Chuck Norris once made fun of Steven Seagal’s ponytail. To this day he sports his trademark beard to cover up the surgery done to replace his jaw.
The great thing about Steven Seagal’s Hard to Kill is that, when it’s not entertaining you with broken bones, superior martial arts moves and reasonably well-staged action set-pieces, it’s making you laugh with some pretty over the top acting, supremely cheesy dialogue and the presence of one of the single worst actresses of all time, Seagal’s then-wife (no surprises how she got the gig then), Kelly LeBrock. There’s no denying that this is a far from perfect piece of made-in-the-90s-but-living-in-the-80s action-trash, but, for those with the right mindset, it dances cheerily on both sides of the so bad its good line, providing a heady mix of competent ass-kicking and laughable frivolity.
Maverick cop Mason Storm is hard to kill. Really hard to kill. When a masked hit squad come to slaughter him and his family with shotguns he manages to shoot one of them and disarm another and break his hand – after being shot – before being finally incapacitated by a series of close range shotgun blasts that send his wife to the morgue and put him at death’s door. Miraculously, he survives, but a prudent Internal Affairs detective decides to stage his funeral in order to avoid having the killers return to finish off the job.
Seven years later and Storm comes out of a long and debilitating coma; his muscles atrophied and his nurses having left him with a curious Fu Manchu beard that certainly does him no favours. Delirious and desperate to get out of his hospital bed, he attempts to convince the staff that they are in great danger. Unfortunately, his ditzy nurse is more interested in the size of his comatose erm... package than in anything he actually has to say, and promptly dismisses his ramblings only to go back to her ward duties. When an assassin starts shooting up the ward, however, the nurse clicks that something may be up.
Escaping and hiding out in a ranch, Storm swiftly recovers, his rehabilitation fuelled by a proficient knowledge of Chinese remedies and a determination to find the men who killed his family. The nurse assists by putting on a short, skin-tight black dress and throwing herself at him. Deciding it’s probably the only way he can get her to stop talking – short of breaking her neck – he obliges. Of course it’s not long before more hit-men come along and Storm has to start dropping bodies on his way towards uncovering the truth behind the man who targeted him and his family.
Fans of action movies from the 80s and 90s all have their own favourite star, who they will defend until their dying days. Whether it’s the musclebound madness of Schwarzenegger or Stallone, or the hectic high-kicking of Norris or Van Damme, preferences can be determined by anything from accent to attitude. Muscles were a big part of all of them, however, normally taking priority over anything beyond merely flashy martial arts ‘demo’ moves, which often degenerated into either simple brute force pummelling or signature ‘finishing moves’ (for example, Van Damme preferred a spinning jump-kick to close out a fight, captured from three different angles six times in repeat).
Into this mix stepped a thirty-something martial artist who was known only in the Hollywood world for being the guy who broke Sean Connery’s wrist teaching him moves for Never Say Never Again. Somebody, somewhere thought he had some skills though (actually it was a movie producer who also happened to be a student of the then martial arts teacher), and just a few years later he was writing and headlining his own action film – Nico: Above the Law – a taut, competent martial arts thriller which introduced the world to Steven Seagal.
It also introduced the movie world to something that they arguably had not seen before: Aikido. Sure, some moves may have been choreographed into a few scenes here and there over the years (maybe even by Seagal himself), but nobody had ever attempted to put forward such a defensive martial art as being the weapon of choice for an action star. Lightning-fast and staggeringly impressive, the towering 6ft 4” Seagal – a 7th Degree Black Belt in Aikido – swatted opponents like flies, dispatching them with elegant arcs of his arms; seemingly effortless flips and spins; bone-breaking locks; and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them clothes-line swipes.
Audiences were impressed by Above the Law; impressed by Seagal, and in the following 3 years he made three more reliable action successes which further solidified his star standing and led him into arguably his best and most famous role – 1992’s Die-Hard-on-a-boat, Under Siege.
Twenty years on and Seagal’s star has most certainly waned; hitting 60 and fighting an increasingly portly stature every step of the way, there’ve been plenty of more sinister, political reasons for why we haven’t seen him headline a movie for quite some time. But, to be honest, a big part of the reason was because of the death of the 80s action hero. Indeed, it’s only with Stallone’s commendable efforts to bring back these great expendables that we get to see many of these ageing stars back on the Big Screen. Who knows, maybe one day Seagal will be one of them (he already had a brief but fun return in 2010’s Machete), but it would appear that those more sinister reasons might still prevent that from happening anytime soon.
In the meantime Seagal fans have to watch him churn out lacklustre DTV efforts and struggle with generic TV shows, both of which often get ruined upon release by terrible post-production work, unforgivable ADR dubbing and shoddy, incomprehensible marketing. This year saw the release of two double-episodes from his latest TV series, True Justice (which I’ve reviewed extensively here). The first release sported the first double-episode from the second season of the show. The second release, two months later, sported the penultimate double-episode from the first season. And the season one finale? Well that’s just never even been released. Seagal’s fans may be easy to insult, but this is just going too far (perhaps Seagal’s next film title?!).
We can take solace though, because the big Buddhist fighting cupboard still has a few decent back-catalogue titles that have yet to make it to Blu-ray, the most recent of which is his sophomore effort, Hard to Kill, made back in 1990, just as his star was on the rise.
