a.k.a. Mercenary: Absolution
ABSOLUTION is the latest from Steven Seagal, and his first to go straight to VOD before going to video this week. I guess it also played a couple theaters, although I have not heard any reports of anyone seeing it in one. I think this is more a sign of changing markets than of this particular movie’s quality. It’s not markedly different or better than his other recent works.
In ABSOLUTION Seagal faces a villain known only as “The Boss,” but I don’t think it’s supposed to be Bruce Springsteen. Either that, or there’s alot I didn’t know about Bruce Springsteen. Vinnie Jones (SUBMERGED, GUTSHOT STRAIGHT) draws upon his experience in BRADLEY COOPER’S MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN to play this tweed-wearing kingpin who works out of a professorial type office with globes and bookshelves and stuff, but his hobby is video taping himself in a fetish mask torturing and murdering prostitutes in a kitchen in the back of his 24-hour dance spot Club One.
Two things happen here. First, John (Seagal) and his life-debt partner of three years Chi (Byron Mann, BELLY OF THE BEAST, A DANGEROUS MAN, True Justice) have done a murder-for-hire on a whore-loving, coke-snorting gangster called “The Afghani,” (a very good douchebag performance by Sergiu Costache, who’s actually Romanian) and are killing time before extraction by having some Johnnie Walker at the Danube Blues Club. Second, one of The Boss’s victims (Nadia, played by Adina Stetcu) escapes him, runs through the Club One dance floor, onto the streets, into the Danube, and literally into John’s lap, begging for help as The Boss’s underlings try to drag her away.
John is more reluctant to get involved in this bar squabble than, say, Forrest Taft. He just stares at her coldly… but then one of the thugs makes the mistake of touching him, and he breaks that sucker’s wrist before even bothering to stand up out of his chair.
But after he and Chi beat up all those guys they try to take off and ditch Nadia. She gets in John’s car and he keeps telling her to get out. When he finally gives in and brings her to the safe house he apologizes to Chi for “breaking protocol,” and laments how stupid a thing it was to do instead of trying to defend his actions at all. He’s not trying to be a hero. At that point he still plans to give her some money and drop her off somewhere, kinda how the mom in A.I. tried to dump off her robot child in the woods.
It’s narratively unnecessary that the guy they killed wasn’t actually the terrorism funder they were told he was, or that the hit was actually for The Boss. John decides to help Nadia regardless of any of that stuff, because he hears about The Boss killing her sister in front of her and decides that avenging her could be good for his karma. “I wanna find this guy,” John says. “I wanna find him and I wanna kill him. I need to do that for my own absolution.”
You see, and the movie is called ABSOLUTION. You see.
As is Seagal’s habit since he started the True Justice TV show, he delegates some of the workload to younger co-stars. It’s cool to see him reunited with Mann, who has been playing funny supporting sleazebags for him, but this harkens back to BELLY OF THE BEAST, where they were very loyal partners. Here they call each other brothers, and Mann gets to do a bunch of martial arts since Chi is an experienced fighter and operator. It’s also a role where he gets to be fashionable and stand around posing. VOD/DTV action may be the last place where you’re allowed to make smoking look cool.
John also calls upon a younger Russian friend named Sergei (Dominte Cosmin) who is also kind of a brother to him, or at least a cousin or pal. “Trust him,” he tells Chi. “I’ve trusted him many times.” I appreciate that in this movie we really can take his word for it, there’s not gonna be a surprise betrayal. Because of brotherhood/honor, etc. Anyway, I don’t like Sergei as much as Chi, but he gives Seagal an excuse to speak Russian, which I’m sure helped keep him in good spirits.
In a way I think the conflict is really about the contrast between these two club locations. The Danube is where John and Chi belong because it’s homier, more intimate, has live musicians, tables to sit at and contemplate and what not. Club One is warehouse sized with walls of TV screens and shitty techno dance music. (I did some research and this is a real club in Bucharest. DMX played there in March. DMX from EXIT WOUNDS.)
Both clubs are frequented by some of the same prostitutes. We know because Chi makes small talk with one at the Danube and then runs into her at Club One, “just hanging out,” she says. But he has to tell her to leave because he sees gunmen coming for him. Doesn’t matter how bad it is for business in their own club, they will shoot you right there on the dance floor. You can’t “just hang out” there. That’s more of a Danube thing.
And we learn from the epilogue (SPOILER) that “just hanging out” is the life goal of John and Chi. John ends up listening to records with Nadia, watching her dance. Weirdly – kind of pathetically, really – the last shot of the movie is Chi leaving the “Massage Salon,” where it has been established he enjoys special services. So the happy ending is he gets a happy ending.
ABSOLUTION is the third in the Alexander trilogy, a series of movies where Seagal arguably plays the same character. You don’t need to have seen the other two to understand it – in fact, I would argue that having seen the other two made it harder for me to understand it. In FORCE OF EXECUTION (the most interesting of the three) Seagal plays Mr. Alexander, an honorable gangster who “used to work for the guvmint” but they tried to have him killed so he and his young partner had to chop up a bunch of feds. Now he wants to end the gang war and “go up in the mountains of Thailand, where I learned my original bad habits.” In A GOOD MAN he’s Alexander, who two years ago was a special ops guy killing terrorists in Dagestan, but now lives quietly as a handyman for an apartment building in Eastern Europe. Oh yeah, and in his spare time he chops up Chinese gangsters as the vigilante serial killer Gwai Lo.
