I confess I’ve lost touch with many of my old buddies from “back in the day.” I suppose this is a common phenomenon; you get married, have kids, build your career, and maintaining old friendships becomes impractical, or is simply no longer a priority. Besides, revisiting the past might not be a good idea. Regardless, as the years go by, every now and then you’re tempted to reach out, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.
But for those of us who lead busy lives, this temptation can be easy to ignore. Relationships take time and energy, and those are precious commodities. I know some single guys who get together every weekend and hang out. They wrench on muscle cars and drink beer and watch sports. I almost never join them. I remind myself that my work as an author means I must work nights and weekends on top of my day job. It’s not an excuse, just a reality. To be productive one must use time wisely.
Until the phone rings one evening, and you learn an old friend is dying. He knows his days are numbered, and he’s requested to see you one last time. He’s also contacted another old buddy, who I haven’t seen in years. We arrange a time, and it’s not a question of whether it’s convenient or not. You clear your schedule and go.
The three of us were wild and irresponsible in our twenties. We survived relatively unscathed and married and had families and good careers. We grew apart and moved on in our lives. But in certain ways, those younger days never leave you; they are at your core.
The 175-mile drive took almost seven hours. Leaving Santa Clara County on a weekday afternoon means joining thousands of commuters who live outside the county, where homes are more affordable. The traffic doesn’t clear until Vacaville, then slows again through Sacramento. It was just getting dark when I finally reached my friend’s home in Grass Valley, a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about eighty miles west of Reno.
He had terminal cancer, but that didn’t stop him from drinking with us until midnight. We sat on his deck, overlooking the forest, reminiscing. He expressed no regrets, other than he would not get to retire and live on the beach in Mexico. Aside from that, he faced his future unflinchingly. “You deal with the cards you’re dealt,” he said.
A month later he was gone, robbed of at least twenty years by an incurable disease. As for my other buddy, I just visited him in Cedar City, Utah. He looks healthy as a horse, but I know nothing is forever.
Cedar City is 175 miles northeast of Las Vegas, and is the scene of the crime in my sixth Dan Reno novel, The Doomsday Girl, which should be available by early 2017.Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment April 20, 2015
My trip to Ely was back in the days before the Internet, before police agencies had much access to computer technology. This was good news for me, because I had a traffic warrant in Nevada, but I lived in California, and the Nevada Highway Patrol couldn’t connect the dots.
I’d flown to Salt Lake to hook up with the Castles brothers. We were drinking slow Utah 3.2 beers that day, when we decided to drive the three and a half hours to Ely. The reason for the trip, I vaguely recall, was to see a rock ‘n roll band with a drummer the Castles knew.
By sunset we were on the road, five people packed in one of the original SUVs, an 80’s vintage Chevy Blazer. The vehicle’s oversize tires were nearly bald, and the steering was a challenge, especially on the long stretch of Highway 93, which ran south from Wendover, Nevada to Ely. The desert terrain was flat, but the road seemed unnaturally raised at the crest, the pavement sloping down unevenly on either side.
Along for the trip were two women whose sexual exploits were strongly rumored. One was the girlfriend of the drummer. The other was a free agent. Both were holding drugs.
We arrived at the Hotel Nevada in Ely around nine or ten, and the band was there, but I don’t remember seeing them play. I recall a group of local residents, wearing cowboy boots and hats, at the bar. They were unhappy with us for some reason. One of their gals ended up back at our hotel.
Somewhere in the wee hours, one of our gang took off in the Blazer in search of a brothel. He didn’t return until dawn, and claimed to have never found it.
When I woke late the next morning, the single woman from Salt Lake was in the bed next to mine with my buddy. As to the nature or extent of their activities, I can only say that it didn’t wake me, for once the drugs wore off, I’d slept like the dead.
In the brisk light of morning, Ely looked like a place you’d see in a 1950s movie. The low buildings were made of brown brick and the signage along the main drag was from a different era. On the side of the Hotel Nevada was a cartoon caricature of a horse promising “Western Hospitality.” An advertisement for the White Pine Soda Co. was painted on the side of another building, near the Garnet Mercantile store. Down the street, a sign for the Club Rio jutted from a narrow brick building next to the Plaza Hotel Bar sign. Behind the town, a long ridgeline covered in high desert scrub faded into the horizon.
As for my spelling error, I’ve since corrected it, and apologize to any who may have noticed.
Other facts about Ely:
The town’s elevation is 6400 feet.
Ely’s boom came in 1906, with the discovery of copper.
Ely is at the far eastern end of the stretch of Highway 50 known as “The Loneliest Road in America.”
Today, Ely’s population is about 4200.Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments December 10, 2014
I lived in an apartment off Bascom Avenue in San Jose when I was a teenager. My roommate was a guy named Jan Beers, a cook at the restaurant where we worked. If you assume a man with that last name might be a drinker, you’d be right, but Jan swilled mostly liquor rather than beer. That’s not to say he wouldn’t happily drink beer if it was convenient, but his preference was double highballs. Jan had a strong thirst and hollow legs, and was always the last man standing in the wee hours of the night.
Across the street from our apartment was the Courts Lounge, established in 1934, they claim. I began frequenting the establishment shortly after I discovered they’d serve me drinks even though I was three years under the legal drinking age. This was in 1979, long before the computer era transformed San Jose from a Podunk town to the world’s technology epicenter. Back then, we rented that apartment for about $200 per month, and I had plenty left over to tip the bartenders. If any of them were concerned about my age, the tips solved that.
I had two good buddies who hung around the apartment, both named Chris. One was six-foot-three and bulky, the other six-five and slender. Both could take a punch and throw one. We formed a hell of a trio, three wildly irresponsible eighteen-year-olds. We shared one thing in common: our main priority was booze and women. The latter was always uncertain, but the former was a sure thing.
The Courts was, by most definitions, a dive bar. It was a long narrow joint, with a shuffle board running the length of the bar, and a pool table in the back. The clientele was mostly blue-collar, but a fair portion of the regulars had only menial jobs, if they worked at all. It was open from six A.M. to two A.M. daily, and I remember being there at opening one morning, and seeing a middle-age man arrive in his bathrobe and slippers for a Bloody Mary breakfast.
As San Jose became Silicon Valley, most of the old bars were torn down or remodeled to cater to either the techno-wealthy, or to ethnic groups who flocked to Santa Clara County for jobs. Somehow the Courts Lounge survived, tucked away in a small, nondescript strip mall on an anonymous stretch of road that developers, for whatever reason, ignored.
I’ve returned to the Courts on occasion over the decades. It’s been updated a bit, but not enough to rob it of its past. The shuffleboard is still there, as is the pool table. It has a faint odor particular to old bars; from the carpet wafts the lingering aroma of spilled beer and liquor, not quite masked by cleaning solutions, and in certain places you can always smell candied cherries and lime slices. It’s no longer smoky, since the new laws were passed, but it’s still nice and dark, except for splashes of neon color from the beer signs on the wall.
About twenty years ago, a Courts bartender named Quincy gave my pal Bob Muller an old Miller High Life neon sign. According to Bob, Quincy gave it to him for no reason other than Budweiser brought in a new batch of signs, and they no longer had room for the Miller sign. Bob had no want for it, and gave it to me, since I’d built a bar at my home. I lost that bar in a divorce, but I kept the damn sign. It overlooks the desk where I write. The sign inspired the title of my novel, Dying for the Highlife.Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment April 13, 2014
The Last Good Kiss, written in 1978, is a novel many fans of crime fiction have never heard of. The novel did not sell particularly well, nor did Crumley’s six other novels. But three of today’s most notable and best-selling crime fiction authors – Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and George Pelacanos – cite The Last Good Kiss as a major influence.
What is it about this relatively obscure book that warrants such accolades? Certainly not its plot; the storyline of The Last Good Kiss meanders and becomes convoluted before reaching a sketchy resolution that leaves many readers scratching their heads.
Also, I must assume the above authors were not put off by Crumley’s love affair with beer and whiskey; if ever a novel could be described as booze-soaked, The Last Good Kiss would be it. Scarcely a page goes by without reference to alcohol consumption. The lead character, private eye C.W. Sughrue, is a heavy drinker, as is his counterpart, Abraham Trahearne, an alcoholic novelist of past acclaim.
The story begins, suitably, in a bar, where Sughrue finds Trahearne, after being hired by Trahearne’s ex-wife to track him down. It seems Trahearne has a penchant for wandering drunk binges, and the ex-wife is concerned for his health. Sughrue takes a liking to the older man, a pairing born of their mutual thirst. They team up and travel the American West, swilling liquor and searching for a missing woman. Between their considerable bar time, they tour California, then head north to Montana, and then Sughrue drives out to Denver, beer can in hand, where he does battle with some mobbed up pornographers.
In the end, Sughrue finds the missing woman, who is not who she seems to be. I’ll resist further comment to avoid spoiling the story.
