Vern’s Action Movie Education

I have been watching a lot of films lately that Vern recommends on his website and in his books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics. It has been an education. He was absolutely right about the early Seagal films, especially Out For Justice which is about as ass-kicking a movie as Seagal will ever make. Going through these books is like action movie bootcamp.  His particular insight is why I have to trust him when he says that I need to see the new straight to dvd Universal Soldier because it will blow my face off and then I watch it and it blows my face off.

When Vern says that Mad Max is one of the best movies ever, I made sure to make time for it. Mad Max is impressive even if you don’t know how much money the filmmakers spent on it.  We’re all too caught up in budgets, concerned with how much everything cost as if that has ever been an indicator of quality. Rest assured Mad Max was made for very little money and it is fantastic. Looks fantastic, is fantastic. The chases are full on, the camera mounted on the side of the cars, engines so loud you can barely hear anything else. It’s a fucking rush, dude. Cars careen and smash together viciously and often. Mel Gibson looks young and fresh like we all did once, and that makes his eventual descent into anger and despair so effective. This isn’t smirky Mel, this is normal guy Mel just trying to live the good life in Australia as the world slowly falls apart. I had initally planned to watch the entire Mad Max trilogy but the latter two were only in crappy Starz Play on Netflix Instant and fuck that noise.

Vern calls Under Siege a Seagal movie for people who aren’t inclined to go see a straight on Seagal vehicle. He is correct. Under Siege only spends about a third of it’s running time following Seagal around and just as much if not more time with Tommy Lee Jones and the hapless government officials. Jones is gleefully awesome here, chewing scenery with a smile as he improvs hilarious lines that have everyone in stitches so fuck it we’ll keep it in the movie. Seagal gets into less hand-to-hand combat in this one but since it is a Seagal movie he does overkill the shit out of the villain at the end by gouging out his eye, stabbing him in the head and then smashing him through a television.

Vern calls Universal Soldier Regeneration the greatest direct to dvd film of all time. I haven’t seen many direct to dvd films but I am inclined to agree. As a fan of coherent action scenes and clear, competent camera work USR succeeds merely by letting me see everything that is going on. But making what is happening interesting and involving is the extra step that no one expected but we all can appreciate. I am not familiar with the Universal Soldier mythos or ever been very interested in it. That might be because it’s never been properly described as the crazy zombie/Frankenstein movie series that it actually is. Van Damme and Lundgren are zombie Frankensteins who can’t remember being human but know all about killing the shit out of people. We get a couple scenes of Van Damme trying to be a normal person but you know that shit ain’t gon stick. Soon enough VD is choke slamming bar patrons for no reason and we are off to the murder races. The plot is nothing new but everyone is deadly serious about it and director John Hyams puts care and thought into his setups and his actor’s performances. Sure, he isn’t working with a trio of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s here but everyone acquits themselves well. Van Damme looks sad and defeated most of the time, even when he’s stabbing the shit out of people because while killing might be all his character knows, shit, that’s a sad thing to be good at, right? Lundgren still sounds like he’s chewing something when he talks but he has a soulfulness in his readings and his fight against Van Damme is heavy, son. Andrei Arlovski is a UFC fighter so his time is spent blankly dispatching people with the cold efficiency of the kind of guy who is a re-animated murderer and don’t give no fuck. USR is the first action film in recent memory to be visually indebted to the brilliant Children of Men which begs the question why Universal Soldier Regeneration is the first and only film in over five years to nod to Children of Men? Figure it out, action film directors! We want to see what the fuck is going on in your movies. Stop cutting your film to ribbons and telling me shit is happening. Pics or it didn’t happen. Universal Soldier Regeneration definitely happened.

On the commentary track for To Live And Die In L.A. director William Friedkin explains that the famous chase scene came about simply. “I wanted to show the audience something they’d never seen before.” If only every filmmaker approached their films this way. Friedkin’s film is baller as fuck. William Petersen’s Richard Chance is a classically amoral bad ass cop, running down criminals with heedless abandon, driving the wrong way on the freeway because fuck it, and having a conflict of interest for banging his C.I. on the regular. Every fight scene and chase in this film is visceral and sweaty. People are out of breath and hurting, because this life isn’t clean, son. To Live And Die In L.A. also contains one of those real talk endings that some might call “a downer” but, yeah, it’s real talk. Deal with it.

Out For Justice is Steven Seagal’s best film. Better even than my beloved Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Seagal spends every moment dispensing glorious ownage culminating in the customary but never perfunctory ultraviolence of the finale, which contains an insane moment where Seagal nonchalantly blows off a man’s leg with a shotgun. Out For Justice makes it’s intentions clear by opening the film by having Seagal throw a pimp through a windshield, freezing the shot through smashed glass and overlaying Seagal’s name.

Intentions: Clear

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