Review: Seagalogy (Updated and Expanded Edition)

A badass study of the badass films of Steven Seagal, treated like they were Shakespeare.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

 

Author Vern (of Ain't It Cool News) was clearly one of those hard-edged kids you probably knew in elementary school. The kid who was into heavy metal before everyone. The kid who actually knew how to operate a chainsaw, despite being a suburban kid who had no reason to chop down trees. He also used the f-word way more often than anyone else, and, most importantly, had inattentive parents that allowed him to watch whatever R-rated action films his could gets his hands on.

This theory of mine would go a long to way to explain his theory of what he calls “Badass Cinema,”which he considers to be a solid and important facet of American filmmaking. Badass Cinema is a subgenre of action films, most prominent throughout the 1980s, marked by the presence of a particularly unbeatable, single, tough-skinned badass. Films that were marked less by their story or their theme or even their direction, and more by the overwhelming personality and invincibility of their grizzled male action star. The idea of Badass Cinema (which Vern explicitly laid out in his 2010 movie journal Yippee Ki-Yay, Moviegoer) has actually become a dominant force in the way action films are made, and, indeed, have perhaps contributed to the American lionization of tough, unfeeling brute strength. And it's all thanks to, Vern argues, the powerful action film star personalities of the Reagan era. Someone like Tom Hanks may be a huge movie star, but more little boys, I think, idolize Chuck Norris.

Vern explores this idea in the new updating of his book Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. The book is an exhaustively comprehensive study of the career of the curious action star, and traces the muscled Buddhist's action film from his first appearance in 1988's Above the Law, and now, thanks to some recently added chapters, now ends in the present, discussing Seagal's stints on reality TV, and his role as a villain in Machete.

Vern leaves no stone unturned in his quest to define this unlikely action star. Seagal, born in Lansing, Michigan in 1952, is a master of martial arts who actually opened a dojo in Japan, one of the only white men to do so. Vern, however, is not interested in a dull biography or dry interview process, and chooses to define the man through his films. As such, Vern has watched all of Seagal's films (yes, all of them, even the straight-to-video ones, even that one Korean one wherein Seagal only had a few scenes), and gives each a loving and careful dissection of Seagal's characters, joyously pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. He ends each analysis with a statshot of the various established Seagal elements (including regular co-stars, “family sh*t,” whether or not there's a fight in a bar, and a category called “Just how badass is this guy?”). And while it's fun to trek through another essay on the well-known Under Siege, and keep a playful mayhem tally of the barfights and Buddhist sayings, it's actually more of a blast to trek into the later, direct-to-video era films like Against the Dark, Seagal's only horror film, wherein he fights vampires, or his current stint on Steven Seagal: Lawman, a reality show wherein Seagal does actual police work in Louisiana alongside real cops. Did you know Seagal has been a reserve cop for 20 years?  Vern knows his badass well, and does not dismiss any of his films or TV shows, however bad they may be, counting each one as a valuable look into the constantly shifting and ineffable personality of the inscrutable Seagal. Vern's approach is similar to the way many literary scholars look into the personality of Shakespeare: a study of the man directly through his creative output.

In the later era (which is the most significant contribution to this updated edition), Vern points out that Seagal's films have become increasingly sloppy (many, in Vern's opinion, have added dubbed lines of dialogue), and that they seem to have crumbled away from Seagal's influence. Seagal, Vern argues, is such a formidable presence that he flies in the face of the auteur principle. It is not the film's director who selects the tone and shape of a Steven Seagal film. It's not the screenwriter. It's certainly not the studio. It is Seagal himself. All of his films seem to reflect Seagal's own personal interests, and not the interests of some story man working for Trimark. Seagal seems to be interested in the following: Ex-CIA men (which he claims to be, although that cannot be verified), protecting children, protecting families, martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, and an ultimate overarching sense of pacifism. In his films, he is never seriously injured. Remember Die Hard, and how John McClane was tattered and bruised by the end? This hardly ever happened with Seagal. He was always a benevolent, ass-kicking superhuman, tortured by an unseen past, but currently working hard to keep things together in his new job. He was also spiritually aloof, and could cure himself with ancient Japanese secrets. In The Glimmer Man, for instance, he has a vial of powdered deer penis on his person at all times.

His large frame, pinched face, and ease with weapons also belie an equally inscrutable masculinity. This is my analogy and not Vern's, but Seagal was the Gene Kelly to Jean-Claude Van Damme's Fred Astaire. Van Damme was thin and lithe and, in my opinion, the more impressive fighter, but there was a wiry, European femininity to his movements. Too much grace to actually thump a guy. Seagal, by contrast, knew the moves just as well, but added a manliness to his dance. It's the inscrutable masculinity that, I think, drew Vern to the star in the first place.

And Vern doesn't stop with his films. Indeed, some of the most amusing chapters in this insanely entertaining book are devoted to Seagal's side projects, and include reviews of his two records (yes, Seagal is a somewhat accomplished blues musician on top of it all), and his energy drink Lightning Bolt, which, according to Vern, refreshingly doesn't taste of chemicals, was the first drink to use goji berries, and is hard to find in stores. You can mail order the stuff online, though. 

Vern's style is casual and conversational. He peppers his work with curse words and a quiet and non-confrontational insistence that Badass Cinema is valid and worthy of study. Usually such articles of this sort strike a kind of defensive tone, assuming that the reader is already disagreeing with the author, making for an insufferable read that feels whiny and patronizing. Vern does not do this. He is writing about Steven Seagal out of a genuine passion for the man. He makes to pretensions of being a stuffy sophist or aloof scholar. He is, as he constantly reiterates, a mere fan of action movies who feels that Seagal's particular brand of kick-ass pop entertainment can say more about American tastes than any boring old sociological journal.

At times, the book can wear a bit (too much trivia in a row can leave the reader a little crosseyed), and after a while, it starts to feel like a bathroom book meant to be read in ten-minute portions rather than from beginning to end. But Vern, I think, is erring on the side of caution, preferring to include all his thoughts on the man. His previous edition was 352 pages. This new expanded edition runs to 485, and even includes reviews of Seagal concerts and unproduced Seagal movies.

This book will force you to reconsider the man, and you may see this badass in a new light, however much you loved or hated him before. If only all film scholars paid this much attention to their subjects.