If this does not sound like an impressive plot, that would be a correct conclusion. So, again, why is this book worth discussion?
Answer: voice and characterization.
I’ve heard it said that some writers have only a limited number of good books in them. I believe Crumley had two: The Wrong Case, and The Last Good Kiss. Both of these novels offer extraordinary character development, and are told in a unique, powerful, and convincing voice.
An author’s voice is something that can be hard to describe, much like describing an individual’s personality. But once you experience the voice firsthand, its power (or lack thereof, for many writers) becomes apparent. When I read The Wrong Case, the predecessor to The Last Good Kiss, I knew early on that Crumley was writing of a world that he knew intimately. The bars of Montana and the roads of the Western states are what Crumley loved and understood. His affection for this roughhewn domain is deep and profound.
Crumley’s writing allows us to experience his world through his eyes. His passion for the characters and the places he writes of is indelibly stamped on every page of his two great novels. When he describes the sad but happy alcoholics, the destroyed lives, the open road, and the dive bars, it is an immersive experience. You feel like you are in each scene with C.W. Sughrue, sitting next to him at the bar, or in his passenger seat, an open beer between your legs.
Crumley’s voice manifests itself in each opinion expressed, each bit of perspective uttered, and every irreverent, cavalier comment. The profanity, the sardonic wit, the crude references, it all speaks in a singular voice, painting one man’s vision of an American culture where almost any transgression can be forgiven for the price of a drink.
As a protagonist, C.W. Sughrue is no doubt Crumley’s alter ego. This is what makes Sughrue such an authentic and convincing character. Crumley himself was a man enamored with bars and booze, and in creating Crumley, he simply transfused his own blood into his literary creation. But, the protagonist in The Wrong Case is not CW Sughrue; it’s a character named Milo Milodragovitch. In interviews, Crumley tried to differentiate the two, pointing out certain nuances. I never bought into to this; Sughrue and Milodragovitch are essentially the same character. There may be cosmetic differences between them, but they talk, behave, and see the world identically.
The supporting characters in The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss are also genuine, and based on people Crumley knew during his life. I spoke with him on this topic in the early 90’s. He mentioned that many of his characters in the above books were direct sketches of people he’d met. I also asked him about a character in a later novel, one that I felt was weak. He said the character in question was just piecemealed together, a composite of many individuals. Clearly, this process created a less effective character. On a grander scale, it indicated a weakening of Crumley’s voice; he wrote brilliantly when sourcing directly from his life experiences, but when he moved outside of that arena, his power was diminished.
This is not to say that Crumley’s other novels were poor. But they did not reach the heights of The Wrong Case or The Last Good Kiss. His later books were well written and had their moments, but often left me with the impression that he was stretching, trying to recapture a magic that was tapped out, like an empty beer keg.
James Crumley died in 2008 after 69 years of hard living. He left us a unique body of work in the detective/crime fiction genre. The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss stand alone, extraordinary examples of voice and character, and testament to a brilliant author who continues to influence some of our best writers today.Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments February 5, 2014
Like Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal’s route to action hero stardom came via his martial arts teaching. After training in Japan and achieving a 7th dan rank in aikido (highly unusual for a foreigner), Seagal returned to the US and opened a dojo (a Japanese style martial arts training center) in Southern California. He also served as a martial arts coordinator for a couple of James Bond films in the early eighties, but it wasn’t until he was introduced to Warner Brothers by his student, Hollywood agent and movie producer Michael Ovitz, that Seagal made his first movie, 1988’s Above the Law.
In general, Seagal’s movies are chock full of bad guys who seriously need their asses kicked, and Seagal is only too happy to oblige. His fight scenes, embellished by taunting remarks by Seagal and bad guys alike, are generally great fun to watch. Despite no acting experience previous to Above the Law, Seagal plays an excellent tough guy, and he does it with his own unique sense of style. Personality wise, he is everything the stolid Chuck Norris is not.
Before reviewing the best of Seagal’s movies, I’d like to point out a few things to those unfamiliar with Seagal’s onscreen persona:
Seagal’s hairstyle has been remarkably consistent over the 40 movies he’s made in the last 25 years. He wears it long and combed back, and whenever he can get away with it, he sports a pony tail, sometimes short, sometimes longer. The receding hairline apparent in his first film was replaced by a more robust, V-shaped hairline after a few movies. His hair is always black, without a hint of gray; aging is not part of his mojo. In some films his hair is slicked back with grease, while in others it’s just combed back and looks dry and a bit frizzy. Perhaps he’s on the fence on the to-grease-or-not-to-grease issue. Or maybe he just forgot to bring the grease for those movies.
When Seagal does a movie, he decides what to wear (he decides, not the director, producer, or anyone from wardrobe), and it seems he has a large collection of stylish jackets. These jackets began appearing in 1994 (in On Deadly Ground) when Seagal was 44 years old and had clearly put on some weight. The coats do a good job hiding Seagal’s torso; unlike Van Damme, Stallone, or Schwarzenegger, Seagal never spent much time in a weight room. His jackets are usually leather, sometimes buckskin, occasionally fringed, and when he’s feeling especially sassy, he’ll break out ones with cool Native American or Asian artwork on the backs. I imagine these are his favorites, but in his later films he tones it down and typically wears a standard black coat (sans murals) with padded shoulders. These jackets seem to suit him well (he’s rarely seen jacketless), but raise a perplexing question: what would he do if a movie was set in July in Arizona, or, say, on Miami Beach? Answer: Seagal decides where and when to make his movies, so this is really a non-issue.
Seagal’s movies often include references to his religious/spiritual inclinations and background. Although his father was Jewish and his mother Irish, Seagal converted to Buddhism after living in Japan and having significant contact with Tibetan lamas escaping China. Seagal was actually declared a tulku (an honorary title given to a recognized lama reincarnate) by a senior Tibetan lama. The American Buddhist community reacted with skepticism, given that one of the centerpieces of Buddhism is altruism toward all living things. Conversely, the main centerpiece of all Seagal’s movies is the serious ass whipping of anyone who disrespects him, and the violent killing of those foolish enough to directly oppose him.
This religious quandary is similar to one explored in the TV series, Kung Fu, which stared David Carradine as a Shaolin monk traveling through the American Old West in search of his brother. The monk does everything he can to avoid using his martial arts prowess against a steady parade of douchebags who call him “Chinaman” and try to kick his ass. When forced to defend himself, Carradine almost gently disabled his adversaries, who were more stunned than hurt.
Such is not the case with Seagal. After a few choice words, he typically dispatches his foes by breaking their arms by bending them the wrong way at the elbow joint (this is one of his favorite moves), ramming their heads into glass cases (jewelry stores are convenient for this), or snapping their necks. In some of his movies (and these are always my favorites), he’ll add a scene where he happens to run into a group of thugs, perhaps in a liquor store, and then let the mayhem begin. These altercations have no connection to the plot, but exist solely to add spice and prevent the viewer’s attention from straying. An excellent tactic, but not one that enamored him to the Buddhist community.
After watching a few Seagal movies, the attentive watcher must conclude that he is globally savvy and a multicultural tour de force. He does many dope things that most of us never will do, like wearing cool Tibetan prayer beads , living in exotic foreign countries, speaking multiple languages (including Ebonics), and hanging out with hip black gangster types, who consider him “the man.”
One more thing important to keep in mind: In almost all of Seagal’s movies, regardless of his name or the plots or locations, he is basically the same character. He is ex-CIA, he is still connected, and he pissed off the CIA or some military branch at some point because he chose to do the morally right thing, which meant going rogue and killing some bad guys without permission. His reputation among the covert world of government agents is that of the ultimate badass, but these same agents never fail to disdain him, and then they pay the price. He also does not dally with loose women (although he’s been accused of sexual harassment a number of times on his movie sets), because being a normal guy and giving into horny impulses would be a sign of weakness. This sameness of character conveniently allows him to not bother changing his hair style and to continue wearing his favorite jackets.
To best understand Seagal’s career, it’s helpful to categorize his movies chronologically:
The early films: Above the Law, 1988, Hard to Kill, 1990, Marked for Death, 1990, Out for Justice, 1991.
Hitting the Big Time: Under Siege, 1992
Screwing the Pooch: On Deadly Ground, 1994,
A recovery of sorts: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, 1995
He’s back!: The Glimmer Man, 1996, Fire Down Below, 1997
WTF??: My Giant, The Patriot
He’s back, again!: Exit Wounds
Okay, lower your expectations for good: Ticker, Half Past Dead, The Foreigner, and 22 more straight to DVD flicks.
