Jan/Feb 2002 Salon

Steven Seagal: Under Closer Scrutiny

by Tom Dooley

We're not dealing with a student here; we're dealing with a professor. Anytime the military has an operation that can't fail, they bring this guy in to train the troops, okay? He's the kinda guy that'll drink a gallon of gasoline just to piss on your campfire. You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear, without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he's going to show up at your poolside with a million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos.
           - dialogue from the motion picture
On Deadly Ground

There aren't many action movie heroes whose characters possess reputations this far over the top. But then, there aren't too many action movie heroes who market their own line of massage oils, quote Arthur Miller at the beginning of their self-produced films, and play blues guitar at Michael Jackson benefit concerts, either. Such is the genius, idiosyncrasy, or subdued lunacy of Steven Seagal.

My wife and I are voracious movie viewers, and we're constantly obsessing about various actors, genres, and directors. A while back, it was Frank Sinatra. The past few months, Steven Seagal has been getting more of our attention than one might expect, given that we're self-professed movie "snobs." For me, it's not such a surprise, since I like a good ass-whupping action film as much as the next guy, but the fact that my wife has admitted to liking such movies as Out for Justice (1991) and Fire Down Below (1997) (the latter earned Seagal a Razzie nomination for worst director in 1998-his second such dubious accomplishment) is somewhat astonishing, and a testament to Seagal's unusual appeal.

Appeal, unusual or not, is one thing, but dude has also got to be one of the more inexplicable people in the public eye. It's that inexplicableness that keeps drawing me back into the Seagal web of intrigue. I'd like to know what makes this guy tick. Does he really think, as has been widely reported, that he can step into the ring with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, wear gloves and follow all boxing rules, and win? Did he really, as a friend of mine who claimed to be a first-hand witness to the event told me, try to hire an Alaskan big-game hunting guide to set up a wrestling match with a real-life grizzly bear? Was he really a CIA operative running black-ops into Cambodia during the Vietnam War? Is he really the six-foot, four inches tall reincarnation of a Tibetan lama? Is he really, as some people in Japan believe, a deity? I don't know the answers to these questions, but they're sure fun to look at when you put them all in a row.

It's also fun to talk about Steven Seagal at parties. I like to wait for the right moment, when the conversation has turned to what movies people have seen lately.

"We rented Under Siege last night," I say. Right away, I've got peoples' attention. Depending on how things go from there, I may come out with, "I think Steven Seagal is the Marlon Brando of action films." No one knows quite how to take this revelation, and for a moment, I glimpse what I imagine it must be like to be Steven Seagal. Most of the people he encounters probably don't know quite how to take him, either. Is he one big joke, or no? And if he is, is he in on the joke, or no? There are moments in his movies when it seems clear he is, like in Fire Down Below when he pokes fun at the array of outrageous leather jackets he's been wearing throughout the film. And the final scene in The Patriot (1998), when military helicopters are dropping life-saving wildflowers on hapless Idahoans stricken by deadly biological agents--that scene has got to be somebody's idea of theater of the absurd. And there are many, many moments when Seagal and his movies seem very absurd, but Seagal can't be totally dismissed as such, partly because he projects an unusual (and debatable) credibility in all that he does, and partly because he has a darker side.

As an example of that darker side, Seagal was in the news recently, on trial for sexual harassment. He showed up wearing a blue robe and his trademark ponytail. The case was dismissed, but it illustrated his one glaring character flaw--not his unusual fashion sensibilities, which are endearingly individualistic, but--his weakness for the ladies. In fact, he has a habit of impregnating women, even when he's not married to them at the time. Cheating on one's spouse and siring bastard children aren't actions that can be defended as endearingly individualistic, nor do they jive with Seagal's philosophical beliefs. And if the assumption is supposed to be that he fell from grace when he committed these acts, the fact that it's happened several times implies there's something pathological at play.

If Seagal were anyone else, I'd dismiss him as just another philanderer--another Jesse Jackson, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.--who presents one face to the public for financial or ideological purposes while he sniffs skirts with the other. But the difference with Seagal, at least what I thought was the difference, is that at some core level he isn't fake. As weird as he appears at times to be, I respect the man for what I see as his attempts to stay true to himself and his beliefs. That being said, I can't figure out how he reconciles those beliefs with his sexual foibles.

What Seagal has done is well documented, but perhaps not well known. He married a Japanese woman, Myako Fujitani, in 1975. It was the connection to Myako's father that enabled Seagal to be the first westerner to run a dojo in Japan. Between 1986 and 1987, having moved to the United States, Seagal divorced Myako, married Adrienne La Russa, impregnated Kelly LeBrock, divorced La Russa, married LeBrock, and became a famous action movie star who would go on to gross more money in the next seven years than almost anyone else in Hollywood, second only to Arnold Swarzenegger. Somewhere around 1995, though, things got weird in the Seagal household. His youngest child with LeBrock was named Arissa after the family nanny. Seagal then began a relationship with the nanny, impregnated her, and divorced LeBrock. He hasn't married the elder Arissa, but he now has seven children and three ex-wives. And, he has gone from producing and directing his own cheesy, imminently flawed, but entertaining and in some strange way "pure" films, to playing supporting or co-starring roles in gaggers like Ticker (2001). Once again, I'm confused. How can a man who meditates daily, studies the Buddha, and serves as a spokesperson for such thoughtful causes as PETA lose ground both as a moral being and an artist?

In On Deadly Ground, there's a scene where Seagal beats the hell out of a barroom bully--a big oil driller who has been picking on a drunk Alaskan Native. After Seagal has brutalized this bully and all of his friends, and the bully is standing there helpless and bleeding, waiting for Seagal to finish him off, the following exchange takes place:

Seagal: "What does it take to change the essence of a man?"
Bully: "I need time to change. Time."
Seagal: "I do too."

And then Seagal pats the bully on the shoulder and leaves.

The question is, why has Seagal changed for the worse over time? For a man who has spent his life following the path to enlightenment, it sure seems like he's getting farther and farther off the path.

I don't meditate, and even if I did, I wouldn't be qualified to say what or where "the path" is. I have some opinions though. I think that Seagal's path should involve practicing in his private life what he preaches in his public life. It should also involve making earnest, intelligent movies that somehow manage not to take themselves too seriously, that are brutal in a philosophical way and moralistic in a straightforward, Jerry Springer way (where Seagal makes his trademark speech at the end but otherwise leaves the action to speak for itself). These qualities made movies like Out for Justice almost great, and they made movies like Fire Down Below worth watching in spite of their weaknesses. I wouldn't care what he did, except that I feel there's some as yet unrealized potential in Seagal. I think he has the capability to entertain and effect social change in a way that no one else could pull off.

In the meantime, though, maybe he can do a Charlie Sheen: get himself together and join the cast of a popular television series… I'm recommending The Sopranos.


Previous Piece Next Piece