20 years ago, januari 2003 to be exact, saw the release of The Foreigner. A straight to video movie starring Steven Seagal. It was the third time a movie starring Seagal went straight to video, but it would mark a pivotal turning point in his career. The Foreigner was the start of a seemingly never ending stream of straight to video movies starring the 90s action star. A few months later Out For A kill was released, followed by Belly of the Beast at the end of the year.
Three movies in one year. The last time Seagal starred in multiple movies in one year was in 1990 when Hard To Kill and Marked For Death were released. He would even surpass himself with releasing four movies in 2005 and 2009. Every 3-6 months a new movie starring Steven Seagal was released. The catch: they were all low budget, straight to video affairs and none of them comes close to the movies he made in the 90s.
Seagal would continue a relative consistent output of movie until 2019’s Beyond The Law. At the time of writing that is the last movie he released and that was four years ago. All good things come to an end Nelly Furtado once sang and that also goes for Steven Seagal. Though “good” doesn’t really apply to Seagal as both his DTV movies as well as his real life persona are terrible.
In hindsight it seems a bit puzzling why, of all people, Steven Seagal was one of the biggest action stars of the late 80s and early 90s. He was always competing with Jean-Claude van Damme for the third spot behind Schwarzenegger and Stallone. There was also Bruce Willis, but I consider him to be on a different level since he was a classically trained actor who became an action star by surprise.
Much like Willis, Seagal did have that every-man’s look with a rather slim physique, especially compared to Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme. His aikido moves were also wildly different from all of the flying kicks and massive guns seen on screen. But he also had a major studio backing him from day one with his debut movie Above The Law. Warner Brothers launched Steven Seagal like record studios launch girl and boy bands.
If there is another thing these four actors have in common it is that in the second half of the 90s their careers started to wane. Movies they released in the late 90s flopped and often went straight to video overseas. The early 00s saw all of them have movies that were released straight to video. Except for Schwarzenegger, who went into politics shortly after 2003’s Terminator 3. A movie he only did to recapture some box-office success after the failures of Collateral Damage, The Sixth Day, End Of Days and Batman & Robin.
Steven Seagal never managed to recapture the box-office heights of 1992’s Under Siege. His movies still did okay enough for Warner Brothers to do 5 movies with him, but by 1997 it came to a halt with Fire Down Below. A movie that went so under the radar I only became aware of its existence it when it was released on DVD in 2001.
After Fire Down Below came The Patriot in 1998 which is officially his first direct to video release in the US. Not surprisingly this was also a movie I only stumbled upon when browsing through the DVD’s at a local record store. Seagal had a little resurgence in 2001 when top-producer Joel Silver cast him as Orin Boyd in Exit Wounds where he’s paired with DMX. At the time the movie was considered to be a comeback vehicle for Seagal and the relative success of the movie paved the way for more theatrical released Steven Seagal movies.
Then came Half Past Dead.
Half Past Dead built upon the foundation of Exit Wounds and had Seagal paired up with quintessential 00s rapper Ja Rule. The movie was a critical and commercial failure rendering Seagal’s comeback short-lived.
At the same time Seagal’s career was at a dead end, DVD’s were up and coming. Their superior quality to VHS and lack of deterioration had people embracing the format rather quickly once the prices of movies on DVD dropped in the early 00s. Why rent a movie for $5 when you can buy it for $15 and watch it as many times as you want? Nowadays thrift stores all have their own media section, often with massive amounts of DVDs. A testament of how popular the media once was.
Straight to video
Steven Seagal’s career would find a new lease on life on home video. The Foreigner was the first of many low budget straight to DVD movies. During the 00s every few months there would appear a new Seagal movie seemingly out of nowhere. These movies hardly received any marketing and were solely sold based upon the Seagal’s image on a generic looking cover with a movie title that would often fit the classic Seagal title trope of simple three word titles.
It was a trick to have people browsing through DVD’s think that there was a new Steven Seagal movie it in the vein of his early 90s movies. People would see a title like “Out for a Kill” and connect it to Out for Justice and Hard to Kill. They would buy the movie on the assumption of getting a sequel of sorts.
Over the years Seagal’s involvement in these movies would decrease. From movies that at least revolved around his persona he went to movies in which he only had a bit part. At the end of his DTV run he would often film all of his scenes while sitting in a chair. A far cry from the man that once was praised for the speed and brutality of his well choreographed fight scenes.
Even his earliest DTV movies display a distinct difference compared to the movies he made for Warner Bros. His lines are often dubbed over by a different actor. It’s clearly noticeable and occurs often in his early DTV movies since he was much more on screen compared to his later output.
