The last halfway decent Seagal flick
The fallen-from-grace action icon’s only decent post-2000 film.Beyond his bone-crunching opening salvo of early nineties hits – after his 1988 debut in Above the Law, we got Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out for Justice and then arguably his best film, Under Siege – the most watchable Seagal entries remain the ones which not only boasted some decent action sequences but also had a fair amount of comedy value, intentional or otherwise. Indeed, as he dipped further and further into the dark depths of DTV hell, budgets dwindled, his physique expanded, his body double became ever more prominent and often all that was left was the unintentional comedy.Back in 2001, however, the martial arts master-turned-overnight action icon had his last big shot at a comeback with Exit Wounds, a film which offers a surprisingly entertaining blend of bone-crunching martial arts, explosive shootouts, witty banter and, most helpfully, wanton unintentional comedy. Indeed, irony abounds in Seagal’s final decent theatrical hit, and the frequently parody-derived humour seems so assured that you have to assume that the filmmakers – and Seagal – knew exactly what they were doing when they started poking fun at the very genre tropes that he’d spent half his career establishing.
Its increasingly ludicrous story sees Seagal’s tough cop, Orin Boyd, transferred to the worst 'precinct in the city' as punishment for single-handedly saving the Vice President’s life from armed terrorists who killed his entire Secret Service detail. It’s not long before Boyd is getting into trouble again, uncovering a string of crimes which may be associated with a group of corrupt cops working within the department. The difficulty comes in figuring out who is good and who is bad...
Seagal’s first foray into wire-fu action is a pretty fun ride, boasting a string of competent action sequences and hard-hitting fights.
Coming courtesy of Lethal Weapon Producer Joel Silver and his three-picture deal with novice director Andrzej Bartkowiak – who’d debuted with Romeo Must Die, and would go on to make Cradle to the Grave, both with Jet Li and all three with rapper-turned-failed-actor DMX – Exit Wounds attempted to fuse Seagal’s traditional urban cop actioners with a more ‘hip’ post-Matrix outing. To this end, Seagal was paired with the even-more-wooden DMX who was just the first member of an eclectic comedy/rap-based cast designed to interest a different demographic.
All of the big action icons – Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme – were arguably all-but dead and buried, with none of them having had a decent hit since the mid-nineties, and all of them were looking for the perfect comeback. Stallone and Van Damme went serious, eventually reverting to strong sequels to some of their most popular franchises, whilst Arnie went political. Seagal went down the partnered-with-dumb-thug-proto-50-Cent-rappers-and-irritating-loudmouth-comic-stars route. Nevertheless, the film was a sleeper hit of some standing.
Unfortunately he did not capitalise on the film’s success. Based on the Westermann novel of the same name, the plan to shoot the sequel novel, The Honour Farm, about cops in prison, was scrapped, and Seagal instead drifted further into obscurity with the ill-advisedly PG-13 actioner Half Past Dead (ironically also set in a prison), starring opposite another rapper, Ja Rule, and putting the final nail in his already-on-the-rocks Hollywood career.
Still, Exit Wounds gave him one final hurrah, offering up a fast-paced jaunt into the post-Matrix but pre-Bourne (i.e. pre-shaky-cam) world of martial arts action movies which certainly injected some much-needed adrenaline into Seagal’s stagnating film career. He shoots down helicopters, beats up a gang, takes on two “sumo/black” bouncers, jumps over a moving car, and faces off against a succession of decent adversaries with reasonably punchy results – from DMX to the far more impressive Michael Jai White. And that’s just half of the stuff that goes down. Hell, they even got the likes of Isaiah Washington (Out of Sight), Jill Hennessy (Law and Order), Bill Duke (Predator), Bruce McGill (Timecop), and an inexplicably dubbed Eva Mendes (The Place Beyond the Pines) to somehow agree to be in the same film as not only Seagal and DMX, but also painful ‘comedy’ partners Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
There’s obviously some comedy elements injected into the script, but it’s the more parody-driven humour that really works.
Indeed, it almost feels unintentional, but clearly the filmmakers – and Seagal – knew what they were doing when they started poking fun at the kind of genre tropes upon which the entire genre is founded. And it’s this intentional – and unintentional – humour that really helps sustain your interest when the ‘generic action movie’ feeling starts to set in. There are dozens of hilarious touches in the film, many of which are ironic given Seagal’s off-camera falling star at the time. From Seagal getting transferred and then busted down to traffic duty for repeatedly saving people’s lives – including the VP – to the witty anger management sessions he attends: “See this face? This is a happy face. You could only wish to be as happy as this.” I mean, did nobody think that an undercover cop shouldn’t really try and kill another cop – who has identified himself – with a circular saw just to maintain his cover? Did Seagal himself wonder whether it was slight overkill to attempt to smash a glass bottle over an unarmed Anthony Anderson’s head (much as we’d all like to)?
Watching Exit Wounds is only a pleasure if you’re prepared to both engage with the more straight action and nominal crime drama, and laugh at the jokes, both intentional and otherwise. It’s a slimmer, fitter, more committed Seagal who is also prepared to do something a little different both in the action (wire-work) and the comedy (self-parody) department, and this slicker, more polished end result reflects all of that. Is it a good film by today’s standards? Not really. Is it a good film by today’s Seagal standards? Unequivocally, yes. And, for a lazy action night in, it’s pretty damn entertaining.
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