The Movies of 1994: Interview With a Seagalogist

In the year 1994, the movies were great. Greater than usual. Blockbuster or indie, rom-com or action thriller, there was something indelible about so many of them. Throughout 2014, Grantland will look back at some of the most memorable, beloved, and baffling releases of that magical time. Today: Rafe Bartholomew lobs questions at ESPN Steven Seagal expert Brian Campbell about Seagal movies, including 1994’s On Deadly Ground.

Saturday night in Los Angeles, a couple hundred people packed a local art-house and repertory film theater called Cinefamily for a night of gloriously lowbrow entertainment. It was a Steven Seagal marathon — four consecutive films — starting around 5 p.m. and ending well after midnight. As if these details wouldn’t be enticing enough to “Movies for Guys Who Like Movies” boneheads like me, the organizers sweetened the pot by convincing Seagalogy author Vern, who had never made a public appearance before Saturday, to curate and host the event.

I attended, of course, but Vern was so swamped with admirers during the breaks between films that it was hard to engage him in the kind of deep, Seagalogical dialectic I’d hoped to. There was really only time for a quick “I love your work” compliment and maybe a “Superior attitude, superior state of mind” joke. So when I got home in the middle of the night, I was still pumped from eight hours of bone-crushing aikido and the world’s most iconic ponytail. I had to contact my favorite amateur Seagalogist, Brian Campbell, who works in Bristol as an editor on the ESPN.com Boxing page and who co-hosts the web series “Making the Rounds.” We’re going to take this one movie at a time.

Hard to Kill (1990)

Synopsis: Seagal plays detective Mason Storm, who runs afoul of corrupt politician Vernon Trent and his army of crooked LAPD henchmen. Trent’s hit men break into Storm’s house while the detective and his wife are enjoying some ponytail-fondling foreplay, and they shotgun blast the couple to kingdom come. The wife dies, but Storm survives and spends seven years in a coma. When he wakes up, his nurse (played by Seagal’s real-life wife at the time, Kelly LeBrock), helps him escape more assassins at the hospital. They hide in lovely Ojai, California, while Storm regains his strength. Then he returns to L.A. and kills pretty much everyone.

Non-essential scene that might be better than everything else in the movie: Before Storm emerges from his coma, Nurse Stewart brings him some “pussy.”

“WTF, this actor/actress is in this movie?!?!” cameo: Dean Norris, a full 18 years before he became ASAC Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad, played one of the corrupt cops in Hard to Kill. Seagal shoots him several times in the chest.

Question for the Seagalogist: Is the training scene in this movie, where post-coma Storm is rebuilding his strength, the saddest training montage ever put to film? This is the proud sub-genre that includes Rocky pounding sides of beef, Rocky running up the Philly art museum steps, Rocky chasing chickens, Rocky racing Apollo on the beach, Rocky and Apollo hugging it out, Rocky hoisting nets full of boulders and scrambling up snow-covered mountains in Soviet Russia, and Rocky brooding in his sports car to “No Easy Way Out.” Yet all we get from Seagal is him struggling to bench the 45-pound bar, meekly flapping some tiny dumbbells, poking a tree with a stick, jogging up a hill with tiny little unathletic strides and his T. rex arms flapping in front of him, throwing very weak arm punches at a piece of wood, and performing acupuncture on his legendarily unimpressive physique, then affixing little smoldering crack rocks to the acupuncture needles.

Answer from the Seagalogist: First of all, I’m amazed you could watch Hard to Kill and not have your first snarky response be about Storm’s absurd coma beard. I’ve seen more believable facial hair in the stands at Brian Wilson bobblehead night. Your point on training montages is well taken, but in some ways, the impact of this scene plays so perfectly into why Seagal was such a unique leading man. He was the antithesis of the “muscles and machine guns” look inspired by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but he won over fans with the low-budget grit of his best films. He also happened to have the fastest hands in human history and a knack for breaking bones in gratuitous fashion. Turning 36 before he headlined his first film, Seagal was as unlikely an action star as we’ve ever seen. Along with no prior acting experience and a lack of depth or range, Seagal had something else standing in the way of his potential long-term success: unrivaled arrogance and a stunning lack of self-awareness. (Why else would he so willingly engage in onscreen foot chases when it’s embarrassingly clear he runs like this?) That, mixed with maniacal pursuit of creative control, helped make Seagal so successful and ultimately led to his rapid undoing.

