During a time when “one-man army” stars of the rugged individualist 1980s like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone set the bar of male achievement sky-high, Steven Seagal emerged as a star who made average male action film fans feel that personal glory was within reach.
As much a harbinger of everydayness as he was a formidable screen presence, Seagal’s martial arts expertise and cheesy maschimo grounded counterterrorism tales, crime capers and other shoot-’em-up stories with solid performative qualities. Though these appealing aspects of his persona are today overshadowed by his bizarre off-screen persona and direct-to-video dreck, this video essay by Rossatron, “What Was The Appeal Of Steven Seagal?,” reminds us of why casting Seagal in Hollywood actioners was once a pretty sensible, and bankable, move.
Aside from feeding into the nostalgia of B-action cultists, Rossatron’s look at the goods Seagal delivered during his screen time in his early works—including Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out For Justice and others—is instructive for action-oriented screenwriters in search of the key ingredients of a supporting role, and for casting directors seeking to develop a set criteria for how that supporting role should come across to audiences. The video also asks the important question: “Was [Seagal’s appeal] really about him, or about the films he appeared in?”
Watching the video’s examination of what made Seagal “Seagal,” it becomes clear that the actor was not only a well-positioned chess piece that helped advance skilled writers and directors’ plot development, but that he was also fortunate enough to benefit from the time in which he ascended to fame. “After the over-the-top bombast of the ’80s muscle-bound heroes, Seagal felt more like a from-the-street, straight-talking, genuine guy who happened to know martial arts—and you believed it, as that’s kind of what he was, or how he appeared,” Rossatron explains.
In those ’80s and ’90s thrillers, Seagal’s standout qualities boiled down to:
—A tough, yet somewhat unassuming appearance
—Mastery of a not-yet-cinematically-showcased martial art (Aikido) that was featured prominently in his major scenes
—Chemistry with talented, experienced character actors (Keith David, Pam Grier, etc.) that elevated his natural fitness for the roles he portrayed
—Compatibility with rough-and-tumble directors like Andrew Davis, whose street sensibility jived with Seagal’s propensity for quickly cut, tight close-up-heavy fight sequences
When Seagal’s began to enter the phase of his career that devolved into a vain need to become the headliner of his films, his image became downgraded, and his box-office returns diminished. As a team player, a utility guy in productions whose scale was larger than the man himself, was how Seagal truly shined. What can you learn from the strengths and weaknesses of Seagal’s most dependable qualities? Watch the video and let us know in the comments below. MM