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Posted at 10:39 AM ET, 05/29/2008

Books: Studying Steven Seagal

By Liz Kelly

(Titan Books)

It's time we put away childish things and talked about a real celebrity. Someone who truly walks on air miles above our tragically un-famous heads; who redefined the very ideal of super-stardom by his mere existence and who makes other pretenders to the highest realms of celebrity (sorry Angelina) resemble Bronson Pinchot or that girl who played the cheesy robot daughter in '80s syndicated sitcom "Small Wonder."

That's right. I'm talking about Steven Seagal, a real star. A guy who is so famous and so enlightened that even he is awed by his prowess. A guy who doesn't need hordes of paparazzi following his every move to validate his relevance. A man so dang good at what he does that we are sometimes afraid to look upon his rightness and recognize his preeminence as the star of all stars.

Well, all of us except this guy named Vern, whose book, "Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal," will hit stores on June 10 (just in time for Father's Day). From the book's jacket:

An in-depth study of the world's only aikido instructor turned movie star/director/writer/blues guitarist/energy drink inventor -- the ass-kicking auteur Steven Seagal.

After reading an advance copy of this important work, I e-mailed with the shadowy one-named Vern, a longtime "Ain't It Cool News" movie reviewer, about his book and what it is that makes Steven Seagal -- a man whose latest dozen or so movies have gone straight to DVD -- so compelling.

Liz: What is the biggest lesson you've learned from your intense study of Seagal's life and work?

Vern: The lesson I learned is more from the experience of writing the book. This is not something I thought more than a few people would be interested in. But it was an idea that really hit me as something I had to do. I spent five years writing it and the works of Seagal kind of consumed my life for a while there. I knew people might read some smartass book making fun of Seagal but I wanted to do a more thorough and respectful study of what it was he was trying to do with those movies. So I did it exactly how I wanted to and self-published it and not only did people enjoy my approach but next thing you know a real publisher approaches me, it ends up getting all kinds of coverage that I never would've dreamed of and so far almost all positive reviews.

So the lesson I learned is to trust your instincts and pursue what you want to do and not worry about what other people might think. And to bring it around to your question that is also an approach that's reflected in Seagal's movies, especially his directorial debut "On Deadly Ground." Nobody else would've made an action movie that ends in "An Inconvenient Truth"-style presentation about the environment. And people still make fun of him for it but I love that movie and it's the main reason why I wrote this book.

Much more after the jump...

Liz: Your favorite Seagal movie? And why?

Vern: "Out For Justice" is my favorite because it's just so gritty and brutal. The bad guy (William Forsythe) is not some master criminal trying to steal nuclear weapons or something, he's just a wannabe mafia guy smoking crack and going on a rampage, knowing it will end in his death. It's really well directed by the late John Flynn and I honestly think if it starred some other actor respected by the establishment then it would be considered somewhat of a minor classic. Of course, the accent he tries to pull off in the movie does make it pretty goofy.

Liz: Okay, Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell enter the Octagon. Who emerges victorious?

Vern: You made it easy by not putting Bruce Lee or somebody in there. Definitely Seagal because he truly is a master of aikido, a style created by a small old man to neutralize bigger and stronger enemies. But Seagal is bigger than all of them (except Schwarzenegger's arms) so he has that on them, too. So I definitely think he would know how to defend himself from all of those guys. They are some tough bastards though and all have done movies I consider classics. I'm especially partial to Bronson.

Liz: There are some islanders in Oceania who worship Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" character. Does Steven Seagal have a similar following anywhere?

Vern: Not at all. He was declared by Tibetan lama Penor Rinpoche as a reincarnated Tulku, a Buddhist lama who has consciously chosen to be reborn. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to worship him. He has lived an unusual life but my interest is more in his movies.

Liz: Do you ever see Seagal regaining his box office preeminence?

Vern: Not exactly, for a lot of reasons. Like many famous people later in their careers he has been mocked and looked down on for a long time. I hope my book will change that a little. But most people can't really come back from that, that's just the fickleness of pop culture. And, more importantly than that, I think the studios and some of the audiences are even more than ever obsessed with youth and somebody of his age is gonna have a hard time making a comeback. If they remade "Under Siege" they'd cast some 22-year-old pretty boy to play Casey Ryback. Even Stallone, who has done a great job with "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo" has gotten a lot of mockery, although I think both movies were profitable.

With the right kind of movie I think he might be able to do something like that on a small level, which would be great. His best chance I think would be if a really good director like Tarantino or somebody decided they wanted to do their version of a Seagal movie. Like when Paul Thomas Anderson decided to do his version of an Adam Sandler movie. But I don't know what the chances of that are.

