Book Review: Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal (2008)
I didn’t know much about Steven Seagal prior to reading this book. Several years ago, a bizarre cable loophole got me free HBO for about five years, so I saw snippets of Above the Law, Hard to Kill, and other early Seagal movies. I think the only one I watched from beginning to end was Under Siege. It left me fairly indifferent toward Seagal.
Seagalogy is a series of essays, presented chronologically, analyzing the Steven Seagal oeuvre — the good, the bad, and the ugly, from his 1988 debut in Above the Law through 2008’s Pistol Whipped. Ain’t It Cool News writer Vern (just Vern) has an entertaining, conversational writing style and a definite affinity for Seagal. His enthusiasm for the man and his body of work is infectious. Because Vern goes in-depth on every Seagal movie, I did my critical duty by checking out Seagal’s first seven films and sampling some of the later direct-to-video fare. I wanted to see if Vern did them justice. Reading the book as I watched the films, I came away a sincere fan of Seagal. I don’t think I can pay Vern (or Seagal) a higher compliment than that.
An interesting fact that casual viewers like me may not know is that Seagal often serves as producer of his films — meaning he has creative input from day one and often does uncredited writing work (or, at the very least, on-set improvising). If you hate his movies, this level of control will just contribute to the dislike; if you don’t know much about him and start watching them, you’ll come away with a new respect. You’ll notice the same things that inspired Vern to write this book — certain motifs, recurring themes and aesthetic details that speak to Seagal’s own foibles and fascinations. This isn’t a meat-grinder of repetitive stories and characters — this is the work of a man obsessed with government conspiracies, environmental activism, Eastern culture and music. When I received this book, I expected it to be full of glib irony and sarcasm, but Vern treats Seagal and his films with respect. He’s still hilarious and doesn’t pull punches, pointing out goofiness and inconsistencies (such as Seagal and Keith David managing to get duffel bags of machine guns and a decapitated head through airport customs security in Marked for Death) and the relative badness of his later, sloppier, low-budget work. However, Vern’s humor comes across more like good-natured teasing than outraged hostility.
Vern doesn’t just limit himself to Seagal’s star vehicles. He delves into producing efforts, films in which Seagal has little more than cameos, Seagal’s albums and energy drink, a long list of movies that were almost made or that Seagal has mentioned an offhand desire to make — even Seagal’s commercial and rare TV appearances. I don’t think a more comprehensive assessment of the man’s body of work has ever been written, or will ever be surpassed. Vern closes with an enthralling account of his attending a Steven Seagal concert. It leaves readers with the same wild, breathless optimism found in that concert’s crowd — wanting more.
Whether you like Seagal or not, do yourself a favor and check out Seagalogy. You’ll come away with renewed respect for him.