Friday, March 7, 2008

Pistol Whipped! Seagal is BACK! This is so good. Out now (**2/10)

Too often, people underestimate the contribution Steven Seagal makes to popular culture. Too often, we (the general population) dismiss him as just another washed-up action movie star who has faded from the public eye. Oh sure, we hear his name every now and then, just like Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Who, by the way, has just announced that from now on, he will be accepting only those movie roles that he really likes. This was on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen.) We also hear Chuck Norris' name bandied about, thanks to the Chuck Norris list that has been circulating on our emails for so long. Chuck Norris doesn't sleep. He waits. And that sort of thing. But Seagal eschews that kind of publicity. He doesn't need viral marketing to make his star shine brighter. He believes that he is perfectly capable of maintaining his own legacy on his own terms. And he is absolutely right. He IS capable of maintaining his own legacy. The legacy of terrible acting in poorly-written films that involve broken arms and explosions.

Steven Seagal is so much more than a movie star, and so much less than an actor. He is a time capsule. He has created some of the most timelessly awful things ever committed to celluloid, such as On Deadly Ground, Half Past Dead, and Black Dawn. Although the case could be made - if Black Dawn went direct-to-DVD, did it ever get committed to celluloid? No matter. Seagal achieved his greatest fame in the late 80s and early 90s with such brainless action fare as Above The Law and Under Seige. And in doing so, he achieved that most prized symbol of artistic freedom - autonomy. He has enough money and enough experience and enough cachet to be allowed to make his own movies exactly the way he wants. And he knows only one way to make a movie - breaking arms and blowing stuff up. So he does. Three to four times a year, the latest Seagal direct-to-DVD action flick hits video stores, mostly unannounced. A nice surprise for that masochistic action fan who just can't get enough of the now-pudgy arm breaker. Note to potential consumers: If you have upgraded to a hi-def television, the sight of Seagal in widescreen HD could frighten your children.

Seagal is a time capsule. All his direct-to-DVD releases blend together, since they are all virtually identical, and they could be thrown into a melting pot and spit straight back out into 1991 without missing a beat. In 1991, you could make lots of money at the box office without making lots of sense in your movie. Sure, Die Hard would make more money, but you couldn't lose with Fire Down Below. However, while movies have moved past that point, Seagal has not. He has stuck to his guns, and he remains there, at the periphery of our consciousness, clinging to that last bit of fame he still has, making the same movies he made when he was thirty. He is now 57 years old, but he isn't slowing down one bit. If people liked this in 1991, they will come around and start liking it again. But the thing is, he now has to do it himself - produce, direct, star. In 1991, others were doing that FOR him. And they were BETTER. So he struggles along, making movies that get worse and worse, and never really attempting to do something good. He clearly has a casting couch, a place where women come to break into the movies by appearing in his films, and they do so on that couch...why give that up now?

Then, here comes Pistol Whipped. Wait! Maybe he gets it! The movie opens with something unique in a Seagal movie. He is sitting with a priest (who serves as a narrator), and the priest explains everything. "You're a drunk, a bad father, a gambler, a disgraced cop who stole money, and a bad person". Wait...Seagal is playing a loser? A bad guy? Almost...Bruce Willisish? Maybe he is willing to shift his paradigm after all! He is still clinging to his image - he's almost 60, yet in the movie he has a 12-year-old daughter and a 30-year-old ex-wife. So, at best he's playing a 40 year old? But he's a loser. This is new! Then we find out that of course, he is not a loser, he's actually a very good guy, and my hope is burst. He still does not get it. He is still incapable of understanding that broken arms and explosions do not a movie make. There is a shootout on the street where millions of bullets are used, and no one gets hit. Like an episode of the A-Team. There is a cemetary shootout and car chase, both in slow motion, where people use gravestones as shields. Only John Woo can stage a slo-mo shootout, and no one can make a slo-mo car chase interesting.

There is a gas leak in a hearse. Seagal shoots the hearse. It explodes like the oil truck in Terminator 2. Perhaps they are now packing hearses with napalm and nitro. The female love interest (there has to be one) is Renee Goldsberry, who is useless, even next to Seagal. I couldn't figure it out. She's not an actor, she's not a martial artist or fighter, she isn't a porn star...why is she there? My girlfriend helped me out with that one - she was the only woman they could find who was willing to kiss Seagal on camera. And, we can only assume, on the couch. Lance Henriksen gets second billing here, because he's the only other name anyone knows, and he IS in the film for at least forty seconds.

Much like Seagal's other fare over the course of his career, Pistol Whipped is so aggressively awful it is entertaining. I love this movie more than most, simply because Seagal might finally be trying to break the Seagal mold a little. But even in doing that, he fails so magnificently that it's entertaining. And that's what makes Seagal the greatest under-the-radar pop culture figure in the world today. His aggressive refusal to conform to movies as they changed, and his stubborn refusal to accept suggestions from anyone but Seagal. He is the pinnacle of aggressive mediocrity, and even when he tries to do something different, he can't over-ride his basic nature, which is to appear heroic and break arms and blow things up. Continuity, common sense, plausibility and quality are all concepts that take a back seat to the ethos of 1991. And so we, the audience...get Pistol Whipped, both figuratively and literally.

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