“…Here are your choices: talk or die”
– Unknown voice actor dubbing one of Steven Seagal’s lines, Attack Force
Rob Schneider had this great story that he came out of his dressing room and (Seagal) said ‘I just read the greatest movie script ever’ and Rob Schneider said “Who wrote it?” and he said “I did!”
– Norm MacDonald, New York Daily News
Note: this article is a dramatic expansion of this one, written by myself two years ago.
In 1988, film audiences were introduced to a theoretical oddity in cinema, in a nasty B-picture titled Above the Law. The plot wasn’t abnormal, a violent crime drama about a government agent turned detective whose marital Mafia connections give him insight into some deadly arms dealers. It had a good cast with Pam Grier and Henry Silva. What was weird, however, was its star. Instead of an established actor, this was the very first role for the lead: a ponytailed martial artist named Steven Seagal. Even vehicles for non-actors are usually made with the lead having gained respect or fame in some other field, but Seagal all but literally came out of nowhere. Most filmgoers didn’t know that this martial arts instructor had trained Creative Arts Agency co-founder and Hollywood powerbroker Mike Ovitz, who effectively gave him a film career.
Just to get this out of the way, this article is in no way a celebration of the man; Seagal is one of the most singularly loathsome celebrities (well, “celebrities”) in Hollywood. He’s intensely lazy and narcissistic. He has a long history of sexual assault accusations by romantic or sexual partners. He has ties to both the Mafia and Vladimir Putin, who granted him Russian citizenship in 2016 and forwhom he has worked as a propagandist. He acts as a surrogate for the Russian military and weapons industry. He was a deputy sheriff for Joe Arpaio. Acting in that role led him to drive through a house with a tank and execute a puppy. He once assaulted John Leguizamo for making fun of him on the set of Executive Decision and demanded Jenny McCarthy strip for him during an audition for Under Siege 2 despite the film having minimal nudity. He may be a compulsive liar. I’m unsure of the last role he played in which he was fully awake.
But Steven Seagal is truly fascinating; he’s something of a window into the culture, climate, and odd nature of Hollywood. He’s an example of how fickle the movie business and audience is to its stars, and conversely how even the biggest fück-ups in that business can survive. The entertainment industry has a tendency of finding things – people, tropes – that never quite go away, and he fits perfectly within that sphere.
Law was a stepping for Seagal, who lead around one film for the next four years: Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out for Justice (yes, they almost always use a similar naming convention), before finally hitting the A-list with Under Siege. Easily Seagal’s most iconic and memorable movie, it was his biggest film by far – it even scored an inexplicable cameo from then-President George H.W. Bush – and one of the many shameless Die Hard knockoffs of the early Nineties. After Tommy Lee Jones’ hammy, Mick Jagger-styled terrorist and Gary Busey’s occasionally cross-dressing treacherous Naval officer take over a battleship stocked with nuclear weapons, the only two people able to stop them are a Playboy model played by Erika Eleniak and Seagal’s seemingly harmless cook, Casey Ryback. The two sneak through the ship, giving Seagal ample opportunities and ways to murder terrorists; Ryback, you see, was secretly a Navy SEAL who had been demoted to a cook for being too awesome at killing people (or something; Seagal films have never been much for coherent storytelling).
This mysterious past was, and remains, a central trope in Seagal films, and the reason for that can be seen all the way back in Above the Law. Giving his cop hero Nico Toscani a CIA background may have seemed superfluous, but it was fundamental for Seagal’s personal brand for one reason: “legitimacy.” Seagal claimed to be a former CIA agent, with years of killing and espionage under his belt by the time he became both “the first white man to open a dojo in Japan” and a master of Aikido. And with his brutish martial art skills having none of the balletic grace of kung fu stars past, and the story having a powerful thematic dichotomy with his professed Buddhist faith, no one really questioned him; it all seemed real…right?