Seagal’s must see movies:
1. Above the Law, Seagal’s first movie, very effectively establishes the Seagal character and sets the baseline for what to expect from him in future movies. We are introduced to Seagal’s Japanese background as an aikido instructor in an early scene where he seems to rather unnecessarily beat up on his students. We are introduced to his ex-military/CIA background, and his exposure to a corrupt officer/opium kingpin who annoys Seagal by torturing some unfortunate locals in Vietnam. We are also introduced to his religious and spiritual inclinations, which first include references to Buddhism, but quickly shift to his Catholic beliefs. This can be a little confusing if we choose to dwell on it, but the point is this: regardless of what religion Segal practices on any given day, he is a religious guy, and as such, his violent acts are assumed to serve the greater good, and thus are allowable, even encouraged, by the almighty.
This movie also contains many Seagal signature moments, such as the “bar scene”, the “liquor store scene”, the “Let’s put our guns down and fight so I can thoroughly kick your ass before I kill you scene”, the “multiple guys are pointing guns at me, but not to worry, I will soon kick their ass scene”, and the infamous, “I’m tied up by the bad guys and they are going to kill me, but I will simply use my arm strength to break free of my ties and kill them first scene”.
These scenes are usually the highlights of any Seagal movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for viewers by offering too much detail. But, just so you get a taste of what to expect, in the “bar scene”, Seagal walks into a bar looking for information, and when the locals aren’t cooperative (some of the less bright even make disparaging remarks), he beats the shit out of 3 or 4 of them, until finally someone talks. Many of Seagal’s best fight scenes occur in bars or restaurants (liquor stores and jewelry stores run a close second).
The plot in Above the Law involves CIA operatives, their South American crime partners, local Mafiosos, and an unfortunate priest who is aware of their drug smuggling activities. When a bomb is set at Seagal’s church in an effort to kill the priest, many innocents are injured, and as you might imagine, this makes Seagal a little testy. The bad guys seem to think they’re “above the law.” In the end, they find out they aren’t “above Seagal’s law.”
Babe (or lack thereof) alert: I’m not sure how this happened, but none other than Sharon Stone played the role of Seagal’s wife. This was four years before Stone’s role as the evil vixen in Basic Instinct, for which she became an enduring sex symbol. But in Above the Law, Stone plays a boring, unglamorous housewife, wearing baggy jeans and toting an infant. As if to make up for this miscast, Segal’s cop partner is played by Pam Grier, a sex symbol in her own right. There’s even a scene where some cops are making crude remarks and drooling over her. But Grier, who was only 39 (young enough to be hot) when the movie was filmed, does little to inject sex appeal or much energy into her performance. This could be forgiven if only she wore a low-cut blouse, or at least showed a little leg, but no such luck. The casting of Stone and Grier in this movie seems like a waste.
2. Hard to kill was Seagal’s second movie, and although I don’t consider it among his best, it bears comment for a few reasons. First, this movie has Seagal in a coma and hospitalized for seven years, during which time he grows a goatee (his nurse, Kelly LeBrock, was actually the decision maker here). The goatee, in combination with his long, uncombed hair, makes him look like a hippie. I think at this early stage of his career, Seagal may have been contemplating a different look, or at least some variance in his hair style. Regardless, this is a rare moment for Seagal – we actually see him with his hair not neatly arranged.
Second, Seagal really gets into his Asian roots in this film. After he snaps out of his coma, he rehabs by sticking needles in himself. Nothing wrong with a little acupuncture, but he also attaches clumps of some burning substance to the needles. Imagine a shirtless Seagal meditating with smoking needles stuck in his torso. This therapy supposedly played a significant role in returning him to his badass form after seven years in a hospital bed. As for the burning substance, it may have been an herbal remedy, or some medicinal type of incense. Or, it could have been hashish. Only Seagal knows.
This next item may seem trivial, but it perhaps allows us an unintended glimpse into the Seagal psychology. The first few scenes of Hard to Kill take place on Oscar night 1993, and this seemingly inconsequential fact is mentioned no fewer than six times. Viewed in context of Seagal’s ego and ambitions, what’s he trying to tell us? Was he merely hoping for an invitation to the Academy awards ceremony? Or, is he really suggesting that that it should have been him on the podium accepting the Best Actor Award, instead of Tom Hanks, who won for Philadelphia?
My final comment on Hard to Kill is in reference to the gun battles. This movie falls victim to an all-too-often made mistake in action sequences: the bad guys who can’t shoot straight. Eight villains, all with machine guns or shot guns, blasting away, while Seagal, armed with only a pistol, escapes unscathed with his girlfriend, after killing four or five of them (he ran over one too, for good measure). This is lazy film making, and while a degree of it is tolerable, too much is cartoonlike and detracts from the effectiveness of the movie.
3. In Marked for Death (Seagal’s 3rd film) Seagal decided to forgo the eastern mystique and get back to his Catholic roots. After a good opening action sequence showing our hero ruining the day for a pack of scoundrels in some drug ridden Latin American country, Seagal, remorseful over the killing of a young, naked woman (I’m not sure why it bothered him; she’d just shot his partner, and clearly would have shot him), he goes to confession and the priest tells him, basically, to take a chill pill. What meaning does this scene have? None, really, other than to establish that Seagal really does regret killing people, especially if they are nude babes with hot bodies.
Seagal’s moral conflicts quickly are forgotten once he learns a gang of Jamaican drug dealers have infiltrated his city. He’s in a bar when a crew of Rastafarians show up to gun down a rival mobster. Seagal intervenes, to the detriment of the Jamaicans. The action shifts into overdrives from this point.
Marked for Death is a blast for a couple of reasons. First the Jamaicans play superb bad guys. Their voodoo curses and Rastafarian accents all seem very authentic. The main villain, Screwface, is particularly creepy. His henchmen think they are protected by Screwface’s voodoo magic, which makes them foolishly brave. They eagerly engage in hand to hand combat with Seagal, although it’s unlikely any of them ever had any formal martial arts training. As you might guess, this does not bode well for them. Elbows broken – check. Heads smashed through glass – check. Necks snapped – check.
There’s a slight logistical hiccup that occurs midway through this film, and it’s the type of thing that the seasoned fan of Seagal will learn to ignore, or else, well, they will never become a seasoned fan. This lapse has to do with the transporting of an arsenal of automatic weapons and bombs on a commercial airliner (this happens when Seagal flies to Jamaica to hunt for Screwface). True, the movie was pre-9-11, but it still stretches credibility. The stretching reaches its breaking point when Segal returned to the US with Screwface’s severed head. But these improbabilities are really just nitpicking, aren’t they? What really matters is Seagal’s great sword fight with Screwface (spoiler alert) in which Segal slices open Screwface’s crotch, and then cuts his head off. Now, that was greatness.
4. 1991’s Out for Justice, Seagal’s fourth effort, stands alone for one important reason: Seagal, after achieving commercial success playing almost identical characters in his first three flicks, decided it was time to show the world that he was a serious actor with Oscar aspirations. To this end, he decided to spread his wings and depart from his standard persona. In Out for Justice, Seagal is an Italian cop (with no CIA/DEA/military background) from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn. The plot is simple: Seagal tracks down a suicidal, lunatic mobster who is intent on leaving a bloody wake in his path on his final night among the living.
Seagal was likely influenced by Goodfellas, a Mafia movie released in 1990. Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci star in Goodfellas, which was nominated for six Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Martin Scorsese), and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (won by Pesci).
Out for Justice works hard to create the authentic old-school New York gangster feel that Goodfellas did so well. The characters in Out for Justice are named Richie and Vinnie and Frankie and Bobby and Don Vittorio and so on. The language is full of “ya prick ya”, “ya fuckin puke”, “bust my balls”, and is also sprinkled liberally with Italian slang, like “palooka”, “mamaluke” (a fool) and “finoke” (slang for homosexual). At the center of this chummy world is Seagal, who does an admirable job with the Italian dialect and even speaks in Italian frequently. Seagal definitely has a flair for foreign languages – he is fluent in Japanese, and speaks some Mandarin and Italian.
But, sadly enough, Oscar caliber acting requires more than being able to speak multiple languages. Seagal’s portrayal of cop Gino Felino (don’t ask me why he chose this name) is nothing more than Seagal dressing up his typical character with street dialect and extra profanity. Rather than create a unique character, his approach almost seems to detract from the real character, who, of course, is Seagal.
The good news is, Out for Justice is plenty effective, regardless of Seagal’s attempt to take his acting to the next level. The fight scenes in this film are top-notch, and the “bar scene” in particular is epic, for both the fighting and the taunting. And the climactic brawl, in which Seagal goes mano a mano with the main bad guy, shows that at age 40, Seagal’s hand speed and aikido skills are still world class.
Also notable in this film is Jerry Orbach, who later became famous for his television role as Detective Lennie Briscoe on the Emmy winning Law & Order series. Orbach plays a small role as Seagal’s partner, and in one particular scene, after inspecting a couple of dead bodies, he mutters, “I’m getting too old for this.” This statement could be viewed as ironic, because Orbach’s role in Law & Order began shortly after Out for Justice was released, and kept him immersed in the world of violent crime for the next 12 years, until he died of cancer in 2004.