No one in the history of the free world takes himself more seriously than Seagal does, even today. So we might assume that Seagal approved Hard to Kill’s embarrassing training montage. But here’s the thing: Seagal has derided this film from the very beginning after feuding with director Bruce Malmuth. Seagal earned a producer’s credit on all of his first seven films except Hard to Kill, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the worst of the bunch. The film lacks a credible villain to provide the illusion that Seagal ever faced real danger. Senator Trent not only looks like he could be the love child of Mark Price and Steve Kerr, he doesn’t even get killed in the final scene. Hard to Kill retains the mantle as arguably Seagal’s most iconic movie, and casual fans often cite it as their favorite Seagal film, but that’s probably just because it contains the legendary liquor store fight scene and Seagal’s famous “blood-bank” one-liner.

Yet there’s something poetic to Seagal’s fate. For my money, he’s the most underrated action star in action movie history, and he’s best remembered for the film he hated most. So, yes, I blame all of the above for his incredibly lame training montage. [Facepalm.]

Out for Justice (1991)

Synopsis: Seagal plays Gino Felino, a Brooklyn kid who grew up to be a Brooklyn cop. Gino’s partner Bobby is gunned down by Richie Madano, an ultraviolent crack-smoking wannabe wise guy who sports the same haircut as Moe from The Three Stooges. Gino sets out to find Richie and exact stab-your-brain-with-a-corkscrew-type vengeance, and along the way he liquidates roughly 40 percent of the population of the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights neighborhoods.

Non-essential scene that might be better than everything else in the movie: Sweet Jesus, there are so many. The scene in which Gino puts a meat cleaver through an assailant’s hand while taking out a gaggle of thugs in a butcher shop is tempting  because it includes the line “They’ll cut him a new ass,” whatever that means. But really, nothing can contend with Out for Justice‘s first scene, in which Gino throws a pimp headfirst through a windshield, then director John Flynn’s camera shoots Seagal through the hole in that shattered glass for the film’s opening titles.

“WTF, this actor/actress is in this movie?!?!” cameo: For reasons I can’t explain and choose to leave unexamined, I was more shocked to see Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior from The Sopranos) as Richie Madano’s grief-stricken father than I was to see Julianna Margulies as Richie’s terrorized girlfriend or John Leguizamo as some kid in an alley whom Richie robs for coke and then murders.

Question for the Seagalogist: I feel like Chris Farley after the deer destroys David Spade’s car in Tommy Boy: That … was … awesome! Is this film Steven Seagal’s Commando? His flawless, pure action movie that remains underrated because it’s not his crossover hit, Under Siege, and it doesn’t have the insane coma plotline of Hard to Kill or the twin Rastafarian villains of Marked for Death to make it stick out in fans’ memory?

Answer from the Seagalogist: Heck of a reference there, Rafe, my Padawan learner of all things Seagal. (For the record, I had considered the title of “Seagalian Training Disciple” for you until I envisioned your business cards reading: “Rafe Bartholomew, STD.”) Even by the outrageous standards of ’80s action movies, Commando stands out as the most epic and perfect one of all. It’s outlandish and cheesy, yet SO DAMN COOL. And even though you might be able to name a Schwarzenegger flick you think is slightly better, if Commando is not your outright favorite, you’ve exposed yourself as a “movie fan” and not an “action movie fan.”

Out for Justice is the same way. While no Seagal film has ever topped the brilliant and dark masterpiece that is 1990’s Marked for Death, OFJ comes astonishingly close and remains more fun to rewatch. That’s because it’s a comic book come to life with one quick-hitting, gratuitously violent scene after another. And it’s friggin’ awesome. As you mentioned, the opening scene sets the tone like almost none before it. But the crown jewel of Out for Justice is the pound-for-pound king of Seagal fight scenes — the pool hall brawl, which provided us with the all-time great line (in Seagal’s bizarre attempt at a Brooklyn accent), “Anyone know why Richie did Bobby Lupo?” Seagal was never more Seagal than during the pool hall scene, using a cue ball tucked inside a handkerchief to dismantle an entire room full of Mafia henchmen with names like ”Tattoo” and “Sticks.”

