One of the few joys of the last election cycle was the emergence of Steven Seagal as a minor player in geopolitics. Long-time fans already know Seagal as an outspoken activist (for environmentalism, Buddhism, Aboriginal land, animal rights, and, uh, the Second Amendment) who has specialized in fuzzily-politically-charged action movies, and has even dipped his toe into domestic politics (musing on a run for Arizona governor in 2014, palling around with Sheriff Joe Arpaio), but it was in 2016 that his blossoming friendship with Vladimir Putin climaxed with the Russian president personally awarding Russian citizenship to the Aikido Ace. Though ostensibly an “absolutely depoliticised act,” Putin expressed hope that the gesture might serve as “a sign of gradual normalisation of the relations between our countries.” The event came shortly after the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who Seagal enthusiastically supported.
Between his political activity and frequent ringside appearances at MMA fights, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Seagal is still pumping out movies. In fact, he’s more prolific than ever: in 2016, Seagal was top-billed (I hesitate to say “starred”) in no fewer than seven movies, the most that he has ever unleashed in a single year. Killing Salazar… Sniper: Special Ops… Code of Honor… The Asian Connection… The Perfect Weapon… End of a Gun… Contract to Kill… titles that promise so much, with a star who so rarely delivers much at all. As a confirmed Seagal fan with a substantial-but-still-spotty grasp of his post-theatrical work, I decided to dip into the newest Seagal offerings on Netflix: The Perfect Weapon and Contract to Kill.
This goes without saying, but: Seagal’s late period work does not show him in peak form. Seagal has struggled with his weight since the mid-‘90s, and as grows older seems ever more to be hiding his girth behind trenchcoats, baggy shirts, and goatees. Of course, Seagal has never been a classic beauty: tall, thick, but gangly and unmuscular; arrogant without being charming or having any noticeable sexual heat. In his early films, he’s one of those actors who is so uncharismatic that he becomes charismatic—the same way one might be briefly intrigued by a cocky doofus at a bar before moving along.
The movie business is so competitive that you need a certain level of talent just to make it past the gates. Seagal got in through the back door. As a Hollywood Aikido instructor, he was fortunate enough to have superproducer Mike Ovitz as a student, and it was at Ovitz’s whim that Warner Bros. built a Dirty Harry-esque action movie around him. Unlike his action-star contemporaries, Seagal never worked his way up the ladder doing stunts, bit parts, etc. His first film—1988’s Above the Law—was a Steven Seagal film.
He enjoyed a brief run as a Hollywood superstar (reaching peak bankability with 1992’s Under Siege), but then came the sexual harassment allegations, the mafia connections, and general assholeish behaviour. As his box office appeal faded and his waistline expanded in the late ‘90s, he found himself consigned to direct-to-videoland, where he has remained, with occasional exceptions (an Exit Wounds here, a Machete there), ever since. Seagal’s films have always been dreamscapes in which a pudgy, ponytailed asshole is treated with reverence by everyone around him. This surreal pleasure has only increased as the budgets have shrunk, his waistline has expanded, and his face has been buried under sunglasses, bandanas, and an enormous, jet-black, donut-shaped goatee.
Another consistency in Seagal’s oeuvre—even deep into the VOD era—has been its engagement with politics. In The Perfect Weapon, Seagal plays “the Director,” the Big Brother-ish ruler of a dystopian surveillance state in “America, Year 2029.” Laying it on far thicker than even Orwell, the film opens with one of the Director’s spokespeople informing us that “the state is watching over you and your family,” that “the crime rate is close to our zero tolerance goal,” and that “without the state, humanity will be lost.” She concludes: “The director sees all your hard work, and will reward all good deeds… or punish anyone who harms the state or its citizens.”
Seagal, wearing a kimono and tinted glasses, has only a few scenes (including one, I’m sad to report, in which he teaches a woman how to give a massage). Typical of a Late Seagal join, most of the action is delegated to a younger actor—in this case Johnny Messner as Condor, an assassin for the state who turns resistance fighter after he learns he is to be reprogrammed. Seagal gets two moments that might be charitably described as action scenes: one in which he demonstrates some fancy hand manoeuvres while sitting down, and one in which he easily overpowers Messner despite being old, fat Steven Seagal. It’s funny to see Seagal’s goateed face superimposed onto the telescreens of the film’s sub-Blade Runner cityscapes, and the film’s futureworld setting makes it awfully hard to resist. Ultimately, however, there’s just not enough Seagal to hold one’s interest.