Liz: Who would we be surprised to know is a Steven Seagal fan?

Vern: Would you believe Oprah Winfrey? No, I made that up. I have not encountered any revelations like that although I got lucky with David Gordon Green, who wrote the introduction to Seagalogy. He directed "The Pineapple Express" which comes out this summer, but he's known for arty, meditative movies like "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels." His first movie "George Washington" has a Criterion Edition. I knew somebody that knew him so I thought it would be funny to ask him to do the intro and it turned out he actually was a fan and had even seen some of the direct to video ones. He would be on my list of directors to reinvent Seagal if both parties were interested.

Liz: Who else would you like to write about?

Vern: I'm interested in Dolph Lundgren because people think he's a lunkhead but he has a master's degree in chemical engineering and speaks five languages. But I don't think he's imprinted himself on most of his movies the way Seagal has. Seagal's filmography is a unique phenomenon in action cinema, I really believe all of his movies are part of one unique vision that express the same themes and point of view. I'm not a biographer, I just write about movies and I don't think I could've done a book like this about any other actor.

Liz: Why should we read your book?

Vern: If you're interested in film criticism at all it's a unique approach. It's a passionate defense of a body of work that has received almost unanimous critical disdain while still being popular around the world. Underneath the surface it's a serious academic study but most people have told me that it's also laugh out loud funny. But hopefully not the kind of nose-turned-up snarky humor that most people do now. And it seems to convince people of my argument as well as make them rent movies they never thought they'd be interested in. Basically, it will make you laugh your ass off while expanding your horizons and making you a better person. So I do not recommend it to people who aren't into that.

By Liz Kelly  | May 29, 2008; 10:39 AM ET
Categories:  Miscellaneous, Pop Culture  
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Comments

I'm a big fan of the Segal movies; even thd direct to video ones. his early movies done with little or no budget were brutal, but entertaining, and still managed to have good actors (ie., Williams Forsythe, Pam Grief, and others).

Posted by: manuel | May 29, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Q: "Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell enter the Octagon. Who emerges victorious?"

A: Chuck Norris lies in wait and defeats them all with a single kick.

Posted by: byoolin | May 29, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I had to confirm via IMDb that I have never seen a Steven Seagal movie. Yup, never have. His IMDb bio was obvs (!) written by a true fan:

"striking and somewhat boyishly handsome looking (often with ponytail) and usually impeccably dressed action star"

Because when you're going to kick butt, you better look good doing it.

That bio also says he's 6'4" -- why did I think it was more like 5'4"?

Posted by: td | May 29, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

And the great thing about writing a book about Steven Seagal movies is that you can simply change the title and release an entirely NEW book about Steven Seagal movies.

Posted by: M Street | May 29, 2008 11:58 AM | Report abuse

"He was declared by Tibetan lama Penor Rinpoche as a reincarnated Tulku, a Buddhist lama who has consciously chosen to be reborn."

Damn. We'll never be rid of him.

Posted by: MoCoSnarky | May 29, 2008 12:07 PM | Report abuse

And yet, not one word about his marriage to Kelly LeBrock. Even before she lost all that weight on Celebrity Fit Club, she looked great.

Vern's obsession with SS reminds me of that woman who protested the "Underdog" movie a year or so ago because she does public appearances as Underdog and thought the on-screen characterization an insult.

Wait -- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in chemical engineering and speaks five languages?! Who knew?

Posted by: td | May 29, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Byoolin, you make the sun shine. And me laugh.

Posted by: 51 | May 29, 2008 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Q: "Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell enter the Octagon. Who emerges victorious?"

A: Chuck Norris lies in wait and defeats them all with a single kick.

A: Then Clint Eastwood blows Chuck away with his .357 Magnum.

Posted by: ripariandweller | May 29, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Years ago, I saw Dolph Lungren on Letterman (I think - Might have been Carson). I found out then that he had a Masters in Chemical Engineering. He was also dressed horribly and had a terrible haircut. Listening to him talk, I had a revelation - He's a geek! Ivan Drago. The Punisher. He-Man. Geek! I've never looked at him the same again. But I love it!

Posted by: fft5305 | May 29, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I could swear that I once heard that Seagal was in the Secret Service once upon a time.

Posted by: 23112 | May 29, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Wait -- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in chemical engineering and speaks five languages?! Who knew?

Posted by: td | May 29, 2008 12:10 PM

The Onion knew:

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/30688

Posted by: '' | May 29, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

I could swear that I once heard that Seagal was in the Secret Service once upon a time.

Posted by: 23112 | May 29, 2008 12:45 PM

I believe the impression the delusional Mr. Seagal tried to convey was that he was CIA (super secret double covert ops or somesuch).