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

Synopsis: Seagal plays professional chef/retired Navy SEAL Casey Ryback, who is taking his teenage niece from Denver to California by train. That train also happens to be where renegade former government contractor and evil genius Travis Dane plans to stage the remote hijacking of a satellite weapon he developed. The satellite, Grazer One, can target any spot on earth and make a catastrophic earthquake happen there. Ryback, naturally, figures out a way save his niece and nearly all of the hostages, kill Dane and his mercenaries, and then jump to safety out the back of the train while it is exploding, derailing, and falling off a bridge.

Non-essential scene that might be better than everything else in the movie: The narrative coherence of Under Siege 2 felt a bit disorienting after the free-form storytelling of the first two movies, in which nothing made much sense and the through line was just Seagal snapping arms in half. Still, there are some great random moments in Dark Territory, notably this primal RYBACK!!! scream unleashed by head mercenary Marcus Penn, who moments before had expressed disappointment that he wouldn’t get to go toe-to-toe with Ryback, whom he thought was no longer on the train. Then, when Ryback returns:

“WTF, this actor/actress is in this movie?!?!” cameo: Honorable mentions go to another future Breaking Bad star, Jonathan Banks (who played Mike Ehrmantraut on the show), and Morris Chestnut, who plays Ryback’s minority sidekick and somehow manages to not die, but nothing tops 16-year-old Katherine Heigl as Ryback’s saucy niece.

Question for the Seagalogist: Three films in, I’m starting to notice a pattern. Why must every Seagal fight be a blowout? Hardly anyone ever lands a shot against him. He’ll take a flesh wound from a bullet somewhere in the middle of a movie, but besides staining his shirt, it never affects him, and in hand-to-hand combat he’s untouchable. The makers of Under Siege 2 go through great pains to establish Marcus Penn as a legitimate badass, but being Seagal’s toughest opponent only earns him the distinction of getting shellacked for an extra 30 seconds. Van Damme had to drag his ass off the Kumite mat and fight blind to beat Chong Li in Bloodsport; he had to absorb glass-crusted body shots to avenge his brother’s death in Kickboxer; and he fought back from the brink of death to beat Attila in Lionheart. (Yes, I’m a Van Dammage fanboy, but Arnold also had his hands full with the Predator, and so on.) Does Seagal lose points for facing weaker opposition?

Answer from the Seagalogist: Even for a Seagal apologist, this gripe remains unavoidable. On one hand, Seagal’s defensive style, similar to boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s, is designed for one-sided domination and built upon the premise of using opponents’ aggression against them. In that sense, both Seagal and Mayweather have a way of making it look easier than it actually is. But it’s fair to say that both have benefited from some selective matchmaking. In Under Siege 2, outside of the universal law that nobody beats Casey Ryback in the kitchen, the movie did spend an inordinate amount of time building up Marcus Penn as a formidable villain, only to see him have his neck snapped after absorbing nearly 50 consecutive unanswered strikes at close range. But, dude, don’t forget, this is Casey “F-ing” Ryback we are talking about.

Jokes aside, it’s interesting that curators of the Seagalogy marathon would choose to show Under Siege 2 rather than the original. Under Siege was Seagal’s first blockbuster. It had a real director (Andrew Davis, who also made The Fugitive and Above the Law) and a pair of well-known villains (Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey). Like Metallica joining forces with producer Bob Rock to produce their self-titled 1991 album that launched the band to crossover success, this was Seagal’s all-in moment. And it was a huge success. The movie reined in Seagal’s eccentricity just enough without losing his magnetic, wackadoo essence. Under Siege 2 was the studio’s attempt to recoup expenses and rehab Seagal’s brand after the disaster that was On Deadly Ground (more on that later). The film marked a return to what made Seagal so appealing as an action star — his unique style of beating the crap out of people — and it has arguably become his most underappreciated film. Sadly, it was also the last time we would see Seagal at his peak.

