This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Ponytail-sporting aikido master, guitarist, volunteer lawman, and (theoretically) actor Steven Seagal has essentially vanished from the big screen. Since around 2001ish he has worked more or less exclusively in the straight-to-DVD field; he’s got a supporting role in Machete, Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming Grindhouse spinoff, but 99% of the time Seagal prefers to be the lead actor in his movies, which leads to a major problem, that being that he’s not really a good enough actor to sustain a film by himself.
Nonetheless, there’s something undeniably compelling about the man. Perhaps it’s the air of intensity about him, this strange aura which isn’t quite charisma, this strange utterly unassailable self-confidence which suggests that if he’d never become an actor he might have made a fairly successful cult leader.
The Steven Seagal Legacy is an eight-DVD box set that tries to represent the best of the man’s career from the era when his films actually appeared in cinemas rather than going straight to DVD. In theory the asking price is £60, but in practice it’s nearly always on sale.I got mine from HMV for a mere £15, which at less than £2 a disc – each in proper DVD packaging – meant that I could buy it in the knowledge that if I didn’t like any of the films on offer I could sell them on EBay and most likely turn a profit. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t come to that though. What could be better than watching a doughy man stroll around beating people up all day?
Seagal’s debut, Nico (known as Above the Law in the US) opens with a series of black-and-white shots of the main character growing up in the US, meeting a old Japanese man at a baseball game, and heading out ot Japan to learn aikido. Then we see a brief aikido demonstration in a traditional-looking Japanese setting led by Seagal himself.
I do not exaggerate when I say that this has no relevance to the film whatsoever, beyond establishing that Seagal’s character, like Seagal, went to Japan to learn martial arts and got quite good at it. Over the course of the film itself this is really a minor aspect of his character – well, obviously he uses martial arts when he gets into fights, but the Japanese connection is utterly irrelevant because he could have quite believably learned martial arts at any other point in his career. It’s almost as though this is an advertisement for Seagal himself, not a means of establishing Nico, and that’s probably because this whole film was meant to be a vehicle to make him a star.
The relevant bit comes next when Seagal narrates, over shots of the Vietnam war and protests, how at the age of 22 he (Nico, his character, not Seagal himself) was recruited into the CIA and served in Vietnam. This is somewhat more relevant to the character, and utter fantasy when it comes to Seagal’s own life, but of course I suspect the director’s intent was that we wouldn’t know this – that we could believe that Seagal really was a super-secret agent, as well as the martial arts expert he is.
Anyway, after an ironic shot of Nixon talking about how nobody’s above the law, we join Nico in Vietnam, in a mission during which prisoners his unit has captured are handed over to a scary black ops interrogation unit led by super-scary Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva). Not only are the interrogators torture-happy, but they also seem more interested in removing impediments to his narcotics smuggling operations than advancing the war effort. Naturally, Nico flips out… doesn’t actually use his martial arts skills to stop the interrogation – instead he gets in a bit of a scuffle and then gets tossed out, quits the CIA, and moves to Chicago to become a cop, which is where we pick up the action in 1988.
At the christening party for his baby son, Nico and his partner on the force Dolores “Jax” Jackson (Pam Grier) skip out to look for Lucy Zingaro (Michelle Hoard), a friend of the family whose weeping mother explains has disappeared after getting mixed up in a bad crowd again. Her sleazy drug-dealer boyfriend (Christopher Peditto) tries to weasel out of it by giving Nico word of a cocaine deal about to go down, but when Nico and Jackson chase up the lead they find not cocaine, but military explosives. Soon enough it turns out that Zagon is pulling the strings of a vast conspiracy – with backing in Washington DC.
Oh, yes, and did I mention that Pam Grier’s character is just over a week away from retirement?
The thing you have to understand about this film is that it’s all about making Steven Seagal look cool. Once you accept that, it’s pretty enjoyable. There are some great action set-pieces, including a fantastic bit early on where Seagal, lying on top of a speeding car, punches through a passenger window to strangle a mobster. That said, there’s also a rare foot chase sequence which illustrates why Seagal doesn’t get into many foot chases in his films – he runs really strangely, waving his arms around like they’re made of rubber. It’s the first chase in this video, if you want to see it for yourself.
The problem is that the film tries to hedge its bets about precisely what sort of actor it wants Seagal to be. On the one hand, he’s a martial arts expert ex-CIA Vietnam veteran drug cop with who gets involved in stunts like the car thing. On the other hand, the film seems to want to have a political conscience – there’s a subplot about a priest friend of Nico’s helping refugees from fascist regimes in South America, and the Washington connection leads to rants about how the CIA is the cover for a bunch of criminals who charge around the world exterminating cultures and smuggling drugs. There’s even a literal sermon in the middle talking about how you can’t just trust the government but you always have to question what they’re doing in your name – followed up with a bomb attack on the church in question.
