The last time I was in Brooklyn I shared the subway out with a gentleman in short pants, a waistcoat, a bow tie, long socks and a trench coat to complete the outfit. He waxed his mustache as we went and wore the kind of sunglasses that pinch on at the nose. That seems to sum up present day Brooklyn. The moment you leave the subway station you are surrounded by men in plaid shirts with lumberjack beards ripping fat vape clouds. But a couple of decades ago, Brooklyn was a very different place. The kind of place where the mob and police kept balance with an uneasy handshake and where the only force for real change was an angry aikidoka with a ponytail. I am of course referring to Steven Seagal's art house classic, Out for Justice.
Steven Seagal was a large part of the early 90s action movie scene and as his box office appeal began to disappear like his belt buckle beneath his paunch, Seagal became one of the key movers in the straight-to-video market. In recent years he is best known for allegedly paying MMA stars to be seen with him and for spouting nonsensical buddhist parables while trying to keep down the food he has been forcing down his gullet.
But it is impossible to do Seagal's life justice in a couple of paragraphs though, which is why The Critical Guide to Steven Seagal will be an ongoing series examining his contributions to the dirty pint of martial arts wisdom. There's all sorts of stories out there about Gene Lebell choking Seagal out and Seagal defecating in his hakama, or Seagal running from a fight with Jean Claude Van Damme, but those are just he said, she said. If you want to get a read on the man in his own words you should consult his autobiography: that is to say, his Wikipedia page. It was there that I was able to learn that the Palyul monastery in Tibet has declared Seagal to be a reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje. If you click the link for Chungdrag Dorje you are led back to the top of Steven Seagal's Wikipedia page. Perhaps a lazy edit, or perhaps a reference to the cycle of reincarnation. Or perhaps a lazy edit.
Through Rotten Tomatoes I determined that I would start my review of Seagal's work with Seagal's consensus best movie: Under Siege. Under Siege holds a 75% 'Fresh' rating and was Seagal's only movie to be nominated for an Oscar (albeit in sound design). It was about ten minutes in to Out for Justice that I realized I had ordered the wrong DVD. But if Out for Justice and its 19% 'Rotten' score have taught me anything, it is that not everything needs a clear beginning, middle and end. So let's begin our review of Seagal's career about half way through.
An opening scene can tell you a lot about what to expect from a film. In the opening scene of Out for Justice, Steven Seagal watches a pimp beat up a sex worker from an unmarked van and turns to his partner. The two have this exchange:
Seagal: You know, Bobby, you been acting kind of strange lately. You okay?
Bobby: Just had a few personal problems. It's taken care of...
Seagal: What kind of problems?
Bobby: I'll straighten it out.
Seagal: You sure?
Bobby: Absolutely. Don't worry about it.
You now know that Bobby is either going to betray Seagal or get murdered pretty quickly. The pimp continues to beat his ho' and in the next bit of dialogue we learn everything we need to know about Seagal's character. Budding screenwriters pay attention now.
Seagal: What's he doing? He's beating this girl.
Bobby: We got a 3-million dollar hit about to go down over here. You don't like it, turn your head. Come on, Gino.
Seagal / Gino (over radio as he leaves the van): Guys, we're coming in.
Bobby (over radio): Gino's blowing it. Let's go.
Prostitute (while being beaten): I'm pregnant […] I'm scared I'll lose my baby!
Have you ever seen a character established so quickly? Within five lines we know that Seagal's character is named Gino, he's a loose cannon who won't stand for injustice even if it means blowing a three million dollar bust (and this is nineties... that's like a billion dollars today), and as a bonus it is revealed that he was helping a pregnant prostitute—not just a dirty regular prostitute! Gino did the right thing. The establishment of the villain, Richie is just as on-the-nose moments later when he announces he has some scores to settle, then murders Bobby in the following scene and randomly guns down a woman for honking at him in traffic moments later. Gino good, Richie bad.
As police officers arrest the pimp and his cohorts the religious Seagal fan might be running his buttery fingers through his mullet and wondering if he was just robbed of a fight scene. But Gino waves off the other cops and tells the pimp to come at him. The pimp does nothing but shout about knowing where Gino lives. Gino grabs a hold of him by the lapels, and swings through into a Shihonage, essentially an application of the modern Americana/ude-garame in a twisting throw. He performs this so forcefully that he is able to throw the pimp's head through a car window. Then there is some swinging around by the tie, then the pimp charges him and is backdropped through the windscreen.
I encourage you to try this at home, kids.
As Seagal looks in through the windscreen his credit appears. Beautiful!
And this hits on a theme of Seagal's fighting in this movie. Seagal is a seventh dan in Aikido, a martial art which famously only works if the opponent is running straight at you. Consequently almost all of Seagal's fight scenes involve people running straight at him and he rarely does much attacking himself.
