True Justice Review
“Yes!” I hear the three other Seagal fans out there declare, “finally another film from our beloved Buddhist fighting cupboard, I’ve been waiting for this for, like, forever.” Well, you’ve been waiting for it for, like, 5 months. What you’ve been waiting for – forever – is another good Seagal film. It feels like it has been about a Century since his last decent offering; some would argue that he has never made a quality production, but I would cite his early work as a prime showcase of his superior aikido talent and innate charisma. Under Siege is solid, great b-movie action, sub-Die Hard, but still very enjoyable. But it’s been twenty years since that, and ten years since his last theatrically-released movie, the reasonably enjoyable Exit Wounds. In fact, aside from a brief-but-enjoyable cameo in Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse spin-off, Machete, the Big Man has been slumming it in the depths of DTV hell for a whole decade. Worse still, he has not been making a movie-a-year, Van Damme-style, crafting action features which may not be worthy of a cinema release, but which certainly make his fans still think that he cares about entertaining them, no, Seagal’s been doing dozens of dire low budget features. I have 22 of his titles in my collection from across the last decade, probably more films than I have from great actors like De Niro or Pacino. And that’s just from the last 10 years. Amidst those 22 titles there are about 5 or 6 that are watchable, 2 or 3 of them that are actually fairly good – and even then, this is normally as a result of some unintentional humour, a side-effect of the low budget foray (see my Belly of the Beast diatribe). It’s not so much like finding a diamond in the rough, it’s more like a shiny pound coin in a pile of horse manure, which – on closer inspection, you realise is just a fake coin anyway, but which you keep anyway purely out of curiosity value.
Yet he keeps making them, and people keep buying them. His fans are unstoppable; most of them desperately want to have his babies, and they would not care if his movies consisted of a still photo of him sitting in a chair smiling at the screen. Seriously, the guy’s official website has been closed for over a decade, and the next best thing is his unofficial website, where you will find loyal followers both good and bad. Whilst there are some on there who genuinely enjoy the good moments in his movies, admire his skills and talent, but are prepared to offer critical observations on his work, and things he could do to improve his game, there are also plenty on there who just want his 60-year-old body. I’m not surprised that the Big Man himself has never been spotted visiting the site: it’s stalker hell, obsessedfan.com; a place where no sane fan could go without risking being suffocated by the true fanatics. That said, I suppose that most sane fans would have given up on him long ago, around the time he gave up on them: turning up for little over a week’s worth of filming per movie, performing almost no fights himself, being doubled for every shot that doesn’t reveal his face, and having 70% of his voice dubbed because he can’t be bothered to return to do the ADR. In 2004’s Out of Reach, to save costs this dubbing was done by the actor who was playing the villain in the same film! Ironically, that was actually one of his more engaging DTV movies, mainly because of the aforementioned drinking-game friendly unintentional hilarity.
Things were looking up in 2009, when fans – and the general public – found out that Seagal was doing a reality TV show entitled Lawman. Yes, I know that reality TV is awful – I personally hate it with a vengeance – but what the show revealed was that Seagal had been a volunteer sheriff for some 20 years, working with police authorities; training them in weapons and tactics, and generally giving something back to the community. And, somehow, he had managed to keep it a secret for all that time – a testament to the sincerity he clearly had towards the cause: after all, most celebrities love to reap the rewards of good publicity from charity work; he had kept it a secret for almost his entire celebrity career. The show was rubbish, again pretty unintentionally hilarious (it boasted tremendous ‘Seagal-vision’ moments where he would spot some random youth on the street and mumble something about the guy being suspicious, as the camera would zoom in on the ‘suspect’ (bear in mind the terrible camcorder-like quality of the show, all you would get from the ‘zoom’ was a mottled blur), draw a faint circle of light around him, and blacken out everything else but this little ‘spotlight’. Wow, forget flashy CSI effects, this is the way of the future! But, despite it being bad, what he was doing was unquestionably good. In amidst it all he managed to do that cameo in Machete. I remember the fan outcry: “Seagal, dying? No Way! Seagal killing himself!!! What rubbish is this?!” Actually, it was one of the best moves that he had done recently, genuinely jettisoning his somewhat pretentious hard-man demeanour and, for once, actually being in on the joke, rather than just the butt of it. Come 2011 and (sane) fans had more (relatively) good news, as he was heading up a new police drama, this time fictional, and this time for TV. Yes, that doesn’t sound like good news, but it really was – regular cast, production design and semi-decent stories as well as his own voice, very little body doubling, and the Big Man doing all of his own fight sequences. Really, what more could anybody ask for?
Little did fans know, there was still a way to mess up this TV show: release it as a series of ostensibly unrelated movies which are actually 2-part episodes edited together (and when I say ‘edited’, I mean, played back-to-back, with no end credits after the first episodes, or start credits on the second – professional, eh?!), and which make no reference to the ongoing TV show. Deadly Crossing came out at the start of the year, and anybody who was not unhealthily embroiled in the Seagal universe would not have a clue about why it was such a mess of a ‘movie’. Well, it’s because it’s not a movie, it’s two episodes of a TV show spliced together. It’s actually impossible to watch as one single movie – what movie would have, midway through, a flash-forward to the end of the film?! (You know, like they do on all the major TV shows – where it then goes “48 hours earlier”?). Of course, this makes sense if these were two separate TV episodes, but as a movie, it’s just appalling and unwatchable.
Could the Studios make the matter any worse? Um, yes, yes they could. Let me show you the episode list for the TV show:
1. Deadly Crossing Part 1 & 2
2. Dark Vengeance Part 1 & 2
3. Street Wars Part 1 & 2
4. Lethal Justice Part 1 & 2
5. Brotherhood Part 1 & 2
6. Urban Warfare Part 1 & 2
In April we got Street Wars. It was the second release. Another spliced double-episode, using the same frustrating technique, making just as little sense, but actually raising the bar for ineptitude: whilst this was the second release, it did not carry the second double-episode, but the third. “What difference does that make?” I hear you ask. Well, not a lot to the average viewer, who will probably skip over it entirely, because watching it would be nigh on impossible; incomprehensible – but for fans who were trying to follow the series, and who were buying these releases and watching them the way they were intended to be watched (i.e. stopped halfway through, and watched as two separate episodes), it totally screwed up the continuity. Any vague character development or ongoing story arcs went straight out of the window, regular cast members had mysteriously disappeared, and, yes, the Studio had found a way to botch the release of this show even more.
So now, after all that, and after this lengthy diatribe that you have had to endure, what do we finally get? An October release for the second instalment in the TV series, the second double-episode storyline: Dark Vengeance, released almost six months after the third instalment came out. Sigh. It really would be better if fans just had themselves put into an induced coma – explicitly stating that they only want to be woken up when this show is finally (hopefully) released in its entirety, and in order, as a box set. Well, either that or you could just avoid the releases entirely and just watch it on Five USA, which has been running the show at 9pm every Wednesday night for the past couple of months (I’d prefer the coma, but, then again, I like box sets; I hate adverts).
So what’s this ‘Dark Vengeance’ thing about then?
The streets of Seattle are once again proven to be wholly unsafe as a serial killer is going around drugging and kidnapping strippers (sorry, erm, pole dancers), killing them and then having intercourse with the dead bodies, and then stringing them up with various voodoo-like paraphernalia on them to make it look like some kind of ritual. Even more spooky: the latest body they find bears a striking resemblance to Sarah (Sarah Lind), a member of Elijah Kane’s (Seagal) elite squad.
That’s about as interesting as I can make it sound – it’s all downhill from there. Firstly, the voodoo angle is tenuous at best, and merely an excuse for Seagal, I mean, Elijah Kane, to pay a visit to one of this double-episode’s two, wasted guest stars: Tzi Ma (from the Rush Hour films, but perhaps best remembered as Cheng in 24). We’ve already been introduced to the original Startrek’s Sulu (George Takei), being wasted as the pathologist for this two-parter, so why not get the other guest star out of the way too. On to the meat and we find that the story basically revolves around Sarah Lind (the actress) pole dancing for the duration. Firstly, she gets to pole-dance as the actual pole-dancer who is murdered – her moves shown both in the pre-credits sequence and during the opening credits themselves (which are actually quite neat, but freeze on far too many shots of scantily-clad ladies’ asses to be PC) – and then, when series regular Sarah turns up, they decide, in order to catch the serial killer, they should send her undercover to the same club as, guess what? Yes, a pole-dancer.
It’s a shame because the show feels like it really missed a trick here. For starters, clearly they did not have much budget to make the actress look different for the two roles (merely dubbing her stripper-self in post-prod), but they do such a bad job and distinguishing between them that you wonder whether it would have been better just to run with it; and have her character pretend to be the stripper’s twin – in a clever move to try and confuse / trap the killer, who will wonder whether a) he’s seeing things, or b) he’s killed the wrong girl, either way becoming intrigued by this twist. Of course, they don’t go with this, pretending that somehow the nightclub happens to have hired an identical replacement stripper who has nothing to do with the other stripper who just happens to be played by the same actress.
Ah, that’s just a relatively minor gripe, you wait till the good stuff.
So, first day undercover, Sarah (the character) decides to randomly leave the club without her cop partners to watch over her; stumbles home drunk, looking like she might be about to get attacked. The show cuts to the next day; the entire squad is scared for her; they can’t reach her on her mobile phone and nobody has seen her, and in the meantime another dead body has turned up – they think it’s her. Of course she waltzes in and we find out that she left the club without protection for no apparent reason, got home and crashed out and her phone just happened to run out of batteries at that precise time. Her colleagues berate her, and Kane wants to pull her off the investigation, but she promises to be more careful, and begs to stay on. Now I can run with all of this, admittedly it is a little light on plotting, attempting to provide cheap scares and false tension, but it’s ok. The next night, however, what does Sarah do? Yes, you guessed it, trundle home drunk and alone, without waiting for backup. Sigh.
Dark Vengeance is actually a marginally more interesting two-parter from the True Justice TV series than the last double-bill, Street Wars. Although, as you can tell, it has massive flaws and an almost incoherent plot, and also suffers from being another spliced-together ‘movie’, it was actually a more interesting story this time around: we want to find out who the killer is, and we want Kane to stop him killing. Along the way there are several dramatic moments and plenty of good fight sequences, almost all of which involve the Big Man himself, who, despite the fact that he is pushing sixty, still has some halfway decent moves. You’ve got to remember that this is the guy who still trains title-winning UFC champions with the best of his techniques, so he’s not short of kick-ass moves, one shoulder-high kick being arguably the highlight in a series of sequences which are, for the most part, shot quite professionally (the biggest problem with many recently filmed Seagal fights is the lack of perspective – watching two pairs of blurry arms slapping one another is just terrible, but here the majority of the fights are shot with enough distance to see what the hell is going on.
That said, you have to wonder why they don’t write better fight scenes – or give Seagal better opponents. The only people he ever seems to go up against is overpaid stunt doubles who have been instructed to repeatedly get up after they have been kicked to the floor, just so that they can get kicked to the floor again. It’s quite painful to watch sometimes, as nobody really stands a chance against this guy. And there’s no way that a cop could behave like this – even The Shield’s Vic Mackey, who is the definition of anti-hero, looks like a veritable Saint when compared to the Big Man, who simply loves to throw the same guy around a dozen times until he has just about every bone in his body broken. It seems somewhat ironic when you consider that the TV series catch-line is “Some lines should never be crossed”. Really? Are we talking about Seagal’s character here? Because he’s the one who most regularly crosses them!
Needless to say the biggest problems comes back to the formatting. The splicing together thing ruins much of the tension, as, halfway through, Kane finds who they think is the killer, stops him, and then goes and plays the blues for a bit (I kid you not), and the entire audience knows better because there’s another 45 minutes to go in the ‘movie’. Thankfully though, in order to avoid making Kane looking like a complete tool for getting the wrong guy they work in some kind of copycat angle which feels wholly contrived, but just about keeps the narrative going. Of course anybody who has seen any single crime movie ever would be able to guess who the real villain is right from his first scene, but us Seagal fans, we like to downshift our brains a gear or three just to improve the whole Seagal experience. Trust me, it’s more fun that way.
Then we have the issue over continuity. At this point in the show (i.e. the second story), Sarah is still the newbie, and still trying to prove herself – hence why she goes off on her own. Furthermore, the threats to her life feel genuine; the risks that she is taking could indeed end with her being thrown in a boot and carted off somewhere to be raped and killed, and not necessarily in that order. The trouble is that we have already seen the next two episodes (i.e. the third story) as they were released half a year ago – so why would we be in the least bit sold on her being in jeopardy when we already know she’s in the next few episodes... because we’ve already seen them?
At the end of the day even hardened, immovable Seagal fans will have trouble with this title, ruining most of the, already fairly slight, joy there is to be had from his new TV series by releasing it out of order and in the wrong format. As stated, if you happen to be a Seagal fan who has been in a coma for several months, and you happen to wake up sometime next year when the TV series is finally released as a box set, and in its correct, original formatting and order, then you may well be the only person on the planet who will enjoy the show in the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Everybody else will have to derive their pleasure from the inadvertent humour in these botched-spliced-movies, laughing at the random flash-forwards, pointless mid-section cliffhangers, occasional Seagal-playing-the-blues sections and anything else which just does not make any sense in them: of which there is quite a lot! Perfect for a drinking game, but little else, this is another awful Seagal release for his obsessive fans to pretend is sheer perfection.