One of my very best friends – he was best man at my wedding, as I was at his – has a rather odd, irony-free love for the cinematic output of a certain Mr Steven Seagal Esquire. This love even extended to my friend naming the tables at his wedding after characters portrayed by Seagal; I was seated at the Forrest Taft table, which pleased me no end, as everyone knows that On Deadly Ground is the worst of the worst of Seagal’s films to date and that Forrest Taft is the most ridiculous of all the Seagal characters. Granted there are many contenders for both of these crowns, but I’m making these calls because of Taft’s bizarre and preachy epilogue speech on oil pollution and also the fact that Michael Caine clearly gives up with about half an hour to go and turns the evil American petrochemical company CEO he has been playing for 70 minutes into an English one.
I say the words ‘rather odd’ above for a reason: not because liking Steven Seagal films is itself unusual – three of the man’s first four movies debuted at number one in the US box office, after all – but because the tastes of this particular friend are otherwise extremely ‘highbrow’ in nature. If an existentialist 1970s Swiss arthouse film following the life of a randy goatherd named Stephane appeared on TV, he would be glued to the screen. If Philip Glass and Steve Reich were to release a double album containing minimalist interpretations of dolphin squeaks he’d be first in line at the record store. And if Günter Grass suddenly reversed his recent decision to retire from writing, my friend would probably think all of his Christmases had come at once. Yet, above all else, he gets a huge amount of enjoyment from a Seagal film washed down with a couple of cans of lager.
Personally I have never seen the attraction at all. Seagal has always seemed to me to be a dreary, overly-serious action hero, tightly grumbling out his lines like a man with a giant vice clenched around his arse. Part-actor, part-musician, part-reality TV sheriff, part-director, part-environmentalist, part-karate expert, part-Buddhist activist, part-animal rights campaigner, he is perhaps the proverbial jack of all trades, but in terms of the job he made his name with – acting – he can most generously be described as ‘limited’.
His biggest success came with Under Siege back in the early 90s, but before that odd blip in the space-time continuum he appeared in four interchangeable, cliché-ridden and violent action films: Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Marked For Death and Out For Justice. Even the titles are variations on a three-word theme, exposing the lack of originality contained therein. His characters in these films – Nico Toscani, Mason Storm, John Hatcher and Gino Felino – are unmemorable alpha males, all of which appear to blend into each other and form one single character when looking back through the dim mists of time. In fact you could say they are as interchangeable as a set of tables in a wedding venue. (The list of Seagal’s characters’ titles makes for amusing reading. His back catalogue is so packed with Lieutenants, Colonels, Lieutentant-Colonels, Professors, Detectives, Sergeants and Doctors that an innocent Wikipedia-browser might just leap to the conclusion that this is a man with a very high opinion of himself indeed. Even if he did once send himself up by playing a character called “Cock Puncher”.)
Out For Justice is the Gino Felino one. Or rather Gino Felino is the Out For Justice one. Whatever you prefer. Gino is a maverick Italian-American detective (imagine!) who takes matters into his own hands (!!) after a wild, drug-crazed gangster (!!!) guns down his partner in broad daylight (!!!!). In front of the partner’s wife and kids, no less (!!!!!). Not only that, but Gino’s partner was actually a corrupt cop who was in over his head (!!!!!!). And Seagal discovers the level of his corruption when he finds a large roll of dollar bills and a bag of coke in his partner’s desk at work (!!!!!!!). As well as a photograph of him giving the gangster’s sister a thorough roistering from behind (ding!ding!ding!ding!ding!)