After Gino's partner, Bobby Lupo (he with the vague personal issues) is murdered by Richie, Gino is summoned to the crime scene. He gets the call just as he is taking his son out to play ball (walking past a katana in the hallway). Having to cancel that one promised game of ball, Gino calls Vic who is quickly established as his ex-wife when she declares that the force work him too hard and that their son, Tony—who is never mentioned or seen again—has been waiting a whole month for the visit. In this scene Seagal pre-empted one of today's fashions by almost thirty years: pioneering the sleeveless black jumpsuit that you see everywhere at the moment.
Moments later, Gino is on the scene and he's on official business so he's got a beret...
When Gino finally agrees to put on some sleeves and shut down the gun show he opts for the ruffliest number you have seen since Gangrel was jobbing on Sunday Night Heat.
Also pictured: textbook use of the horse stance.
When Gino arrives at the scene of Bobby's murder Jerry Orbach appears like a bolt from the blue to inject some acting talent—albeit in the same role that he always plays. Orbach portrays the police captain who Gino tells to just give him time to murder the man responsible. It's not by the book but Orbach agrees to this without much argument because “it's personal”. The star power of this movie is quite considerable in retrospect. Not only is Orbach present but the thinking man's crumpet, Julianna Margulies' makes her movie debut as Rica, a prostitute whom Richie abuses. Even Johnny Legs, the great John Leguizamo even makes an appearance as Boy In Alley.
This is where the movie hits its stride as a meandering mess as Gino wanders around Brooklyn trying to find Richie, beating people up and then moving on. He meets with Richie's parents and makes it clear that they are like family to him, even though he's going to murder Richie. Constantly we are shown that Gino considers his community of the highest importance and that everyone loves and fears him. But like the Charles Bronson movies where his body count is beyond all proportion to the wrong that has been done against him, Gino hurts and kills a lot of people while we are supposed to still see him as the good guy. The screenplay desperately enforces this by having Richie randomly kill people every few minutes including a guy in a wheelchair.
To remind us that Gino is a nice guy there is a random scene where he is driving around and a black bag is thrown out of another car in front of him. He stops and examines the bag and there's a puppy inside. Now we know that Gino loves animals he can't be a bad guy. This is Seagal's character seeping into Gino's as Seagal's Wikipedia page tells me he is an avid activist for animal rights. Like Gino, Seagal has also caused his share of collateral damage for the greater good as when he reportedly drove a tank through the wall of someone's house and allegedly killed their puppy while operating in his capacity as Steven Seagal: Lawman. That is the sole purpose of the puppy in this movie and he is quickly forgotten. Later Gino gets into his car—where the puppy has apparently been the whole time—and echoes what we are all thinking: “I almost forgot about'chu!”
The best scene of the movie is undoubtedly the bar fight wherein Gino empties his gun and dares the patrons to come at him. Rather than fighting them barehanded he slides a cue ball into a cloth and forms a kabosh which he uses to batter the thugs. Then Vinnie, the owner of the bar, invites a guy called Sticks to take Gino out. Sticks has two sticks which he twirls around and it looks very out of place until you ask “...is that Dan Inosanto?” Yes, it is Dan Inosanto for seemingly no reason. But I'll take Guro Dan wherever I can get him and he marginally improves this film with his presence. The last few throws of the scene are lovely classical aikido too. Apparently this scene was Seagal's personal favorite out of all the scenes he has filmed and I have to admit, it's pretty good.
Seagal has always been a martial artist but he has always provided the shooty bang bang action in his movies too. In fact Seagal estimates that he has put millions of hours into his weapons training. The last action scene is mainly a gun fight (with Seagal firing multiple rounds from a pump action shotgun without actually pumping it). When Seagal begins sneaking into the remaining rooms of the apartment he disarms a gunman by pulling him through a bannister. The disarmed man stands up and yells “Fuck you, cop!” in Seagal's face for seemingly no reason. Seagal responds with a front kick into the wall, which seems to kill the man. This is, of course, the front kick that Stephen Seagal taught to Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida and which is now taking the MMA world by storm... if you ask him.
The final scene of the movie sees Gino and his ex-wife back together as they encounter the driver of the car from which the puppy in the bag was thrown. Gino baits the man into swinging then turns him around and kicks him in the crotch. Then the dog pisses on him as Gino and Vic walk off laughing in what someone somewhere must have felt to be a poignant tying of loose ends.
It seems strange that this flimsily justified action schlock from 1991 would be such a relevant work in 2016 but the militarization of the police and the murder of unresisting suspects is a huge issue in modern America. Not only is Gino given free reign to pursue Richie because “it's personal,” he also beats Richie to death after Richie has surrendered. In Out for Justice, Seagal has created a divisive masterpiece, the significance of which can only be appreciated now, twenty-five years on. I give this movie a stellar four out of five tanks-on-dogs.
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