Looking back at a distant youth, my mind strains to remember its first encounter with Steven Seagal. Was it the patchwork of naval fisticuffs known as Under Siege? Perhaps. The pugilistic tremble of Nico/Above the Law? Maybe. The virgin trip to a place called Out in Out for Justice? Again, it’s possible. Actually, although I’m hindered by a memory stumbling blind in the crannies of time, I do believe the most likely candidate to be Hard to Kill. The fable of Mason Storm, the coma, the beard, images poke through the mist of time. A grand training montage and fleeting images of Kelly LeBrock ride into the mind’s eye, objects hitherto indistinct, now shifted into focus.
Then it becomes clear, this was a youth marked by Steven Seagal. Recollection represents a past mutated beyond the pedestrian crawl of reality. In place of the song of the ice cream van is now the musical thud of Seagal kicking a man. Forgotten songs are blotted out by Seagal’s sagacious words whispered aplenty. Toys and the cherished plastic of childhood are supplanted by idolatrous mimicry of Seagal’s every stance, every wobble of leg, every elbow shook in defiance of the Man. Life as a kid progressed spotted by the cheer of aikido combat and trenchant knee-face collisions; I was a sponge in a basin of Seagal.
With this history in mind, it’s clear I couldn’t ignore the publication of Vern’s adventurous new book, Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. It was to be read, a simple glance at the cover with its schematic of Seagal guaranteed that. Avoid this and a life of incomplete Seagalogical knowledge awaits, that was the warning. Thankfully a speedy purchase was enough to eliminate the risk.
Vern’s fame and notoriety comes primarily from his contributions to that hub of joyous internet movie geekdom Ain’t It Cool News. His reviews, often of the action and horror genres but not always, are words brandished like weapons, words slicing through the mire of cinema. His irreverent commentaries have become a staple of AICN, yielding Vern massive popularity. He’s a self-proclaimed outlaw film critic, a man resistant to the prevailing ways of understanding cinema, to the accepted methods by which a film should be judged, to the drab form that mainstream film criticism assumes. He strives for an individual voice, creatively free to entertain and educate in whichever way necessary. Vern’s rogue journalism has now spawned Seagalogy.
A weighty tome of some 400-pages, the book charts Seagal’s manoeuvres in and out of cinema over the past twenty years. It’s not a biography, although biographical information is imparted here and there. Seagalogy is a film by film study, running chronologically from Above the Law (1988) to Pistol Whipped (2008). Vern creates a narrative of Seagal’s filmography using a modified auteur theory where these films are presented as distinctly Seagalian: specific motifs populate his filmography, recurring frequently and making possible, where eyes are attentive, an effortless discernability. When you watch a Hitchcock, you know you’re watching a Hitchcock. Similarly, when you watch a Seagal, you know you’re watching a Seagal. Even in variations over the course of time – Vern describes a movement from theatrical action films concerned with political issues to straight-to-video action films replete with convoluted stories and excessive dubbing – a degree of distinction remains; Seagal’s auteurship is indelibly written all over these films.