The film’s ambitions to be a thinking man’s action movie dealing with Serious Issues aren’t actually hampered that much by Seagal – he isn’t a brilliant actor, but he can handle the serious scenes a bit better than I expected – then again, this was meant to be his cinematic CV. No, the problem is an incredibly heavy-handed script by Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusset and Andrew Davis (based on a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal), combined with a cast that can’t quite believe the words that are being put in their mouth. Sharon Stone, in her role as Nico’s wife, clearly is only showing up and snoozing through her lines as a favour for a friend or something, and Pam Grier’s lines only sound convincing when she’s complaining about how her character would rather not be tagging along with Nico on his little crusade. The cast as a whole only gets animated when they are expected to be angry at each other, or pissed off at Nico.
Clearly, the intent was for Seagal to both get in some action scenes and some serious stuff in on so as not to typecast him. His subsequent career proves just how unsuccessful director Andrew Davis is at this. The film comes alive when there’s action to be had – especially when Davis finally gets around to making proper use of Seagal’s aikido skills – but the talky parts just fall to bits. It doesn’t help that despite trying to be deathly serious they rely on old action movie tropes like Nico being suspended from the force and having to give up his badge and his gun, or the maverick cop’s partner actually being a better detective than he is.
Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense that the actors in this seem more into it whenever they are expected to be irritated with, angry at, or otherwise hostile towards Seagal – I can’t imagine taking part in a star vehicle for a man who isn’t actually a star yet is an especially pleasant experience. Most galling is how overly perfect Nico is. He’s a ninja spy maverick cop who is literally loved by all the neighbourhood children – they wave at him and chrip “hi Nico!” when they cross the street in front of him in one scene. A Mary Sue main character isn’t necessarily a terrible thing if it comes with a little bit of humility – just a touch of self-deprecating humour, perhaps, could make the whole thing a lot more palatable – and if it’s part of a film which embraces its silliness. But Nico’s delusions of grandeur mean that it can’t just go balls-out crazy, resulting in a film that wants to be taken seriously but is just silly enough to be impossible to take seriously.
Also, at points the soundtrack just plain gives up and stops having any relation to the action. A climactic shootout between Nico and Zagon in a car park is accompanied by jolly synthesiser music which sometimes gets tense but mostly sounds like jaunty, happy elevator music. Very 80s, and kind of schizophrenic – a bit like this film.
Out for Justice
My heart sank when Out for Justice opened with a quote from Arthur Miller appearing onscreen, because it made me think it was another Seagal film trying to be serious. Actually, it’s a vastly superior film to Nico, simply because it drops most of the former’s pretensions and admits that it’s just an action movie – and then cleverly sneaks in a few more thoughtful scenes here and there. A tighter script helps – written by one man, David Lee Henry, rather than the small committee that put together the script for Nico, and John Flynn’s competent direction focuses on the action scenes and isn’t afraid to use a montage or two to advance the plot a bit.
Seagal plays… well, as always Seagal plays Seagal, but in this case the script calls him Gino Felino, a narcotics cop from the Italian community in Brooklyn. He’s a maverick cop who’s more than willing to (for example) wreck an enormous stakeout operation for the sake of saving a prostitute from a savage beating by her pimp, which is how we’re introduced to him in the opening scene, and he’s the sort of guy who turns up to a crime scene with his police badge pinned to a beret like he’s in the military and wearing a silly sleeveless vest, but in most other respects he’s like a tougher and less introspective version of Nico. (And also a very slightly doughier one who wears baggy shirts for a lot of the film.)
Seagal swings into action when fellow officer Bobby Lupo (Joe Spatino) is gunned down in the street by petty gangster and drug fiend Richie Madano (an entertaininly psychotic William Forsythe), who minutes later shoots a random woman simply for annoying him. The situation is personal for Gino because he, Bobby and Richie all grew up in the area and have known each other for years; coldly enraged by what Richie has done, Seagal asks his boss Captain Donziger (Jerry Orbach from Law and Order) for a shotgun and an unmarked car to go and track down Richie; the Captain complies and soon Seagal is cruising around beating people up and trying to track Richie down. Things are complicated when Don Vittorio (Ronald Maccone), the local mob boss, orders his subordinates to track down Richie and kill him before Gino does.
