Film Reviews

Fishing expeditions

Page 3 of 4

As you probably expected, the picture is one long paid advertisement for Steven Seagal, Professional Badass. There isn't a single frame containing this actor that doesn't feel custom-tooled to convince us that he's the strongest, smartest, fastest, toughest hombre on the planet Earth.

There are plenty of things to despise about Seagal: the laughable lies he tells to journalists about his supposed top-secret work for the CIA; his smug arrogance; his single, implacable, Buddha-like facial expression, which amounts to utter vacuousness passed off as Zen supercool; and his complete lack of anything resembling acting ability or personality. Compared to this chunkhead, Van Damme is Lord Laurence Olivier.

But the least savory part of the package is his obvious insecurity. This guy is so terrified of not being taken seriously as an action icon that he won't allow anybody pitted against him onscreen to lay a finger on him. And as if that weren't enough to establish his studliness, each new Seagal project must contain at least one scene in which a knowledgeable bad guy goes on and on and on about how dangerous he is.

Since Seagal probably isn't smart enough to have figured this out on his own, I'll go ahead and break the news: the first Under Siege was a success in spite of him. It used him as a running joke--a beefy, scowling sight gag. Davis kept him offscreen for nearly two-thirds of the movie's running time, and contrasted his humorless supercompetence and robotic invincibility with the delightful pettiness of the bad guys, their henchmen, and their victims. Like James Bond baddies, Jones and Busey reveled in their monstrousness; they got a tremendous, sick charge from getting away with implausible atrocities.

That's why the idea of Seagal routinely thwarting their every move was so amusing. These two very human villains, who were so full of raucous, nasty life, were being beaten by a man completely devoid of emotion or charisma--a homicidal automaton. They were two Wile E. Coyotes being humiliated by a lardassed, karate-chopping Road Runner. When Seagal finished off Jones by pushing a thumb through his eye, sticking a knife in his forehead, and shoving him face-first into a computer screen, his expression suggested that he'd just finished taking out the garbage. He was as merciless and inhuman as the weather.

Unfortunately, this time, the joke isn't on Seagal anymore: it's on us. Like the enjoyably wretched ecothriller On Deadly Ground, this one spends an inordinate amount of screen time building up our hero as the ultimate fighting machine--a cross between Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee, Oliver North, and TV's McGyver. "Do you have any idea who we're dealing with here?" asks the apprehensive McGill, a sandblasted warrior who looks like he could probably bend Seagal over his knee and paddle his gelatinous butt in real life. This is the kind of movie where the hero gets on the radio at the end and announces to his superiors that he just saved the day, and a roomful of people bursts into sustained applause. If you won't cheer Seagal, he'll cheer himself.

Director Geoff Murphy, a New Zealand stylist whose aboriginal revenge parable Utu was praised by Pauline Kael as one of the most powerful movies of the '80s, moved to America soon after. To date, he's done nothing else of note, churning out a series of progressively more expensive and less interesting action pictures, including Young Guns 2 and Freejack. This one doesn't even offer brutish, nasty pleasures. It doesn't serve up anything stylish in the way of editing, camera movement, or fight choreography--all of which partly redeem even the stupidest action movies by John Woo, Walter Hill, and Andrew Davis.

The film's much-publicized state-of-the-art digital compositing technology, which was partly responsible for swelling the picture's budget to $70 million, is only intermittently successful. Sometimes special-effects supervisor Richard Yurichich seamlessly merges sets and miniatures and moving backgrounds so that you can't tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins, but other times the results look like the filmmakers borrowed a used rear-projector from the producers of "The Love Boat." (There's one real innovation: thanks to the miracle of computers, rather than strategically cutting away at the last moment, we can now follow people who've tumbled off a high cliff as they bounce from rock to jagged rock.)

Even cheesier is director Murphy's attempt to hype his star through photographic and editing tricks. He shoots the fight scenes very close up, using a telephoto lens to blur Seagal's movements and make them look more mysterious and less clunky. And unless my eye deceived me, it looks like he also snipped out frames of film every now and then to artificially speed up key punches, kicks, and flips. Now that's a trick I haven't seen employed since "The Lone Ranger."

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Matt Zoller Seitz