'A Dangerous Man': The perplexing life and erratic career of the enigma that is Steven Seagal.

Written by David Weeks
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steven seagal david weeks zani 1.

In these days of global information sharing networks and investigative journalists, very few movie icons have areas of their lives which remain secret or unexplored and yet much of Martial Arts Master and action-movie legend Steven Seagal's reputation is largely based upon the unconfirmed – and much rejected –

claim that he was some kind of covert agent, allied to the CIA. Certainly, Seagal himself has refused to give any details but has allowed the persona – created in the early stages of his film career - to be believed by his adoring fans and perpetuated the image via many of his movies, in which he has played the role of an ex-CIA operative with brooding conviction.

In many ways Seagal's own life has been stranger than fiction and this article will seek to collate the various diverse threads of his personal life and movie, TV and martial arts career, to attempt to define the enigma that is Steven Seagal.

'The Path Beyond Thought'.

/steven seagal david weeks zani 2Although often portrayed as of Italian descent, due to his dark good looks, Steven Seagal was born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1951, to a Jewish father and Irish-American Catholic mother; a religious mix which may have prompted Seagal's later exploration of religions and immersion in Tibetan Buddhism.

The young Seagal was fascinated by the sounds of black Blues musicians – particularly guitarists – and matched this obsession with a keen interest in Eastern culture; presumably prompted by his taking up karate and Aikido when in his early teens.

Upon achieving his black belt in Aikido – a Martial Art which relies upon redirecting an opponent's force and is known for its joint locks and throws – the 17 year old Seagal made the brave decision to forego college and to relocate to Japan in order to study the art he'd grown to love, directly from the Japanese masters.

By his own account Seagal battled Japanese xenophobia and had to regularly 'prove himself' in the dojo; battling higher-ranked students in brutal contests designed to intimidate him into leaving.

Undaunted, Seagal immersed himself in the Japanese culture and language and married a young Japanese girl Miyako Fujitani. By the time he'd achieved his 5th Dan – he would eventually become a 7th Dan black belt in Tenshin Aikido – Seagal opened his own dojo; becoming the first Westerner to do so in the 'home of Aikido' but this too became a constant battle for him, as the more traditionally-minded Japanese resented his doing so and continued to send high-ranking martial artists to 'challenge' him to a fight; hoping that if he lost he would leave the dojo in disgrace. Even the Yakuza – the Japanese mafia – attempted to intimidate Seagal into handing his successful dojo over to them.

In later years, when Seagal began to use stunt doubles for his movie fight scenes or had several fight sequences 'speeded-up' in order to make them look more impressive, there were many who ridiculed or doubted his martial arts ability. Those who actually trained with Seagal though are fulsome in their praise of their Sensei and a DVD entitled 'The Path Beyond Thought', released without any fanfare, showed the young Seagal tutoring his students and demonstrating moves and left little doubt that he was 'the real deal'. Indeed, Seagal had been perfecting a style of self-defence that was very street-practical and involved damaging blows and kicks to vulnerable areas, as much as it relied upon disrupting an opponent's balance through wrist control or evasive movements. [He'd also mastered swordsmanship, in his immersion in Japanese martial culture.]

In the early 1980's Seagal began travelling back-and-forth between Japan and the United States and this is the area of his life which would become the subject of so much later conjecture. Facts are sketchy as to what exactly Seagal was doing during this period. In later years, when he was initiating his film career and creating a persona, Seagal would make vague claims about being a covert agent for the United States; claiming that he'd been approached to use his martial art skills and command of the Japanese language to aid the CIA in several Far East operations.

steven seagal david weeks japan zani 1.j
These claims have never been proven or disproven - obviously it's not in the CIA's best interest to discuss their covert operations in foreign countries – but, years later, an ex-CIA agent claimed that Seagal had 'stolen' his stories from him, after he'd approached Seagal with ideas for a movie based upon his own exploits.
There is no doubt that Seagal is a legitimate 'sharp-shooter' and has demonstrated his ability with a gun in his reality-series 'Lawman' and that he possesses an in-depth knowledge of explosives and the tactics of covert agents / agencies. However, this is knowledge / skills which he could have acquired through various sources and not necessarily something he gained in his early thirties via working alongside the CIA. Certainly his ex-wife Miyako was adamant that Seagal had no connection whatsoever with the CIA but then, that's the kind of thing embittered ex-wives say.

Regardless, Seagal opened a dojo in Hollywood – left Miyako and their two children behind – and relocated permanently to America; marrying American TV actress Adrienne LaRussa; a 'marriage' which was quickly annulled when it became evident that Seagal had not actually divorced Miyako yet.

steven seagal david weeks zani 4Seagal was beginning to attract the attention of movie producers via his role as fight co-ordinator / advisor on several films, as well as his accounts of his 'adventures' in Japan, to his well-connected Hollywood students at his dojo and, in 1988, Warner Brothers Studio offered the handsome enigma a contract, despite his never having acted before. A new kind of action-movie star was about to explode upon the screen.

"Yo; f**k-nuts." [Out For Justice.]