This is a film populated by stereotypes who muddle their way through cliched situations, but somehow it works. Seagal is helped by the fact that none of the cast are trying to do a better job of acting than him, and a script that isn’t trying to be too clever (though there are a few Seagal monologues which could have quite happily been cut). The vigilante angle isn’t endorsed unquestioningly – there’s a part where Gino’s nigh-psychotic devotion to tracking down Richie is highlighted by Richie’s parents begging him not to kill their son. Especially nice is the way Bobby’s dubious activities are revealed once Gino stops assuming that Richie killed him purely randomly. The implication is that these three kids from the same background and circumstances grew up in radically different directions; Gino became a cop, Richie became a criminal, and Bobby tried to be both, but if things had just been a little different they could all have found themselves in different roles.
But that’s about as smart as it gets. The rest of the film focuses on its strengths – car chases, fights, shouting and guns, and it leads up to an amazingly bloody fight at the very end. (And Gregg Allman singing a hilariously bad song written by Seagal over the end credits.)
Oh, and Seagal spends a lot of the film with a cute little puppy tagging along with him.
Seagal’s most commercially successful film reunites him with Andrew Davis, director of Nico.
The USS Missouri, a World War II-era battleship, is about to be decommissioned, and fifty years after the attack on Pearl Harbour is sailing to Hawaii both to take part in the anniversary ceremonies, to get an honourable send-off – and, before the ship is permanently shut down, to throw a big party for her final captain’s birthday. Establishing shots of speeches by President Bush (the first one) remind us of the political context in 1992 – with the Cold War over, nuclear-armed warships like the Missouri are at best a thing of the past, at worst a security risk, and the President has ordered that all nukes on surface ships be decommissioned.
Amongst the crew of the Missouri is, of course, Seagal, who this time is playing… well, he’s playing Seagal. Specifically, he’s Seagal in the guise of rebellious ship’s chef Chief Casey Ryback, who refreshingly for a Seagal movie isn’t depicted as being unconditionally loved by all around him: his relationship with the ship’s officers is fractious at best, and the rank and file men at best consider him irrelevant, but he’s well-loved by his subordinates in the kitchen and indulged by the captain, much to the disquiet of the ship’s second in command, Commander Krill (Gary Busey).
After throwing a punch at Krill under some pretty extreme provocation, Ryback is confined to the kitchen’s meat locker and put under guard by Krill (who can’t stick him in the brig itself without the captain’s signature), whilst all of his underlings are off with the rest of the crew at the party. Of course, it turns out that Krill is evil and is working with William “Wild Billy” Strannix to take over the ship and hijack the nukes. Of course, Krill only assigns one extremely dumb guard to look after
Seagal Ryback. Of course, it turns out that this is completely inadequate for the purposes of containing a ship’s chef who happens to be an elite ex-Navy SEAL.
A major asset for the film is the script by JF Lawton; it’s unpretentious and not afraid to have fun, but at the same time it’s actually quite cleverly put together. The most frequently repeated comment about Under Siege is that it’s Die Hard on a battleship, which is a pretty astute assessment of the script – much like the original Die Hard, Under Siege isn’t necessarily realistic, but it does a great job of making you believe in the situation it depicts, taking us inside the nefarious activities of the terrorist conspirators and showing how their plan pans out – and how Seagal throws a serious spanner in the works.
An additional dimension is added by the involvement of the military authorities, who intend to destroy the ship with an airstrike to prevent Stannix getting his hands on those nukes. The CIA angle allows Davis and Seagal to do some spy-baiting again, with Nick Mancuso as Tom Breaker, the shifty intelligence director who might know more about Stannix than he’s letting on, but it’s far less heavy-handed than the anti-CIA diatribes in Nico. Another mild difference from Die Hard is that the crew who are taken hostage aren’t helpless civilians but trained sailors, and therefore once Seagal is able to release some of them he can put together a team to work on liberating the Missouri.
What also helps is that everyone involved in the film seems to be having an awful lot of fun. Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones in particular have a great time and the villains, as do the various members of their team, which mainly consist of various archetypes lifted from Die Hard portrayed by a rag-tag assembly of character actors including Colm Meaney, who looks like he enjoys being a terrorist more than he enjoyed being a victim of terrorism in Die Hard 2, and Richard Jones who does a pretty decent job of portraying the usual all-purpose super-hacker these terrorist teams always bring along with them.
This isn’t a perfect film. Erika Eleniak as Jordan Tate is the only female character of any significance – a Playboy model smuggled onboard to give the captain a treat for his birthday. Seagal shuts her in a storage locker to keep her out of the way but she yells and cries enough to convince him to let her tag along. He orders her around all the time. She shows her tits at one point. She is very occasionally useful. In short, Under Siege fails at diversity and fails hard, mainly because it’s rooted in the assumption that men enjoy action movies and any women in the audience have just been dragged along by their date and aren’t going to enjoy the film anyway.
