Seagal Spectacular: The Progressive Action Movies of Steven Seagal

               Action movies are inherently conservative. They’re about using violent action to solve problems and their heroes are tough-talking, gun-toting independent mavericks who make the world better by murder — usually the murder of foreigners.  Most action heroes are pretty much the ideal Tea Party Voter and it’s no mistake that a lot of Action Flick icons, like Chuck Norris and Schwarzenegger, have Conservative political leanings in one way or another. But there is one major exception and he’s a broad shouldered, pony-tail-wearing tank of a man named Steven Frederic Seagal. Personally, Seagal’s an environmentalist and animal rights activist and that sort of Liberal spirit, intentionally or not, fills many of his movies. It was for this reason that my roommate and I went on a spree of Seagal cinema a while ago and I’d like to write here about our findings. We discovered that while a lot of his movies are progressive, there’s still a pretty big vein of good old American violence running through Seagal’s oeuvre that leads to some interesting — and troubling — contradictions. Oh, and these are in the order we watched them, not the order they were released.

                Marked for Death: This was the first Seagal flick we watched and it’s a hoot. Seagal is a DEA agent who gets sick of violence and retires to be with his extended family in suburbia — just as suburbia is invaded by an evil Jamaican drug gang led by a creepy crime lord and Santeria/Voodoo mystic named Screwface. It seems odd in our present enlightened times but — judging by this and Predator 2 — there was a time when America was terrified of Jamaicans. We’re told over and over again that the Jamaicans are even more vicious that (gasp!) the Colombians and there’s even scenes of some wicked goons in dreadlocks peddling hard drugs to innocent white high schoolers. To its credit, Marked for Death tries hard to point out that not everyone with dreadlocks is evil by having a Jamaican cop team up with Seagal to take on Screwface and even has a few lines about how poverty in Kingston turns people to the drug trade. This doesn’t really work, but the kooky mystic stuff, some pretty great cheesy one-liners, a cool plot twist and lots and lots of very intense, insane action still make Marked for Death worth watching. It’s got Keith David as Seagal’s old war buddy and there’s a scene where they all stop in a workshop to build super-guns before going to Jamaica to take on Screwface in his drug lord mansion. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

                Above the Law:                This is the first major Seagal film and probably one of his best. He’s a tough Vietnam War veteran turned Chicago cop who gets embroiled in a scheme by corrupt CIA men running drugs and trying to cover up their human rights abuses in South America. There’s a hierarchy of action movie villains and, in my mind, the crooked CIA agent is right at the top. There’s all the sense of betrayal that you get from corrupt cops but on an infinitely larger scale. And with tons of evidence for CIA agents being involved in Southeast Asian and Latin American drug rings, and helping war criminals like the Nicaraguan Contras, it’s a story element that’s sadly rooted in fact. This came out in 1988 and it’s choice of villain is perfect. The sadistic CIA goons who torture prisoners in Vietnam and murder Latin American civilians are the perfect antagonists for the time. In the movie’s final scene, when Seagal tells the CIA torturers ‘you guys think you’re above the law. Well, you ain’t above mine’ you can imagine him saying the same to Oliver North and Teflon President Reagan as well. Besides being politically conscious, Above the Law sports some good, well-filmed fight scenes and Pam Grier as Seagal’s partner. It even has a good explanation for why a random Chicago cop knows Karate! It’s good stuff.

                Under Siege: This was one of the ‘Die Hard on a Blank’ movies, with a US Navy battleship swapped out for Nakatomi Plaza. It’s also one of the better Seagal movies. He plays a seemingly average cook (albeit a super muscular one) in a ship that is hijacked by (yet another) rogue CIA agent and his mercenary goons who want to sell the battleship’s nuclear warheads to the highest bidder. Naturally, circumstances have everyone else captured except for Seagal, who is revealed to be a Navy SEAL and he goes about racing around the ship and trying to save the day. The rogue CIA agent is played by Tommy Lee Jones and instead of being merely greedy, he’s actively insane. It’s a completely whacky character and performance that nonetheless shows what happens when American spies go too far off the deep end. The Die Hard-esque antics are pretty fun, there’s some good one-liners, but the best part of this film is the supporting cast. Besides Tommy Lee Jones, there’s Gary Busey as the traitorous inside man and they seem to have a contest as to who can chew the most scenery. The winner? Everyone. It’s a pretty decent action romp climaxing in a crazy knife fight that has some surprisingly deep character revelations about Seagal and Jones’ characters (well, deep for a cheesy action flick), so it’s another winner.

                Fire Down Below: much more liberal than the others listed so far, Fire Down Below has Seagal as the world’s toughest EPA agent who goes to rural Kentucky to investigate toxic waste dumping in the abandoned coal mines. Kentucky coal country is a great setting for stories about a strong local culture dealing with a particularly nasty brand of capitalism and Fire Down Below tries to utilize this — but it’s not exactly Harlan County, USA or the second season of Justified. Still, the environmental themes shine through and it’s got Harry Dean Stanton as some random Kentucky resident and Kris Kristofferson as the evil coal company CEO. It is cool to watch Seagal destroy company gun thugs, but a random romantic subplot (these appear in a lot of Seagal movies and they’re never particularly good) stops it from being that great. Also, this movie has Seagal in full-on superhuman mode. He just destroys everyone who comes against him in such a brutal and violent way that it starts to make you feel sorry for the goons he’s pummeling. He doesn’t just physically destroy them — he emasculates them as well, with an odd propensity for promising the villains that they will go to prison and be anally raped. This need to make other men less manly is a rather unfortunate extension of Seagal’s character having to be the most manly man around and it pops up in the next movie as well.

                Hard to Kill: Seagal plays Los Angeles cop Mason Storm (surely one of the cheesiest action movie protagonist names around), who crosses a crooked senator. The senator’s goons kill Mason Storm’s wife, nearly kill his son and put him in a coma. He wakes up years later looking for vengeance and goes about getting it in the usual manner. The corrupt double-talking politician is a good sort of foe, but Seagal’s character is once again an invincible force of totally masculine destruction and brutality. He brawls his way through the senator’s goons, occasionally bashing guys in the crotch or threatening them with castration. It’s pretty standard stuff and the highlight is the delightfully cheesy delivery of Seagal promising to take the evil senator to the bank…the blood bank, which you can watch here : (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1O-0PEFrGxs ) After this, my roommate and I found ourselves getting a little bored with Seagal’s macho posturing. We moved on to Jean-Claude Van Damme.

                But even JCVD’s most politically conscious movie, Universal Soldier didn’t have anything close to the clear, anti-CIA message of Above the Law. (However, I will praise JCVD and Dennis Rodman’s Double Team as the gold standard for utterly insane, over-the-top action movies.) Seagal at his best offered a dark world where the apparatus of the state has been taken over by greedy warmongers and insane war criminals and where a fundamentally decent guy, who happens to be built like a tank and know karate, has to stand up against them.  He’d take on corrupt One Percent executives and drone-striking CIA murderers if he was putting out big budget action flicks today. He’d be Howard Zinn with an assault rifle and that’s the sort of action hero I can truly get behind.

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