More fun is Code of Honor, where Seagal is also barely present, but which is stupid in a way fans will appreciate. In the opening scene, we meet Colonel Robert Sikes (Seagal) perched on a smokestack in an abandoned factory. He massacres a posse of drug dealers before escaping in decidedly unconvincing fashion. The police assume it must have been a gang, but Seagal’s old army buddy, federal investigator William Porter (Craig Sheffer), knows it’s the work of just one man. “His service record is impeccable,” says Porter. “His skills in hand-to-hand combat, weapons, firearms, explosives… unmatched. He’s trained to blend into any city… and he’s using those skills and training to go after gangs, drug dealers, or anyone who, in his mind, is threatening the moral fabric and wellbeing of this country.”
We learn that after his time in the military, Sikes suffered a devastating personal loss when his wife and child were murdered in a random gangland shooting. “There were so many suspects the police couldn’t even determine what gang was responsible,” says Porter. But, like Paul Kersey before him, “Sykes had already snapped and begun his self-ordered mission to secure the homeland.”
In his pioneering book Seagalogy, the critic Vern notes that every Seagal movie contains a “Just how badass is this guy?” speech (On Deadly Ground: “He’s the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline just so he could piss in your campfire! You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear, without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he’s going to show up at your pool side with a million dollar smile and a fist full of pesos!”). In Code of Honor, Porter warns the police:
“No offense, Captain—I don’t think your department is skilled, equipped, or trained enough to deal with Colonel Sikes. He’s been on Special Ops missions all around the world, and usually with entire armies chasing him down… and they don’t have to yell ‘Freeze.’ … I’ve been in those places with him.”
And in an example of the newfound moralism of the Seagal universe, Porter adds, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t do drugs, he doesn’t sleep around, and until recently, he doesn’t smoke either.”
Sikes’ targets are a cross-section of conservative boogeymen. He blows up a strip club that’s a front for a drug-running operation, and kills a pimp who’s leeching money from his girls (however, the movie plays it safe—he’s merciful to the sex workers). He goes after a corrupt big-city mayor who’s hiding an affair. He lays waste to an unscrupulous TV journalist who crows “beautifully gratuitous!” over shots of dead body. (Worth noting: Seagal has always had a contentious relationship with the media for daring to question some of his shadowy claims about past involvement in the CIA. A notorious 1991 GQ profile was called “Black Belt, White Lies”).
Like Trump, Sikes is under the impression that America’s cities are in the midst of an unprecedented crime wave. In the movie’s most important scene, Porter and Sikes meet at a strip club (it’s always a strip club) for a Pacino-and-DeNiro-in-Heat-style pow-wow, which leads to a sort-of Socratic dialogue about the state of the world. I think it’s worth quoting some of these exchanges at length:
ROBERT: “I know you went soft a long time ago. But you and I took an oath, along with every other soldier, to defend our country against all enemies… foreign and domestic.”
PORTER: “So now you just kill anyone that you decide is evil? Very noble.”
ROBERT: “There are places in this country—places in every city—where people can’t go without fear of being robbed, mugged, and murdered. We don’t accept that in other countries; why should we accept that here?”
PORTER: “We also took an oath to protect the constitution—or have you forgotten that?”
ROBERT: “There’s right and wrong, and the law is meant to serve us, not to serve them. Slavery was a law, and if it wasn’t for men like us standing up, it might still be there.”
ROBERT: “So in your little world, who chooses who’s good and who’s bad. You?”
PORTER: “Judges, juries, military tribunals… but somebody has to start somehow trying to make a difference. And if you’ve seen what’s happened to the crime rate around here, I’d say I’m doing something.”
In Seagalogy, Vern makes the case for Seagal as a “badass auteur” for consistently imposing “leftish politics” on his films. “From the very beginning his movies have had themes of an out of control CIA trafficking drugs into the country, rogue secret agents turning into terrorists, corporations pillaging the land and indigenous cultures… the types of things you didn’t usually see in action movies at the time, and that you saw a lot more in real life as the years went on.” While we can mourn that Seagal’s “leftish” politics have veered unmistakably to the right, I will instead celebrate that Seagal’s ideas can still loom so large even when he is barely present at all.