To an extent this isn’t a problem unique to Under Siege; most of Seagal’s films have sausage party casts. It’s more irritating this time because, if you can get past the sexism, Under Siege remains the first film in this box I’d classify as being genuinely good rather than amusingly bad. Davis has clearly learned his mistakes from Nico – rather than having Seagal try to carry the film on the strength of his acting and underutilising the other talent, he accepts that Seagal is going to be a poor actor but great in the action sequences and lets the supporting cast show off their thespian skills to the hilt. In particular, Tommy Lee Jones is given carte blanche towards the end to chew on as much scenery as he likes, which he does with gusto. There’s also a neatly choreographed fight between him and Seagal at the end where he actually manages to sort of keep up with Seagal’s martial arts moves, and I quite liked the fact that Lawton’s script puts the predictable “You’re just like me” line in the mouth of the protagonist instead of the villain for once.
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
I can only imagine that millions of cinema-goers were sorely disappointed with this film after the opening sequence, which depicts the space shuttle launching. Sadly, this is not Under Siege on a space station or anything like that; it’s Under Siege on a luxury double-decker train with an interior which looks a bit like a cross between a cruise liner’s first class cabins and an airliner. Say what you like about America’s public transport system, they clearly know how to do trains. If only they’d actually use them.
The space angle, though, is relevant, as we see in the opening scenes, during which Pentagon technicians bring online a brand new military Satellite – Grazer One, with super-advanced weapons system which uses particle beams to induce earthquakes, camera technology capable of zooming right in on a sunbathing woman as she takes her top off (why yes, we do see this happen, why do you ask?), and CGI which looks a bit like a sequence rejected from Babylon 5 for being just plain too cheap – but a mite better than the truly awful CGI stealth bomber seen at one point in the film, which looks like a black blob with a slightly darker blob on it.
The script by Richard Hatem and Matt Reeves takes its first wrong turn when it requires Seagal to show emotional depth. It turns out that Casey Ryback has retired from the Navy since the events of Under Siege to become a chef in a small restaurant somewhere, and he’s taking some time off to accompany his niece Sarah (Katherine Heigl) to visit her father’s grave, her parents having died recently in a plane crash. A nice dynamic involving Seagal not really approving of his underage niece’s wild lifestyle and Sarah being upset at her uncle’s failure to reconcile with his estranged brother is undermined by her lifestyle not really being that wild, and Seagal not really managing to convey “man regretting not reconciling with his estranged brother” that well at all. However, Sarah has at least had the benefit of her uncle giving her some aikido training, so she’s far more capable of taking care of herself than Eleniak’s character in Under Siege.
Due to the whole plane thing putting her off air travel, they’re going via rail, but through sheer coincidence the train they take happens to be hijacked by terrorists led by renegade computer genius Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) who’s out to capture two Department of Defence officials (played by Dale Dye and Brenda Bakke) travelling onboard who have the codes he needs to access Grazer One, and then to use the train as a mobile command centre as he hacks into the system in order to do a lot of horrifying stuff. (His first atrocity, committed to demonstrate the power he now commands, he compares to the Bophal disaster, so there’s your trademark Seagal moment of social conscience for the film). Naturally, almost all of the passengers are taken prisoner except for Seagal, and he spends the rest of the film running around the train tackling bad guys and trying to get in touch with the authorities to help them out.
Directed by Geoff Murphy, Under Siege 2 dispenses with almost the entire cast of the first film and almost entirely replaces them with cheaper actors, the studio clearly feeling that Seagal could carry the film on his own. This was a serious mistake; Under Siege wouldn’t have been half as much fun as it was if it weren’t for Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey’s contributions. The villains in Under Siege 2 are almost entirely bland. Apparently they wanted Jeff Goldblum to play Travis Dane but he turned the role down, so they make Eric Borgosian up to look a bit like Goldblum and have him do his best Goldblum impression. It doesn’t really work, and he keeps being upstaged by Everett McGill, who as lead mercenary Penn actually manages to be more menacing than every other bad guy in the film put together.
The weak script is another problem. Nowhere near the standard of the first film’s, it exchanges a vaguely plausible scenario and just about humanly possible stunts for meaningless technobabble and a climax in which Steven Seagal outruns a train crash. (This climax, incidentally, is subject to incredibly shoddy special effects – it’s clear the filmmakers wanted to use digital effects to make an inhumanly enormous explosion, but the net result falls so far short it looks cheap and tacky compared to the pyrotechnics of the first film.) The dialogue is also really bad, with nonsensical lines like “It sounds like torpedoes! Must be in dark territory…” taking the place of the occasionally witty one-liners of the first film.
