His Aikido skills may have gotten him to the top of late ’80s action cinema, but they can’t save Steven Seagal from DVD bombs, sexual assault lawsuits, and Vladimir Putin.
The ’80s saw the rise of the muscle-bound martial arts ass-kicker, who roundhoused entire warehouses full of B-movie bad guys that couldn’t aim. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are the most notable names, but guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris weren’t far behind. In 1988, a new name joined the ranks of these shredded badasses: Steven Seagal, star and co-writer of the crime thriller “Above the Law.”
The story follows Nico Toscani, played by Seagal, a former CIA operative who uses martial arts to help Chicago cops take down a heavily armed drug ring. It wasn’t great. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a lukewarm 50%, based on 20 reviews, but it still ranks among Seagal’s best and most well-known films. More importantly, it was an effective launch pad for his career, establishing him as a chisel-jawed, no-nonsense name to watch.
Roger Ebert even gave the movie three stars, and heaped praise on the leading man himself, writing: “He does have a strong and particular screen presence. It is obvious he is doing a lot of his own stunts, and some of the fight sequences are impressive and apparently unfaked. He isn’t just a hunk, either. He can play tender and he can play smart, two notes often missing on the Bronson and Stallone accordions.”
By the time Seagal had karate chopped his way to the top of the action B-movie pile in the early ’90s, the craze was already winding down. But he still had one bullet in the chamber — 1992’s star-studded “Under Siege.” Seagal stars as Casey Ryback, a Navy SEAL who removes the chef’s hat to thwart Tommy Lee Jones’ William Strannix, a bitter terrorist who commandeers the USS Missouri with help from inside man Commander Peter Krill, played by Gary Busey. The initial takeover goes well, until the bad guys realize Ryback is stealing through the ship’s corridors, taking out their accomplices one by one in the lead-up to an epic final showdown.
As Roger Ebert points out in his three-star review, the formula is “Die Hard goes to sea.” The renowned film critic praised the cast, saying the villains were “superb, vile, and deliriously insane.” As for Seagal? “He makes a convincing cook; he can hit a target with a carving knife at 20 paces.”
In the end, “Under Siege” is Seagal’s highest-ranking movie, nabbing a well-earned 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. He built his on-screen persona from the get-go around his fighting skills, and everyone who knows anything about Steven Seagal knows the guy isn’t just acting like he knows martial arts. He’s got some chops: he’s a black belt in Aikido.
The only problem? Aikido isn’t a very well-respected martial arts form. In its analysis of the technique, Way of Martial Arts says it’s more about mindfulness and passive defense than it is about taking down dangerous opponents. There’s a reason most of Seagal’s fight scenes involve him merely deflecting hard-charging bad guys — who don’t seem to know what they’re doing — as opposed to going on the offense and kicking them in the face. This is because that kind of reactionary fighting style is just about all Aikido is good for in a street fight. It can be effective in a real fight, but only if your opponent has no training whatsoever.
Many in the martial arts community have been calling Seagal’s bluff for years, and they started doing so during his ascent to fame. A June 1992 edition of Black Belt Magazine, from the same year when “Under Siege” was released, details the time a group of slighted, unconvinced karate and Kickboxing masters tried to arrange a fight with Seagal, with the goal of exposing him as a fraud. Sadly, no such event took place.
The success of any given “Saturday Night Live” episode often comes down to the comedic chops of its celebrity guest hosts. Sometimes you’ll get a Tom Hanks or Steve Martin who leads the cast in a hilarious round of comedy. Other times, like in April 1991, you end up with a Steven Seagal, who is widely considered to be the single worst host in the show’s history. Yes indeed, after decades of nearly weekly episodes and no shortage of lousy hosts, Steven Seagal bottoms the list. According to Tom Shales’ book “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests,” Seagal was exceedingly difficult to work with, shot down almost every idea the writers had prepared, and refused to appear in any skit that didn’t frame him as a macho tough guy. Furthermore, he had his own sketch ideas. Shales relates one particular observation from cast member Julia Sweeney at the time: “Some of his sketch ideas were so heinous, so hilariously awful, it was like we were on ‘Candid Camera.'” She wasn’t alone – “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels agrees with the dismal sentiment.
“They probably think I’m the biggest jerk who’s ever been on the show.”
“No, no, that would be Steven Seagal.”
After making a name for himself in “Above The Law” and “Under Siege,” Seagal’s career took a turn away from anything truly notable. Sure, there was 2010’s “Machete,” where he played Rogelio Torrez, criminal and former partner of Danny Trejo’s titular character. It was just self-aware enough to sell the schlock, and came away with 71% on Rotten Tomatoes.
But in the years leading up to “Machete,” Seagal avoided the big screen and instead prowled the dank basements of direct-to-video purgatory. 16 of the 24 films he starred in between 2001 and 2009 went straight to on-demand or DVD, without even a limited theatrical release in major markets.
Furthermore, almost all of his direct-to-video films suffered from the exact slate of issues one might imagine: low budgets, lazy writing, plots centered around clichéd locations such as abandoned warehouses, and with a handful of recyclable prop guns. The biggest issue with getting the word out about these so-bad-they’re-really-bad bombs is that almost nobody has bothered to watch and therefore review the vast majority of them, so there’s no Rotten Tomatoes score or reputable review to cite. But you can probably get the gist by glancing at a cover and seeing a past-his-prime Seagal scowling in front of a photoshopped explosion.
