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Seagalogy: A Study Of The Ass-Kicking Films Of Steven Seagal

If you buy the book, the design has a neat payoff on the back cover.Just how bad is The Onion Movie? I haven't seen it myself, but the warning signs aren't promising. For a start, it's a film based around the rock-solid brand of The Onion, the best-loved comedy site on the internet: and yet you probably haven't heard of it. That can't be good. Nor can the fact that it's been sitting on the shelf since 2003 before quietly creeping out on video this year. In the UK, they've even changed the title to News Movie, because they genuinely believe that it's a good marketing strategy to fool people into thinking that it's one of those piles of shit from two of the six writers of Scary Movie.

Up until recently, I would have added one further proof of The Onion Movie's cast-iron crapness: Steven Seagal is, apparently, the best thing in it. In a short movie trailer spoof he plays a parodic version of his usual stock character, a man who brings justice to the world through his mastery of a little-known martial art. (It's a trailer for a film called Cockpuncher, by the way.)

Yeah, Steven Seagal. Let's all laugh at the tubby has-been action star, but do it somewhere anonymously on the internet so he can't track us down and break our wrists. I used to think like that, once. But Vern - the author of Seagalogy: A Study Of The Ass-Kicking Films Of Steven Seagal - has persuaded me that things may be a little more complicated than that.

Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of Seagal myself, nor of American martial arts films generally. Asian martial arts films are a different matter entirely - from the heyday of Shaw Brothers to the crazyness coming out of Thailand these days, they've always been a showcase for spectacular physical feats. Their American counterparts, meanwhile, tend to focus a lot more on the impact of the violence, rather than how interesting or cool it looks. That's especially true in the case of Seagal: his expertise in aikido, a mostly internalised martial art, means that his fight scenes tend to involve a bit of grappling followed by the sound of bones cracking. For me, that's the point where it stops being fun and starts getting a little bit sadistic. And as he's gone to seed over the last decade, he hasn't even got his physical skills to offer any more, frequently relying on stunt doubles.

This is where Vern comes in. He's a regular contributor to what he quaintly calls The Ain't It Cool News, and his raucous and scatalogical writing style has been one of the site's strengths. (His book proudly quotes a rejection note from the Online Film Critics Society, celebrating his 'interminable and absolutely gratuitous vulgarisms'.) So you probably think you have an idea of how Seagalogy goes: tracing Seagal's decline from eighties action hero to noughties DTV loser with a wry sneer on its face. Surprisingly, you'd be wrong: there's a lot of humour at the expense of Seagal's more careless career decisions, but at the same time Vern obviously has a lot of love for the films that he considers his best work.

Most of those fall into the period he refers to as the Golden Era: Seagal's first four films, made between 1988 and 1991, the ones that established his reputation as a maker of violent movies with three-word titles (unless you're in the UK, where his debut Above The Law got retitled as Nico). Vern is actually pretty sharp on establishing how efficiently Seagal defined his characters: usually with some sort of Secret Service background gone wrong, a dislike of authority verging on the left-wing, and killer aikido skills. The latter were, of course, Seagal's USP: nobody had specialised in those particular techniques on screen before, and he quickly started racking up the hits in cinemas and on video.

From there Vern quickly moves through the Silver Era (the big commercial hits like Under Siege, and the first signs of weirdness on the horizon with his ecothriller On Deadly Ground): and then the transitional period, when it became touch and go whether his films would make it into cinemas or not. Interestingly, he notes that the last Seagal film to get a theatrical release was the PG-13 rated Half Past Dead, made in that period immediately post-9/11 when nobody was really sure if they wanted action films any more. After that one, we're into the DTV Era: an era that takes up more than half the book, and obviously still continues to this day.

This would be the point when you'd expect Vern to cut loose with the mockery, but what he does instead is a lot more interesting. Having established the common themes of Seagal in his prime, he looks at how those themes have got watered down and perverted in the later films. At the same time, he gives a fascinating insight into the ludicrous world of direct-to-video production. Films like these tend to be funded by a consortium of small investors, all of whom want a degree of input into the script. Much of Seagal's dialogue ends up being dubbed by other actors in post-production, as scripts get tweaked into incomprehensibility long after he's left the set. Did I say tweaked? There are at least two examples here of films which changed genre while they were being made - notably Attack Force, where they literally didn't decide whether the bad guys were space aliens or European mobsters until part way through the edit.

As the quality of the films decreases, the quality of Vern's writing rises to compensate. He comes up with some priceless verbal riffs (I love 'Avid farts', the name he gives to those hyper-edited blipvert montages they use on shows like Angel for scene transitions), hurls in wholly unexpected cultural references (such as an entire page discussing the work of 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid - "an eccentric, Rasputin-looking motherfucker"), and generally swears more inventively than any other film historian I know. He looks at Seagal's sporadic work in other media - television, music, energy drinks - and carefully ties it in with what was happening in his film career at the time.

Best of all, he manages to get a narrative out of all this. In his introduction, Vern talks in terms of auteur theory: "I agree with the French about the importance of the director, and that they also make good bread and were right about Iraq. But in the type of picture we're going to be discussing in this book it is the star that connects the body of work more than the director." So throughout the book, he points up the key themes that recur through Seagal's work. They include the obvious jokey stuff like Seagal's propensity for throwing people through windows, peaking with 9 defenestrations in The Glimmer Man. But Vern also notes that at a time when movie action heroes were interchangeably jingoistic and right-wing, Seagal was co-writing anti-CIA movies like Above The Law which used the Iran-Contra scandal as a backdrop. For better or worse, nobody else could have made these films.

In the last two movies Vern covers - Urban Justice and Pistol Whipped - he insists that Seagal's career might be pulling out of its DTV doldrums. The actor's got bulkier and slower over the years, and will never be able to recreate the moves he was capable of two decades ago: but in these latest films, he's starting to acknowledge that. The stories are getting darker, the characters more flawed. Vern actually gets you believing by the end of his book that Seagal is on the verge of some sort of artistic redemption - now that's writing.

Does it make me want to track down all the films and watch them? Well, no, not really. (Except perhaps Into The Sun, because the idea of Seagal taking on Japanese Yakuza on their home turf has a certain curiosity value.) But these movies turn up all the time when you're channel-hopping during an evening in front of the telly, and I may well pause a little longer in the future before passing on. That's the best I can promise, sorry.


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Superbly written and totally hilarious! A fab tongue in cheek look at the films of the kick ass master. Made the mistake of reading this on the train a few times and got odd looks as I writhed with laughter!

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