Against The Dark (2009, directed by Richard Crudo)

Legend has it that Steven Seagal’s film career was the result of a bet. The story goes that, in the late 80s, superagent Michael Ovitz, who was then the most powerful man in Hollywood, bet a studio exec that he could make the least appealing man he knew into a movie star. That man was Ovitz’s self-defense instructor, Steven Seagal.

I don’t know if that story is true but it’s as good an explanation as we’re going to get at to why Seagal was ever asked to star in a movie. Despite being a terrible actor who was universally disliked by everyone who worked with him, Steven Seagal was briefly a star in the 90s. Along with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, he was one three top B-action stars around. Lundgren’s appeal was that he could actually act. Van Damme’s appeal was that he was a true athlete and actually could do all of his own stunts. As for Seagal, he was packaged to be a star. He appeared in movie with actors who were talented enough to carry the drama while Seagal whispered his lines. He also worked with talented action director like Andrew Davis. For a while there, Seagal had it all.

It fell apart, of course. Seagal was his own worst enemy, fabricating details of his biography and acting like an ass whenever the cameras weren’t rolling. He was notorious for being difficult and every young actress trying to make it in the 90s had at least one horror story about Seagal harassing them at an audition. His appearance on Saturday Night Live was so bad that it’s still talked about as an example of what can happen when the show gets stuck with a terrible host.  According to the show’s then-cast members, Seagal insisted that the writers come up with a skit in which he would play a therapist who raped his patients. (Check out Tom Shales’s Live From New York for the details on Seagal’s time as host.) He directed two awful movies. Audiences cheered when his character was blown up in Executive Decision.  People stopped showing up for his movies and, for the past few years, Seagal has been better known as a tireless advocated for Vladimer Putin than for his work as a direct-to-video action star.

Against The Dark is one of Seagal’s many direct-to-video movies.  It’s also his first horror movie.  The movie takes place in the future, when vampire/zombie hybrids have taken over the city.  The film misses a major opportunity by not casting Steven Seagal as the head vampire.  When this film was made, Seagal was nearly 60, overweight, and out-of-shape.  He had the right look to play a decadent vampire king but instead, he was just plays his regular Seagal role.  He and his squad patrol the city with samurai swords, hacking up any vampires that they come across.  Seagal’s not actually in much of the film and his stunt double does most of the work.  When Seagal does appear, he looks like he’s trying to catch his breath.  It’s obvious that this film was just a paycheck for him.  There’s no speeches about protecting the environment.  He doesn’t even get out his guitar and sing.

Most of the movie deals with a separate group of survivors, who are stranded in a hospital and who are trying to find a way to escape before the military blows up the city.  Some of the fight scenes, especially the ones that don’t involve Seagal, are not terrible but the film itself is so badly lit that you usually can’t tell who is fighting whom.  There is one memorably weird scene of a female vampire filing down her fans so that she can pass as human but the movie doesn’t really follow up on it.  The movie doesn’t do much with any of it ideas.  Its obvious that vampires and zombies were used because they were hot and someone figured out that even Seagal’s fans were getting bored with him just fighting drug dealers and mercenaries.

Against the Dark is bad, even by the standards of late era Seagal.  Shortly after the movie was released, Seagal tried to reinvent himself as a reality TV star with Steven Seagal: Lawman.  When that and a subsequent threat to run for governor of Arizona didn’t do much for his career, Seagal went to Russia and, after receiving Russian citizenship, declared that he considered Vladimer Putin to be “like a brother” to him.  When asked about Seagal’s claim, Putin’s spokesman replied, “”I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a huge fan, but he’s definitely seen some of his movies.”  Hopefully, the movie was Under Siege and not Against The Dark.


The Onion Movie (2008, directed by James Kleiner)

From some of the funniest people on Earth comes one of the least funny films ever made.

That was, at least, my initial reaction to watching The Onion Movie.  Written by two of the founders of the world’s premiere satirical news sight, The Onion Movie is a collection of skits that are almost all based on Onion headlines.  Some of the skits are amusing.  Most of them aren’t.  When it comes to the Onion, the headlines are often funnier than the details.  A headline about a murder mystery party switching over to a rape investigation party might be funny but having to sit through a lengthy skit about it is considerably less amusing.