The reliance on stuntmen and body doubles also increases since he only films scenes in which you can clearly see his face. Many of the fights he performs are done by stunt-doubles. Since Seagal became increasingly fatter with each movie, the stunt-doubles became more and more noticeable. Seagal would ofter wear large leather jackets in movies trying to hide his physique and the cover of the DVD would usually have Seagal’s had photoshopped onto another person’s body.
The filming locations changed also. Most of his DTV movies were shot in Eastern Europe because its a lot cheaper there. This also means that most of the movies had a drab and dreary look to them. The Eastern European locations often had to pass for wildly different countries creating sometimes unintentional hilarious moments.
The geezer teaser
With this approach to movie making Steven Seagal created an entire new genre: the geezer teaser. The formula is simple: Pay an aging movie star a hefty sum of money for a day or two of work. Shoot an entire movie around the movie star’s footage with unknown actors in a week or two. Sell the movie on the back of the actor’s name and make a tidy profit.
Bruce Willis has been pumping out movies this way ever since the early 2010s. But even Academy Award winners like Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino have been in plenty of geezer teasers these last few years. You’ve probably seen one or two of them and fell right into the trap.
Since I watched most of Seagal’s DTV movies shortly after their releases I had to endure a slow and painful descent into movies that kept on getting worse and worse with each installment. During the 00s I always kept some sort of hope that the next one would be a true return to form. I misguided hope I came to learn the hard way.
And yet occasionally there was the odd movie that somehow was a tad better than the previous two or three that were released. I rated Urban Justice, Mercenary for Justice and Today You Die all a 6 on IMDB back then, so there must have been something decent about them. Those relatively high ratings reflect how terrible his usual output was by then. It’s been almost 20 years and I still have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth from movies like Flight Of Fury even though I can’t remember a single moment from that movie.
In 2010 Seagal had a role as the villain in Robert Rodriguez’ Machete. It was his first theatrical release in seven years and while he wasn’t the lead character, it did put him back into the limelight for a a short moment. Most of his scenes consist of him just video-calling other characters. This would mark the first time that Seagal would only be in a movie for a relatively short amount of time, but would still feature heavily in all of the marketing materials.
Up until Machete the movies that had Seagal’s name and face on the cover actually starred him as well. After Machete he would appear less and less on screen, often playing the bad guy in the movie or be a part of an ensemble cast.
2014’s Gutshot Straight is good example. It has a rather impressive cast on paper, but had most of the big names perform secondary characters. This includes Seagal, who is only in the movie for three scenes.
The sitting years
Between 2016’s Sniper: Special Ops and 2019’s Beyond the Law movies that were sold with Steven Seagal front and center on the cover and his name next to the title actually had little of him in it. And even if he was in a scene he would probably be sitting at a table or behind a desk. He would often only be seen standing up and walking around in a prologue or during a final showdown.
And even then there is a good change a stunt double was used. Seagal’s fight with and Mike Tyson in China Salesman was shot using stunt doubles. These two never even met on set. At which point does movie magic become movie fraud?
The only exception during this period was the movie Attrition. But this was a movie that he wrote himself, so he had a bit of a personal stake in this movie. This is the only movie from this period in which he actually has a large amount of screen time and seems more invested than usual.
Most of these movies tend to be unwatchable to the general public. In the first 10 years I would watch each new movie withing days of its release. But around 2015 I just couldn’t bring myself to it anymore and they started to pile up. I was tired of constantly being punched in the face by a movie that was bad, had an overweight Seagal sporting a terrible goatee and yellow glasses and often featured sex scenes between a 60+ year old sweaty Seagal and a naked girl in her early 20s.
Plowing through all of these movies felt like a chore. I was only watching them from a completist standpoint. View them, review them, forget all about them. That became my go to approach for the final entries in his filmography.
The end of Steven Seagal?
Seagal is currently 71 years old and and has no current or future movies or TV shows listed. With plenty of #MeToo related rumors surrounding him and his outspoken appreciation for Vladimir Putin it’s hard to imagine him getting another project soon. As of now it seems Seagal’s career as a movie star is over.
It’s the end of an era.
While he’s generally considered to be a trash person by everyone who he has worked with, there’s no denying he does leave behind a legacy. He brought Aikido to the big screen, gave us a couple of action movie classics and is partially responsible for creating the geezer teaser genre.
His utterly trash DTV output outnumbers his 11 theatrical starring movies about 3:1. Though he will probably be mostly remember for his few hits and ridiculous on set behavior by all of his former co-stars.
Steven Seagal, goodbye and good riddance.