In ABSOLUTION he’s only called John, and doesn’t necessarily seem to have the same back story as either one of those, but the credits call him “John Alexander,” and director Keoni Waxman refers to “the Alexander series” on the commentary track. So I like to think this really is the same Alexander we’ve seen before, and he’s just a dude who has gone through alot of shit in his life. In a way it sort of literalizes the feeling you get from most of Seagal’s filmography that he’s basically playing the same character, just with some of the details changed. And in these backstories there have always been blurry lines between ex-military, ex-CIA, ex black-ops, ex-assassin and life-long freelancer.
Alexander always has a goatee (like an evil twin, has been my going theory) and muses in narration about what a bad person he is and whether or not he can be a good person at some point later. Otherwise, there’s less continuity than even the MAD MAX series. He always lives in a different place, goes by a different name, is atoning for a different flashback, has different close people in his life. In FORCE OF EXECUTION he has an adult daughter and a protege who’s almost like a son to him, but they’re not mentioned in the other two movies. In this one he has memories of a wife who died in a hospital of cancer or whatever. This seems to be a defining trauma for him, though it didn’t come up in the other two movies.
One good thing about the Alexander movies that can’t be said of all Seagal DTV: they each introduce a supporting player with surprising presence who threatens to steal the movie. In FORCE OF EXECUTION it was Bren Foster, the young partner who handled alot of the fighting. In A GOOD MAN it was Victor Webster, who seems at first like an interesting antagonist but ends up on Seagal’s side. In this one it’s Josh Barnett as top henchman Colt. He’s a big guy, so it’s not surprising he’s from UFC, but he impressed me long before his one fight scene at the end. He’s dryly funny going through the motions of his job while clearly annoyed by the people he works for.
Barnett is also on a commentary track with director Waxman and producer Binh Dang. The weirdest piece of trivia we learn from him is that in real life he’s best friends with A GOOD MAN’s Victor Webster, and in one scene he’s wearing an ID badge with Webster’s photo on it. He’s clearly a smart and funny guy, so I hope to see him in more movies soon. Maybe Webster will bring him along for the next SCORPION KING.
Here was a part I liked in this one. Check out this painting hanging on his wall:
I have to admit I was disappointed to hear them on the commentary track praising the production designer for how fast she painted it. I had assumed this was something Seagal really had hanging in his home. Anyway, I hope some serious collector of Seagalogical artifacts gets a hold of it and it becomes his or her pride and joy. Some lucky sonofabitch probly has it hanging next to the Holy Grail of framed Steven Seagal movie props, the Storm family portrait from HARD TO KILL.
Like always, and especially these days, Seagal mumbles alot and seems to improvise most of his dialogue, and there are some nuggets there. In the philosophy department we have a little lecture about how “Real warriors, they don’t really say much. They just do what they gotta do.”
And he just has a funny, matter-of-fact way of talking about violence. At one point they seem to be defeated, and Chi has been abducted, and Nadia asks what they’re going to do. John responds, “We’re gonna follow them, we’re gonna get Chi back, and then we’re gonna probly have to do some bad things to some of the people there.” Which, of course, they do. When it’s time for him to leave and have a showdown with The Boss he explains the situation to his friends and then says, “I’ll be right back.” I know the dude from SCREAM says you’re not supposed to say that in a horror movie, but in an action movie it’s pretty badass.
Not surprisingly Seagal sticks to his two current action mainstays: sneaking around corners aiming guns, and swatting people around with his monstrous aikido hands. I’m a big fan of that second one. Maybe the most notable thing he does, though, is the ol’ not-reacting-to-a-fiery-explosion-right-behind-him move, which he really hasn’t done as many times as you’d expect for a man of his history in asskicking.
There’s also a great stunt where he blows up an apartment and a burning dude flies out the window and lands on a parked car.
But his action highlight is the climax, when he finally faces The Boss. In one sense it’s a universal action scenario: the bad guy runs out of bullets, so the good guy chooses to put his gun down and have a fist fight. But from that moment on it’s a Seagal specialty, because it’s a completely one-sided fight. Since Jones is a rugged looking guy and we’ve seen him in plenty of movie fights, including as a super villain, and also since he’s playing this sadist, it’s a good character moment to see him confidently put his dukes up and then just be immediately and totally dominated.
He doesn’t even get one punch in. Alexander literally picks him up and wipes the bar with him. He bashes his head through glasses, bumps it repeatedly against the counter, breaks him through tables and other furniture, damaging the stupid club he owns. Eventually Alexander says “Get up and fight, bitch!”
But The Boss says, “No. No more.” Not like he’s scared, but calmly, like he’s a man of reason, he wants to stop this madness and work something out. So Alexander kicks him through a glass barricade, over the balcony, onto a metal pole. I hope they weren’t triplets. Now that he’s impaled a torturer guy, Mr. John Alexander is absolved of his sins I guess?
If you’re not interested in the Seagalogical themes and weirdness, I can’t really recommend any of the Alexander series. If you are, but only enough to dip one toe in, I would go with FORCE OF EXECUTION, since it has Ving Rhames as the bad guy and Danny Trejo doing weird naturopathic medicine involving scorpion stings. In this period of Seagalogy, where he’s not playing the traditional riffs as cleanly as he once did, I feel like he could use more show-offy flourishes like that. Still, as you can see by my review, there is plenty here for academics to dig into. The mystery of Alexander continues.