Why Was Steven Seagal So Popular?
I decided to stream Steven Seagal’s 1990 hit action movie Hard To Kill for two reasons: I had never seen it and I wanted to know why this guy was ever a thing. And he was a legitimate box-office thing, starting with his big-screen debut in 1988. Seagal is a demigod in the pantheon of all-American movie champions, a group of handsome men who pretend to punch.
In Hard To Kill, Steven Seagal never sweats nor smiles. For one hour and forty minutes, he grimaces with quiet rage while chopping henchman in the throat with his big tomahawk steak hands. It’s the sort of move made by real men for real men to point at and say, “Yup, that’s a real man.”
There are two women in the movie. They both have sex with Seagal. One of them dies tragically for the sake of the plot. The other woman is a beautiful nurse caring for a John Doe in a coma. There’s a scene where she peeks under the sheets at the patient’s substantial genital organs. Guess what? That John Doe is actually Steven Seagal. Real men have gigantic hogs.
I’m tempted to say he was popular once upon a time but I think he’s still a pop culture icon. He was, after all, a movie star and a musician and from 2009–20014 he was the star of the reality TV show Steven Seagal: Lawman. I recently watched a video on TikTok of 68-year-old Steven Seagal defeating a boyish opponent during an exhibition Aikido match in Russia. He became a citizen of that country in 2016. I watched Seagal slowly go through the motions of a fight that was clearly choreographed — the young man content to dutifully fall on the mat a nanosecond before Seagal could connect.
The video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. There are commenters making fun of Seagal’s hair and goatee — they both look spray painted black. There are others who are still fans of the dude. I am in no position to make fun of gray hair, for one. So I’m not going to mock a man for the sin of aging, it happens to all of us. But I was never a fan of his. My favorite Seagal movie is probably the hostage rescue at 30,000 feet thriller Executive Decision and, to be honest, that’s really a Kurt Russell movie (and a low-key John Leguizamo one, too.)
Seagal is a seventh-dan black belt in Aikido who started out as a martial arts instructor before pivoting into Hollywood playacting, which proved to be a lucrative move. He’s still making cheap movies.
In fact, I tried to watch a recent one called General Commander where Seagal plays a disgruntled former CIA superspy who goes rogue to avenge the death of a teammate. In the first few minutes, Seagal whispers a tough guy speech about the deep state and then we’re off to the death races. The movie is unwatchable but I will give him credit: he can keep a straight face behind tinted glasses while reading stilted red-blooded dialogue.
General Commander and Hard To Kill are both movies that distrust the government, so kudos to Seagal for maintaining that dramatic theme over the decades. There are generations of suburban libertarians who rest their heads on soft pillows and dream of vigilante justice. They also distrust the government, give or take a few loose right-wing cannons in law enforcement. So maybe Seagal has always spoken to that reactionary audience.
I don’t even think Steven Seagal is on my list of the top ten action movie stars of all time. Here’s my list*:
- Sylvester Stallone
- Bruce Willis
- Bruce Lee
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Tom Cruise
- Charlize Theron
- Wesley Snipes
- Keanu Reeves
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Vin Diesel
Steven Seagal has always been a Frankenstein celebrity stitching together Clint Eastwood’s squint and Chuck Norris’ martial arts mastery with a Divorced Dad’s Ponytail. I never thought Seagal was special. I mean, he couldn’t do the splits like JCDV. (I was a Jean-Claude Van Damme man, myself. He was a happy warrior! Bloodsport is a g*dd*mn classic.)
He was an act with one foot of fury in the past and one in the future, a bridge between the emotionless and indescribable vengeance dealers of the 80s and the vulnerable everyman characters popularized by the genre-shattering Die Hard movies. In fact, the plot of Seagal’s most mainstream movie is Die Hard on a boat. Under Siege also a rare Segall hit with a two-word title, instead of three words like Above The Law, or Marked For Death or On Deadly Ground.
In Hard To Kill, Steven Seagal plays a cop named Mason Storm. That’s really all you need to know. But there is a plot: Mason Storm and his family are the victims of a hit ordered by corrupt cops, the mob, and an evil politician played by character actor all-star William Sadler.
Storm takes a few bullets but survives. His wife? Not so much. He wakes up seven years later to learn the world thinks he’s dead. If there is one positive lesson Hard To Kill teaches it’s that every man should have a best friend who will raise your son as his own.
The best moment in Hard To Kill isn’t a brutal beatdown. It’s actually a one-liner that is funny only because Steven Seagal has zero sense of humor about himself. The comeback happens while our hero is training for his vengeance. He watches a political ad starring William Sadler’s big baddie whose personal catchphrase is “you can take that to the bank.” Seagal then says to the television set “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. To the blood bank!” The second best quip is “fuck you and die.”
But why was Seagal popular? Schwarzenneger was funnier. Stallone beefier. There were leaner and meaner like Van Damme. Bruce Willis could actually act. I’ll give Chuck Norris credit. His movies were terrible but he had the saddest eyes. Sure, he could shoot two MAC-10s at the same time but he looked so melancholy while he did it. He also fought Bruce Lee in the 1972 kung-fu masterpiece The Way Of The Dragon.
Seagal was popular because he broke lots of bones. That was his signature move: he’d put a bad guy’s arm in some insanely painful Aikido hold and then *snap*. Seagal wasn’t muscle-bound or agile like a ninja. Seagal was deadly with a handgun but lethal hardware wasn’t his specialty. He was big and slow and happy to hand out brutal compound fractures. The man was ultraviolent. He caused pain.
That’s it. Hard To Kill is infested with ridiculous dialogue and low-budget car chases. It is a time capsule if you’re interested in real men wearing high waisted pants and light racism. But there is something compelling about Seagal, especially when he’s gritting his teeth and splintering femurs.
*FYI: My list of the top ten action stars changes all the time