But where the film really slips up in its diversity issues, which make the sexism of Under Siege look positively progressive. Having established early on that Sarah knows her uncle’s martial arts techniques, it pretty much never allows her to actually pull her own weight, and she ends up being just as helpless as the other hostages. An additional creamy layer of racefail is added to proceedings by regular Seagal collaborator Morris Chestnut, who’s the token black sidekick; whilst he is actually helpful a couple of times, which puts him ahead of Sarah, in general he’s an offensively lazy rendition of the loudmouthed and cowardly black comic relief character who’s appeared in various guises in so many Hollywood movies I’ve altogether lost count. Of course, Seagal’s own character is a cliche, but it’s a ridiculously flattering and awesome cliche rather than a horribly patronising one.
Oh, and this is yet another Seagal film that features Gregg Allman singing a song written by Seagal over the end credits. What’s with that?
It’s a little cheeky to slip into a Steven Seagal box a film where he’s actually a supporting actor and Kurt Russell is the lead – or it would be, if films where Seagal isn’t the lead character weren’t ridiculously rare. Having had his own star debut hand-crafted for him in the form of Nico, Seagal started his acting career as the main attraction, and until this point had never had to settle for less – and he hasn’t often since. Presumably the abject failure of Under Siege 2 prompted this.
Anyway, Kurt Russell is Dr David Grant, an analyst and consultant for US Army intelligence. Steven Seagal plays… well, Steven Seagal plays Steven Seagal, but this time Steven Seagal is called Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis, the leader of a black ops team we see at the start of the film failing to retrieve some nerve gas. The pair spring into action after Nagi Hassan (David Suchet) and a bunch of vaguely but not especially Middle Eastern-looking gentlemen hijack an Oceanic Airlines flight. In this pre-9/11 age the first assumption of the national security team is that this is a hostage-taking operation in retaliation for the kidnapping of El Sayed Jaffa (Andreas Katsulas), Hassan’s superior in whatever the fuck generic Middle East terrorist organisation he belongs to. Dr Grant, however, theorises that Hassan has something more terrifying in mind – intelligence suggests that he might be behind his own boss’s kidnapping and is in possession of the nerve gas Seagal failed to find in the opening scenes.
Seagal proposes an audacious plan – using a stealth aircraft and some hush-hush technology, a small special forces team could potentially infiltrate the plane to take out the terrorists. Seagal’s plan is approved – as well as his suggestion to take along Dr Grant to help out. It’s been established that Dr Grant’s intelligence analysis prompted Seagal’s team’s WMD-retrieval mission from the start of the film, in which a team member died, so there’s bad blood between them; Seagal brings Dr Grant along solely to quiz Russell about the botched mission, which he’s still upset about – but Grant has to take on a greater role when the experimental technology intended to get the team aboard the plane fails catastrophically, leaving the team stranded on the hijacked airliner with only half their equipment transferred and causing Seagal’s death.
It’s down to the team to track down and neutralise the nerve gas, and rescue the passengers – before the Pentagon, which doesn’t know whether or not the commandos made it onboard or not, shoot down the plane to eliminate the threat the nerve toxin poses – the upshot being that the usually deskbound Dr Grant and Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), the engineer who came along to help deploy the air-to-air transfer technology, have to quickly learn to keep up with the commando team, and all of them have to play a dangerous game as they gradually tip the flight crew off to their presence whilst staying out of sight of the terrorists.
As I mentioned, this really isn’t a Steven Seagal vehicle at all, which might explain why this film has the best script (by Jim and John Thomas), direction (by Stuart Baird) and acting out of all the movies in the box. Amongst the supporting cast is Halle Berry, who does an excellent job playing a stewardess who ends up representing the passengers’ interests to the hijackers, and whose quick thinking allows her to covertly undermine the terrorists’ plans and help out the special forces team surreptitiously. One of the best aspects of the film, in fact, is the dynamic between Berry and Suchet; both of them know that the other doesn’t has their best interests at heart, but neither wants to force the issue because Suchet needs the passengers docile and Berry doesn’t want to provoke a bloodbath.