The truth came out the very next year, in one of two events that utterly killed the rising momentum the actor had achieved. The first came in the 1993 Spy Magazine profile “Man of Dishonor.” What makes John Connelly’s exposé so compelling is how exactly it manages to cut down Seagal’s stature and poise. It’s not just that it shows he wasn’t in the CIA (he took the stories of an ex-CIA agent he knew as his own), or that his dojo was not the first opened in Japan by a white person, or even that test audiences and crew members strongly disliked him. It revealed that this spiritual action hero had ties to the Mafia (who may be or have been using his films as a laundering scheme), was already a bigamist by the time he courted and married Kelly LeBrock, acted vindictively to anyone he felt slighted him, and had several sexual harassment cases hidden by the studios producing his films. The article creates a disturbing impression of a man not merely hiding beneath a fictitious shell, but using that shell to cruelly and shameless exploit his colleagues, family, sexual partners, and the filmgoing public.
However, never let it be said that Seagal was unable to do as much damage to himself as his opponents; his directorial debut the very next year put even that profile to shame. 1994’s On Deadly Ground attempted to marry Seagalian brutality with an environmentalist, social justice message; in it, broken hero Forrest Taft stops Michael Caine’s evil oil executive from using a giant pipeline to cause a horrific environmental disaster and force an Inuit nation off its land. Unfortunately, Seagal’s rampant narcissism and poor skill behind the camera turned it into a massive flop. It was slow, condescending, confused – how does blowing up the pipeline stop the disaster? – and insulting. The nadir of the whole affair is the epilogue, in which Seagal makes a four minute speech about protecting the environment so painful, it’s impossible to imagine the original eleven minute version changed to placate hostile test audiences. It was supposed to be his magnum opus, and in a fashion it was: it proved that even a $50 million budget and a cadre of beloved character actors (aside from Caine, it featured Joan Chen, Mike Starr, and R. Lee Ermey) could not hide Seagal’s monstrous id any longer.
It’s worth putting all this in perspective. Seagal’s entire film career by that point was only seven years old, and comprised of nothing but leading roles in vanity projects and even an infamously terrible Saturday Night Live guest spot. Groundmarked the beginning of an immediate, intense, and steady decline for his place in the A-list, one met with schadenfreude more than anything else. Even a sequel to Under Siege didn’t help. For some time, the most successful film for him after that point was Executive Decision in 1996, which pretended to be a buddy action movie between him and Kurt Russell until his character gets ignominiously killed by Arab terrorists less than twenty minutes into the film (unsurprisingly, Seagal hated this plot point). He occasionally shared the screen with another lead, like DMX in Exit Wounds and Ja Rule in Half Past Dead, but the damage was done. In 2002, his films went straight to video until 2016, when Contract to Kill – an action film apparently funded by the Russian oligarchs with whom he has become increasingly joined at the hip – got a token theatrical release.
He did get back into theaters in 2007 as the villain in Machete, but that and a cameo in The Onion Movie are outliers on what has become an incredibly large, specific, and lazy direct to video career. Seagal has starred (not acted in, starred) in an average of two films a year since 2002 and shows no sign of stopping, films which are remarkably similar in virtually every fashion: narratively, thematically, structurally, compositionally, politically. They share directors and producers, and the way they get churned out is evocative less of a factory than a bowel movement.
The signs of a Seagal film are numerous; none are positive. There are the goofy, vaguely confusing titles like Gutshot Straight, Maximum Conviction, and Today You Die. There’s the blatant sexism and constant scenes set at strip clubs. There’s the treatment of other cultures, languages, or ethnicities as a chance for Seagal to play a character of a different background than his own, often with a broad and condescending inflection. There are the heroes with ridiculous names and mysterious backstories such as in Out for a Kill, where he plays Chinese thief turned Archaeology Professor Robert Burns. After his weight gain in the early 2000s, they almost never remove their sunglasses.
But more than anything is the pure, unadulterated vanity, something almost perfectly exemplified in an IMDb profile that’s been around since at least 2008describing him as “boyishly handsome (often with ponytail).” He never gets hit or suffers pain; most fights are one-sided beatdowns but without any kind of grace or visual splendor to justify it. He romances women around half his age. He used to use his films to espouse environmentalist or Buddhist statements at odds with his violent persona, but as time has gone on his characters have become unambiguous symbols of authoritarian brutality. And honestly; they’re just lazy. Voice actors who barely sound like him dub in lines he mumbled, presumably because he wasn’t interested enough to do a second take or come in during postproduction. So many lines in these films are speeches about how impossibly deadly he is, and yet he has stunt doubles not just for almost all of his fight scenes, but even scenes where he walks up stairs or sits in a car.
