Sunday, May 11, 2008

Anatomy of an Action Hero

"I also cook."

It seems almost inconceivable that Steven Seagal was once a Big Star. A star who could open a movie, propel it's Box Office takings upwards by millions by virtue of his presence. Of course, this state of affairs didn't last very long. But briefly, in 1992, say, when "Under Siege" made more than $150 Million at the American Box Office, Seagal was a star.

He may be the only Movie Star who ever reached stardom wearing a ponytail. Ponytails are not good. Ponytails are lame. They are named after baby horses for just this reason. Otherwise they would be called "broncotails" or "mustangtails". But no, they are named ponytails. Seagal was defined by his ponytail for a while. When he first emerged, making his relatively low-budget action thrillers in the late 80s and early 90s, the 2nd rate action market was a crowded place. Proper movie actors made occasional forays into the genre, holding guns in the hopes they could be the next Bruce Willis. Tom Berenger, Patrick Swayze, Jeff Bridges - they were getting roles that should have gone to ex-Martial arts instructors, dammit. And the competition within the genre itself was fierce - successful white bread dullards like Michael Dudikoff were interchangeable - they could high-kick and they couldn't act. This put Seagal at a major disadvantage, since he couldn't even really high-kick. He had the inability to act down, though. He looked around and saw that some of the other up-and-coming action stars had gimmicks. Jean Claude Van Damme was foreign, short and quite camp. Brandon Lee's dad was some famous dead guy. Dolph Lundgren was foreign, enormous, and an even worse actor than the genre demanded. Seagal? He had...a ponytail.

An argument could be made that by sporting such a hairstyle - and such an ostentatious one, at that - Seagal was attempting to deconstruct the genre itself. Ponytails had been mainly the preserve of the villains in action movies until then. And not just the villains, but the villain's henchmen. The third guy on the left, holding the UZI, he might have had a ponytail just so that when Arnie or Sly shot him or broke his neck with a beautifully timed motion later on, the audience would mentally tick him off as dead : ok, ponytail guy - gone. Heroes generally opted for mullets instead. Mullets are wilder, less sleazy, more unreconstructed. Seagal couldn't pull off a proper mullet, I feel. He seems too oily. But by adopting the hairstyle of the villain, Seagal made a bold declaration of his ambiguous screen, I can't make that argument. He had a ponytail. He probably thought it looked cool. He was wrong, the berk.

Somehow the ponytail gimmick worked, anyway. Alright, so he could do martial arts. But his chosen form - aikido - is perhaps the least visually exciting of any martial art, and the least cinematic. Part of the appeal of the action scenes in the Bourne films is the use of Filipino Martial art Kali/Eskrima, which, when staged properly, is a thrilling blur of motion, of improvised strikes, blocks and weapon choices. Aikido is a grappling art. Its all about redirecting energy. So you watch Jet Li in a fight scene and you're liable to see a man leap through the air in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity, you will see him dance through a series of moves with a grace and power which seems impossible. All the while punching and kicking bad guys in the face. Seagal? Oh, he throws blokes over his hip.

Here you come, fancy some, do you? Eh? Eh? Lets have it. Uuuuup - and over. That'll teach ya.

Obviously its not quite that simple. He punches people, uses lots of painful-looking holds, and is not above resorting to weapons in his battles against evil. Effort is made to ensure these fight scenes work as cinematic spectacle. But basically they all come down to the same thing. Him lumbering around, throwing people against walls, making bad jokes afterwards. In his biggest hit, he strolls around the hijacked aircraft carrier and blows things up. Occasionally he engages in a gun battle. The odd time he'll grapple and maybe punch a guy just to up the adrenaline levels. But he never seems bothered, really. As an actor, pain, fear, concern - they are all beyond him. He has three expressions. Neutral, which he wears throughout 95% of his films. Smiling, which flickers creepily into view in some concluding scenes, and sometimes when he is "flirting" with a leading lady. Though mostly while flirting he maintains the neutral expression, a dead-eyed stare which is terrifying in this context and makes him come across as a ponytailed stalker of some sort. His last expression is a crinkling of the eyes, used to signify disdain or scorn or disgust. He is always self-righteous in his work, you see. Only Seagal among modern action stars would contemplate starring in and directing "On Deadly Ground", an environmentally-themed action movie (Seagal saves Inuits from evil Oil company men led by Michael Caine, slumming it big time) which features a five minute address by the actor at the end of the film delivered direct to camera on the evils of Big Oil.

