Sunday, June 29, 2008

An education in 'Seagalogy'

The mere thought of an analytical book about Steven Seagal movies could provoke laughter, and yet I'm here to tell you that it's an essential read for any action movie fan, and a must-read for anyone who has enjoyed Seagal's works. I was skeptical about how Seagal movies could fill 400 pages (my wife even joked "Hmmm, what else can I say about Under Siege?"), but author Vern, of Ain't It Cool News and The Screengrab, presents his exhaustive research in an entertaining way that is neither overly serious or tongue-in-cheek. Vern knows Seagal movies are not Oscar-worthy, but he also bristles at the notion that they're all the same, or that Seagal is just another action star.

In Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, Vern's thesis is that since Seagal has always been involved with his films more than just an actor, they are all linked through recurring motifs (distrust of government agencies, strangely biographic characters) and visuals (bar fights, explanations of how badass he is, broken glass). Vern describes this thesis as badass auteur theory, that Seagal's imprimaturs are everywhere on his pictures -- almost like a director. Vern accurately divides Seagal's career into three eras: the Golden Age (Above the Law through Out for Justice), the Silver Age (Under Siege through Fire Down Below) and the current Direct-to-Video era that began after his last theatrical release, Half Past Dead (part of the "transitional period" that precedes the DTV era). Every movie gets its own chapter, with Vern offering a recap of the story (with welcome tangeants sprinkled in), followed by an analysis of how it fits in with Seagal's other movies, and the elements of his badass auteur theory that are present.

I approached this book as a casual Seagal fan, well-versed in the Golden Era, a little hazy on the Silver Era, and virtually no knowledge of his work beyond that. If you're like me and got turned on to Seagal during his early years, you know there was always something about him that distinguished his movies from the wave of other punch-and-shooters of the era. Seagal's fighting style (his own evolution of aikido) always looked great on screen and lent itself to creative scenes where the weapons and actions of enemies were turned against them. Hard to Kill was his breakout movie to many fans and his next two (Marked for Death and the darker Out for Justice) were of similar quality and plot, a loner out for revenge against seemingly overwhelming odds. Seagal's popularity peaked in 1992 with the blockbuster Under Siege, but when he followed that up with the preachy On Deadly Ground, it's easy to say his career was never the same. This is where Seagalogy is at its best, as Vern makes a good case for this part of Seagal's career. On Deadly Ground was directed by Seagal, and while occasionally ridiculous, it also effectively spotlights environmental issues that are now prominent and manages to find good roles for Michael Caine and R. Lee Ermey.

What I admired most about Vern's writing is how he didn't slack off during the direct-to-video era. It would have been easy to devote most of the book to Seagal's more popular movies, but each work gets equal time, no matter how generic or messy they are. And by doing this, Vern uncovers some action movie gems (Belly of the Beast, Into the Sun, Urban Justice), and makes a convincing argument that while Seagal's physique declined, his knowledge of Asian culture and occasional self-deprecating humor brought cult status to some of his DTV productions. About half the book is dedicated to the DTV era, but Vern makes it a fun ride by celebrating the shortcomings along with the highlights. A common thread through the DTV era is overly-complicated plots, leading to this line: "The plot leaves many questions unanswered. Notably, 'what the fuck?'".

Another key to the book's success is that it never tries to be a Seagal biography, it's all about the movies. When applicable Vern sprinkles in some information about Seagal's life, but the focus never really strays from Seagal's films. Vern's writing style makes Seagalogy an enjoyable read for any movie fan, and it was enough to make me want to re-watch many of the films he highlights (can't beat a Seagal four-pack at Target for only $9.99!), and possibly check out one or two of his DTV efforts.


Adam Ross said...

For such a generic title, I was surprised at how good it sounded. Vern did point out that it features the most profanity of any Seagal character.

elgringo said...

My birthday's coming up!!!