Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here.
I can’t believe my weekend includes a brand-new Vern review for a brand-new Steven Seagal film. And, no, he doesn’t actually call it a masterpiece. But he does seem somewhat excited… and with good reason. He’s got something to announce. Something… oh, you’ll see.
I must have done something really right this week to deserve this, eh?
starring Steven Seagal
You know, there are movies, and then there are Steven Seagal movies. And you know what else? There are Steven Seagal movies, and then there are direct-to-video Steven Seagal movies. Seagal has made 13 DTV movies since his last theatrical, HALF PAST DEAD, came out in 2002. In 2003, 2006 and 2007 he was able to release three movies a year. For 2008 he already has three in progress. In 2005 he actually did four. So this is a guy who shows up in your video store almost as often as the seasons change. Which makes his DTV Era a god damn force of nature. Almost.
Personally I think he’s had a hell of a DTV run, putting his weird mark on all kinds of adventures for his secret agent, mercenary, freelance covert ops and Yale professor of archaeology characters. The movies he’s made are not always as competent as those made by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes, but they are almost always more interesting and unusual.
Unfortunately, part of what makes them unusual is a turnoff for alot of people, because it’s the weird stuff that was not intended, the goofy mistakes and shortcuts that come from low budgets, tight schedules and conflicting ideas from too many producers. For example there’s the weird voice doubles. Seagal doesn’t have time or doesn’t get paid to come back and loop lines, so patches of dialogue here and there are dubbed in some other dude’s voice. This was done most hilariously in OUT OF REACH, where we heard letters to his penpal read in voiceover by some random dude.
And there’s body doubles too. Not just in the action, sometimes just to fill in a shot, you’ll see some dude with a leather jacket and ponytail coming out of a door or something, but it’s clearly not Seagal. (It must be one of those guys the bad guys see from behind and think it’s Seagal but then they turn him around and he just gives them that look that means “just because I have a ponytail and leather jacket doesn’t mean I’m the guy you’re chasing.”) In some cases, like SUBMERGED and ATTACK FORCE, the premise of the movie (mutants on a sub, alien invasion) was changed in postproduction, so they must need these doubles, they end up with some weird reshoots and plot elements (the poisoned water supply in ATTACK FORCE) that disappear without explanation.
Because of all the producers who get involved and come up with different ideas that they want added into the script, you usually get a ridiculously murky and convoluted plot. There’s too many factions, too many doublecrosses, the goals aren’t clear enough. The emphasis is all on this overly complicated plot that nobody gives a shit about, and meanwhile the simple appeal of a badass beating up motherfuckers to achieve a goal (or as the goal itself) is left behind like Kirk Cameron.
And probaly most disappointing for many of the fans is the decreasing amount of action scenes, the over-reliance on car chases or shootouts between other characters besides Seagal’s. Seagal’s first DTV movie was THE PATRIOT, where he plays a doctor, and the climax does not involve him fighting but instead boiling a bunch of chemicals. And the fans want to be paid back for that.
ACTUAL REVIEW PART
But, my fellow Seagalogists, the state of Seagal’s DTV Era is strong. I am here to tell you that Seagal’s November 13th release URBAN JUSTICE has NONE of those usual problems. NO voice doubles, NO obvious body doubles, a straightforward screenplay with some good tough guy dialogue, a good performance by Seagal, TONS of action. You hear that? TONS, plural, as in at least 4,000 pounds of action. And that is not a joke about Seagal being fat, you assholes.
This is still DTV, it’s not gonna win over people that aren’t into this kind of shit. The music is pretty cheesy, the look is pretty cheap, some of the actors in small parts are terrible, the cover has Seagal’s head hilariously photoshopped onto somebody else’s body. But the story is streamlined (son is dead, wants revenge), the action is brutal and frequent and the character Seagal plays is brooding and serious. URBAN JUSTICE is the kind of movie we were dreaming of when we picked up TODAY YOU DIE thinking maybe that blunt title and ridiculous cover signalled a return to the old school Seagal style of asskicking. This is definitely his best movie since at least INTO THE SUN and I think most people will go back further than that.
Seagal’s character Simon Ballister is what I would call minimalistic. They never fill in his background or say he’s ex-CIA or anything. People figure he’s gotta be ex-SOMETHING but he never admits it. We just know he’s divorced and he’s from out of town. He comes and rents an apartment above a liquor store. He’s just in town for the funeral and to kill some guys.
His son was a cop, and the murder had something to do with some corrupt cops and some gangs. One gang is led by Machete himself, Danny Trejo (who Seagal put in a trunk 17 years ago in MARKED FOR DEATH). He’s only in one scene. The more prominent gang leader is played by Eddie Griffin. I know, I laughed too, but I swear to Christ that Undercover Brother gives a good villain performance. He seems to mostly adlib, and I personally think he makes too many SCARFACE references, but even when he’s making jokes he comes across as a menacing, sadistic little fucker.
Seagal’s character is completely amoral. Well, not completely, because he gives a sandwich to a homeless guy in one part. But he has a code which requires no more or less than killing whoever killed his son. He doesn’t give a shit about crime or cleaning up the streets. He calls himself “a bad man with good intentions.” He calls truces with evil gangsters. But cross him and you’re double-fucked. He breaks wrists, tables, walls. He does a wrestling move on a big fat guy and snaps his neck. He grabs nuts. He shoots a guy’s ear off. One guy he kicks in the balls 11 times before kicking him in the face and throwing him down a flight of stairs. I counted seven fights (where he kills or knocks unconscious more than a dozen people), a car chase and two shootouts (he kills more than 20 people just in the gunfights). Sorry, no swords – it’s more of a streetfighting vibe and less of the usual Asian influence.
