The story of Steven Seagal is scarred by the imposition of limits. It’s a recurring phenomenon, manifested across the totality of his output. The world cannot apprehend the amorphous quality of Seagal; so, like a fluid that kicks your ass, Seagal is squeezed into predefined boundaries, packed into finite space, incarcerated within solid walls of formal convention. His natural home lies outside the realm of common understanding, a site of absolute alterity. But certain routines have become necessary, foisting upon the illimitable obligatory barriers of shape and circumscription. Out of sheer compassion, utter pity for our paltry cognitive capacity, Seagal chooses to step into a constructed web of meaning, a matrix through which his majesty becomes comprehendible.
Seagal’s transmogrification from mysterious immaterial essence to corporeal fixture – an esoteric process too complicated for dissection at present – is itself obviously beyond our grasp. Our only recourse is to infer the nature of this rebirth through its allegorical manifestation, i.e. Seagal’s artworks.
In Under Siege, Seagal is forced to have a knife fight with Tommy Lee Jones. This involves forty seconds of rapid back and forth knife swiping as grimacing protagonists attack each other, cutting fresh scarlet upon the skin, the stark soundtrack one of clinking steel. Eventually Seagal stabs Lee Jones in the head and thrusts him into a monitor. The balletic interplay of the scene is apparent to us: the speed of the bodies, men tethered to an ill-begotten violence, fury captured in an endless series of cuts. But these are obstructions to Seagal’s true state. Had convention been abandoned, Seagal may have defeated Lee Jones by transforming the latter’s character William Stranix into Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive, in turn averting the impending fisticuffs.
Seagal is locked into a set of standards, as exemplified in Under Siege. His innate urge for deviation can never assume the character of explicit action. Implicit inscription is our only key to this realm of possibility, interpretation our sole method for reaching Seagal’s metaphysical centre. Stranix represents the rigidity of form to which Seagal submits. Akin to how the ship is the container for all the action, offering definable spatial limits and an identifiable mise-en-scene, Stranix is a walking imposition that annuls Seagal’s greater imagination and turns it into a knife fight. Seagal’s subtle acquiescence must surely be the most selfless act in cinematic history.
Yet whilst cinema barricades Seagal into a corner of hyperbolic ninja kicks and cartoon gunfire, television eliminates from Seagal something else. Rather than drain his imaginative might, television establishes a new agenda for the ambulations of Seagal, new coercions that drive Seagal to assume the attributes specified by hardened televisual rules. Here the real world is attached to the body of the aikido master. Gone are the mad bullet-ridden battles and copious explosions; these replaced with cups of tea and trips to the toilet. Realism has saturated Seagal, expelling his most maniacal of revenge dreams, leaving him in a world of actual social problems, actual suffering, a place where actions have consequences. Reality imposes its own unique limits on Seagal and eliminates his fictional omnipotence. This is observable weekly in Steven Seagal: Lawman.
The latest episode has Seagal and his colleagues tackling drug abuse in Jefferson Parish. They scour the streets looking for crack pipes, bust ne’er-do-wells seeking unearned highs and delineate the ruses concocted to score weed. The cops know the tactics drug fiends use; they recognize the elaborate practices in place that allow the procurement of drugs to go undetected. Accurate intelligence enables the police to stay one step ahead of the dealers and the users. When Seagal visits a crack den, he delves through an endless array of tampons and lighters looking for a crack pipe. He finds nothing – lucky for the hookers that he forces to wait outside – but it’s this level of meticulousness that is required in Seagal’s war on drugs.
Later the gang drop by a rehabilitation centre. Seagal’s Hollywood experiences have toughened him to the perils of drug abuse, giving him first-hand knowledge of what drugs and alcohol can do to a person. He tells the patients that he’s proud of them and leaves.
These are the restrictions of real world social problems. In Seagal’s last domain, the filmic, he would have decapitated anyone insolent enough to even touch a crack pipe, cleansing society of illegal substance abuse within a neat ninety minutes. But in this realm the best he can do is organise a fundraiser for the rehab centre – a best legs contest – and nominate one of his colleagues to take part. Limiting the illimitable is a cruel sight to witness. Seagal’s face during the final scene, the burlesque performance in the foreground, is a visage ravaged by melancholy, a connotation of his disappointment at having to stage the fundraiser, sadness at his inability to simply punch the addiction out of the patients. “It’s a little risqué,” he whispers to someone. Yes, indeed, it’s an outright indecency to have Seagal languishing in a world of limits.