The other great aspect of the film is the way Dr Grant, Cahill, and the commando team have to learn to work together. Despite the fact that they are forced to work slowly and there are a lot of talky bits the film is absolutely drenched in tension once they get onboard the plane. Especially nice is the way Russell takes command of the team not by virtue of kicking ass to the same extent as them, but because through his study of the intelligence surrounding Hassan and his organisation he has an advanced – but imperfect – knowledge of his personality, aims, goals and beliefs, which he is able to use to his advantage to work out the best course of action. The commandos need Grant to guide their actions, but Grant needs them to help him gather the additional intelligence he needs to positively identify Hassan (who he doesn’t have any recent pictures of) and back him up when the time comes to strike.
By creating a situation where all the characters have to use their particular skills to the best effect, rather than having nerdy Dr Grant grow up and learn to kick ass like the real men, Baird and the Thomas brothers have crafted a carefully-paced, tense, and smarter than average action movie that vastly outclasses any of the other films in the boxed set but doesn’t make a big deal of it. The subjects involved (Middle East terrorists and WMDs) might have become incredibly uncomfortable given recent history, but the filmmakers do at least make a point of including a scene where someone says the murder of innocents is nothing to do with Islam, which is better than your average mid-1990s terrorism film where the terrorists are just a homogeneous mass.
And to be honest, killing Seagal off was absolutely the right call. Kurt Russell arguably invented the modern action hero archetype with his work in Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China, and in this movie he proves that he’s still both a more versatile actor and a better action movie protagonist than Seagal.
The Glimmer Man
Seagal goes back to basics with The Glimmer Man, a film which loves Manhunter so much it starts with a similar false colour sequence of an intruder entering a family home and disturbing the sleeping family members inside, and gives an acting job to Brian Cox.
In this one Steven Seagal plays… well, he plays Steven Seagal, in his old standby role of the ridiculously maverick cop. But this time he is more Steven Seagal than he’s ever been before. Not only is there physically more of him due to a gentle expansion of his frame, but he just strolls around wearing his beads and his Japanese shirts and monologuing homespun philosophy. If film were trying to depict how irritating it must be to hang around Seagal in real life, it succeeds. To put this in perspective, there’s a Wayans brother in this film (Keenen Ivory to be precise), and Seagal is still the most irritating character on screen. (That’s a little unfair to Keenan, since he’s probably one of the best actors in this, but he was responsible for Scary Movie and I can’t forget that.)
The film has a simple enough premise. There’s a serial killer in LA who’s going around killing Catholic families and crucifying them in their own homes. Detective Jim Campbell (Wayans) is in charge of the case, but he’s been assigned a new partner – maverick ex-New York cop Jack Cole (Seagal), who unknown to Campbell used to be an intelligence agent and elite assassin, codenamed “the Glimmer Man” because he was so good at his job his victims would only see a glimmer before they died. Presumably if he was really good at his job they wouldn’t even see the glimmer, and then he’d just be “The Man”.
So, to recap, not only is Seagal more irritating than a Wayans brother, but the entire film is named after a minor detail in the backstory they cooked up for him in order to make him look really, really cool.
Anyway, inevitably this serial killer kills Jack’s ex-wife, the case ends up having ties to the Russian mob and his old intelligence work, Brian Cox appears as Mr Smith, Seagal’s former boss in the intelligence agencies and does his best Tommy Lee Jones impression (because Jones was meant to play the role but cancelled), there’s some good martial arts fights and it’s all very silly. Stephen Tobolowsky has a nice little role as Christopher Maynard, the Family Man serial killer whose work is being copied by Russian mafia hitmen, but as soon as Seagal takes him out the film declines rapidly; set loose from the structure of a serial killer story it soon ends up meandering around in a sinister world of spies and organised crime but not quite managing to scratch together enough plot to fill out the running time. There’s a pretty good bit where Wayans gets in a fight with an assassin which results in his apartment getting completely destroyed. The final confrontation with the bad guys lacks sparkle. Brian Cox’s character never gets to do anything interesting.
In short, this is a really, really mediocre film. Director John Gray clearly just doesn’t care to do anything interesting with it and the script by Kevin Brodbin leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a bit where Wayans is writhing on the floor after being knocked down by some Russian gangsters and they gloat and Seagal says “He’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll”, which makes absolutely no sense in context. Aside from that though, there’s really not a lot you can comment on in The Glimmer Man. It’s a reviewer’s nightmare: once you’ve explained the premise, there’s not much left for you to cover, because there’s absolutely no substance to this except for the premise.
Fire Down Below
Before I get into actually reviewing this film I want to direct your attention to the poster. See Seagal’s face in it? His face hasn’t been that baby-smooth since he did Nico. They’ve blatantly used a nearly decade-old publicity photo of Seagal to make the poster to disguise the fact that he really hasn’t aged well.