Alot of Seagal’s characters are really sarcastic, always joking around to piss off his enemies. Not this guy. His only joke is trying to bribe Danny Trejo’s security for five bucks. And he has one of the most badass lines ever uttered in a Seagal picture. When his daughter-in-law sees him preparing a bunch of guns she says “You’re as bad as they are!”
“No,” he says harshly. “I’m a LOT fuckin worse.” Not like he’s trying to brag. Like he’s stating the cold hard facts. There’s not that smugness in his voice. There’s anger and pain. It’s a good badass performance. And yes, it’s his own voice.
The director of INTO THE SUN, a guy called mink, described Seagal to me as “a John Wayne amongst WB tv actors.” URBAN JUSTICE showcases that man-from-a-different-era quality. It shows that he doesn’t have to desperately chase the young people by co-starring with rappers, fighting off wire fu or facing down a 360 degree view of a CGI bullet or arrow. That stuff is all nice, but URBAN JUSTICE doesn’t need it. It doesn’t try to distract you with flash and gimmicks. It’s open and honest: hello, my name is URBAN JUSTICE. Remember in the old days when a movie could just be about Charles Bronson as an old guy getting revenge? I am one of those movies. I’m not gonna pretend to be whatever crap the kids like in the post-MATRIX age. I am a movie where Steven Seagal kicks a guy 11 times in the balls and then throws him down a flight of stairs. If you have a problem with that, I will kick YOU 11 times in the balls and then throw you down a flight of stairs. Because that’s just who I am. I’m URBAN JUSTICE.
Okay, admittedly, the movie is called URBAN JUSTICE. That does not sound like a good movie. There’s no getting around that. But take my word for it. You’ll try to apply for a position at the Department of Urban Justice as soon as the credits roll.
So this is a great day for Seagalogy, because the last couple have been pretty lackluster, I heard even Seagal was disappointed in them. URBAN JUSTICE is a huge leap ahead, a very enjoyable picture. Seagal has shown that he can make a good Charles Bronson type of picture. Next I think he should show that he can still make a good Steven Seagal type of picture. He’s definitely got the badass side of the equation going. Now I want to see that combined with those weird touches, those quirks of personality that you wouldn’t see in a Charles Bronson movie, or a Van Damme, or a Snipes, or anybody else, because only Steven Seagal would do them. Consider this equation: the brutality of OUT FOR JUSTICE + the heart on its sleeve earnestness of ON DEADLY GROUND = the future of cinema.
Alot of you know I’ve been working on a book that would analyze all of Seagal’s movies, blow the lid off of film criticism forever, force all other film critics to retire in shame, etc. I started more than 5 years ago, after getting good reactions to some Seagal reviews I wrote here and wanting an excuse to take a closer look at the connections between all those movies. It started as an interest and sort of grew into an obsession. I just thought it would be funny to take the time to do it, but the movies when watched as a whole body of work and really examined turned out to be even more interesting than I suspected. One problem though: the force of nature thing. He keeps doing these DTV movies, when do I stop? I decided to cut it off after FLIGHT OF FURY and call it the first 25 films. That seemed like a good round number.
So of course the day after I decided the manuscript was 100% finished somebody hooked me up with the URBAN JUSTICE screener. And I had to include it because it gave the book a happy ending. Finally a new Seagal picture in the tradition of OUT FOR JUSTICE, which is still Seagal’s most badass movie in my opinion. People make fun of Seagal for his size and age, but I happen to think it suits him well these days. I prefer a Lee Marvin or a Charles Bronson to the shaven and oiled babies they put in action movies today. I want a guy with a face like a beaten up old shoe, a guy who has been kicked around, whose hard times have left tracks on his forehead. More than ever before the broken-in Seagal fits this role, because he’s the grieving father of an adult. And we can guess more about him from the tired look in his eyes than the innuendo made about his past.
Well, now I’m happy to announce that my book SEAGALOGY is finally available at this link. In the book I go through every Seagal picture in chronological order and analyze them in even more obsessive detail than I do here, finding their common themes and trying to compute what it’s all about. I also examine his two albums, his energy drink, notable TV appearances, even his cameo in Billy Crystal’s MY GIANT. Yes, I watched MY GIANT. That is the kind of serious discipline and sacrifice that was put into this project. That thing is 103 minutes long.
I hope it’s an enjoyable book that will make you laugh, but I also hope you know by now that I’m serious about this Seagalogy shit. It’s not some smug ironic wackiness like people try to pull with Chuck Norris. I honestly hope I have come up with some new insights and will change some people’s perception of Seagal’s movies. If not, at least I wrote the first book to discuss Seagal’s appearance on The Celebrity Guide To Wine. (Well, only in an appendix.)
To show that this is real cinema I got an acclaimed director to write the introduction. David Gordon Green, director of GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, UNDERTOW and the upcoming SNOW ANGELS and THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a fellow Seagalogist and also happens to have a movie with a Criterion Edition. I wonder if he could help get a Criterion Edition of ON DEADLY GROUND? I should ask.
Also, I think alot of you are gonna be really thrilled to hear that I wrote it in Word with the automatic spell correcting on, so “alot” is always spelled as two words. So merry Christmas to you.
Anyway, if you would like to learn more or compare your Seagalogical theories to mine and write your own rebuttal book, consider checking out SEAGALOGY. As for URBAN JUSTICE, don’t even bother with the considering, you NEED to see that shit.
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34507