Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brawl Fall 1996: Steven Seagal

Since seeing Kurt Russell at Beyond Fest a couple months ago I've been revisiting his vast body of work like Tombstone, Captain Ron, Stargate, Big Trouble In Little China, Unlawful Entry, Miracle, Sky High and the 1996 classic action thriller Executive Decision. I'd nearly forgotten that Steven Seagal gets high billing but is killed off in the film's first act. Remember when I told you my theory that Dammaged Goods style action movies died in 1996? The kind starring charismatic, physical heroes who took care of the job with machine guns, muscles, martial arts and one liners? To refresh your memory, check out my piece on Sylvester Stallone, who along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, ushered in a cottage brand of action flick in the 80's and paved the way for lesser cinematic icons Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. While no other action star would reach the heights of the two kings, mysterious Aikido expert and would be CIA agent Seagal nearly got there after bursting onto the scene with 1988's Warner Brothers starring vehicle Above the Law with no prior acting experience. The sub-$10 million flick grossed nearly $20 million.

Before that, Seagal had the distinction of allegedly being the first non-Japanese to open his own Aikido studio in the mother land. Working in Hollywood it's rumored that he broke Sean Connery's wrist while training the James Bond star for Never Say Never Again and impressed uber agent Michael Ovitz who got Seagal in with Warner Brothers. While Jean-Claude Van Damme toiled with low budget filmmakers, independent studios, first time directors, no name casts and $1 million budgets, Seagal had a major studio behind him and familiar faces beside him his first time out. Follow up Hard to Kill more than doubled Law's take and audiences were hooked on the tall, often pony tailed hero who spoke in whispers and took out dozens without ever taking a punch with painful looking joint locks and throws. Fight scenes in Seagal movies always elicited real groans and winces as it looked like people really got slammed into the floor or through a table. Seagal's "aura of invincibility" went with his mysterious past as a martial arts instructor in Japan coupled with his own hints of working with or for the CIA.

By 1992, Warner Brothers had already produced or distributed three of Seagal's four titles and backed Under Siege, a reported $35 million, Die Hard style actioner set on a battle ship. Above the Law director Andrew Davis had already lent a bit of class to Chuck Norris with Code of Silence before doing the same for Seagal on Law and was recruited for a second run. As former Navy S.E.A.L. turned cook Casey Ryback, Seagal fights, shoots, stabs and sabotages his way through a terrorist takeover lead by more than capable actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. A true action classic, Under Siege would open to $15 million opening weekend, good enough for the 9th largest of the year on it's way to an $83 million U.S. take and $156 million worldwide. Now on top of the world, Seagal would exercise his spirit and ego on his next film, the ecological themed On Deadly Ground, which he would also produce and direct. The $50 million Alaska set film takes on oil cartels and Inuit treatment head on while ending with a monologue by the star discussing how the world is dying. A noble endeavor but the film would gross less than half of Under Siege and earn few critical marks.

With success always comes controversy and rumors of Seagal's prickly attitude and unbelievable ego on and off set began to surface. A dispute with writers on Marked for Death, kicking Gary Busey off the sequel to Under Siege, thinking he could easily deliver an Academy Award winning performance if Hollywood hadn't pigeonholed him, taking potshots at JCVD on late night TV, misrepresenting the tribal nations people of Alaska, being accused of sexual harassment, Seagal's quick rise to the top was now catching up to him. Warner's had signed him to a four picture deal but pumped the brakes on Ground as the budget swelled to reevaluate. They also wanted any budget overages on 1995's $50-60 million Under Siege 2: Dark Territory to come out of the leading man's $10 million salary. Territory would hardly recapture the spirit, scale or excitement of the original but would still gross a solid $100 million worldwide.

But 1996's Executive Decision marked the beginning of the end. Long had Seagal carried a film as a super badass who never got hurt but now in Decision, he was making room for the guy who couldn't fight or shoot, the glasses wearing, tuxedo sporting analyst Kurt Russell. We see Seagal and his commando team slashing throats and taking out bad guys right away but it's Russell's smarts that save the day and stop a plane full of nerve agent from crashing into Washington D.C. While Seagal sacrifices himself for the mission and dies 40 minutes in, his career would never be the same. Warner Brothers fully backed Executive Decision with a reported $55 million budget, in house super producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) was behind the scenes and legendary company editor Stuart Baird (Superman, Gorillas in the Mist) was making his directorial debut. I'm sure it was a shock in 1996 to see THE Steven Seagal get killed in the film but by the end you kind of forget he was even in it.

1996 follow up The Glimmer Man, a $45 million buddy picture with Keenan Ivory Wayans that he starred, produced and wrote music for, would gross a paltry $20 million compared to Decision's $69 million. 1997's  Fire Down Below, another big budget action movie with an environmental message, would only bring in $16 million, $3 million less than Above the Law had nearly 10 years earlier but with $40 million more budget. By 1998 the party was truly over as The Patriot went Direct to Video. Joel Silver would provide some career juice with 2001's Exit Wounds that was part of a short stint of martial artists paired with rappers that also gave us Jet Li's Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. From there it mainly DTV fare with Seagal gaining more and more weight but appearing in the films less and less with filmmakers not caring if the audience could tell they were using a double or not. Seagal would crank out 2-3 films a year and still command a $5 million fee while dealing with FBI investigations, private investigators and very public lawsuits from former associates that hinted at mafia involvement.

As the home video market fell out in the 2000's, Seagal's output stayed steady as budgets got smaller and schedules shorter. A stint on reality TV followed with the short lived Steven Seagal: Lawman as the fully commissioned deputy performed his civic duty for the Sheriff's office in Louisiana. A villainous turn in Robert Rodriguez's Machete marked a return to cinemas after a near 9 year layoff. Seagal hasn't lacked for work though as he's released SIX films in 2016 alone. His latest, Contract to Kill comes out this weekend and features none other than Dammaged Goods favorite Russell Wong so it will be the first Seagal flick I've actively watched in years. Now "put your hands up!".

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