Fire Down Below isn’t a film which can really be bothered to spend much time setting the scene. Over the opening credits, as Seagal flies around in a light aircraft, we get some voiceovers and sepia flashbacks to establish the story. This time Steven Seagal… well, he’s going to be playing Steven Seagal as usual, but this time in the guise of Jack Taggart, an Environmental Protection Agency official sent in to investigate reports of sinister toxic waste being buried in an abandoned coal mine in Kentucky, in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. A previous agent, Frank Elkins (John Diehl) died in a mysterious accident after sending down some concerning reports, and with two FBI agents in the area dying recently it’s clear someone’s covering something up. So they send Seagal in to do what he usually does.
Well, he’s meant to do what he usually does. He starts by doing some woodwork and befriending some rural kids. They’re dumb so they think the sinister helicopters used by the evil Pollution Corporation are UFOs, and the family’s sickly because the ground is full of toxic waste. The local sheriff has a thick Kentucky accent and acts sinister. We hear lots of Kentucky accents and country music, and I start feeling kind of lost. But not as lost as the film is.
Director Felix Enriquez Alcala and scriptwriters Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton have taken the bold step of having Seagal investigate a sinister corporation dumping toxic waste in coal mines by meandering around carrying out all sorts of activities which have nothing to do with investigating toxic waste being dumped in a coal mine. I think he’s meant to be infiltrating the community under the guise of being a travelling carpenter or something, but he spends most of his time wandering around in the wilderness bothering marijuana farmers and stalki beekeepers. I mean, maybe it’s a sound tactic. But I can’t help but think an EPA agent like Seagal would have better luck taking soil samples, staking out the coal mine, observing the deliveries of toxic waste and tracing them to their source. The end result of all this is that the film feels incredibly directionless. When sinister people behind the waste dumping note Seagal’s presence and try to run him out of town, I started to wonder how on Earth they worked out that he was there to investigate it at all since he hadn’t sone anything to investigate. Except then I realised why: he’s blatantly not an itinerant carpenter, they don’t dress that well and don’t wander around mumbling witty Buddhist one-liners.
Seagal is puffier and whisperier than ever in this film, but bizarrely he seems less… present than in many of his other films. A lot of the shots involving his character (and sometimes other characters too) appear to have utilised blue screen techology to make it look as though he’s hanging out with simple country folk in Kentucky or standing on a pictureseque hillside in the Appalachians when he actually isn’t doing anything of the sort. Why the director considered it a priority to minimise the contact between Seagal and the rest of the cast I have no idea; maybe he was so whispery and mumbly during primary shooting they had to redo a bunch of the scenes. It’s probably telling that the most capable supporting actor onhand, Harry Dean Stanton (playing local slob Cotton Harry), has an almost permanent look of disgust on his face throughout the film. And to make Stanton so grumpy that you can actually tell he’s got a grumpy look on his face rather than it just being his usual face you have to go pretty far. He genuinely looks happiest in those scenes where he doesn’t have to be anywhere near Seagal.
Seagal isn’t the only thing that’s bloated though; more or less every scene trundles along at a slothful pace, to the extent that after what felt like over an hour I was amazed to find I was only 20 minutes into the film. This is a 100 minute movie which, having blown half the plot in the first minute, finds itself desperately in need of filler, which arrives in the form of a tedious romance between Seagal and Sarah Kellogg (Marg Helgenberger), the aforementioned beekeeper whose father’s links to the coal company might help Seagal solve the mystery. (But not any more quickly than actually just investigating the mine would.) You have to sit through 50 minutes of preaching before you get to the first really decent action sequence in this one – a pretty decent chase between Seagal in his pickup truck and a company goon in an enormous coal truck.
And then Seagal literally walks into a church and starts preaching to both the cast and the audience again.
It’s not that I disagree with environmentalism. It’s just that the stance of this film is very slightly less credible or nuanced than your average Captain Planet episode (the toxic waste even glows lime green, for goodness sake). Except Captain Planet is a huffy blob who does a worse job of acting than literally every other member of the cast, and the political conscience of the film is utterly undermined by the final act in which Seagal basically abandons the judicial system as a way to achieve justice and just goes around beating down the bad guys for the sake of making them suffer for what they’ve done, which is fair enough in a dumb action movie but in the context of a political call for action is just plain uncomfortable.
Also, the film has a truck knock over a pump at a petrol station, causing petrol to spray everywhere… and then doesn’t do us the decency of giving us an enormous explosion as a payoff. What sort of shitty action movie is this?
