The Tao of Steven Seagal

Explaining the lingering career of action cinema’s hardest-working lazy man

Movies Features Steven Seagal
The Tao of Steven Seagal

“What you have to understand is that Steven Seagal isn’t about being a good action hero. He’s always about being a complete fucking asshole. That’s, like, his duty. … Steven Seagal is our hero/villain, where he’s apparently the protagonist, but he just does the cruelest, most fucked-up shit that he possibly can.” —El-P, member of Run The Jewels and avowed Seagal fan

“Yeah? Well I’m the good guy.” —Steven Seagal, before throwing the bad guy into a hallway of laser trip-wire proximity mines in Maximum Conviction (2012)

What must it be like to be on the set of a Steven Seagal fight scene in 2017? The four or five frames in which he punches or throws an adversary are shot so close and cut so frenetically that it would be more helpful to just put up a “Scene Missing” card instead.

Is he his own costumer? He’s been wearing the same backward black baseball cap, the same black military fatigues and/or camo with bulky combat harness and sickly orange-tinted, bug-eyed sports shades in every film since 2012’s Maximum Conviction at the very least. Then again, maybe his costumer is the same person who does his makeup and hair—the widow’s peak on his head looks like it needs a fresh coat of black shoe polish every couple of hours.

And, most urgently, why, why, was this man in seven films last year?

That’s right. Steven Seagal released seven films in 2016. Seven. You could count on a Seagal vehicle hitting limited theaters or video-on-demand roughly every other month last year. This relatively prolific output is not what’s noteworthy about Seagal’s filmography, nor, really, is the fact that these films are all terrible in completely predictable and pedestrian ways. What’s so notable is that Seagal is this prolific and this bad and this famously visible.

Yet, for all his fame, his public self-immolation, his widely reported predatory conduct with female co-stars and his well-publicized friendship with Vladimir Putin, I never knew or cared very much about Seagal. This is because he is actually one of the least-essential action stars. At 65, he’s apparently not going to stop making movies, though.

So join me as I explain where he came from and how he manages to be this endless phenomenon, partly so that you’ll know why you’ll be seeing his face haunt your Netflix suggestions after your 13-year-old cousin messes up the algorithms while you’re not around.

Above the Truth: Seagal’s Start

“I don’t consider myself a martial-arts star,” [Seagal] has insisted. “I’d be offended and disappointed if I got a reputation as a martial-arts star. … I’d rather make Terms of Endearment than Commando. I want to make a movie that can grab people by the heartstrings.”People Magazine, Nov. 1990

Martial arts stars have it a little harder than your regular thespian because they generally need some claim to ass-kicking legitimacy. Donnie Yen and Chuck Norris were honest-to-goodness competitive fighters. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a renowned body builder. Bruce Lee trained a generation of martial artists and could perform attacks that sound like super-moves from Dragon Ball Z.

Knowing this stuff about these artists illuminates their work, so it’s important to keep in mind that Seagal has been so full of crap since the very beginning that basic biographical details of his life are in question. His profile in People in 1990 can’t even sugarcoat it, and this was when his career was about to hit its peak. In the span of three paragraphs, we’re treated to three lies about his early life that his own friends and relations immediately debunk. He says he was a tough kid who lived in Brooklyn; he was actually frail and puny, according to his own mother, who also says he was born in Michigan and mostly lived in Detroit and California. He says he went to Japan to study under Aikido founder Morihei Uyeshiba, but that dude died in 1969 and Seagal was taking courses at Fullerton College in 1970 and another guy who actually studied with Morihei Uyeshiba says Seagal’s claim is total bunk.

This does not get to the most ridiculous claims, either: At various points, Seagal has claimed he stood up to the Japanese mob, trained the CIA, and that he is an expert appraiser of samurai swords. It is highly likely that none of this is true, but, as a 2002 Vanity Fair profile about his fall from grace put it, Tori Spelling could claim to work for the CIA and the only thing the Agency would ever say about it is “No comment.”