At the relatively advanced age – [for a newly-discovered talent to debut] – of 36, Steven Seagal made his movie debut and set the template for most of his movies to follow. 'Nico: Above The Law', introduced the recurring themes of Steven's film career; a regretted CIA past; a knowledge of martial arts and Eastern culture; Mafia-Yakuza-Tong connections; the moody, loner cop persona. The blurring of fantasy and reality commenced here; accentuated by the use of actual photos of the young Seagal and images of him teaching Aikido, as part of the background of his character Nico Toscani; a Chicago cop with a 'shady' past, who becomes involved in trying to bust a drug-smuggling operation / planned assassination, involving the CIA; even though he is suspended from duty at the time and endangering his own family by pursuing the case.

What lifted this movie above all of the other action films of this period were the brutally realistic fight scenes. Unlike the balletic grace of the high-kicking Jean-Claude Van Damme or the John Wayne-esque slugging of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Seagal actually looked like he was having a fight. His encounters were violent; a mix of martial arts and pure street-fighting and the graphic depictions of limbs being broken and twisted and heads being smashed through windows were welcomed by action movie fans, who were growing tired of the same old scenarios. Seagal's brutal version of 'street-effective' Aikido had found a lucrative niche in the market.

Following the annulment of his second 'marriage' – [and managing to finally actually divorce his first wife] – Seagal embraced his new celebrity lifestyle and married the beautiful model turned actress Kelly LeBrock. In 1990 they teamed up professionally to co-star in Seagal's second movie 'Hard To Kill', which cemented his reputation as Hollywood's rising star.

steven seagal david weeks japan kelly lebrock At the time of making the movie LeBrock was a bigger star than Seagal but, by the time of its successful release, Seagal had superseded her fame and LeBrock was hardly heard from again, as she settled into the role of housewife-mother.
Seagal plays a detective, investigating corruption, who is ambushed by 'bent' cops. His wife is murdered and Seagal himself presumed dead but – get this – he is 'hard to kill' [.] and remains in a coma for seven years, before waking. LeBrock is his improbably sexy nurse, who helps him back to full health, in order that he may exact revenge upon his wife's killers.

[This film features the first appearance of the iconic Seagal ponytail, as well as the first appearance of a hairpiece. In 'Above The Law', Seagal's hair was noticeably thinning and, yet, miraculously, he has a luxuriant thatch in 'Hard To Kill'. At least these early hairpieces looked realistic. As his hair continued to thin and he required ever-larger wigs to cover his balding pate Seagal would begin to strongly resemble Dracula, in his later movies.]

'Hard To Kill' continued where 'Above The Law' had left off, regarding graphic violence and Seagal's bloody rampage of vengeance – which included driving a broken pool cue through a villain's head - was not for the faint-hearted. However, 'Marked For Death' tried hard to supersede its brutality.

/steven seagal david weeks zani basil wallace screwface.jSeagal plays a retiring drug enforcement agent, hoping for a 'quiet life' back in his old hometown but becoming embroiled in a drugs war there with a vicious Jamaican drug-lord, who 'marks Seagal for death' via some sort of weird voodoo ceremony. The plot then veers between black magic mumbo-jumbo and scenes of extreme Seagalian brutality, before the final sword-fighting showdown with one of the best villains in all of Seagal's movies; Basil Wallace as 'Screwface'. [A good name for a prostitute, you'd've thought but not so much for a Jamaican drug-lord.]

With his next movie Seagal would – in many people's eyes; [including mine] – reach his peak. Very rarely has the 6' 5" Seagal looked so physically imposing and 'Out For Justice' grips the viewer from first frame to last; the entire film encompassing just one evening in the life of Italian-American cop Seagal. The incredibly simple storyline centres around Seagal hunting the psychotic Mafia 'wannabe' killer of his best friend and partner. The movie is gritty, realistic and benefits once again from one of the better villains in the form of William Forsythe's crack-smoking killer Richie.

The fight scenes are the best in any Seagal movie and the pool room / bar sequence, in which Seagal – taunted that he's 'only brave because he has a gun and a badge' - puts aside his gun and obliterates the entire bar of brawlers is a classic of violent cinema and, unsurprisingly, has been downloaded onto YouTube for fans to enjoy over-and-over again.

If 'Out For Justice' was Seagal's finest moment, then 1992's 'Under Siege' was the closest he came to genuine superstardom; being his highest-grossing movie at the box-office. This was the forty year-old Seagal's breakthrough into mainstream success and gave him an all-too-brief taste of global stardom; propelling him temporarily into the forefront of all of the action movie heroes, in an era when every second movie at the cinemas was an 'action blockbuster'.

Seagal plays Casey Ryback, an ex-Navy SEAL, now playing out his time before retiring, as a 'ship's cook' on the aircraft carrier USS Missouri. Second-in-command Gary Busey leads a mutiny and allows a group of terrorists – led by the ever-dependable Tommy Lee Jones, as an ex-CIA assassin – to invade the ship and attempt to steal its nuclear weaponry.

steven seagal david weeks zani under siege.
This is the first movie where we see Seagal's 'skills' with explosives and a wide variety of weapons and he gives a convincing portrayal of someone who has a covert-operative past; further fuelling the rumours that he had a genuine 'shady' past; something which helped attract curious movie-goers and boosted his box-office appeal.

Some critics uncharitably dismissed 'Under Siege' as 'Die Hard on a ship' and there were many parallels between the lone 'chef' running around the battleship, defeating hordes of terrorists single-handedly via surreptition and the Bruce Willis action classic. However, Willis's effort lacked the classic knife-fighting finale between Seagal and Jones.