Seagal’s penultimate cinematic release as a headline actor before he was exiled to the land of straight-to-DVD for all eternity sees him playing… well, he’s playing Steven Seagal, this time returning to his accustomed guise as a maverick cop – this time he’s called Orin Boyd and he works in Detroit. The film opens with Seagal turning up late to a pro-gun control speech by the Vice President (Christopher Lawford), so he only has time to see the end. As the Vice President drives away, Seagal notices two cops in the security detail behaving suspiciously, so he decides to follow – and happens to be in the right place at the right time to foil an assassination attempt by a far-right militia with infiltrators in the police force.
Having saved the Vice President in his characteristically unorthodox manner, Seagal has severely irritated his superiors, who transfer him to the 15th District, Detroit’s most notorious and violent beat. Oh, and they make him attend an anger management class, but that’s just so they can pad out the film’s running time with a few extras who can pull off mildly comedic acting and Seagal can kick a chair to pieces. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to major-league gangster Latrell Walker (DMX) and his quick-witted and fast-talking second-in-command TK Johnson (Anthony Anderson); Anderson’s great – I’ve been a fan of his since I saw his work on The Shield but the DMX’s own acting skills… well, actually they still look good next to Seagal’s so I’ll give him a pass on that.
At first, after a brief run-in with DMX, Seagal is out to arrest him and break up his drug operation, seeing it as his way to get off the departmental shitlist, but it’s not long before he realises that the real enemies are the corrupt cops littering the force. Odds of Seagal and DMX being forced to work together to tackle a conspiracy that reaches into the very heart of the police department? Pretty high.
To be fair, Seagal really is trying this time. He’s slimmed up a bit since Fire Down Below, hacked off the ponytail, and he even shows up wearing a suit. More importantly, he holds off on the philosophical mumblings and monologues and concentrates on lurching about being a badass. There are some pretty good fights, although one where Seagal fights a pair of bouncers in DMX’s nightclub looks a bit too artificial and choreographed, even for Seagal films – they exit action film territory altogether and end up being more like professional wrestling. This looks especially bad when not a minute later DMX and Isaiah Washington (playing George Clark, Seagal’s partner on the force) get into a fight which actually sort of resembles a proper fight.
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak and scriptwriters Ed Horowitz and Richard D’Ovidio do a decent job overall. The story starts out a little slow, but despite initial appearances there are few genuinely pointless scenes and the scattered fragments of the story do eventually get drawn together into a coherent whole (which is more than I can say for Fire Down Below). The plot never veers off into the wild and utterly unbelievable territory that The Glimmer Man got into; there’s only one ludicrous plot twist involving a character turning out to have an entirely different background and motivation from the one everyone assumed they had, but for once it isn’t Seagal’s character who gets to have the cool secret identity. (And actually, it’s both genuinely surprising but at the same time isn’t completely inconsistent with what we’ve seen so far.)
Plus there’s a car crash sequence which includes a bit where Seagal avoids being run over by a car by jumping over it, and it turns out that DMX can actually do fight scenes really well. And the comedy bits actually didn’t completely fall flat. (I liked the part where Seagal’s comedy sidekick and DMX’s comedy sidekick meet and then comedy sidekick at each other.)
The Bottom Line
All of these films, with the exception of Executive Decision which is genuinely really good but isn’t actually a Steven Seagal movie, are really stupid. At first glance they might look like a homogeneous mass of stupid. However, it is possible to distinguish them into three categories.
The first category are the films that are really stupid in a way that’s actually kind of fun. These are Out for Justice, Under Siege, and Exit Wounds. These are worth watching.
The second category are the films that are really stupid in a way that’s just stupid. Those are Under Siege 2 and The Glimmer Man. These aren’t fun at all.
The third category are the films that are really stupid, but think they’re being clever – Nico and Fire Down Below. These are completely fucking horrendous.
Would I recommend this collection overall? It really depends. You absolutely shouldn’t pay full price for it. And if you have no appetite for stupidity it’ll just be a needlessly expensive way to buy Executive Decision, since you won’t like the other seven movies. If, on the other hand, you have a keen appreciation for stupidity you’ll probably like around half the discs in here.
And I have to admit, there’s something compulsive and addicting about them; it would have normally taken me months to get through this set, but I watched all of the films on it in about a week. Perhaps there’s something in Seagal’s body of work that speaks to guys like me – guys who like to believe that even though they are kind of bloated and aren’t very good at running, they could still become a secret agent, kill bad guys without consequence, and save the world, like Seagal does. Egotistical and deluded overweight guys need a hero too, and in Seagal they have one who exemplifies all of those qualities.