Hard to Read: This post will be the first of a three-part series on the life and career of Steven Seagal. Yes, Steven Seagal. Now, many of you will scoff, and go off to read the latest from Wonkette, but I bid you, stay. Come with me on a journey of bad-ass aikido moves, cool, three-word movie titles, and ultimately, spray-on-hair and Mafia death threats. You'll be glad you did.
Seagal came out of nowhere and onto the scene in 1988 with "Above the Law". Now bear in mind the environment this movie is entering. 1988 shows both Stallone ("Cobra", "Lock Up" and "Rambo III") and Schwarzenegger ("Predator", "Running Man", "Red Heat") at their peak form. Both "actors" use big muscles and bigger explosions to tremendous advantage; essentially laying claim to a dualopoly on the action movie genre. Simply put, there are no two bigger names. Then comes this un-muscular Italian-looking guy in a ponytail.
The plot is unimportant, but "Above the Law" dealt with something Vietnam, something CIA, something Mafia, all in downtown Chicago. What was important were two things: 1) a new and exciting type of on-screen fighthing using what one might call "combat aikido" - an offensive approach to the most defensive martial art yet created; and 2) a new and different looking action hero - short on muscles, long on greasy hair and "whatuhyoulookinat" attitude. What was also important was me watching this movie on the couch with a certain girl late into the night, but we don't have time for those memories right now.
It may be hard to imagine today, but when Seagal came out, he was taken very seriously, and was very popular. He couldn't act, but he had a strange charisma, and an almost mystical aura about him. Plus there were rumors of CIA and black bag ops which only contributed to the mystery - the thought was "Hey, this guy has done real stuff, so there's something to his movies." Moreover, the guy was a legitimate aikido sensei (of what belt level was somewhat debated), who wasn't just using stunt doubles to throw round-house punches. This guy did it for real, like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. He trained in Japan with the top, top senseis of the day.
And for action movie buffs, this intriguing mixture was too good to ignore. He moved onto a series of essentially copy-cat movies, like "Hard to Kill" (marking his debut with Kelly LeBrock, his former employer [he was her bodyguard], then his wife - and unfortunately, not a long-lived marriage - I am convinced they were the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire of the late 80s) "Marked for Death" (here the little ponytail is really a focus), and "Out for Justice" (this one marks the peak of Seagal's bad cop/good cop inner conflict - does he remain true to his old ways, or find salvation in his future?). Each one did well, if not exactly spectacularly, giving the hardcore fans more of what they wanted (great fights using a mixture of open-hand and weapons), but still drawing a larger audience than expected.
And yes, at this point, Seagal was starting to drink from his own kool-aid. He was hot and he knew it. But he also knew that despite his popularity, he had to move away from gritty cop seeks revenge for family/buddy/self. He also knew that he needed a two-word title for his movie (see Stallone, Schwarzenegger, supra). Providence came in the form of a big Navy ship, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gary Busey. A signature performance, melding A-list actors (well, for action films), with a big budget, some cool explosions, and a compelling back story. Yes, it's "Under Siege", and that's for Part 2.