This was Bo Jackson shattering his hip against the Cincinnati Bengals. Even though Seagal suffered no injuries while filming Dark Territory, he would never be the same. Seagal’s seven-film run from Above the Law through Under Siege 2 was as good as action gets, and it was certainly enough to earn him greater consideration for the Action Hero Championship Belt. Seagal’s career after Under Siege 2 has been one endless, uninterrupted free fall. Sure, there have been minor comebacks and flashes of what made him great, but he became the action equivalent of Willie Mays in a Mets jersey or Patrick Ewing as a SuperSonic. Only it has been playing out like this for nearly 20 years now.

On Deadly Ground (1994)

Synopsis: Seagal plays Forrest Taft, a Native Alaskan with a CIA/NSA/not-quite-sure past who now specializes in putting out oil rig fires for energy corporation Aegis. When Taft discovers that Aegis has been putting the bottom line ahead of environmental safety, he confronts his bosses and they try to blow him up. Taft gets injured in the explosion, spends some time recuperating in the snow with a group of very spiritual locals, then returns to Aegis headquarters to kill everyone (especially the CEO, who is played by Michael Caine and 15 gallons of Just for Men).

Non-essential scene that might be better than everything else in the movie: This riff by the guy who played the asshole Gunnery Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

“WTF, this actor/actress is in this movie?!?!” cameo: Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a good ol’ boy mercenary whom Seagal kills with a bomb.

Question for the Seagalogist: WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT? I started my day watching a pimp get thrown headfirst through a windshield and then ended with nonsense metaphors about mice and hawks and ravens and bears and a 10-minute bootleg TED talk about global warming. What just happened?

Answer from the Seagalogist: There are many within the Seagal fraternity who call On Deadly Ground the Holy Grail of Seagalism. They look past the film’s incoherent plot and its muddled environmentalist message to praise it as a distillation of pure Seagal. After six years of building his brand and angling himself into position to make his cinematic labor of love, Seagal finally obtained near-complete creative control with On Deadly Ground. He was producer, director, and headlining star. Remember when John Lennon finally broke free from the Beatles and released a trio of experimental solo records that weren’t actually music but just a haunting collection of sounds passed off as art? In a way, that was On Deadly Ground, only in place of Lennon providing Yoko Ono with a platform to sing, this movie was a tour de force for Seagal’s fascination with Native American culture and his Sierra Club politics. Don’t get me wrong: Both are worthy causes. It just turned out that Seagal wasn’t the most effective advocate (file that under “most outrageous understatements”).

On Deadly Ground might be an even bigger train wreck than the one at the end of Under Siege 2. (It achieved the rare feat of a zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) In a movie littered with painfully self-indulgent moments, three in particular stand above the rest:

1. The unforgivably lame fight scene in which Seagal defeats an oafish bully in the hand-slap game, then asks, “What does it take to change the essence of man?” To which the defeated giant, with tears in his eyes, replies, “I need time to change.”

2. The coda to the film, a nearly four-minute speech about preserving the environment that feels like 15 minutes on the screen. Seagal’s argument holds up surprisingly well, but as a pitchman he’s no Al Gore.

3. I don’t even know how to properly explain what happens in the middle of this film. Seagal has a spiritual vision in which he wrestles (and kills) a bear and eventually emerges from underwater in slow motion amid interspersing scenes of topless Native Alaskan women dancing and blowing into each other’s faces Lance Stephenson–style.

So if Seagal’s run at the top ended after Under Siege 2, then On Deadly Ground was the harbinger of his career doom. The film will always leave me wondering if his career fell apart because he lost touch with his audience and was blinded by his ego and pretensions, or if On Deadly Ground and the multiple direct-to-video re-creations that followed it were the only projects Seagal ever wanted to make, as a way to share his message with the world. That last sentence is absurd, but so is Steven Seagal. That’s why we love him.

Brian Campbell (@BCampbellESPN) is an editor and contributing boxing writer for ESPN.com. He is also the co-host of the weekly boxing web series “Making the Rounds.”

Filed Under: 1994, Movies, Steven Seagal, Action Films, Action Stars, dean norris, Katherine Heigl, Billy Bob Thornton, The Movies of 1994