And this is the part where we have to discuss the more…notorious parts of his physical appearance. In general, I do cringe at jokes about people’s body types or weight. They’re cruel, they push unfair beauty standards, and they’re not funny. But with Seagal, it’s understandable why people would mock his substantial weight gain or ridiculous Brillo pad haircut or use of stunt doubles for seemingly every scene that involves anything more taxing than sitting: because it’s less about the physicality than the ego of a deeply hateful man. Seagal has spent his entire public life presenting himself as a fit, sexy powerhouse of (toxic) masculinity, while he just isn’t, certainly not since the early 2000s. And when side characters always have a line about how he looks healthier and thinner than ever, even while he limits most physical exertion to his eyebrows, it just fall into this kitsch absurdity. No one would care if he didn’t star exclusively in action movies or take so many pains to present himself the way he does, while still putting in so little effort. His stabs at relevance only exacerbate the image of him as a lethargic, racist manatee.
In all of this, Seagal gives performances evocative of, to quote A.V. Club writerIgnatiy Vishnevetsky in a review of Contract to Kill , “stars who died during filming.” He always reads his lines with no more emotion or octave than a tired whisper. In the older films, this exuded a sense of power and toughness. As his career went on, however, it became more suggestive of a man constantly on his last breath. Even when his numerous fictional wives and daughters die, he can’t be bothered to show any emotion, or take part in fight scenes, or get out of chairs. It’s noticeable in his television series True Justice (not to be confused with his reality show, Steven Seagal: Lawman), in which every episode is a short Seagal movie with the same ego boosts repeated ad naseum. Never has a man with his own brand of energy drink consistently shown so little zeal.
One of the questions people have about Seagal is why he managed to garner such popularity. Test audiences didn’t like him nearly as much as the studios thought or claimed, and he benefitted from the Hollywood machine for at least a few years, but that doesn’t fully explain it. My theory is that it all comes down to the brutality. While Out for Justice is one of the few that’s actually a pretty alright picture, all films carry this nasty, cruel sensibility that can be kind of sickly enjoyable under certain circumstances. Arnold Schwarzenegger would crack jokes and Seagal’s rival Jean-Claude van Damme often expressed pain and vulnerability, but no major star was doing the kind of openly šadistic arm breaking and pool cue impalements Seagal regularly inflicted on random goons. All those one-sided beatdowns weren’t just an ego boost; they were savage and humiliating. It’s unsurprising he is the kind of person to claim he was impervious to chokes, leading martial artist Gene LeBell to offer to take up that claim and choke him out so quickly Seagal allegedly voided his bowels on set.
Virtually all Seagal aficionados also flock to his direct to video films for a reliably hilarious camp quality, especially when all the ego boosts are operating at a massive scale. Some manage to score bizarre, slumming character actors such as Urban Justice, which has a villain played by Undercover Brothercomedian Eddie Griffith, or Submerged, which features Vinnie Jones as any Vinnie Jones character. And while he usually eschewed the kinds of weird science fiction plots van Damme or Sylvester Stallone enjoyed, his rare attempts at dipping his toes in the supernatural – most notably Against the Dark, in which despite being the star, he appears for about fifteen minutes to fight vampires with a katana – often heighten the oddness to theoretically impossible standards.
“Steven Seagal” is essentially a brand, and he’s spent his entire time in film cultivating it. In theory, he’s a mixture of tough, unfeeling violence with deep spirituality; he presents himself as an environmental activist, Buddhist lama, and soulful bluesman who played a concert for pro-Russian forces during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and produced two (wretched) albums, Songs from the Crystal Cave and Mojo Priest. The disturbing truth about him, though, reveals him to be indolent, egomaniacal, spiteful, and cruel. And unlike more sympathetic narcissists of that kind like The Room auteur Tommy Wiseau, there’s no heroic drive or greater vision. His only ambitions are to his own grandiosity, his only tools to achieve this the cheapest and least demanding possible. This is the modern, and likely the final public image of Seagal: a thoroughly awful man who absolutely deserves the most cutting of mockery. And who are we to deny him that notoriety?