Co-written by Seagal (who was actually involved in the writing of most of his best vehicles), the story – then under the considerably more original working title of Seven Year Storm – was a simple revenge narrative, the likes of which would arguably be used to much greater effect for Tarantino’s more recent Kill Bill films. It’s a shame because you could tell that there was more of a political sub-structure to the film – not wholly unlike the far more political Above the Law – whereby Seagal wanted to once again expose corruption at a high level. Unfortunately, these elements were largely softened for the final script (from which Seagal’s name was removed in terms of a writing credit), and the resultant villain – played by Die Hard 2’s William Sadler, who, shamefully, given his physique in 1990’s Die Hard sequel, doesn’t ever get to go toe-to-toe with Seagal – made into little more than a caricature.
What we’re left with is definitely just Kill Bill lite. Indeed it was quite a risky strategy for Seagal to attempt to make this coma-revenge story into an outright action-thriller, as a large chunk of the movie involved him either lying in a coma or recuperating thereafter (some might say his acting was predominantly comatose for the duration too). It’s dangerous to put your main action star out of... erm, action for so long, as the risk is that viewers will get bored (Out of Action, there’s another title, Mr Seagal, if you’re interested).
Thankfully, between a surprisingly effective score (which drives the movie and is arguably far better than it deserves) and some reasonably good pacing, we do get some real sustenance during this period – from none other than Kelly Le Brock. The scenes between her and, well, anybody – human or animal – are just hilarious. I’m absolutely certain nobody could actually ‘direct’ her to do anything, and even Seagal himself probably wanted to avoid confrontation less he antagonise his own wife (not a good move). As a result Le Brock just spews out her lines as if she’s reading a really boring recipe out to a friend over the phone.
In one spectacular scene she discovers a series of dead bodies and says “Oh my God” (or derivations thereof) approximately 5 times in a row. Not once does she manage to get it right. Not once do you believe that there is any kind of shock behind her words. She might as well have found out that her best friend had just had her hair ruined by the hairdresser and was only feigning shock because she was secretly happy that her best friend would look worse than her for a day. Who would have thought that over twenty years ago Kelly Le Brock would showcase the kind of acting skills that would nowadays be welcome on shows like Hollyoaks. She makes Kristen Stewart look like a positive thespian – and that’s saying something when you consider that you would have to prod Stewart in the Twilight movies just to check whether she has a pulse.
Seagal? Well, he drifts his way through the plot, vaguely attempting to expand his repertoire by ‘acting’ like he’s waking up from a coma and ‘acting’ like he’s struggling during the rehabilitation process. Credit to him, he manages to convincingly shout out when a shotgun blast blows his wife apart right before his eyes, a moment which should be fondly remembered as being just about the only time when his voice has been raised above a murmur in the last three decades.
As an action icon, however, he’s on top form. The skinny (yes, this lumbering beast was once skinny as a rake!) ass-kicker was in just about perfect condition here – his broad but slim physique honed and toned more than it was in his Above the Law debut, and his throwaway quips now far more smoothly delivered. It was around this time that he met up with none other than Clint Eastwood, and it’s clear the man – and his movies – were of great inspiration to him; the personas of his characters always have a shade of Dirty Harry about them, but never more than here, where his lines to the bad guys frequently adopt an ‘I know what you’re thinking, punk” tone which suitably matches his superior fighting skills. It didn’t get much better than Mason Storm in terms of character names either (although for comedy value, On Deadly Ground’s environmentalist, Forrest Taft, is equally good), and I so wish they’d gone with Seven Year Storm as a title.
His moves are superbly choreographed and cleverly integrated into the plot. Sure, we don’t get enough fight sequences, and none of his enemies really pose a challenge, but it’s still fun to watch him take on 3-4 bad guys at once (as he does in several scenes). For a guy who went out of his way to avoid big bulging muscles, he dispatches his foes with effortless sweeps and strikes. I can’t think of another action star during this period who looks so damn impressive when he’s doing what he does best – kicking ass. And I can’t think of another action star who kicks ass so well in a suit (although these days Statham has the clear edge).
I’m sure that there are many Seagal fans out there who will cry out about the way in which I’ve mocked or derided this sophomore outing from the big Buddhist fighting cupboard. It makes me sound like I’m not a fan. But that’s simply not the case. I’m just not delusional. For reasons incomprehensible to many I do find him charismatic and engaging as an action star – he does have charm and screen presence beyond just your normal action bruiser, and, back during his golden era at least, he was in undeniably good shape. As a result of that, and my personal opinion that Aikido is a stunning martial art to showcase in a movie, I’ve always enjoyed his films – but I’ll be the first to admit that few of them are anywhere near approaching good, with most of his recent efforts being pretty flimsy shades of his former glory.
Unfortunately, even his ‘former glory’ golden era works are pretty dated and inconsequential by today’s standards of action film, and often only survive scrutiny if you’re prepared to abandon sense and laugh at the folly. Under Siege is one of the biggest exceptions to this rule, along with perhaps his debut Above the Law, but his other classic 90s vehicles, Marked for Death, Out for Justice, Under Siege 2 and On Deadly Ground, whilst all being far more action-packed than Hard to Kill, still rely on that same need to let go of your inhibitions and laugh at the background insanity. Because when Seagal’s not hitting people, that’s all you’ve got. And Hard to Kill definitely abides by this rule. Genuinely entertaining purely because it compensates for a surprisingly sporadic action quota with so-bad-they’re-good moments that run throughout. Hence my score. If you were marking this film as a straight actioner, it would struggle to get even an average rating, but with the unintentionally hilarious Le Brock on board it can’t help but remain good, fun entertainment for a lazy Bank Holiday.
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