A final note on Out for Justice: early in the picture, some jackass tosses a German Shepard puppy out of a station wagon. Seagal recovers the adorable pup, which rides in his car for the rest of the movie. Yeah, it’s a little campy, but Seagal is an animal lover, and he likes demonstrating his soft side to balance out the broken bones and body count. Anyway, at the very end, Seagal spots the chump who abandoned the dog, and confronts him. The hapless fellow takes a swing, and Seagal spins him around and kicks him in the nuts from behind. The man drops in agony, his testicles lodged somewhere between his stomach and throat. This move is called a “Captain Hook”, and I don’t believe it’s formally taught at any Aikido dojos. Seagal has mastered it none the less. The puppy then pisses on the man as Seagal and his girl snicker and make wise cracks. Fade to credits.
Seagal’s first four movies were all solid box office hits. Above the Law cost $7.5 million to make, and grossed $19 million in the US. Hard to Kill and Marked for Death cost an estimated $12 mil apiece, and each earned $47 mil US. Out for Justice cost $14 mil and grossed $40 million.
These are the kind of numbers Hollywood moguls like. Segal had become a bankable lead man, and his next movie would catapult him to the ranks of an international star.
5. Under Siege was one of 1992’s biggest films. It grossed $83 million domestically, and beat such notables as Patriot Games with Harrison Ford, Scent of a Woman, for which Al Pacino won Best Actor, and My Cousin Vinnie with Joe Pesci. It’s revenue fell short of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (four Oscars, including Best Picture), Basic Instinct with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, and A Few Good Men, which earned Jack Nicholson a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
With a production budget of $35 million, Under Siege was a higher quality movie than Seagal’s previous flicks. This allowed for the casting of two well-known actors to oppose Seagal: Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey played the bad guys, two turncoat navy officers who intend to steal nuclear missiles from the battleship USS Missouri.
Seagal plays a cook on the ship, but – make sure you’re sitting down – he is really a highly decorated but demoted Navy Seal. The plot of Under Siege is centered around Seagal’s heroic effort to stop the traitors from stealing and deploying the missiles.
Seagal is in fine form in this film, although his fight scenes aren’t quite as impressive as earlier movies. He also clearly had been reigned in a bit by the producers – Under Siege is less about Steven Seagal, the man, the myth, the legend, than we are accustomed. Seagal shares screen time with others, something he is not used to, and – gasp – for this role he cut off his pony tail.
Having made that sacrifice, one could only hope that Seagal would be compensated with at least an Oscar nomination. To what I can only imagine was his utter chagrin, he could not even finagle an invitation to the show, despite the fact that Under Siege was nominated for two Oscars. But these were for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound, and only the technicians responsible for those elements got invited. So, while a few nerds and propeller heads who held microphones or worked in the backroom attended the Academy Awards and rubbed elbows with Hollywood’s elite, poor Steven was left to watch from his home, or maybe he went to a bar someplace. In the end, this may have been for the best, because I don’t think Seagal would have reacted too well if he was nominated, but lost. Busting elbows at the Oscars would not win him any friends. Even a Captain Hook or two would be frowned upon.
Oscar issues aside, Seagal’s ego must have been soaring. Fresh from staring in a well- received blockbuster, he had the world at his fingertips. He was now in a position to call the shots for his next movie; he was in complete control of his destiny. So, what did he do? Seagal decided it was time to break out the can of cinematic whoop ass, and really let the world know just how multifaceted, deep, and awesome he was. We’re talking spiritually, ethically, artistically, and stylistically. And of course, it goes without saying he would also reinforce his utter martial arts badass-ness.
6. To this end, he produced, directed, and stared in On Deadly Ground, a movie that even his most loyal fans have to agree, totally sucks. (This is truly a “must not see” movie, but it warrants study because it’s such a defining chapter in Seagal’s career).
This movie is so bad that it can be thoroughly reviewed by listing all the embarrassing, stupid, poorly executed, and self-indulgent moments. Doing so covers the film in its entirety, because almost every scene falls in the above categories. Compiling every asinine nuance would be both tedious and impractical, so I’ll stick with pointing out a few of the most salient blunders.
First, a quick plot recap: Seagal works for an oil company, and his job is to put out oil well blowout fires, which is accomplished by setting a massive explosion that starves the fire by sucking up all available oxygen. Seagal’s character, Forrest Tate, is considered an ace at this dangerous profession; like all Seagal’s characters, he is amazingly good at what he does.
It soon becomes apparent to Seagal that his employer is greedy and dishonest and cares nothing about the environment. Further, Seagal discovers that the company’s evil president, played by Michael Caine, is planning to open a new drilling operation that will contaminate Alaska’s pristine wilderness and screw over the native Eskimo residents.
When Caine finds out Seagal is on to him, he orders his henchmen to kill the disloyal employee. Out of his new found love for the local Eskimos, one who happens to be a cute young lady, Seagal decides to destroy the new drilling platform.
On Deadly Ground begins with Seagal arriving at the scene of an oil fire in Alaska. He’s noticeably heavier than he was in Under Siege (too many celebratory dinners?), and he’s wearing a fringed rawhide jacket that I bet he found in a boutique clothier, perhaps in Taos or Jackson Hole, that targets tourists with plenty of money but no taste or common sense. Once Seagal’s sure the cameras have given his coat its due, he sets explosives and extinguishes the fire. By all accounts, this is a difficult task that requires considerable planning and risk, but Seagal does it quickly and nonchalantly. As he basks in his fearlessness, he lights a cigarette and takes a couple awkward puffs before nipping off a flask. Huh? Who is this new Seagal? A smoker and a hard drinking man?
No, he’s not a smoker or a drinker. He seemed to concede to that pretty quickly, because he loses the smokes and booze, except for one bar scene where he’s trying to look cool with a cigarette, but he can’t seem to figure out how to hold it, and ends up cupping it in his hand as if he’s trying to hide it. This is a mildly embarrassing moment, but it’s about to get worse.
A big roughneck in the bar is hassling a decrepit Native American man. As soon as it starts you know what’s coming. Unfortunately, the ensuing brawl is probably the most uninspired of Seagal’s career. The men Seagal fights, and I use that verb liberally, are either old or sedated by alcohol or simply have no idea how to fight. Seagal himself looks too lazy to move much. He just kind of stands there and tosses guys aside as they rush at him. He disables one man solely by grabbing his nuts. Probably took less energy than punching him.
But the main antagonist hasn’t been addressed yet. In one of the most bizarre and silly moments I’ve ever seen in a film, Seagal approaches the big dude, and says, “And now we’re gonna play the hand-slap game.”
Instead of taking a swing or calling bullshit on that lame idea, the roughneck places his hands over Seagal’s upturned palms. Segal slaps his hand, and then, just like we played back in the fifth grade, the winner gets a free punch. After three punches, the big dude is probably wondering why he didn’t just try his luck at straight up fisticuffs. But the scene’s not over yet. The true meaning has not yet been brought to light.
“What does it take?” asks Seagal. “What does it take to change the essence of a man?”
“Time,” the roughneck says. “I need time to change.”
Seagal gives him a knowing pat on the back. “I do too,” he says. “I do too.”
Ah, deep. Seagal is having a breakthrough moment. He’s realized he doesn’t want to work for the corrupt, scheming oil company. Because he wants to be good. A transforming moment indeed, and all brought about by the hand-slap game.
When I first saw this scene, it made me think of the hilarious movie Caddyshack, when Judge Smails (Ted Knight, in his greatest performance ever) has a philosophical conversation with young Danny Noonan.
Judge Smails: “The most important decision you can make right now is what you stand for – goodness…or badness.”
Danny: “Now, I know I’ve made some mistakes in the past. I’m willing to make up for that. I want to be good!”
“Very good!… Are you my pal, Danny?”
“Yes, sir! I’m your pal!”
“Great! How about a Fresca?”
Moving right along, after Michael Caine’s thugs try to blow up Seagal’s shit, Segal is rescued by an Eskimo clan, and they quickly surmise that he has great spiritual powers, akin to the most powerful of Alaskan creatures, the polar bear. A long surreal sequence follows, in which Seagal wrestles a bear (fights it to a draw, lucky for the beast), is tempted by a sexy, naked Eskimo woman (he resists her, although I did see some smutty fires in his eyes), and rides the ice cold rapids in his trusty jacket, and emerges with his hair perfect.
Seagal invested a lot of footage in this very contrived portion of the movie, to make sure the viewer understands that Seagal not only has awesome spirituality, but is also an animal lover and has a great fondness for nature. The implication is clear: if anyone messes with what he holds dear, Seagal the Spirit Warrior will right the situation. Seriously, it’s almost as if he’s portraying himself as godlike. To show their gratitude for his divine presence, the Eskimos give him a super bulky, special edition Eskimo snow jacket that looks designed for sub-zero temps. It’s very cool, and I’m sure Seagal still has it, hanging in a closet, waiting for the day when a blizzard descends upon his $3.5 million home in the Arizona desert.
