So, Mr Seagal, what have you been up to lately?
Well, I’ve been working on film project across Eastern Europe and Asia, getting paid several million a time just to turn up and wander around for a couple of days. I even get to wear clothes from my own wardrobe. Then, afterwards, they put in all the fight scenes and get somebody to record my dialogue. It’s no big deal. I really have no idea what the films are about, they just shoot a few scenes and come up with a story in the editing room. Normally it involves revenge. And a sword.
It must be tough to be an ageing eighties/nineties action star. Because those days are long gone. Nowadays audiences require more than just threadbare plots and a succession of beat-‘em up style scenes culminating in a ‘boss’ bad guy. You can get that in your average videogame. After The Matrix, audiences no longer needed separate action stars and acting stars – basically, with enough training, a decent budget and story, and some quality effects, you could make anybody an actions star. Who cares that Van Damme can kick? In the new Hollywood, anybody can kick. Stallone’s practically single-handedly mounted a resurrection of this dead sub-genre of 80s actioners, through the likes of Rambo and The Expendables, but it’s a swan song really. And eventually, when it stops, there will be no more.
In the meantime, action stars like Steven Seagal slum it in low budget straight-to-DVD productions which require almost no input from the man himself, and are designed for a cheap turnaround and an easy profit. And fans, who don’t want to give up the ghost, keep buying them – keep funding them – and so there’s no real reason to stop, is there? Kudos to the Buddhist fighting cupboard, he’s managed to get his fingers into a whole bunch of pies recently: reality TV (he’s a cop, too, though he’s somehow managed to keep that one quiet for the past 20 years); a fairly hefty cameo in Rodriguez’s Grindhouse spin-off Machete; and a new police drama for TV entitled True Justice (it’s kind of a weaker cross between CSI: Miami and Marshall Law). Oh, and he’s done 22 straight-to-DVD movies. Yes, twenty-two. But are any of them actually any good?
With a movie that’s got the name “Belly of the Beast”, you’re immediately put on the back foot. How are you supposed to take that seriously? Especially when many Seagal critics would wonder whether it’s actually an in-joke – a dig against the big guy himself! And in fact, I’m going to say, right from the outset, that the trick here is definitely not to take the film seriously. Most of Seagal’s straight-to-DVD efforts have been unquestionably bad (and, for all but fans, pretty-much unwatchable), and so the biggest accolade that they can really receive is that of being so bad that they are good. This doesn’t mean that they are good movies – it means they evoke the same feelings as a good movie, through being entertainingly bad, unintentionally hilarious and just plain fun in a silly, over-the-top way. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look inside the belly of the beast.
Jake Hopper – once black ops, ex-agency, covert spy operative something-or-other – is still taking jobs on the side for the CIA. His latest mission? Sneak into a mansion and steal a computer disc. To this end, the man – who looks about 7 ft tall, and must weigh a good 20+ Stone – has to jump a wall, climb onto the roof, drop down, slide across a floor (in slow-motion, no less) and crack a safe. Funnily enough, the only thing he finds difficult is the safe-cracking bit. Which is odd, because he clearly knows the code, and yet he presses the wrong buttons twice. On the way out, he stops in the kitchen, opens the fridge, grabs a bottle of water, takes a swig out of it, gives the kitchen a quick once-over glance, and then walks out of the door. Which is presumably the way he got into the building in the first place, given the fact that it was his stunt double doing all the athletic stuff earlier. I guess all retired CIA operatives get their own stunt double to help out with the more energetic missions.
Jake has a daughter, who cares about him a great deal (she even leaves pre-made healthy meals in the fridge, with specific days labelled on them for when dad should eat them) and who has gone to Thailand with some friends. Bad move. Jake soon learns from one of his dodgy CIA contacts that his daughter has been kidnapped and, like any good father who used to work in Black-Ops, he packs his guns and goes to get her back.
But he’s going to need some help. We already know, through the pre-credits sequence, that Jake used to have a partner – Sunti – who accidently shot a woman and child during a drugs bust that went wrong. Jake still managed to save his life, after Sunti himself got shot, but the guy was so traumatised by what he had done that he went to live the rest of his life as a monk in a Buddhist monastery. However, now Jake needs his help, so, as any good friend would do, he takes a trip down to the monastery to talk to Sunti, knowing full well that his friend is going to end up breaking all of his vows and coming with him to help kill a whole bunch of people.
Jake’s mission to retrieve his daughter doesn’t go quite as you might expect (or maybe it does, since you know that Jake is Steven Seagal) – he establishes his superior strength pretty early on, his enemies literally flying through the air when he hits them. He gets in trouble with the authorities, who are clearly corrupt, and are purposefully going after the wrong guys for the kidnapping; and ends up having to make a deal with a rebel leader – the very person the police are after – in order to find the right villains. There’s a massive shootout in a disused train yard – where he gets to slo-mo jump sideways out of a train carriage whilst shooting numerous bad guys numerous times (seriously, he must empty an entire clip into these guys before he hits the ground); lands on a wheeled wooden cart that’s handily placed on the tracks; then kicks himself off a tree stump, rolling along the tracks, really slowly, still shooting. This final bit isn’t actually in slow-motion – even though it makes absolutely no sense that the cart is moving so slow – and even less sense that this slow-moving-but-undeniably-big-target appears to be impossible to hit. Next thing the cops arrive, and Jake actually still manages to plug a few bad guys even when he is being surrounded by them. Then he puts his hands up – far too late. I honestly have no idea why they didn’t shoot him. Perhaps his height and breadth was just too intimidating. They were in awe. Anyways, pretty soon he’s fighting the police, who foolishly prod him with sticks, but handily give him handcuffs with a really long chain connecting them, enabling Jake to disarm them all. Well they were asking for it.