Buoyed by the huge success of 'Under Siege' Seagal embarked upon a highly personal project. 'On Deadly Ground' was Seagal's directorial debut and a movie which explored one of his over-riding concerns in real life; man's destruction of the environment.

Seagal plays an oil-rig fire-fighter with some kind of CIA-type background, who turns against the corporate giant he's working for – headed by a gloriously over-the-top Michael Caine – and defends the Native Alaskan Inuit Indians against Caine's bullying attempts to rob them of their land, in order that he may drill for oil there.

steven seagal david weeks zani basil wallace screwface on deadly ground zani 1.There were some good fight scenes, most notably another bar-room brawl, in which he brutally dispatches about a dozen assailants and then humiliates a racist bully. [This is the famous "What is the essence of a man?" scene, which inspired the title for my book on male violence.] However, critics felt that - though it was an admirable cause to 'champion' in a movie – Seagal's heavy-handed attempts at forcing environmental awareness upon the viewer – as well as some weird 'spirit guide' dream sequences - in the midst of what was ostensibly an action movie, hindered the flow of the story. The cinema-goers agreed and 'On Deadly Ground' failed to emulate its predecessor's success. Although still early in his film career, Steven Seagal had already peaked as a box-office phenomenon. Other successes would follow but never again would Seagal achieve that level of stardom.

Things went awry in his private life as well, when serial-womaniser Seagal was divorced by LeBrock, after she discovered he was having an affair with the nanny of their two children, Arissa Wolf; who would go on to have a child herself with Seagal.

'Under Siege 2' was a blatant attempt to immediately recapture the winning formula which had raised him to such dizzying heights and he reprised the role of Casey Ryback, the former Navy SEAL, now running a successful restaurant.

When Ryback's brother dies he arranges to meet the niece he hasn't seen in years, on a train. Of course, the train gets hijacked by terrorists and Ryback is once again forced to wage a one-man war against incredible odds, in order to 'save the day'. [And also features another great knife-fighting sequence.]

Although 'Under Siege 2' had a relatively big budget and a selection of decent supporting actors, it never managed to reach the heights of the original. Nevertheless, Seagal's fans were appeased, as there was lots of action and the film managed to keep Seagal's career on track for a while longer. [See what I did there?]

'Executive Decision' was an interesting film choice to follow this, as Seagal elected to co-star behind the main actors Kurt Russell and Halle Berry in this effective action thriller; this time set on a plane.

Seagal's next starring role though was a worrying portent of things to come. 1996's 'Glimmer Man' – as an idea - looked good on paper; a cop with a suspicious indeterminate past is teamed up with a wise-cracking black partner [Kennan Ivory Wayans], in the hunt for a religious-freak serial killer but becomes the main suspect himself. Unfortunately, the reality of the finished project didn't live up to its initial promise.

/steven seagal david weeks glimmer man zani 1.
Seagal was noticeably heavier, although – at this point – his weight gain didn't really matter, as his 6' 5" frame carried the extra pounds reasonably well. Much like the iconic John Wayne before him, Seagal merely looked even more physically imposing than he had before. However, this was the first movie in which Seagal also opted to wear shiny Oriental clothing and Buddhist prayer beads; prompting much good-natured banter between the two cops about Seagal's attire. Problem was; Seagal had now adopted this mode of dress in 'real life' and some were beginning to deride the hefty, egotistical, toupee-wearing, garishly-clothed actor.

Anyway, turns out that Seagal's character is ex-CIA; [there's a surprise.]; there's Russian Mafia involved; the religious nut gets killed but there's a copy-cat killer out there and here's the worst part of the whole movie, for me. The climactic fight scene between Seagal and the killer is speeded-up... For the first time Seagal needed 'artificial' help to look good in a fight scene and, unfortunately, it would not be the last.

'Fire Down Below' was better received and was Seagal's second attempt at blending martial arts action with an ecological message. This time he played an undercover agent, working as a carpenter in a small rural community in the hills of Kentucky, whilst surreptitiously investigating the illegal dumping of toxic waste in the mountains.

/steven seagal david weeks marty stuart zani 1.jpgThe film also introduced viewers to Seagal's love of music for the first time, as he climbed on stage to play guitar with country singer Marty Stuart at the town dance. The film featured several other country stars and even had former country singer-songwriter turned actor Kris Kristofferson as the main villain. The ecological 'message' behind the movie was better accepted, perhaps partly because there were no strange dream sequences or CIA past and Seagal's character was one of his most likeable; seeming genuinely interested in helping the townspeople and even falling in love with a shy local woman. [One of the more believable romances in Seagal's films.] It also helped that there was some enjoyably brutal fight sequences.

What happened next would change the course of both Seagal's life and his movie career. As he stubbornly pressed ahead with plans for another 'message movie', Seagal's long-time movie partner Jules Nasso was making his own plans and they involved organised crime.

Life imitates art: Seagal meets the Mafia, for real.

In the late 1990's Seagal began spending increasing amounts of time in the Far East – particularly in Tibet – as he immersed himself in Buddhism; embracing the whole philosophy of the 'religion' and even being 'recognised' as a Tulku; a reincarnation of a Tibetan lama. [A religious teacher, not a South American camel.]