The murderous gangster in question is one Richie Madano, played by a truly terrible William Forsythe, a man who seems to be on a mission to out-stink Seagal himself, and who amazingly succeeds in doing so. This is worth pausing on for a little more thought: Forsythe holds a fairly impressive CV thanks to some tasty roles as a supporting actor; he has appeared in several excellent and diverse crime-oriented films, such as Once Upon A Time In America, Raising Arizona, Palookaville and Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead. Yet here he appears to be all at sea, and whether that’s down to the actor, John Flynn’s direction or David Lee Henry’s script is anyone’s guess; it’s a question that will probably never be answered, or even asked again outside of this paragraph. Brilliantly, the IMDB trivia section reveals that Seagal told Forsythe “You really need to work on your Brooklyn accent.” Forsythe, a Brooklyn native, replied “Trust me, YOU do”. In a seemingly unconnected incident, Seagal broke Forsythe’s front tooth after shoving the actor’s head into a brick wall during a fight scene. I also learned it’s the only Seagal film between 1988 and 1998 not to feature a single explosion.
Now, it’s not my intention to take the Seagal-bashing to previously unheard of levels, but it must be said that he is as wooden as a hundred-thousand acre forest throughout Out For Justice, and only springs into life when Gino lurches clumsily into one of his many martial arts-based fights. Felino likes a good fight, you see, and presumably he has had to learn to toughen up the hard way given the fact that he sports a beret, a ponytail and a vest while cruising the streets of Brooklyn (the location being ever-so-subtly signified by the presence on the soundtrack of the Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Til’ Brooklyn). He’s also the kind of detective who proudly displays a collection of samurai swords on the wall at home, and I would suggest it’s highly likely that a tour round Seagal’s own abode would reveal a similar kind of decorative taste.
The problem is, no real thought has gone into the violence, which isn’t even well-choreographed (the saving grace of many a late 80s / early 90s action flick). It’s just…violent. Unpleasantly violent. Gino beats up several people in a butcher’s shop, pinning one to the wall with a meat cleaver. He then kicks the crap out of an entire mob-run pool hall of sleazeballs and henchmen, primarily using a ball in a sock before finally facing off against an Asian stick-fighting expert named ‘Sticks’, who just happens to be hanging around. Then he randomly attacks a couple of people in a nightclub, before taking on Madino and his crew in the film’s finale. And, just in case fans hadn’t been sated by the 90 minutes of roundhouse kicks and karate chops that precede the final battle, he dispatches Madino with a corkscrew plunged deeply into the mobster’s forehead.
When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of liking this kind of pap, even though I was always appreciative that similarly limited actors like Schwarzenegger also had bags of charisma, meaning they stood head and shoulders above plodding action heroes like Seagal. For me that charisma more than made up for any deficiencies they had as actors, and that’s still the case today. Watching Out For Justice in 2014, I’m unable to remember exactly what I saw in it back then, or indeed what exactly propelled this insipid rubbish to the top of the box office charts or Seagal to mega-stardom. I’m left with an empty feeling when I contemplate just how many people out there would actually pay to see a movie called “Fight Scene”, containing nothing more than one, long, unbroken shot of people beating each other up. It’d be number one for weeks.
If you can’t be a snob about movies like this, then when can you ever be? There’s little charm to this film, it has no sense of its own ridiculousness, and one suspects a real lack of desire on the part of anyone involved to construct something other than a long showcase for a large, ponytailed man’s karate skills. The acting is universally poor, the script overflows with clichés, and watching Seagal stride or drive from one location to the next in search of his next fight is as dull as it gets. The actor even manages to shoe-horn in one of his famed moral messages; granted it’s not on a par with the environmental speech at the end of On Deadly Ground, but there’s a cringeworthy attempt to promote animal welfare through the twin mediums of humour and violence.
The role of Warner Bros in all of this is lamentable, as the studio ordered the film to be re-cut in order to remove lots of the plot and a few extra characters. Yet, despite the fact I think you can smell the putrid stench of Out For Justice while standing over a hundred miles away from the nearest DVD copy, I do love the fact that one of my best friends would happily watch it once a year for the rest of his life. Even if I don’t quite understand why.
Directed by: John Flynn
Written by: David Lee Henry
Starring: Steven Seagal, William Forsythe, Gina Gershon
Running Time: 91 Minutes