If, over the last few years, you’ve been a regular reader of Vern’s equally insightful and hilarious movie reviews on his “web sight” or on the Ain’t It Cool News, you already know that he does some of his best writing when exploring the films of Steven Seagal. Hence, it’s an immense treat to find that Vern has now written a whole book on the subject, analyzing every single one of the action star’s flicks, his albums and even his energy drink! “Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal” will be released on June 10, 2008 (you can pre-order it now on Amazon), but I had the chance to read an advance copy and to ask a few questions to the man himself, Vern.
Is there any other action movie star whose on-screen persona is as interlinked with his (alleged) real life as Seagal, whose CIA background, mafia connections and interest in other cultures keep showing up in his films? A book on “Schwarzeneggerology” or “Stalloneology” couldn’t be as focused, right?
I don’t know of another one it would work for. Years ago, the more Seagal movies I watched the more of these themes and motifs I noticed, that’s why I thought this book would be worth doing. I figured watching them all in order and taking notes would create some kind of deeper understanding of how they all fit together, and if not at least it would be an excuse to watch all of them. But it really worked out.
People always say I should do another one on Bruce Willis or Jean-Claude Van Damme or somebody, but their movies don’t connect the way Seagal’s do. They’re actors who take on different roles. Schwarzenegger is in alot of great movies but they’re all over the place. He’s a republican governor but he does TOTAL RECALL which I think has some pretty left wing politics in it, I don’t think that’s how he feels about the world. So he does a good job being a tool for different directors, but Seagal is a different phenomenon. Every movie he does feels like a Seagal movie, it has some element of him expressing his world view and his obsessions, and you can’t picture Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in the same movie without some major changes.
If, instead of tacking it on at the end of “On Deadly Ground” after two hours of wrist-breaking and blowing shit up, Seagal had passed along his environmental message in a Powerpoint presentation/documentary, would he now have an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize?
Yes. Well, no. But I always point that out, that speech at the end was a decade before AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. It’s a silly movie but it’s sincere and the gist of what it’s trying to say is true. It’s ahead of its time. But he got alot of shit for that speech. He learned his lesson because in FIRE DOWN BELOW he has a really righteous speech about working class people selling out their families and towns to big business and he put that speech in the middle of the movie instead of at the end. He just walks into a church, tells everyone to be seated and starts talking.
As one of the rare film critics who devotes much of his attention to direct-to-video releases, are you glad Seagal has now made more of those than movies that came out in theatres, or would like him to return to the big screen?
Well, I would love to see him return to the big screen but unless some Tarantino or somebody develops a fascination with him or unless he ever wants to make UNDER SIEGE 3 I don’t think it will happen. Luckily he has a good thing going now with the DTV. He was in a bad spot just last year and it seemed like he wasn’t putting much effort into his movies anymore. But then he came out with a really fierce revenge movie called URBAN JUSTICE and his upcoming one PISTOL WHIPPED is even better from a Seagalogical point of view. I’m finishing up the chapter on that for the Titan Books edition and it’s the perfect ending to the book. In the movie he’s not only forced by Lance Henriksen to become a hitman for the government, he’s trying to stop drinking and to be a better father. If you watch all of these it’s easy to see it as a symbol for him trying to improve his movies and it could definitely be sort of a rebirth for him.
What would you say is Seagal’s best movie? His worst?
My favorite is OUT FOR JUSTICE. It’s his best directed (by the late John Flynn, director of ROLLING THUNDER) and it has such a brutal tone to it. It all takes place in one neighborhood over one day with Seagal tracking down William Forsythe to avenge him for killing his partner. And Seagal’s character is kind of crazy and mean, he beats up so many people along the way. The only real silly part is a little epilogue about a dog and the fact that Seagal tries to do an accent for the whole movie. Otherwise I think it would be critically acclaimed.
My least favorite would have to be one of the DTV ones like FLIGHT OF FURY (a remake of a Michael Dudikoff movie called BLACK THUNDER, but the studio didn’t tell Seagal or the guy who rewrote the script that it had already been made once) or SUBMERGED (which was shot as a movie about mutants on a submarine but in postproduction became about mind control and there’s only about ten minutes on the submarine). Some people would say ATTACK FORCE (which was shot to be either about alien invaders or European gangsters, they went with the gangsters) but I sort of get a kick out of the minimalism in that one. It ends abruptly without even resolving a subplot about the water supply being poisoned.
And then the most important one is ON DEADLY GROUND because Seagal directed it and it’s the most pure expression of what he’s about. And it combines the good aspects of the best with the silly aspects of the worst, making it very entertaining. And I love that it makes a good point that most action movies would not bother to address and is completely sincere about it.
How the hell did you get David Gordon Green to write the foreword of Seagalogy?
Ha, I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask that. Well, I wanted somebody really inappropriate and respectable and my first choice was actually Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader. He was really nice about it but declined on the grounds that he knew nothing about Seagal in any way and wouldn’t have a clue what to write. Then I struggled for a while trying to think of who else to ask, and I was reading some article about PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. And I remembered that I sort of knew a guy who knew David Gordon Green. So he hooked me up.
Since I associate David Gordon Green with those arty slo-mo and voiceover movies like GEORGE WASHINGTON I thought he would be a pretty funny choice for the book. But for some reason I also had a hunch that he would be into Seagal, which turned out to be true. He even knew alot of the DTV ones. He turns out to be a really cool guy and very interested in these types of movies, I think there’s alot more to him than people realize. Who knows, maybe he’ll end up being that director that gets Seagal back on the big screen.