Seagal's studies of Tibetan Buddhism had a profound impact upon him and he announced that he 'no longer wanted to make violent movies' and would only be making films with a 'positive message'. This news displeased Jules Nasso immensely.

Nasso had been Seagal's movie-making partner since the beginning, enjoying a lucrative living from helping to finance Seagal's pictures and then reaping the rewards of the box-office profits. Nasso could see no way that movies purely about Seagal's ecological concerns or religious beliefs would entice anybody to watch and the pair clashed over Seagal's plans.

Undaunted, Seagal pressed ahead with the script for his next concept. 'The Patriot' was an obviously sincere attempt by Seagal to get his message about man-creating-havoc-with-nature across via serious acting and minimal action. So determined was he to see this project reach fruition that Seagal invested large quantities of his own money into making the movie. Unfortunately for him, Nasso was right. No major studio wanted to distribute the finished project and the film flopped badly. The message to Seagal from the fans and the studios was simple: 'no fight scenes or action sequences = no bums on seats.'

/steven seagal david weeks zani 33.There was a climactic fight scene with the militia leader who deliberately poisoned the local farming community with a lethal man-made toxin stolen from the military but, for the bulk of the film, Seagal – a naturopathic doctor – searches for a cure for the toxin and nurses a variety of humans and animals in a 'doctory', caring kind of way.

Bitterly disappointed by the failure of the venture, Seagal took a break from movies and retreated to his Buddhist lifestyle, to lick his wounds and rethink his strategy; staying in a Tibetan monastery for a period. Jules Nasso, meanwhile, decided on a very different strategy of his own.

There were claims made later that Seagal had initially become involved with Nasso because he knew Nasso had Mob connections and was fascinated by the Mafia 'lifestyle'; claims strongly rejected by Seagal. Regardless, Nasso approached his mobster brother Vincent and Vincent Nasso – along with two other 'made men' – tracked Seagal down and tried to convince him that it would 'be in his best interests to listen to Jules and make action movies again'.

steven seagal david weeks zani 34.jTo his credit Seagal refused to be intimidated and, when the mobsters made a more determined attempt to 'make him an offer he couldn't refuse' – [well, that's what they do, apparently.] – FBI agents were waiting with wiretaps. Subsequently, the Nasso brothers and two other Mafia 'soldiers' from the infamous Gambino crime 'family' were arrested for 'conspiracy to commit extortion'. [Although they were arrested in 2001, their trial and consequent conviction didn't occur until several years later.]

Ironically then, considering the attempts by these men to 'force' Seagal back into making action movies, Steven had already made that decision by himself. Accepting that the only way that he could fulfil his philanthropic wishes and help others less fortunate than himself, was by making action movies, Seagal reluctantly returned to 'mainstream' movie-making with 2001's 'Exit Wounds'.

Noticeably slimmer than he had been in a long time, Seagal certainly seemed to be taking the project seriously. However, stories behind-the-scenes painted a very different picture of Seagal than the Buddhist philanthropist image he was drawing himself.

Rumours had abounded for years about Seagal's alleged bullying behaviour on movie sets. Apparently he considered stuntmen 'fair game'; as if the very brave – often violent – nature of their profession meant that they could be the recipient of actual kicks and punches and not just 'pulled' ones for the cameras.

The most oft-repeated anecdote though was one where Seagal allegedly came off second-best for once. The story circulated that Seagal had boasted that he 'couldn't be choked unconscious'. Stunt-man and Judo expert Gene LeBell promptly choked the star unconscious – much to the apparent delight of onlookers – but was then warned that it 'wouldn't be in his best interests' to share this anecdote. However, others did and – many years later – LeBell finally recounted the incident himself.

Thus, it was no surprise to on-set fight advisor Steven Quadros when he witnessed Seagal injure non-martial artist or stuntman DMX – [a rapper turned actor] – when they filmed their fight scene together. Indeed, the veteran martial artist / commentator Quadros was scathing afterwards in his opinion of Seagal 'the man'.

Thus, it was no surprise to on-set fight advisor Steven Quadros when he witnessed Seagal injure non-martial artist or stuntman DMX
Regardless of Seagal's bitterness about having to re-immerse himself in these kind of films, or the alleged off-screen confrontations with cast, crew and producers, 'Exit Wounds' was the perfect vehicle to reintroduce Seagal as an action-movie icon; although this is less obviously a 'Steven Seagal movie' than his previous efforts and is more of an ensemble piece, wherein his role could well have been played by somebody else. [And perhaps that was part of Seagal's disgruntled behaviour; the fact that he had less control over this movie and his character than in his previous efforts.]

'Exit Wounds' was typical of the new millennium's style-over-substance action movie; whereby 'arty' music-video-style speeded-up and/or slowed-down fight scenes to jarring music, took precedence over realistic action or believable plots. Seagal plays a demoted cop, transferred to the roughest precinct in the city, where he immediately becomes entangled with a plot involving crooked cops – [led by the physically impressive martial artist Michael Jai White] – and a supposed drug-dealer [DMX].