What we do know is that Seagal taught Aikido at a dojo owned by his wife’s family in Japan and fathered two children by her before skipping out. His dojo in Los Angeles drew some notable students, and through them he was introduced to Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency, a major actors’ agency. Ovitz took a shine to Seagal, and that was the ticket: He headlined Above the Law in 1988, starring opposite Pam Grier, and then tore up the box office with Marked for Death and Hard to Kill in 1990, two more bone-crunchers.

Above the Law reviewed okay. Its star perhaps less so: The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson had harsh words for Seagal, whom he called a “walking knockoff.”

“The main problem is that he brings nothing of his own to the mix,” he wrote. “He doesn’t have the dancerly grace of Bruce Lee or the robust indestructibility of someone like Jackie Chan; there is no pleasure in watching him move. And he doesn’t have a trace of the deadpan comic style of either Eastwood or Schwarzenegger.”

Nobody has summed up the man’s screen presence better in 30 years.

His 1992 film Under Siege is probably the closest Seagal will ever come to a prestige action film. It’s an experience, if a baffling one: Filmed aboard the actual decommissioned U.S.S. Alabama (a stand-in for the Missouri), it’s a gritty, bloody movie that is Die Hard on a boat.

No, really, that’s what it is: A quirky group of mercenaries led by Tommy Lee Jones and assisted by turncoat naval officer Gary Busey take over the ship and plot to sell off its payload of Tomahawk missiles. Jones and Busey are at their nutty best, and they’re the reason to watch this thing. Seagal plays a shipboard cook who is secretly some special ops death god. He’s the action hero of the film, but even here, at the supposed height of his prowess, I can’t figure out what everybody thought was so impressive about his fighting skill. Even his knife fight with Jones at the end of the movie is mostly quick editing.

He gets a few takedowns, but most of the time he’s just shooting things. What I eventually figured out is that people love the glory kills: Dropping an I-beam onto a guy so it punches clean through his chest, running a guy through a table saw, stabbing a dude through the top of his head. Seagal is just brutal, and there was something alluring enough about it that they kept letting him make movies.

Under Performing: Seagal Plateaus.
Seagal’s rising star came crashing back to Earth fairly quickly. He wanted his own pet project before he’d agree to a sequel to Under Siege, and that project, lord help us, was On Deadly Ground (1994). In it, Seagal fights an evil oil company, brutalizes some thugs, and then wraps up the film dressed in a buckskin jacket, giving a four-minute speech about the evils of oil to a rapt audience of Native Americans who are nodding emphatically at his wisdom. The movie grossed about $38 million on a $50 million budget.

It is a spectacularly bad movie with a few moments of truly baffling sadism on the part of both the bad guys and Seagal. Your action movie should not make your audience wonder whether the hero would be better suited as a pitchman for the environmental lobby.

Under Siege 2 made significantly less money than the first film, and afterward Seagal embarked upon some flops that mostly seemed to showcase the fact he wasn’t keeping in shape.

Marked for Sexual Harassment: Seagal Tanks His Public Standing.
We can’t not discuss this. Four of Seagal’s female assistants working with him on Out for Justice quit in 1991, all citing sexual harassment. Other such allegations have been leveled at him over the years. Some, reportedly, have ended in monetary settlements.

Besides being a pig to women in his orbit, he’s apparently also a bully to fellow cast members, evidenced by John Leguizamo’s account of him busting out some aikido on him for not taking Seagal seriously during Executive Decision, or the 1993 incident when he’s alleged to have roughed up a parking lot attendant.

All of this, combined with his increasing reputation as a hard actor to work with and his persistently poor showings in the box office eventually ruined his relationship with Warner Brothers. His last picture for the studio was Exit Wounds in 2000.

As his career and his second marriage (to actress Kelly LeBrock) were taking turns for the worst, Seagal started forking over money to lamas, Nigerian healers and other scam artists, according to a Vanity Fair profile of him that interviewed estranged business partner Jules Nasso.