Once he learns Seagal is still alive, Michael Caine hires a more competent team of assassins to come to Alaska to finish the job. These hired mercenaries are the best in the business, because by this time, it has become clear that Seagal, is…well, let me quote the lead mercenary:
“You want to know who he is? Try this: delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. And that won’t come close to that son of a bitch when he gets pissed.”
On Deadly Ground is chock full of people oohing and ahhing over how bad Seagal is. It gets to the point where the standard kudos run out, and Seagal has to start stretching for new lines. The following line I think was inspired by Gary Busey, who is certainly among the most bizarre, eccentric actors ever:
“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 poolside with a million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos.”
I mean, it’s so bad, it’s good.
From here, On Deadly Ground becomes simply the story of the bad guys trying to kill Seagal before he can blow the oil rig. It’s not much of a story, because it’s very poorly done. The film making becomes sloppy, as if Segal got bored with directing. The editing is choppy, and Seagal’s fight scenes are jumpy and shift to slow motion for no reason I can fathom. There’s a significant sequence on horseback up in the mountains, and it looks like summer – there’s not a hint of snow anywhere. But the scenes previous were in deep snow. What season is it, Steven? Pick one, please.
Then there’s Seagal’s secret stash of explosives in a shed high up in the mountains. He arrives on horseback, with the cute Eskimo girl (Joan Chen is Chinese, but looks close enough, I guess), who has inexplicably chosen to accompany him on his dangerous mission. Why Seagal would store a vast amount of C4 in a secret place is never explained. Maybe he had a premonition that one day a helicopter full of bad guys would hover over the shack, and then he could set off the explosives and blow up the helicopter.
The climax of On Deadly Ground plays out like a low budget rip off of a James Bond movie. Seagal infiltrates the oil platform, shoots a few of his detractors, and beats up a few more. When the worst of the bad guys catch up, Seagal kills them with no more struggle or screen time than the anonymous guys he previously blew away.
But the worst villain still needs to be dealt with. On cue, here comes Michael Caine, complete with droll British accent and expensive business suit. At this point, anyone still watching is waiting to see Seagal make the imperious oil executive suffer for his sins.
Michael Caine has had on odd film career. He appeared in many prestigious films during his 60 years as an actor (yes, 60 years), has been nominated for six Academy Awards, and won Best Supporting Actor twice (Hannah and her Sisters, 1986, The Cider House Rules, 1999). He’s also won a number of other awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Actor in Educating Rita, 1983. He was even knighted in 2000 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to cinema.
How does a guy like Michael Caine end up in a Steven Seagal movie? By his own admission, Caine is just like anyone else; he needs money. So when the checking account gets low, he’s not above slumming for a payday. And when he goes slumming, any neighborhood is fair game. Caine has had numerous roles in films that were commercial and critical flops. He summed up his thoughts best when commenting on his role in Jaws: The Revenge:
“I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
When Seagal, wearing his fourth or fifth tasseled jacket of the movie, confronts Caine, he launches into a preachy lecture:
“You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. What does one say to a man with no conscience? I’d like to tell you about the millions of people that you made suffer, but I’d be a total idiot to think that you’d care. You’re a piece of shit, Michael. Scum of the earth.”
Caine tries to walk away, but Segal lassos him around the ankle with a cable that happened to be handy, and dangles him 50 feet over an oil pit.
“Go ahead, shoot me!” Caine screams. “Go on, shoot me, you fucking coward! You haven’t got the fucking guts!”
“I wouldn’t dirty my bullets,” Seagal replies.
“You macho asshole, go ahead, shoot!”
I watched this scene 4 or 5 times, mesmerized by Caine’s pleas. I firmly believe that, at this point, Caine was no longer acting -he just wanted his character to die quickly so he could pack up his stuff, collect his paycheck, and go drink gin & tonics until he forgot he ever appeared in this unfortunate farce.
But, Seagal doesn’t shoot him; instead, he shoots the cable and Caine goes plummeting into the oil. But this wouldn’t necessarily kill him; Caine could have swam through it and climbed onto a steel girder only a few feet away. Sure, his suit would be ruined, but he’d still be plenty alive.
There’s only once answer to this mystery: Seagal didn’t kill him so he could keep alive the potential for a sequel! Now, how’s that for revenge?
If the movie ended here, On Deadly Ground may have been simply considered a foolish misstep, a weak movie that would surely be lampooned, but maybe not so harshly. But Seagal wasn’t through yet. In fact, he was saving the best moment for last.
After Seagal blows the oil rig into a raging inferno, likely killing dozens of innocent workers and spilling oil into the sea, he narrowly escapes, and the next scene shows him in an auditorium speaking to hundreds of Native Americans about the evils of big oil, and the need to save our planet. Seagal is wearing his most elaborate coat yet, and addresses the audience as his “brothers and sisters.” He rambles on for a few minutes, which is probably the maximum his co-producers would stand for.
The critics had a field day with this. Seagal was ripped for using his movie to blatantly espouse his political views. There was nothing subtle about his approach – a formal speech at the end of the film. He was called egotistical, vain, self-indulgent, hypocritical, narcissistic, and some less polite things.
I’m sure Seagal hoped On Deadly Ground would be his second blockbuster, and he’d get the last laugh. No such luck; On Deadly Ground cost $50 million to make, and the domestic box office returns were only $38.5 million.
If Seagal had aspirations for awards, they soon came, but not in the form of Oscars. On Deadly Ground was nominated for six Razzies: Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst Original Song, and Worst Actress (poor Joan Chen, who only had a few lines, couldn’t avoid the fallout).
Seagal walked away with a Worst Director trophy, although I’m unsure if he actually attended the Razzie awards ceremony, which occurs every year the day before the Oscars. I assume as a multiple nominee, he received a priority invitation. This set a reliable precedent, as Seagal would receive more Razzie nominations over the next decade, before his films went straight to DVD and no longer qualified.
7. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory was Seagal’s follow up to On Deadly Ground. He was contractually bound to make this film, but he didn’t want to and only did so out of legal obligation. I’m not sure what kind of movie he would have made if left to his own inclinations; likely one that would allow him to keep his pony tail, which he could not for Under Siege 2.
Sans pony tail, and reportedly grumpy on the set, one might expect another disaster from Seagal. But Under Siege 2 was not a bad movie; Seagal’s performance was actually very good, in both his acting and martial arts sequences.
In general, Under Siege 2 is pretty fun to watch. Oddly, it’s a decidedly smaller, less impressive movie than Under Siege (not the typical goal for a sequel), but it had a much higher production budget ($60 mil vs. $35 mil). Not sure where the money went, but regardless, Under Siege 2 was a modest box office success, and represented a decent recovery from On Deadly Ground.
As an action thriller, Under Siege 2 succeeds despite some flagrant implausibilities and related silliness. The killer satellite threatening the world looks cartoonlike, as do the action sequences toward the end of the film, which are totally unbelievable. But if we couldn’t ignore these things, we probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place, would we?
Also silly is the second portion of the title: Dark Territory. What does this mean? Is it just a generic reference to something ominous? Or, is there a racial connotation involved? No, we eventually learn, “dark territory” simply means the train eventually will pass through an area with no radio reception, which means the CIA/military will lose contact with it. My guess is one of the producers thought it sounded really cool, and insisted it be included, even if it was relatively meaningless.
The plot of Under Siege 2 is one that action thriller movie fans have become familiar with: A nefarious and brilliant villain has taken control of a train (substitute boat, plane, bus, high-rise building, school, etc.) and is threatening to annihilate the world (as well as the hostages) if his demands aren’t met.
The evil genius is played by Eric Bogosian, who seems to take a perverse, nerdy delight in his portrayal of an ex-CIA programmer with a score to settle. As villains go, he’s too dweeby to be very menacing, so the writers surrounded him with a bunch of henchmen who are total dicks. Care to guess what their future holds in store? No need, I’ll tell you: Seagal shoots them, stabs them, snaps their necks, throws them from the train, and in one cool scene he lights of few of them on fire.
Side note on Eric Bogosian: here’s another case of an otherwise accomplished actor playing the villain in a Seagal movie. Bogosian not only has a successful career in solo theatre performances, he is also the author of six produced plays, one which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, he’s a Guggenheim fellow and the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. But, hey, he’s like anyone else, including Michael Caine–he needs money. And Seagal movies, despite their artistic limitations, probably pay pretty well.
8. Seagal’s next flick was 1996’s Executive Decision, and I was deeply disturbed by this movie for two reasons:
A. Seagal does not star in this film.
B. He dies after only 41 minutes!!
I think Seagal may have been at a crossroad in his life, soul searching, contemplating his true purpose. Perhaps drugs were involved, perhaps not, but somehow, his meditations resulted in a decision to play a supporting role. Although Seagal did a good job with the small part as leader of a commando squad, this film was an aberration, and does not warrant discussion.
9. The Glimmer Man, 1996
The Glimmer Man, however, does warrant discussion, and then some!