'Exit Wounds' was well-received by critics and fans alike and the success of the film helped bolster Seagal's flagging box-office reputation and maintain his 'star status' for a little while longer. It was strange then, that Seagal chose to follow this with a low-key co-starring role in 'Ticker'; playing a bomb-disposal expert, behind cop Tom Sizemore and serial bomber Dennis Hopper.

/steven seagal david weeks zani 55.j2002's 'Half Past Dead' was a more 'natural' successor to 'Exit Wounds' and, also, the 50 year old Seagal's 'last hurrah' at the box-office. Steven plays an undercover FBI agent, sent into prison to try and reinforce his 'friendship' with criminal Ja Rule – [yet another rapper trying his luck at acting; although the fact that he's only about 5' tall makes him a less-than-fearsome villain.] – in order to snare Rule's crime syndicate boss. However, things become complicated when some rogue commandos break into the prison in order to free a death-row convict whose buried gold bullion has never been found.

'Half Past Dead' has a similar feel to 'Exit Wounds'. However, the mass gunfire, explosions – but very little hand-to-hand combat – action scenes, failed to 'move' viewers and the movie flopped at the cinemas; signalling the abrupt ending of Steven Seagal's once-promising career as a mainstream movie star. Now, he would join the likes of his martial arts / action movie contemporary Jean-Claude Van Damme on the 'straight-to-DVD' shelves; existing only in that twilight world of hard-core fans and those seeking an easy-on-the-brain movie to watch with their pizza and beer.

'Submerged': Life as a straight-to-DVD actor.

2003's 'The Foreigner' was the beginning of Steven Seagal's lower-profile movie career, as a straight-to-DVD movie-maker. A strangely convoluted affair, Seagal plays Jon Cold, a spy-for-hire, who is delivering a mysterious package across Europe. [Many of Seagal's subsequent movies would be filmed in European or Far Eastern locations, due to the fact that it's cheaper than filming in America and these DVD's have much smaller budgets than mainstream movies.]

Cold is an anti-hero, in the style of Clint Eastwood's 'man-with-no–name' character and thus it's hard to feel any sympathy for either Cold or any of the other hired assassin-type characters in this movie; all of whom are making attempts on each other's' lives, as they trail the 'package' across Poland, Germany and France. This also marked the beginning of Seagal no longer being a stocky action-hero but becoming a round-faced, pot-bellied, Dracula-wig wearing ex-movie star in voluminous black clothing to disguise his increasing weight-gains; sleep-walking his way disinterestedly through a series of ever-worsening DVD's; the action becoming increasingly focused around gun-play and explosions and less around martial arts / hand-to-hand combat; reflecting Seagal's lack of athleticism as he entered his portly fifties. [And I'm a fan.]

Surprisingly, Seagal was enamoured enough with the Jon Cold character to bring him back for a sequel – [which annoyed many of his fans; who'd been clamouring for him to reprise the Casey Ryback role for years] - in the movie 'Black Dawn'. In this instalment Cold has infiltrated a gang of Chechen terrorists, intending to set off a nuclear bomb in America. The CIA at first believes that he's genuinely 'gone rogue' but then Cold teams up with a female CIA agent to foil the plot. [This movie is 'pants'.]

Cold is an anti-hero, in the style of Clint Eastwood's 'man-with-no–name' character
Also in 2003 Seagal was called to give evidence against the attempted Mafia extortionists. It wasn't an experience he enjoyed; especially when the defence attorney tried to discredit Seagal as a witness by claiming that he was a 'fantasist', who had fabricated an ex-CIA / covert operative past and that many of his claims were pure fiction and thus 'he shouldn't be believed'.

Seagal reacted badly to this questioning; stating angrily that 'it wasn't him on trial.' Fortunately, the jury didn't have to decide whether to believe Seagal or not, as the FBI promptly produced the taped evidence of the attempted extortion and the men were duly convicted.

Seagal's next movie 'Out For a Kill' is enjoyably quirky nonsense, involving Seagal as an archaeologist [.] who is framed by Chinese Tongs, when he discovers that they are using ancient Chinese artefacts he has 'discovered', to smuggle drugs. Upon his release from prison he hunts down the leaders of the Tongs, one-by-one, until the final face-off with the Tong's Head. 'Out For a Kill' is full of Eastern hocus-pocus and cod philosophy but also benefits from some decent fight scenes, including a brutal 'old-time Seagal' fight in a restaurant and a really weird sequence in a barber-shop, when Seagal confronts a monkey-style kung fu would-be assassin who – apparently – is able to climb walls and fly through the air. [Seagal movies had acceded to these modern 'wire-fu' acrobatics since 'Exit Wounds'.]

steven seagal david weeks zani 660.'Belly of the Beast' – [God knows why it's called that.] – sees Seagal as an ex-CIA operative, whose daughter is kidnapped in Thailand. There are plenty of weird moments to rival anything seen in 'Out For a Kill', such as old sorcerer guy whose trying to cast evil spells on Seagal's character; a transvestite thug – [hey, it is Thailand.] – an ex-partner from his CIA days, who happens to now be a Buddhist monk but gives up 'peace and love' in order to help Seagal kill lots of bad guys. The final fight scene is even more surreal than anything which preceded it in the movie, as Seagal uses firstly a gun and then a sword to defend himself against flying arrows.