2003’s “Out For A Kill” is so lazy, Seagal actually performs an entire fight scene sitting down. There’s also 2016’s “Sniper: Special Ops,” which sounds like a fun shoot-’em-up video game, but fails to deliver any fun at all, according to John Noonan at FilmInk. 2005’s “Black Dawn” doesn’t even star Seagal in any fight scenes, owing to him leaving the production halfway through filming.
Steven Seagal doesn’t just act violent or pretend to take himself way too seriously. Instead, his on-set behavior seems to indicate he’s not much different when the cameras aren’t rolling. Sean Connery once told Jay Leno that Seagal broke his wrist on the set of “Never Say Never Again,” a Bond movie where Seagal was a fight coordinator.
“You know the principal is, it’s defense, so it’s a pyramid, and I got a bit flash, and I did that, and he broke my wrist.”
But while that incident appeared to be accidental, Seagal’s run-in with John Leguizamo was anything but. In an interview with the AV Club, Leguizamo said that Seagal showed up to the set of the 1996 film “Executive Decision” and announced, unironically, “I’m in command. What I say is law.” But it got even worse. Leguizamo said: “I started laughing and he slammed me with an Aikido elbow against a brick wall and knocked all the air out of me. I dropped to the ground, and all I could say was, ‘Why? Why?'”
According to The Observer, Seagal threatened to attack Leguizamo if they ever ran into each other on the red carpet, after learning Leguizamo had mocked him in his stage show, “Ghetto Klown”, in which Leguizamo recounts embarrassing stories of Hollywood peers.
“What I really wanted to say is how big and fat he is. And how he runs like a girl, ’cause he does, cause he runs like this.”
But Leguizamo isn’t worried about it. Saying that Seagal had turned into a “putz” and an “egomaniacal diva,” he quipped: “I don’t think he’s invited to a lot of red carpets.”
One of the most surprising, and yet somehow least surprising, things you’re likely to learn about Steven Seagal, is that he’s actually a licensed police officer, and his exploits can be seen on “Steven Seagal: Lawman.” But, as one might expect, the “Executive Decision” star doesn’t spend his screen time in the show saving cats from trees or handing out parking tickets.
In the promotional video for one episode, Seagal mumbles: “Right now, my team and I are gearing up to take down a suspect, Jesus Sanchez Llovera. Wanted for animal cruelty.”
“Given what we know about this guy, we feel that it’s going to be safest to deploy SWAT. We’ll be using two armored personnel carriers to breach the perimeter.”
If that sounds like overkill, it’s because it was. According to a lawsuit by the homeowner, Seagal’s dangerous stunt was followed immediately by a platoon of SWAT officers, decked out in full riot gear. They stormed Lloveras’ house and killed more than 100 of the chickens they had allegedly shown up to rescue, while the rest of the critters bolted for cover. The Llovera family puppy was also tragically killed in the incident. In addition to seeking $100,000 in damages, Llovera demanded Seagal write a written apology to his children for killing the 11-month-old puppy, which he described as a “beloved family pet.”
Over the course of his career, Steven Seagal has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Back in 2002, “Die Another Day” Bond girl, Rachel Grant, claimed the star pulled her top down and forced her onto his bed in a hotel room. As reported by Sky News, Grant further alleged that after she rejected Seagal, she didn’t get the part she’d been auditioning for in “Out For A Kill.”
In an interview with Movieline, Jenny McCarthy described an incident in which Seagal allegedly ordered her, who was auditioning for a role in “Under Siege 2,” to undress, before grabbing her and ordering her to stay silent after she protested.
And In 2010, Seagal was sued by his former personal assistant, Kaden Nguyen, for repeatedly attempting to grope her and even forcibly drugging her. In the same lawsuit, Nguyen alleged that Seagal was engaged in sex trafficking, because he was attended to around the clock by young Russian women who were to fulfill his every need.
TMZ reported that Seagal had a habit of luring women to his home under the guise of discussing movie roles, only to make sexual advances on them. Ray Charles’ granddaughter, Blair Robinson, claimed she fled one supposed film opportunity after Seagal said they should mutually massage each other.
Russia faced near-universal global condemnation after launching the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But while the hammer of international sanctions and isolation hit hard, they weren’t left completely alone. Steven Seagal maintained his friendly public stance towards Russia’s Vladimir Putin, one which was controversial even before the war.
As reported by Newsweek, the cinematic action hero has concrete ties to the Kremlin. And while viral rumors that Seagal was actually on the ground in eastern Ukraine fighting with the Russians were untrue, he has fostered a relationship with Russia for decades. Seagal hasn’t backed off since the war began, either. If anything, his warmth towards Putin’s regime has only grown.
In April 2022, a clip surfaced on Twitter in which Seagal gave a motivational speech to high-ranking Russian officials. Another Newsweek article reported that Seagal condemned the Ukrainian use of HIMARS, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, and even seemed to back up Russian talking points about the need to “denazify” Ukraine via invasion.
In October of 2022, Seagal wished Putin a very happy birthday on Instagram, saying: “Today is President Putin’s birthday. I just think that we are now living in very, very trying times.”
“He is one of the greatest world leaders and one the greatest presidents in the world.”
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE. That’s 1-800-656-4673.
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