I love this movie, and if there’s any such thing as an Oscar for comeback actor of the year, Seagal should have won it. Seagal’s performance is funny (intentionally), gritty, charismatic, and eccentric. It’s as if he took all the good things he’d done since Above the Law, and factored in all the embarrassing lessons from On Deadly Ground, and figured out how to make a movie that would entertain the hell out of his fans.
Unfortunately, it seems his fan base must have been shrinking, because The Glimmer Man only brought in domestic receipts of $20 million against a $45 million budget. Too bad more people didn’t see it, because The Glimmer Man is an underrated and under-appreciated classic.
Fashion alert: The pony tail is back, and Seagal displays a number of new, loud jackets. Also, he wears a necklace of Tibetan prayer beads throughout the movie.
Plot-wise, the movie starts with the investigation of a religious serial killer, but it soon becomes apparent to Los Angeles cop Jack Cole (Seagal) that the last two murders are those of a professional hitter. But why? To silence those who have found out that a crime boss has teamed up with a corrupt US senator (who happens to be Seagal’s ex-CIA boss) to sell chemical weapons to Russian terrorists.
This plot could have easily become a tangled mess, but director Jack Gray holds it all together quite nicely. He keeps the pace quick and each scene taut; there is not a single slow or boring moment. This is due in part to the interplay between Seagal and his cop partner, comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans. I think Seagal saw teaming up with a professional comic as a challenge and an opportunity. This was Seagal’s chance to prove that he, the ass kicking martial artists, could be as funny as anyone. I draw this conclusion because, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Seagal ego will not admit that anybody can do anything better than he can.
Now, here’s the amazing part: Seagal is funny as hell! I’m serious, he cracked me up. The Glimmer Man is full of wise cracking, sarcastic cops, and Seagal fits right in. For every funny line Wayans has, Seagal has one to match. Here’s an example: Wayan’s home has just been burned down by bad guys, and Seagal walks up as a despondent Wayans is combing through the wreckage. Seagal spots a box of melted CDs, and says, “Hey, could I take those CDs? It looks like maybe I could use them.” Wayans ignores the remark and begins talking about a lead in the case. Seagal replies, “Could I ask you something? Did you actually live in this shitbox?”
Seagal’s comic delivery is flawless; the irreverent banter seems to come naturally to him. The grim storyline is underpinned with casual, macho humor, and it’s right in Seagal’s wheelhouse. His acting chops really seem to have blossomed.
The best scene, and also the funniest, occurs at Lento’s Italian restaurant, where Seagal goes to chat with the evil senator, a gentleman with a Southern drawl played by Brian Cox. I’d never heard of Brian Cox, but when I researched him I was not surprised to learn that he’s a highly awarded character actor who gained recognition for his portrayal of King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet another acclaimed Thespian, out there working for a living, collecting a paycheck thanks to Seagal.
Back to the restaurant. Seagal’s ex-wife had just been murdered, and he suspects Cox knows who did it, so he’s a little impatient when he arrives at the place. He approaches the maître d’, who’s talking on the phone. Seagal starts ringing the bell on the counter, and the man says, “Hey, asshole, can’t you see I’m busy?” Uh, bad timing, dude. Seagal drops him with a right to the chin, and proceeds into the ritzy joint, but he’s intercepted by the senator’s security guard. “Why don’t you and I take your little sensitive pony tail and your little sissy beads and get out of here?” the man says. The expression on Segal’s face is priceless, before he hits the man in the throat and sends him through a window.
Thus begins the greatest restaurant brawl in Hollywood history. Seagal destroys the dining room, kicking guys through partitions, slamming them into wine racks, thumping their heads into steel posts. The fighting choreography is excellent, but what truly makes this scene legendary is Seagal’s remarks as he’s leaving. He looks at Brian Cox and says, “Do you validate parking?” Then, as he walks by the front counter (where the maître d’ is still unconscious), the phone rings. Seagal hesitates a moment before picking it up.
“Hello, Lento’s. No, no, no, that won’t work. We’re closed for renovation. I’d say…” he pauses to look over the damage. “Two months. Yeah. Thanks.”
Classic. This scene alone is worth owning a copy of the movie.
Also interesting in The Glimmer Man is Seagal partnering with a black actor. The pairing of a white actor with a black counterpart in action movies was a trend that began with 1982’s 48 Hours, staring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Next came the TV series Miami Vice (1984-1990), with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. When the Lethal Weapon flicks (Mel Gibson, Danny Glover) became huge hits with almost $1 billion in domestic box office over 4 movies, Hollywood producers took notice, and tried to recapture the magic in more films.
In 1991 Bruce Willis teamed up with Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout, to the tune of $60 domestic box office. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman scored big time in 1995’s Seven, which reached $100 mil domestic and a staggering $327 million in global receipts.
No doubt there were high hopes for Seagal and Keenan Wayans in The Glimmer Man. It’s unfortunate this badass movie never quite caught on with the public. Ironically, one of Seagal’s best movies was one of his least successful.
10. I wish I could say Seagal followed up The Glimmer Man with something equally good, but that didn’t happen. Fire down Below was only a fair movie; at times it was entertaining, but overall it was mildly disappointing. It definitely suffered from the hokey incongruities that have come to define Seagal’s lesser films.
Seagal plays an agent for the EPA, which is enough to sound warning bells. Could this be a revisit to the themes of On Deadly Ground? The answer is yes, but Seagal takes it easy this time, so the whole Save the Planet message is not that big of a deal. The bigger problem has to do with Seagal, being, well, Seagal.
He’s assigned to go undercover to a small, backwater town in Kentucky to investigate toxic dumping. Try to imagine Seagal playing a hick. Wait, don’t bother, because Seagal doesn’t bother playing the part. He arrives, pony tail in place, and wearing a black leather jacket inlayed with pink and lime green patterns. You can almost hear the conversation between Seagal and director Felix Enriquez Alcala:
“Steve, you think that jacket might be a bit much?”
“What? Do you how much it cost me?”
“Yeah, but you’re supposed to be undercover in a poor area of Kentucky.”
“So? This coat is badass and I’m wearing it. You know why? Because I can. Screw the public if they don’t get it.”
Needless to say, among the poor country folk, Seagal sticks out like a chicken at a dog show. So much for undercover. Except for one scene where he wears a tasseled rawhide coat (I think it was a leftover from On Deadly Ground), Segal is dressed in black the entire movie. What makes this weird is that he’s the only character who wears black. I found this increasingly odd as I watched Fire Down Below; every actor is dressed in earth tones, except for Seagal. I’m not sure why this is, but it certainly doesn’t help him blend with the locals.
Around the middle of the movie, Seagal must have conceded to himself that the undercover concept was stupid, because that would mean he couldn’t just be himself, which is what he does best. So, he comes clean and admits he’s with the Feds. He does this in a great scene where he kicks ass on the local police force when they try to arrest him. Holding a gun in the mouth of a deputy, he tells the sheriff how it is:
“Listen, why don’t we cut the shit? You know who I am, and I can arrest you just as easily as you can arrest me, and you know it. So, why don’t you get back in your car with your little department and take off. Let’s face it, I don’t believe in your authority.”
“Maybe you’ll believe a gun up your butt. Cuff him.”
Four deputies come at Seagal, and in short order he pounds them into submission, and continues:
“Now, how you want to do this? You want to play this game all the way? I’ll have three hundred agents come into this this little hick town and crawl up every orifice you got. When it’s over you can go to your favorite proctologist and get a nice soothing ointment and rub it on the hole that hurts most. How do you want it?”
All the while the deputies are groaning in pain, the man with the gun in his mouth is gasping, and the townspeople are gathered and watching in awe. As a movie goer, I’m thinking, even if the rest of the movie is the shits, this scene is worth the price of admission.
The remainder of the film plays out very predictably. In nearly every other scene, a group of tough dudes confront Seagal (usually it’s four – that seems to be the default number), and when it’s over, they’re moaning and muttering things like, “I’ve never been hit so hard.”
There is one cheesy scene around the middle of the film where Seagal attends an outdoor party for the townsfolk. A band is playing, but one of the guitar players is swilling Jim Beam and he’s falling off his chair. Have no fear, Steven is here, to play guitar and save the day. Seagal plays a song, an impish grin on his face, as if he’s a little embarrassed by the sheer number of things he does so well. Actually though, he is a pretty good musician, so let’s give credit where credit is due.
Two notable actors, the great Harry Dean Stanton, and Kris Kristofferson, costar in Fire Down Below, and neither performance is inspiring. Kristofferson is especially mechanical in his role as the main villain – he’s pretty much just dialing it in. Even when he’s shot and knows he’ll be going to prison to meet Seagal’s buddy “Tyrone”, his cocky smirk is still glued to his face.
Overall, Fire Down Below is a film that’s vaguely unsatisfying, kind of like eating lukewarm food. Except for a couple scenes, it never really heats up.