At this point Seagal surprised everyone by releasing a critically well-received musical CD, 'Songs From the Crystal Cave'. This eclectic mix of Seagal original compositions features his guitar and vocal talents on a wide variety of musical genres, ranging from blues to reggae and spawned a single and accompanying music video, 'Girl, It's Alright'.

Music had been one of the young Seagal's first loves and the release of this album showed that Steven still had a passion for creativity, even if it wasn't currently reflected in his movies.

A cameo appearance in the Korean martial arts movie 'Clementine' followed, with Seagal as a cage-fighting 'baddie', before he returned to the starring role in the truly awful 'Out of Reach'. Without doubt, one of his worst movies, this is a prime example of Seagal's obviously not really wanting to appear in this puerile nonsense but doing so in order to fund his other genuine interests; his music and philanthropy; with Seagal becoming financially involved with donations to PETA [the animal rights organisation] and various Far East orphanages, as well as AIDS charities.

In 'Out of Reach', Seagal doesn't even bother speaking half of his own lines; they're dubbed by another actor who doesn't even sound like Seagal. The ridiculous plot centres around Seagals' 13 year old female pen-pal - [?? Best we don't go there.] - being kidnapped by a white slavery ring. Fortunately Seagal's an ex-covert agent – [surprise.] – and so he travels to Europe to save her. [If 'Black Dawn' was 'pants', then this movie is 'very-soiled-old-lady-pants-that-you-have-to-pick-up-off-the-floor-with–your-teeth', baaaaaaaad....]

Seagal becoming financially involved with donations to PETA [the animal rights organisation]
And yet...this was followed by the hugely entertaining 'Into the Sun', which proved that Seagal could still invest his time and energy into a movie if it held his interest or revolved around any of his passions; in this case, Japan and swords. Seagal plays a sword salesman / master, who also freelances for the CIA in Asia. The Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Tongs have made an unprecedented pact to team up and jointly distribute heroin. Understandably, the CIA is concerned and enlist the help of Seagal's character to bust the operation.

The thing which makes this film so enjoyable is that the main characters all adhere to 'the old ways' and largely eschew guns in favour of swords. Thus, instead of the endless impersonal gun battles and explosions we've been getting in recent Seagal efforts, there are plenty of brutal and bloody sword fights. Seagal is clearly in his element here, slicing his way through his adversaries and even engaging in several fist-fights which were of a higher calibre than of late.

steven seagal david weeks zani 57.jWhy then would he choose to follow 'Into the Sun' with the God-awful 'Submerged'? According to film critic Vern, in his highly-recommended analysis of Seagal's film career, 'Seagalogy', the basic script was changed mid-shooting. Originally it was to have been a sci-fi / horror movie about mutant creatures beneath the sea but, apparently, Seagal disliked the premise and wanted it changed into a straight action movie. It's never a good idea to start writing a script whilst actually filming it [.] and so it should be no surprise that 'Submerged' is a complete mess of a movie. [Which also begs the question; 'Why did Seagal agree to make the film in the first place, if he hated the plot so much'? Again, the suggestion was that money to fund his 'real' interests had become his over-riding concern when signing a contract; compelling him to make these sub-standard outings.]

For those of you who care; Seagal plays the leader of a group of mercenaries who attempt to rescue some brain-washed soldiers. The action is poor and the only real point of interest is that it co-stars former-footballer-turned-egomaniac Vinnie Jones.

'Today You Die' is another lacklustre movie, which also looks as though it's suffered from several re-writes along the way. There are scenes of black magic / dream imagery throughout the film but they never make much sense and certainly don't help the narrative along. Basically, if you're suicidal enough to want to rent this movie, ignore these scenes and concentrate upon the main gist, which is that Seagal's a thief who decides to 'go straight'; gets 'set-up'; goes to jail; befriends a black criminal inside; they escape together; Seagal gets revenge on the guy who framed him and then – in 'real life' now – gets sued by the film studio, who claim that the movie's such a mess because Seagal made "unauthorised changes to the script". [Ah-ha.]

'Mercenary For Justice' is barely any better, although at least the plot makes sense this time. Seagal plays a Gulf War veteran, turned mercenary, who is blackmailed into breaking a dangerous criminal out of jail. Cue lots of shooting, explosions and unsympathetic characters and you basically don't care who lives or dies and it was hard to imagine, at this point, what could revive Seagal's floundering career or reinvigorate his waning creative interest.

Enough to give anyone the Blues: Mojo Priest.

By 2005 Steven Seagal's career had reached its nadir and it appeared as if he had voluntarily committed career euthanasia. However, Seagal returned to the recording studio and re-emerged with the superb 'Mojo Priest' CD, a collection of originals and cover versions of his beloved Blues. An oh-so-welcome diversion from his bleak DVD's, the album showcased his virtuoso guitar-playing and genuine love for the genre and was so well-regarded, by fans and critics alike, that Seagal was inspired to go on a worldwide concert tour; promoting his 'labour of love' via a series of live shows and evidencing far more enthusiasm for his music than he had shown for making movies in a long, long time.

As if to underline this, Seagal then released the dross that was 'Shadow Man'. As if he could no longer be bothered to come up with an original concept, 'Shadow Man' featured the ex-CIA 'hero'; the deadly virus falling into the wrong hands; his daughter being kidnapped;; the action taking place in interchangeable European locations. They may as well have just spliced together scenes from his previous movies and still made a better effort than this shite.