The villain of the piece, who has kidnapped Jake’s daughter, also happens to be something of a ninja. And he’s good with a bow and arrow (cue classic William Tell scene). So good, in fact, that his arrows can track targets. In one scene, Jake actually dodges an arrow by moving behind a door frame, which the arrow then hits, so if the arrow was always heading towards the door frame, you have to wonder why Jake didn’t stay exactly where he was before. Well, I can only assume these are heat-seeking arrows. In any event, thankfully Jake is faster with a sword that the villain is with a bow and arrow. So fast, in fact, that – after the arrow has been fired (across a reasonably short corridor) – Jake has the time to turn around, grab a sword, swipe it through the air, and bring it down through the arrow before it hits its mark. He was using the power of slo-mo, clearly.
Unfortunately, the villain’s got some evil anti-Buddhist priest working bad mojo behind the scenes, stabbing his Jake-styled voodoo doll and disturbing Jake’s karma. Thankfully Jake’s friend, Sunti, has his own Buddhist buddies, all working behind their scenes with a use-the-force-like mantra that combats the evil priest in a Yoda vs. The Emperor kind of way.
Meanwhile, Jake goes toe-to-toe with the villain, only occasionally taking a breather to allow his silhouetted stunt double to do a couple of spinning kicks and ridiculous flying leaps through the air, before delivering the final blows himself. Wow, that CIA-issued stunt double is handy while Jake is psyching himself up for the closing move.
Belly of the Beast is great. It’s the action equivalent to Showgirls.
Seagal’s first movie with a Hong Kong director really turned out to be a whole lot of unquestionably silly fun. I think it was made for about $14 Million, but, after paying off the Big Man himself, and all the cast and extras, they probably only had a few thousand left over. Thankfully that appears to go a long way in Thailand, as it really looks pretty good – for straight-to-DVD – with lots of different, sometimes exotic locations, a broad cast and plenty of extras, and some of the best action you’ll see in a Seagal movie from this period. It’s a simple enough revenge thriller at heart, but they make it so ludicrously complicated – for no apparent reason – that you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of the plot. Despite the kidnap and ransom element, which you would assume to be integral, the story actually spends a great deal more time dealing with rivalry between gangs, CIA interference, evil wizards battling chanting monks, and random girls who randomly strip for the Big Man. Seriously, at one point, Seagal’s character gets pulled aside by a random girl in a headscarf, who lures him into a bar, and to a secluded corridor, where she takes her top off and pours water all over her breasts to reveal an invisible ink-type message written across them. I kid you not. Oh and there’s lots of jumping in the air and slashing a sword around in a threatening fashion. During one of the many over-the-top (but in an entertaining way) fight scenes, Seagal and his buddy have to take on a bunch of sword-wielding villains in a timber yard and – in the middle of the fight – you can see one of the henchmen down in the bottom right hand corner of the shot doing what can only be described as a ‘sword dance’. By himself. In the corner. This is the kind of film where pausing, rewinding, and playing it again will only enhance the “I can’t believe that just happened!” factor, and prolong the ensuing amusement.
And you really can’t help but laugh, almost non-stop. After all – considering that this is the same guy who you might remember kicking ass in films like Under Siege and, um, Under Siege 2 – you’ll be pretty blown away by what they have in store for him here: using practically supernatural kung-fu moves to make enemies literally fly through the air; having to fight a high-heel-wearing transvestite who is dangling from the ceiling slashing at him with razor-sharp claws; taking on evil sorcerers by using protective magical medallions; and deflecting arrows with both bullets and swords slashes. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
I may well have a soft spot for Seagal – his movies are probably one of my biggest guilty pleasures – but I honestly think that silly, often nonsensical, and utterly random movies like Belly of the Beast are massively entertaining if you just don’t take them seriously. Sure the cast might be playing it all deadly straight – but that only adds to the fun. Hell, even Seagal’s breathing is slowed-down and amplified, as if it will somehow come across more contemplative or threatening that way. Of course it doesn’t – it just sounds like he’s got serious breathing problems.
As a straight actioner, it'd struggle to get a 4 or 5 out of 10. No, this is the kind of movie where you need an open mind, a sense of humour, a general appreciation for 80s action icons, a bunch of like-minded mates and a case of whatever your poison happens to be. It’s the kind of movie where you can play some great drinking games – drink every time Seagal shoots somebody whilst in motion (i.e. in mid-air or whilst rolling along rail tracks); every time he shoots somebody more than three times in slow-motion; or just every time you hear him breathe unnecessarily loudly. You’ll be rolling on the floor laughing and/or completely wasted by the time you’re halfway through. Guaranteed. And for that, it really deserves more like a 7 or an 8. It really is that entertaining. This really is the best kind of low budget straight-to-DVD flick you could imagine: the very epitome of so bad that it’s good.
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