Critics were more harsh; Fire Down Below earned 4 Razzie nominations: Worst Picture, Worst Actor, Worst Screen Couple (I forgot to mention, Seagal has a pretty lame love affair with a local woman who wears cheap dresses, and for reasons beyond me, chooses hiking boots for footwear), and Worst Original Song. This last nomination may have been particularly painful, because, yes, Seagal wrote the song.
Fire Down Below was also a box office failure. It earned $16 million domestic against a $60 million production budget.
Seagal followed up Fire Down Below with two films that marked a decided turn in his career (and we’re not talking onward and upward here). My Giant and The Patriot were both ridiculous pieces of crap, for different reasons. Seagal places only a small role in My Giant, and that’s the good news, because this film is a sappy, boring, annoying Billy Crystal whine fest. Seagal plays himself in this movie, which basically explains why he couldn’t resist the part.
No such excuse for The Patriot. To best describe this reeking pile of cow dung, please allow me to quote an outraged Judge Smails in Caddyshack:
The Patriot “S, s,s, s, s, s, SUCKS!”
The movie was so bad that at the last minute the producers conceded that it would not be released to theaters. Instead it went straight to DVD, which meant that much of the $16 million invested in the production would be lost.
I will not grace My Giant and The Patriot with further comment, other than to urge anyone who cares to ignore these movies; forget they ever existed, forget that Seagal, despite all the questionable things he’s done, plumbed to depths this great.
11. Just when most people figured Seagal would wither into obscurity, he surprised the cinematic world by making a huge comeback with Exit Wounds. The film grossed $80 million, almost as much as Under Siege.
I have mixed feelings about Exit Wounds. Seagal, while staring in the film, shares screen time with many, including rap star DMX (real name Earl Simmons) and Tom Arnold. At age 49, Seagal looks anything but chiseled; his face is doughy, his shoulders narrow (where are his jackets?) and he has a bit of a pot belly. There is a well done shootout early in the film, but the fight scenes overall are poorly executed. Seagal is simply not convincing when going up against bad boys half his age or massive black thugs who look like NFL players.
The plot of Exit Wounds is retarded drivel about corrupt cops sick of seeing gangsters get all the money, so the cops get in on the action. This story line has been rehashed in numerous movies (including a later Seagal flick, Urban Justice ) and in Exit Wounds it comes off as tired, overdone, stupid, and boring. There’s plenty of convenient illogic woven into the story, like this nugget: A huge cache of heroin is stolen from a police evidence room by masked men who kill a couple cops during the heist. There is little or no reaction by the Detroit PD to this event, as if it were just another street robbery. This nonsense was perhaps foreshadowed by an earlier scene where Seagal shoots his pistol at some bad guys in a helicopter, which blows up as if it hit by an anti-aircraft rocket.
And then there’s this brilliant plot twist – in order to safely transport the heroin, the bad guys devise a way to chemically soak T-shirts, which makes the heroin undetectable, but also easy to extract. I don’t why they included this scene in the movie; it’s lame, unbelievable, and unnecessary.
But what really makes Exit Wounds a disappointment is Seagal, sans pony tail, sans his Eastern religion/spiritual shtick, and without his jackets. I mean, talk about sucking the life out of a guy. No doubt this was the result of producer Joel Silver, the prick, ordering Seagal to play a character instead of just playing himself.
You see, Seagal had always been the producer or co-producer of his movies. But after shitting the bed with My Giant and The Patriot, no studio would touch him, so he was forced to work for producer Joel Silver, who has an impressive track record of action films, including 48 Hrs., Commando, and all the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Matrix movies.
So Silver is no small time player, and he apparently told Seagal to just play the damn part and leave out all the weird shit that makes him so endearing. Painful as I’m sure this was, at this point in his career Seagal probably had no better options. The result is a boring Seagal performance, which didn’t really hurt the movie’s box office performance, because most people came to see Exit Wounds for multiple Grammy nominated rapper, DMX, a performer with a massive fan base.
12. Many people consider Exit Wounds Seagal’s last decent movie. Certainly it was his last respectable box office effort; his next two films, Ticker and Half Past Dead, were low budget box office duds, and were his final films to play in theatres. But this did not mark the end of Segal’s career – far from it. Beginning in 2003, he’s made 27 (and counting) direct to video (DTV) movies. No doubt, these efforts, beginning with The Foreigner, have lower budgets and lesser production values. But that doesn’t mean they are all bad movies. Actually, many of them are great fun, with well filmed martial arts scenes, cool blood spattered shoot outs, and bad guys getting what they deserve, Seagal style. And the best thing is, these DVDs are raw Seagal, with no pretense of big studio influence.
So, if in between busting heads and killing douchebags, Seagal dons a robe and hangs out with Buddhist monks somewhere in Southeast Asia, then so be it (Belly of the Beast – highly recommended).
Or, if he’s in the mood for taking on gangstas in Compton whose language consists primarily of “bitch” and “motherfucker”, then bring it on (Urban Justice – highly recommended).
Then again, Seagal considers himself a man of tremendous knowledge, so why not play an esteemed professor of Chinese archaeology from Yale? Watch the “university’s most distinguished academician” single handedly annihilate the Chinese syndicate in Out for a Kill – highly recommended.
We all know Seagal loves Asian culture, so it’s only natural he would take issue with some total dicks from the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. Check out the stylish carnage in Into the Sun – highly recommended.
I haven’t yet watched all Seagal’s DVT releases, but I believe the above four are his best. I must admit that some of his others are laughably bad, and I would be remiss to not mention a few that stand out:
Out of Reach (2004) is a dumb and bad movie for many reasons, but the one thing that really offended me was the use of voice dubbing. In many of the scenes, Seagal is speaking, but it’s not his voice. I mean, Steven, is it too much to record your own speaking parts?
Attack Force (2006) is lame and ridiculous and although I own a copy, I’ve never made it past the halfway point.
Kill Switch (2008) is plagued by rampant silliness. The plot is a tired serial killer(s) rehash. Seagal speaks in a hokey southern accent (“Lord have mercy”) for most of the movie, except when he forgets and reverts back to his normal voice. The fight scenes in this movie are the most absurd I’ve ever seen. Seagal repeatedly beats the crap out of the two main bad guys, but is rarely seen throwing a punch. Instead, all we get is shots of his adversaries getting punched in the face, over and over, and getting flung, over and over, against walls and into furniture. But they keep fighting back, and never are bloody or seem hurt. Steven, if you punch a man in the face ten times and don’t draw blood, I must assume you punch like a little girl. It’s very disappointing.
At the end of Kill Switch, Seagal’s wife, a cute brunette who he’s mostly ignored during the film, is killed by one of the bad guys. So, lord have mercy, Seagal catches the bad guy and kicks his butt big time before slitting his throat. Standard stuff. At this point, I expected the movie to end with Segal in mourning, and perhaps contemplating the evil world in which he operates.
But no, this doesn’t happen. In one of the weirdest movie moments I’ve ever witnessed, the final scene in Kill Switch shows Seagal arriving at a quaint house, and giving gifts to some children, and then hugging a hot blonde who I thought was maybe his sister. Like it was a family reunion, like maybe after all the ugliness Seagal had just lived through, he was taking a break to visit his loved ones, and to try and deal with the death of his wife.
So what happens next? The blonde crooks her finger, and Seagal follows her to a bedroom, where she pulls her top down. Seagal looks quite pleased by this development and embraces her as the movie ends.
Um, Steven, what about your wife, who was brutally murdered the scene before? Apparently her murder was no big deal because you had a young girlfriend on the side. Or, I suppose the babe could have just been an acquaintance, patiently waiting for the right time to bless our hero with her sexual charms. Either way, it’s stupid and jarring and very disconnected from the storyline.
Unfortunately, these types of problems are common in Seagal’s DVT films, but the true action movie fan should easily overlook this type of stuff. Or, just laugh at it. Either way, Seagal is always entertaining.
Steven, you’re beautiful, man – please never change (I know you couldn’t if you tried!).
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments January 20, 2014
Bruce Lee made four movies in the early seventies that left a permanent mark on the motion picture industry, and also on American culture. Lee’s astounding kung fu performances captured the imagination of an entire generation, and launched an enduring American fascination with Asian martial arts.
But Lee was not only a martial artist; he was also a trained actor. He began acting as a child, and by the time he was 18, he’d appeared in twenty films.
As a teenager, when Lee wasn’t acting, he studied karate. It wasn’t long before his extraordinary fighting talent became apparent, and he started making movies that showcased his ability. These films gained rapid popularity in Asia, and became blockbusters when released in the US (to date, Enter the Dragon, his final movie, has grossed over $200 million). When Lee died in 1973 at age 32, the movie-going public, their appetite whetted by Lee’s great fight scenes, demanded more.
Many Asian martial arts experts were recruited to fill the void. Some became quite successful in Asia, but only a few, most notably Jackie Chan, and later, Jet Li, made much of an impression on US filmgoers.