It’s been an unbroken run of inessential schlock ever since he walked from Warner Brothers. I defy any film buff to peruse his filmography from about 2001 for any movie they can remember. A movie like Shadow Man (2006) is a good enough example of this long period in the direct-to-video wasteland. He’s constantly shot in shadowy interiors. His obvious body doubles do not at all look like him. Lines are obviously dubbed over in post—probably not by him. You wonder, if Seagal can barely be bothered to show up in his own movie, why he’s supposedly the draw.

That time he drove a tank through a man’s house and allegedly killed his dog and a whole bunch of chickens while filming a reality show…
I have no glib title for this part of the article. This happened. Somebody—specifically then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., one of the worst human beings ever elected to any office in the 2,500-year history of Democracy—thought it was a good idea to give Seagal control of a tank while they were filming a reality show where Seagal pretends to be a cop. Seagal rammed it through the walls of a man’s house because they thought he might have attended a cockfighting ring.

Arpaio, thank the people of the greater Phoenix area, is no longer sheriff. Seagal, meanwhile, answers to no electorate.

Maximum Paychecks: Seagal’s Latter-Day Career Is Proof We’re All Doomed.
Since his falling out with Warner Brothers, Seagal has become an unbelievable workhorse, albeit one who shows up to maybe a few days of filming and looks terrible. With the exception of the couple of years he was doing his reality show and another TV series, he’s put out two if not at least three pictures per year since 2003, almost all of them direct-to-video. I haven’t seen one scene in any of them where he can convincingly throw a punch.

He will never stop making them, because they will never stop making money, because his own salary is probably the largest expenditure of anything involved in the production. It certainly isn’t lighting or locations.

I wanted this to be a handy explanation of why Seagal is still around and why he continues to make pictures, but in tracking his career, I realize I’ve failed. There is no explanation, not in any way that makes sense in a sane and ordered society that rewards merit and punishes incompetence, sloth and cruelty toward others. For this is his legacy in front of and behind the camera. Seagal’s characters, from the “lowly cook” who is actually an assassin in Under Siege to the preachy environmentalist who beats a guy up for bullying a Native American in On Deadly Ground to the interchangeable goons on their interchangeable kill-crazy missions in his interchangeable direct-to-video bullshit features, are all just cruel—the sort of men who would, perhaps, crash a tank unprovoked through a civilian’s house.

Any degree of bone-breaking or skull-stabbing, any time he tells off some peacenik or acts gruff with some woman who is too dumb to shut her mouth (those ladies, am I right??), any of that is justifiable because he’s trying to save some trapped seamen, or the environment, or whichever poor female cast member has decided she can put up with him for the paycheck and the line on her résumé. It’s okay to do awful shit if you’re the “good guy.”

He’s allowed to sell this appalling narrative, time and again, while abusing his cast mates, terrorizing citizens with military hardware, and openly courting Vladimir Putin. Really sitting down and thinking about the implications of Seagal—the phenomenon—is to contemplate how utterly inured to shame we’ve become as a society. Pretty much everybody has turned their backs on him, but it hasn’t stopped him.

That’s the final paradox of Seagal. He cranked out more movies last year than Jude Law at his height, yet he’s the laziest actor imaginable. He puts people in real bodily danger by his very presence, yet he walks free and enjoys celebrity. He can’t throw a punch in fewer than three cuts yet he’s immune to shame, Man’s oldest weapon.

I do not understand, I cannot understand, I cannot fathom ever understanding, and either El-P and my friends who enthuse over his earlier stuff and everybody who gives him money is insane or I am, and Above the Law 2 starring Steven Seagal has been announced, and we are all doomed.

Kenneth Lowe is not pretentious enough to pull off those kung fu shirts. He works in media relations in state government in Illinois and has been published in Illinois Issues, Colombia Reports and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can read more of his writing on his blog.

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