Seagal returned to the recording studio and re-emerged with the superb 'Mojo Priest' CD, a collection of originals and cover versions of his beloved Blues
Amazingly, though, it's actually better than 'Attack Force'; which makes no bloody sense at all. By this point Seagal's friend – scriptwriter Joe Halpin – had been enlisted as a kind of mediator; trying to hastily rewrite scripts in order to satisfy both the studios – [who had approved the original scripts, in the first place] – and Seagal, who never seemed entirely happy with a script and would often demand changes halfway through filming; thus throwing everything into turmoil and, sometimes, necessitating the awful dubbing of someone else's voice in the editing stages.

Originally this was to have been another attempt at a sci-fi movie; with Seagal leading a crack team of military against invading aliens. However, somebody – [presumably Seagal?] – decided that this idea was pony and changed it mid-movie to 'European gangsters, high on a new super-drug', in order to explain their incredible strength in the fight scenes. [I preferred the alien scenario. It's not as if Seagal's movies were rooted in believability anyway, at this point.]

'Flight of Fury', meanwhile, wasn't even an original screenplay. It was a remake of 'Black Thunder'; though why they bothered to remake it is anyone's guess. Seagal is a pilot who has to infiltrate a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and recapture a stolen US experimental fighter jet. As I sat and watched this steaming heap of dung, I idly wondered how I could continue to justify my love of Seagal to those who ridiculed his weight-gains; the wooden acting; the obvious stunt doubles and atrocious dubbing; the Bela Lugosi's fat-younger-brother-hairpiece. I kept having to remind them – and myself – of the glory days; 'Out For Justice', 'Marked For Death', 'Under Siege'.

/steven seagal david weeks zani 100.And then, in 2007, there was a glimmer of hope. As if finally realising himself that he was besmirching his own fading reputation, Seagal produced his best movie performance in years. 'Renegade Justice' was a huge step-up from his previous DVD's and a nostalgic glimpse back into his 'golden prime'.

Seagal plays a man with an unspecified past, who turns up in a rough gang-infested neighbourhood, in order to get revenge upon whoever killed his cop son. The movie has a similar feel to the ultimate Seagal classic 'Out For Justice', as it revolves around an embittered Seagal going around town, questioning and beating every possible suspect in his quest to find the killer and the film contains the best hand-to-hand fight scenes Seagal has involved himself in for many years.

Seemingly inspired to take acting seriously again, by the positive feedback the film garnered, Seagal followed it up with the equally good 'Pistol Whipped'. Finally 'stretching himself' as an actor, Seagal plays an alcoholic ex-cop, whose life is falling apart and who has accrued such huge gambling debts that the only way he can pay them off is by becoming a hired assassin for a mysterious group, who target criminals. Reluctantly joining them, Seagal's resolve is sorely tested when his ex-cop partner becomes his next designated target.

Famous for the amount of times my wife laughed whenever Seagal drawled "Looooord ha' mercy", in a heavy Southern accent, 'Kill Switch' was a slight backward step in this mini-revival. Seagal plays a homicide detective hunting a serial killer/killers but – unlike 'Glimmer Man' – there are few light touches. Indeed, the fight scenes are brutal; including a cringe-inducing moment when he makes a guy bite down on a bar and then punches him in the back of the head, smashing his teeth out in the process. [A scene that made Rodney King feel a bit better.]

Next came the truly weird 'Against the Dark', which definitely wasn't a 'typical' Seagal movie. In fact, he's not even in it that much and this appears to be one of those throw-away movies he makes occasionally just to pay the bills. A virus has turned half the population into vampires and Seagal is the leader of a sword-wielding group of 'hunters', trying to protect what remains of humanity. Basically, it's a generic horror movie with little bits of Seagal in it. [Interesting that he'd previously baulked at mutant undersea creatures and aliens but didn't mind being in a vampire movie. Maybe it's his hair-piece, which felt an affinity?.]

Just when I was beginning to worry about where these movies were going, Seagal made 'Driven To Kill' and it's a huge improvement again.

Seagal is the leader of a sword-wielding group of 'hunters', trying to protect what remains of humanity.
Seagal plays a reformed Russian gangster, who turns up for his estranged daughter's wedding just in time to see her brutally murdered. Unsurprisingly, he immediately returns to his old ultra-violent ways in his quest to find out who was responsible and exact a bloody vengeance on them. It was good to see Seagal playing a different type of character, instead of the usual cop / ex-CIA persona and the film contains lots of satisfying old-style Seagal violence; via hand-to-hand combat, guns and knives.

'The Keeper', though, maintains the erratic nature of Seagal's current form and takes a step back down the 'quality ladder'. It's not as bad as many of his straight-to-DVD offerings; just uninteresting. Seagal plays an ex-cop who's hired to bodyguard a friend's daughter, who's under threat of kidnapping. The main problem with the movie – as with many of this era – is that you don't really care about any of the characters.