Enter Chuck Norris, who appeared in Bruce Lee’s 1972 film, Way of the Dragon, in a climatic fight against Lee filmed at the Roman Colosseum. A holder of the Professional Middleweight Karate Champion title for six consecutive years, there was no questioning Norris’ fighting pedigree. His acting skills, however, do beg questions, such as, “Can Norris act?” Polite answer: “Not really.”
Regardless, Norris was the first Caucasian black belt to gain popularity in the states, and he parlayed this into a long and lucrative career. His pathway to stardom was paved by actors he trained at his karate studio, including Steve McQueen, who urged Norris to take acting lessons. Norris did so, and went on to star in 20 films between 1977 and 1991. Though none were big hits, a few grossed over $20 million in the US, a respectable and profitable figure. This is doubly impressive for a guy whose acting (despite the lessons) is universally considered wooden.
But somehow, Norris went on to even greater success with his Walker, Texas Ranger TV series, which ran for 8 years, and no doubt contributed greatly to his estimated net worth of $70 million.
Perhaps born from resentment of Norris’ success, a website called Chuck Norris Facts, which is actually just a collection of sarcastic jokes, gained widespread popularity. Norris went along with it for a while, claiming to enjoy the humor, but it finally annoyed him to the point that he filed a lawsuit. This occurred after a book titled “The Truth About Chuck Norris: 400 facts about the World’s Greatest Human” was published. Norris eventually dropped the suit.
Fortunately, two new martial artists emerged in the late eighties, and both were better actors than Norris. These men were Jean-Claude Van Damn, and Steven Seagal. I will post reviews on both, starting with Seagal.
Dan Reno happens to enjoy Seagal’s films. His favorite is Marked for Death, where Seagal does battle with a gang of ruthless Jamaican drug dealers.Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments January 12, 2014
For actors of his generation, I always think of Chuck Bronson as second only to Eastwood. When he was at his best (in the 1970s), Bronson was nearly as good as Clint.
Unfortunately though, Bronson’s tough guy career got off to late start. He didn’t really hit the big time until The Mechanic, at age 52. He followed this film with five more excellent tough guy movies, which firmly established his status as a great macho star.
His later career produced a number of commercially successful B-grade films, in which his tough guy persona was sadly diminished by age.
Bronson’s career had a couple notable parallels to Eastwood’s. Sergio Leone actually offered Bronson the lead role in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but Chuck turned down the offer, claiming it was “the worst script he’d ever seen.” However, after Leone’s three spaghetti Westerns became blockbusters, Bronson accepted a part in Leone’s next film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The film was a financial flop in the U.S., although it had some success in Europe.
In the sixties, Bronson also played supporting roles in two well-known war films, The Great Escape in 1963, and The Dirty Dozen in 1967. Neither performance by Bronson was particularly memorable. In comparison, Eastwood’s career was soaring when he stared in his WWII pics, Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).
BEST CHARLES BRONSON FILMS
Bronson started hitting on all cylinders in the early seventies, beginning with his lead role in1972’s The Mechanic. This is a great film about a professional assassin (Bronson) who takes an insistent apprentice (Jan Michael Vincent) under his wing. The movie benefits from well-done actions scenes, including a motorcycle chase (on a couple of old Husqvarna dirt bikes) and a very cool car chase along the Amalfi coast in Italy. But it’s Bronson’s personality, coming through in his portrayal of hitman Arthur Bishop, that carries the movie.
Memorable quote (coaching Jan Michael Vincent on the art of killing):
Arthur Bishop: “You always have to be dead sure. Dead sure or dead.”
The Mechanic was Bronson’s second movie with director Michael Winner (Chato’s Land, a Western casting Bronson as a half-breed Apache, was the first). Winner directed Bronson in six more films, including Death Wish, the movie that made Bronson an international star.
The Stone Killer (1973) followed The Mechanic, and was also directed by Michael Winner. The movie casts Bronson as a wise cracking detective, a bit atypical for him, and this brings a lighter tone than many of Bronson’s most popular films. But the Stone Killer is violent and gritty, with many shootouts and lots of bad guys getting scrubbed off the planet. Interestingly, Norman Fell and John Ritter play cops in this movie, and both later went on to star in the popular sitcom, Three’s Company (1977-1984). Neither are great in The Stone Killer (actually, Ritter’s acting is appallingly bad), but they became hugely popular in Three’s Company. If you’ve not seen Norman Fell as Mr. Roper, you’re missing one of the greatest comic performances in television history. Fell may not play a great cop, but he is one of the funniest actors ever.
Cab driver: “What’s a nice guy like you want with the 4th Precinct House?”
Det. Lou Torrey (Bronson): “They give a good massage and a quick piece of ass.”
After The Stone Killer, Bronson stared in one of my all-time favorite flicks, Mr. Majestyk. Playing Vincent Majestyk, a Vietnam vet trying to make a living as a watermelon farmer, Bronson runs afoul of Frank Renda, a brutal mobster played by Al Lettieri. The conflict escalates and is finally resolved after Renda and his crew machinegun Majestyk’s watermelon crop. Bronson is at his hard-fisted best in this kickass film.
Memorable quote (Vincent Majestyk is sitting in a diner, when Frank Renda walks in with his henchmen):
Renda (takes a seat across from Majestyk): “Hey, how ya doin there, buddy? You okay? I just came by to tell you something. Maybe you know it already. But I wanna make sure. I’m gonna kill ya.”
Majestyk (pointing across the diner): “Hey, a couple cops over there.”
Renda: “Yeah, otherwise you might be dead already.”
Majestyk: “When is this big event gonna take place?”
Renda: “What’s the difference? Tomorrow, next week. You can hide in that basement in the police station. But I’m gonna get you, my baby.”
Majestyk: “Seems like there’s no use trying to get on your good side.” (stands and punches Renda in the face with a vicious right cross).
Majestyk: “Hey, why don’t you call the cops?”
Death Wish followed Mr. Majestyk, and was a box office hit. It was among the top 20 highest grossing movies of 1974 (it was beat by notables such as The Godfather part II, Chinatown staring Jack Nicholson, Eastwood’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds, and the top earning film of the year, the Mel Brooks comedy, Blazing Saddles).
In Death Wish, Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a man whose wife and daughter are attacked by New York City thugs. Kersey, his torment unrelieved, takes to the streets with a revolver and goes hunting for muggers.
Paul Kersey: “Any chance of catching these men (those who raped and killed his wife and daughter)?
Cop: “There’s a chance, sure.”
Kersey: “Just a chance?”
Cop: “I’d be less than honest if I gave you more hope, Mr. Kersey. In this city, that’s the way it is.”
Bronson made four sequels to Death Wish. All were average action movies – not great, but watchable. The first two were low budget films, and were quite profitable; Death Wish II and III earned $16 million apiece in domestic box office revenue. The final two were far less popular – Death Wish V only generated $1.7 million in receipts.
In 1975, Bronson teamed with director Walter Hill (notable for 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy, Red Heat with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis) in Hard Times, the story of a depression era street fighter in New Orleans. Bronson, as bareknuckle brawler Chaney, joins slippery promoter Speed (James Coburn), and they climb the ranks and go after the big money. Bronson, at his taciturn best, is superb, as is the fast talking Coburn.
Lucy Simpson: “What does it feel like to knock somebody down?”
Chaney (Bronson): It makes me feel a hell of a lot better than it does him.”
Lucy: “That’s not a reason.”
Chaney: “Hey, there’s no reason about it. Just money.”
The next Charles Bronson movie that must be included among his best was filmed in 1981, when Bronson was sixty. This movie is Death Hunt, the story of a reclusive trapper in the Yukon who is wrongfully accused of murder by a pack of fellow trappers. Lee Marvin plays a lead role as Mountie Edgar Millen, and is tasked to bring Albert Johnson (Bronson) in for questioning. But the trappers try to kill Johnson, who flees across the frozen wasteland and avoids and kills many of his pursuers. Bronson’s portrayal of a solitary mountain man is perfect; this underrated adventure movie is a must see for tough guy fans.
Speaking of tough guys and gritty tales set in harsh winter environments, if you like this kind of stuff, you might check out STATELINE, or my other novels featuring Dan Reno.Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment September 12, 2013
The tough guy action movie genre covers a lot of ground – from sci-fi movies like The Terminator, to war pictures, to Mafia films (Goodfellas, The Godfather), to cop movies, to boxing flicks (the Rocky series), to Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies.
Kick ass stuff, all the above.
You might think, geez, there are tons of these movies to choose from. But if you only consider the ones worth watching, the list shrinks considerably.
The reality is, there’s a pretty short list of actors who effectively deliver the goods in this arena. I’m talking about the actors with style and presence, the ones you love to watch take down the bad guys.
There are plenty of pretenders out there too, and you know them when you see them (usually that’s when you turn the channel). Continue reading →Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment