Whether on or off-screen, Steven Seagal hasn’t been associated with anything good for a long, long time.
When he’s come up in the news in the last 10 or 15 years, it’s usually been related to uncommonly bottom-feeding direct-to-VOD movies in which he’s clearly barely able to stand. The last one I saw was 2017’s The China Salesman, in which Seagal co-starred with Mike Tyson. But their characters barely figured in the film’s plot, which was mostly a propaganda film about China’s telecommunications successes, and the two men engaged in a “fight” in which I’m convinced they were never even in the same room for.
There’s also the actor’s bizarre political views, a mixture of Trumpism and Putin apologia. And that’s to say nothing of the time he became a “deputy” to fascist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and made a reality show about it, which led to a lawsuit claiming that Arpaio and Seagal had “laid siege” to a man’s house as part of a botched cockfighting raid. (One early Seagal role, On Deadly Ground, actually had an outspoken environmentalist agenda, but it appears the man’s politics shifted over time.)
Seagal is also the sort of guy whose Wikipedia page looks like this:
But yes, there was once a time, albeit brief, when Seagal was both cool and a plausible movie star, especially in his early days making action movies like Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, and Out for Justice. The best of these was 1992’s Under Siege, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago this week. (It’s not my favorite Seagal movie; that would be 1996’s Executive Decision when he was billed as Kurt Russell’s co-star but shockingly got killed off at the end of the first act.)
Under Siege had a ’90s-as-can-be action plot, directed by future The Fugitive director Andrew Davis; it wasn’t a Simpson/Bruckheimer production but was certainly in their style. Or, alternatively, it was “Die Hard on a battleship.” And like most of the action movies of the era, there was a nuclear weapon smuggling plot.
Seagal lost the ponytail for the film. And like the best of ’90s action cinema, it had a villain played by the best actor in the movie (Tommy Lee Jones). And like The Rock, the bad guy kind of has a point. Jones played an embittered CIA man, out to take over a battleship. Gary Busey — another guy often in the news in recent years for not-so-good things — played the secondary villain.
But an unlikely hero emerges in Casey Ryback (Seagal), an officer who happens to be the battleship’s cook. But because he has that Navy SEAL training, he’s able to do all of the ass-kicking necessary. See this final fight. The acting styles between Seagal and Jones, needless to say, are somewhat mismatched. But nevertheless…
Now, I’m not meaning to imply that Seagal was a good actor at the time. He absolutely was not. But he was a strong presence on screen, was capable of a good fight scene, and chose projects relatively well. Those last two qualities would soon elude him, never to return.
There was a sequel, 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, minus Davis, Jones, and most of the other good qualities of the first film. Soon enough, around the turn of the millennium, most of Seagal’s films — Out for a Kill, Out of Reach, Today You Die, Black Dawn, Attack Force, Fight of Fury, Urban Justice, Against the Dark, Gutshot Straight — sounded like parodies of his earlier work.
Of course, Seagal soon got a reputation that may have contributed to his stardom being short-lived. In 1991, he hosted one of the worst-received episodes of Saturday Night Live, one which inspired Lorne Michaels, on a later episode, to trash Seagal as the biggest jerk ever to host the show.
But even with all the negatives, from bad SNL episodes to unwatchable movies shilling for Vladimir Putin to botched cockfighting raids, we’ll always have Under Siege.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.