'A Dangerous Man' begins promisingly, with Seagal being imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit. When he is released from jail six years later, Seagal is not a happy bunny and you hope that he's going to take his anger out on some redneck racists / serial killers / Millwall fans, etc but no, it all becomes strangely surreal from this point. Seagal beats some guys up; steals their car; observes some Chinese gangsters in a shootout with police; rescues a kidnapped girl from said gangsters, [along with their drugs money]; intervenes in a dispute between the Russian Mafia and other assorted villains. [If that's what your first couple of days out of jail were like, no-one would ever want to leave prison.]

mv5bmtu5njezmta3of5bml5banbnxkf'Born To Raise Hell' was written by Seagal and takes us close to where we're about to surprisingly go with his life and career. He plays a narcotics cop, looking for the killer of his partner. He suspects a Russian Mafia boss is involved – [strange that the Russian Mafia have seemingly become his new obsession; replacing the CIA, poor rejected dears] – but Seagal ends up allying himself with the gangster, in order to catch the killer; who turns out to be a mutual enemy of the two men.

And now we come to 'Steven Seagal: Lawman', which took a hell-of-a-lot of people by surprise, when it was revealed that Seagal had secretly been working as a part-time Deputy Sheriff for 20 years; ever since graduating from police academy, at the end of the 1980's, just as his movie career was taking off. [And going a long way to explaining his seeming obsession with 'cop roles'.]

Finally deciding to 'tell the world', Seagal made a 'reality TV' series in 2009, chronicling his interactions with other obese policemen, as they patrolled the relatively crime-free streets of Jefferson County, Louisiana.

Although it was interesting to see Seagal in action 'for real'; 'Lawman' wasn't the most action-filled TV series ever and made viewers wonder whether he needed to make violent movies in order to compensate for the fact that f**k-all of interest ever seemed to happen in Jefferson County.

As if sensing this, Seagal followed up with a fictional TV cop series 'True Justice', co-written with his friend Joe Halpin; which centred around a team of elite undercover cops, investigating everything from drug dealers to homicides.

"Talk To My Ass."

Surprisingly, after nearly a decade's absence, Steven Seagal returned to movie theatre screens but not as the headline star; rather, as the main villain in the movie 'Machete', starring Danny Trejo and featuring a host of other stars in cameo roles; notably Robert DeNiro.

As of 2012, it's uncertain whether this renewed exposure on the silver screen – added to the mainstream success of his TV series 'True Justice' – would propel Seagal back to the heights of stardom he'd previously enjoyed in the 1990's, or whether his career will continue to be consigned to the low-budget DVD's and ensemble TV roles. Certainly, his music would appear to be the best chance Seagal has of continuing to evidence original creativity; especially as he's recently celebrated his 60th birthday; which one would have thought places a limit upon his ability to continue in hard-hitting action roles.

a host of other stars in cameo roles; notably Robert DeNiro.
And yet...continuing his capacity to surprise, clips began appearing on YouTube of Seagal helping to train top UFC mixed martial artists, such as the awesome middleweight champion Anderson Silva; who credited Seagal with teaching him the kick which sensationally knocked out Vitor Belfort [?.] and for advising him in training for his title defence against Chael Sonnen. There is little doubt that Seagal is held in high esteem by many top martial artists and yet negative comments continue to be voiced by those who consider him to be an arrogant bully.

The whole Seagal enigma has been partially resolved via his revealing that he has been a part-time cop for decades; thereby explaining why he often gravitates towards those roles and why he is – in real-life – such an accurate marksman with various weapons. However, the rumours about a possible CIA / covert agency past, prior to relocating permanently to America, have never been proven or exposed as a fabrication; although many doubt the veracity of these claims. Until Seagal himself chooses to definitively explain this period in his life, it will remain a source of controversy.

111steven seagal david weeks zani 111.As for Seagal 'the man', opinion is sharply divided. Despite his undoubted financial generosity to many worthy causes and the high esteem he is held in, in the Far East, as a Buddhist philanthropist; controversy and innuendo continue to haunt Seagal in America. Currently married to a young Mongolian former dancer Erdenetuya Batsukh – who has given him yet another child – Seagal has been accused of sexual harassment, on many occasions, by female employees and actresses.

A case against him, in 2010, which temporarily halted the production of 'Lawman' – due to its seriousness - was eventually dropped, by a former employee, who'd accused him of various sexually-related offences. However, Seagal stated that he'd fired her 'for taking drugs' and the fact that she didn't pursue the allegations would seem to suggest that – on this occasion, at least – Seagal was innocent.

And so the contradiction continues; the man who left his homeland at a young age, in order to pursue his martial arts obsession; reaching an impressive standard of skill in his chosen art; the 'missing years', filled with rumour as to exactly what Seagal did during the early 1980's; the burning ambition to become a Hollywood action movie star; the huge success of his early movies; the broken marriages and stories of infidelity; the embracing of Buddhism and waning desire to make violent movies; the physical decline; the tales of his bullying behaviour on movie sets and 'assaults' upon stuntmen; the generosity to worthy causes; the lack of interest in the straight-to–DVD era movies; his numerous chat show appearances over the years, in which Seagal came across as a smiling, good-humoured man who had an ability to laugh at himself; the continuing accusations of sexual impropriety; the family man; the serious musician; the part-time cop.

 Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you...Steven Seagal. Please come to your own conclusions.
[David Weeks is a martial arts instructor and author of 'ESSENCE OF A MAN: A Study in Male Violence and the Use of Weapons'. Amazon.com or Kindle. ISBN 9781468072815 ]
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David Weeks

David Weeks

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