He doesn't like to lose, either. This, combined with the fact that he's always so cool and unbothered, no matter how terrible his situation, conspires to rob his films of any tension. Its as if they don't even attempt to manufacture suspense, as if they're saying "c'mon, this is a Seagal film, you know he'll win out eventually." But there's really no eventually. He always wins. In all the little fights and skirmishes on the way through his films, he wins them all. Nobody gets the better of him. David Carradine reportedly used to insist on never losing a fight in a film - though I seem to remember him losing to Mel Gibson in "Bird on a Wire" and Uma Thurman beats him in "Kill Bill 2" as well - and it appears Seagal has similar habits. He allegedly became hysterical when due to film his death scene for "Executive Decision" and only the threat of legal action persuaded him to shoot the scene. You would think he would realise that he just couldn't compete in a movie with Kurt Russell, an action star who can actually, you know, act, but nope. He just couldn't see how his death would improve any movie.

Another strike against him. He has absolutely no facility with a one-liner. Of course, Bruce Willis is the king of the action movie one-liner. His timing and tone are generally perfect. Combined with his regular joe persona its what makes him such a likeable, sympathetic protagonist. But Seagal, on the rare occasion when one of the scripts he gets has a good joke for him to wring some chuckles from, he messes it up. Part of it is his voice. A dry, somewhat smug whisper, it doesn't have the greatest range of expression. Or any range of expression, really. Its not helped when that facial tic, the crinkled-eye one - wanders across his face, making him seem insufferably self-regarding. He tries, though. He tries to be funny, you can feel his desperation for lightness. Its just that the scripts, never of the highest quality, even when he was at his peak, are getting worse and worse as the movies get more and more straight-to-dvd. Decent jokes are hard to find.

Something that is dependably funny in his work are the names of his characters. Generally a Cop, Ex-Cop, Special Forces Operative, Hitman, mercenary or some insane combination of many of these elements, his characters always have funny macho names. Here's a quick selection : Frank Glass, Orin Boyd, Casey Ryback, Forrest Taft, Jack Taggart, Lt. Jack Cole, Austin Travis, John Hatcher, Mason Storm. Let me run that last one again: Mason Storm.

There are other funny things about him. You should check out his wikipedia page, its an entertaining read. He used to be married to Kelly LeBrock, but he left her for their kid's nanny, like some ageing city-boy copping off with the Polish Au Pair. He has "created" and sells his own energy drink. Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt, which sounds like a porn movie, and an aftershave called "Scent of Action". The scent of action would be sweat, surely? He likes to beat up stuntmen, but isn't so hot on stuntmen knocking him unconscious with a choke-hold. He is a singer-songwriter - as anyone who has seen one of the films in which he performs a little number, apropos of nothing, as if he's wandered into some mutant Elvis movie, will know - and has released two albums, "Songs from the Crystal Cave" and the brilliantly titled "Mojo Priest". He claims to be a Deputy Sheriff. He says he had a Lassie type experience when a barking dog he had befriended informed him his Dojo was on fire, then moved along, Littlest Hobo style.

He's still plugging away, making two or three medium budget action movies a year. There must be an audience for them somewhere, even though he's getting chubbier and chubbier and he won't relinquish the ponytail. But then, why should he? Its his trademark, after all. It's served him well. Perhaps its the source of all his power, and without it, he would be nothing...

Oh yeah. And he does adverts. Showcasing his sense of humour and willingness to mock his own image. That Orange one that played in UK cinemas a few years ago. And this:



Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

No one, in the history of words, has ever written so much about the Seagull, and I respect you for that.

If you are wondering who his audience is, then don't you remember (or maybe you avoided) that man that used to come into HMV and ask to see the Segal section. He would spend ages looking at all the boxsets and dvd's, and then inevitably buy nothing. He was, as doctors say, a nutnut.

2:06 am  
Blogger David N said...

I remember a little Fillipino woman who used to come in with a notebook with all the titles of his films written down in it. I think she liked him in a carnal way. Maybe it was the ponytail?

10:35 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Do you remember the guy in Lost Boys who is part of the band? All greased up playing the saxophone with his big greasy pulled back ponytail? I still have nightmares about him. I think Rob from work used to take hair styling tips from him.

The picture with him playing guitar is golden.

11:10 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I remember him. It was like he'd wandered out of Bartertown in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, toting his saxophone.

guitar picture = SS straining at the stool, no?

11:15 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

Isn't there a cheeseball in Karate Kid with a greasy black ponytail? I think it's requisite for Martial Arts + Dickness.

Six minutes showcase of all you could ever ask for. Unless we are supposed to sympathise with a bar full of wiseguys, I don't know what this sequence is supposed to prove about our 'hero'.

11:55 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

Oh. And you did jokes there. What's with that?

11:55 am  
Blogger David N said...

I have done them before. Once, maybe. You can't write about action films seriously, can you? The elite few films excepted. Has to be comedic.

5:58 pm  

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