two completely separate songs with the word "ass" in the titles. Best track? Alligator Ass.
Maybe it was just some insane marketing idea, or maybe Seagal really does have a strong interest in goji berry juice, but there is an actual Steven Seagal energy drink available for purchase. (on Cracked: Hulk Hogan Pasta to Shaq Fu: The 11 Most Pointless Celebrity Products) It's called Lightning Bolt, most likely because the term "Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt" sounds like a euphemism for something dirty.
In late 2009, A&E launched a new reality show called Steven Seagal: Lawman. (on Cracked: 7 Super Powers That Steven Seagal Actually Believes He Has) It's pretty weird.