Len Cariou plays an anchorman at the Onion News Network, who introduces each satirical story and who gets upset when his employers keep using his newscast to promote a new Stephen Seagal movie called Cock Puncher.  (Seagal, who appears as himself, punches people in the groin.  The joke would have been funnier if the fake movie had starred Dolph Lundgren.)  In between introducing absurd stories, Cariou yells at the network executives, who don’t care about the integrity of the news.  Len Cariou is the best thing in the film because he plays his role straight, never once smiling or winking at the camera.

The Onion Movie was written by two of the Onion’s founders and was originally filmed in 2003.  It sat on the shelf for five years before being released, without much fanfare, direct-to-video.  By the time it was released, The Onion itself had all but disowned the movie, announcing that they were no longer involved beyond the use of the site’s name.  (Something similar happened in the 80s when MAD Magazine briefly tried to branch out into films.)  Watching the film, it’s easy to see why The Onion distanced themselves from the final product.  It’s not just that, for the most part, it’s not very funny.  It’s also that the majority of the humor is shockingly racist and sexist.  (Halfway through the film, a black civil rights leader announces that he’s going to lead a walk-out to protest the way that blacks have been portrayed in the film.  It’s played as a joke but the man has a point.)  The Onion Movie wants credit for being politically incorrect but instead, most of the humor just feels lazy.  The Onion Movie is type of movie that, if it were released today, The A.V. Club would demand that it be banned.  Schadenfreude is nothing to brag about and I’m not proud that I felt some of that as I watched The Onion Movie.  If the people who created one of the funniest sites on Earth could create something this bad, I thought, that makes me feel better about every mistake I’ve ever made over the course of my entire life.

By the way, the film’s best joke is borrowed from Caddyshack but at least they got Rodney Dangerfield to come back and deliver it.  Dangerfield was always good, even in something like The Onion Movie.


A Movie A Day #214: Urban Justice (2007, directed by Don E. FauntLeRoy)

Steven Seagal returns and this time, he’s out for justice!  Urban justice!

After his son, a beloved Los Angeles cop, is assassinated, Simon Ballister (Seagal, of course) comes out of retirement to get revenge.  Retirement from what?  Like most of Seagal’s characters, Simon has a deadly and legendary past.  Nearly everyone who meets him says something like, “So, you’re Simon.”  Everyone wants Simon Ballister to do something for them.  El Chivo (Danny Trejo!) wants Simon to help defeat his rival, Armand Tucker (Eddie Griffin).  Armand Tucker wants to be Scarface.  Simon just wants revenge.

Much like Elvis, Steven Seagal’s career can be divided into a thin and a fat period.  Thin Steven Seagal was all over movie screens in the 90s, making up for the fact that he could not act by convincingly beating people up.  Fat Steven Seagal appears almost exclusively in direct-to-video productions.  He does everything that Thin Seagal did but he sweats a lot more while doing it.  Unfortunately, Fat Seagal is an even worse actor than Thin Seagal.  Since Fat Seagal produces almost all of his own films, there is no one around to say, “Let’s cut away from Steve during this speech, he looks stupid.”

Urban Justice is peak Fat Seagal.  It actually features more fights than the typical Fat Seagal movie but they are all edited in such a way that it is obvious that most of the blows were delivered by a stuntman while Seagal undoubtedly stood in a corner, trying to catch his breath. Since Urban Justice features Seagal in what is supposed to be the ghetto, he calls everyone that he meets, “motherfucker.”  Fat Seagal has the same Clint Eastwood-style rasp that he had when he was Thin Seagal but he still sound stupid whenever he says, “I want the motherfucker who killed my son.”

Eddie Griffin is pretty good as Armand Tucker.  I don’t know if Eddie improvised all of his dialogue but it certainly seems like he did.  All of the movie’s best lines belong to Eddie Griffin.  Just one example: “Man, fuck Santa Claus!  He never gave me shit!  That’s why I sell dope!”  As for Danny Trejo, he doesn’t do much but he’s Danny Trejo.

Personally, looking over the career of Steven Seagal, I think he made a mistake by trying to be an action hero.  It is hard to think of any other actor with as unlikable a screen presence as Steven Seagal.  If Steve had made his career playing villains, he would probably still have a good career going.  People would gladly play money to see Steven Seagal get blown up at the end of a Jason Bourne sequel.  Instead, he insisted on playing the hero and his career is now made up of appearing in direct-to-video movies and threatening to run for governor of Arizona.

To quote Clint Eastwood, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”