Titan, 2008, 396 pages, C$16.95 tp, ISBN 9781845769277
A quick look at this book’s cover blurbs confirms that I’m not the only one surprised that Vern’s Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal even exists. For so-called serious cinephiles, Steven Seagal has stopped mattering about ten years ago, when his movies stopped showing in theaters and started going straight to DVD. Even before then, Seagal’s movies were usually B-grade action films, the occasional exceptions (Under Siege, Executive Decision) often being hailed in spite of Seagal’s presence. Somewhat savvier filmgoers can point at 1994’s poorly-reviewed On Dangerous Grounds as the film that broke the back of Seagal’s reputation as an actor/director, highlighting its earnest environmental monologue awkwardly inserted as a coda.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. For Vern, though, all of Seagal oeuvre is worth scrutiny. His thesis, quickly stated, is that Seagal’s influence on his own roles and films has been markedly stronger than many other contemporary action stars: That most movies featuring Seagal are, in fact, best considered as “Steven Seagal movies” rather than belonging to their screenwriters or directors. Vern highlights Seagal’s pet themes and obsessions, and then charts how they are reflected in the vast majority of his work. To top it off, he also reviews Seagal’s music CDs and energy drink.
Everyone’s first reaction at a 395-pages book covering all things Seagal is likely to be similar to mine: No, really? Is there a subject of more trivial importance? Couldn’t this be settled in a quick and cheap blog post? Aren’t we wasting time, energy, paper, etc, even contemplating such matters? Go ahead and wonder the same things. I’ll wait for you to realize that in the end, the only valid appreciation of this book is based on results, not intent.
Because the damning thing is that Seagalogy is a lot of fun to read. It even convincingly proves its thesis: By the time we reach 2008’s Pistol Whipped, there’s little doubt that Seagal returns again and again to themes of official corruption, blowback and environmental degradation. His characters are largely cut from the same clothes, featuring the same taciturn attitude, fascination for other cultures and fleeting family ties. His methods frequently include improvised weapons, bars fights and people being thrown through glass. No matter his screenwriters or directors (who range from video-directing pseudonyms to Oscar-nominated Hollywood veterans), Seagal remains Seagal. For an actor often dismissed without a thought, he has shown remarkable resilience at a time where other actors simply disappeared: More than half of Seagalogy covers his direct-to-video (DTV) films, with as much attention as his theatrical releases.
This means that Vern has gone through each movie with a fine comb, unravelling the shaky plotting of incoherently-made DTV features and telling us about scenes that barely make any sense on-screen. He doesn’t review those films as much as he rebuilds them to see how they work (or don’t). His commentary on DTV features is enlightening in that he has seen far more of them than most of us, and he can spot production flaws that set them apart from their more respectable theatrical brethren. Even in structure, the book shines by its clear sections, careful interludes, meticulous appendices about minor and never-seen projects, with a poignant ending in which the author finally meets Seagal.
It helps that Vern’s style is a straightforward mixture of straight-ahead writing, well-chosen details, self-deprecating humour and a keen understanding of the action film genre. I’ve known of Vern ever since he started writing for aintitcool.com almost a decade ago and while I have often suspected his “Writer who is trying to go clean after a life of crime, alcohol, etc.” shtick to be indulgent performance art by either a bored film student or a struggling screenwriter, I still treasure in my archives an in-character email from him acknowledging my congratulations for a piece he’d written. I’m not sure I would ever want to know the truth behind the pseudonym. Much of his profane, consciously-illiterate online style is barely reflected in Seagalogy, though: At the exception of a consistent mistitling of “The Ain’t It Cool News” that plays as an in-joke, the entire book is scrupulously written and edited to the usual standards. This isn’t a complaint: As much as I want you to read outlawvern.com on a regular basis, a book written and designed like his site would be practically impossible to read at length.
Because, oh, yes, Seagalogy eventually becomes addictive reading even if you haven’t seen a Seagal film in a decade: For a book with a less-than-respectable subject, it quickly becomes an intelligent trip throughout the clichés of action cinema, and a fascinating discourse on all things Seagal. It may even make you respect him for the first time.