Posted by: jes | May 29, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Chuck Norris is a wimp

Posted by: Anonymous | May 29, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Wait -- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in chemical engineering and speaks five languages?! Who knew?

Posted by: td | May 29, 2008 12:10 PM

The Onion knew:

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/30688


I knew. Big, tall, broad-shouldered Swede...yummy! I've watched more bad Dolph Lundgren movies (Universal Soldier anyone?) than Steven Seagal movies. Though once I read he used to 'date' Grace Jones, I figured I could not compete with that freakiness.

Posted by: B'more cat and big tall Swede lover | May 29, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm also quite impressed that Brian May of Queen has a PhD in AstroPhysics with the thesis "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud".
And a guitar player to boot!

Posted by: jlr | May 29, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

The Lundgren/Jones thing is true.

I'm not an action movie or Lundgren fan in particular, but have seen interviews over the years. He actually seems funny, down to earth, and likeable. (Did I spell that right? Looks odd.) The anti-Van Damme or Seagal. But something about does make him seem geekish, like a foreign exchange student that never quite fits in rather than the smooth-talking Euro-stud.

Maybe Liz could score an interview with HIM sometime?

Posted by: alex | May 29, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

And Mick Jagger has a degree from the London School of Economics.

I guess they make up for Britney, Lindsey, and Paris.

It is thusly that balance is maintained in the world.

Posted by: Sappho | May 29, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Byoolin,

Far be it from me to question you on this. For I realize I'm not in your league but I must protest. Chuck Norris would not lay in wait. Chuck Norris doesn't need the element of surprise. They enter the octagon and Chuck Norris delivers a hearty arse whupping milliseconds later. Actually it happens so fast the victims are unaware until it's too late and they've been served.

Posted by: petal | May 29, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Actually, all the gladiators entering the Octagon are competing for runner-up, because they've each had to face Chuck Norris and beg for mercy. Chuck Norris showed mercy by whupping each of them with his chin, aka, his third fist.

Posted by: Sasquatch | May 29, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Steven Seagal...he doesn't often drink beer...but when he does, he drinks Dos Equis.

Posted by: db | May 29, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

You forgot about Jack Bauer... If Jack Bauer was gay, his name would be Chuck Norris

Posted by: Jack Bauer | May 29, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Jack Bauer would shoot Chuck Norris in the kneecap to make Steven Seagal talk.

Posted by: Sasquatch | May 29, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Petal makes a good point. Chuck would just be standing there in the Octagon, and the arse-whuppings will begin presently.

Sasquatch's theory has a fatal flaw: Chuck Norris shows no mercy. The third fist concept could still apply if the other two were busy doing something else, say, knitting a hat for an underprivileged child.

Posted by: byoolin | May 29, 2008 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Byoolin, I've gotta go with Jack Bauer over Chuck Norris. Jack's been known to kill his friends if they get in the way of his mission. Jack Bauer shows mercy by killing you with one shot. If Jack is in a bad mood, he hands you over to Chloe. God help you if Jack hands you over to Chloe.

Posted by: Sasquatch | May 29, 2008 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Seagal's best movie was Under Siege for two good reasons - Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. Seagal has the charisma of a statue that has seen too many pigeons.

Posted by: Who Knew ? | May 29, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I have all the early Seagal movies on DVD. I love them and play them periodically because he was the BEST action hero and the films were well made. His M.O. was simple: Kill the bad guys with a lot of cool moves and guns, and show no remorse. Unfortunately, I had to stop buying Seagal's movies after "Under Siege 2" when Steven started to take himself seriously and put lefty social themes about abused minorities into the films. A huge distraction that was counter-productive to a satisfying action film....

Steven Seagal is too old and fat now to make a comeback, but it would be interesting to see him go back to his roots. Nobody did it better... Maybe Tarantino could do it. He gave Travolta a career boost.

Posted by: jbc3 | May 29, 2008 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I've read that SS tops the list of people who will never, ever be asked to host Saturday Night Live a second time.

Posted by: Angela | May 29, 2008 10:56 PM | Report abuse


Q: "Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell enter the Octagon. Who emerges victorious?"

A: Chuck Norris lies in wait and defeats them all with a single kick.

A: Then Clint Eastwood blows Chuck away with his .357 Magnum.

A: Before the fight and entrance of Chuck and Clint, Bruce Lee comes through takes them all out in a crazy blur of motion.

Did you know they had to slow down the film in his movies just so you could see what he was doing (or so I've heard)?

Posted by: J | May 30, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I'm meeting him today, May 31/08 at 3:00pm PST, along with hundreds of others to maybe get my photo taken with him at the Hastings park Race Course here in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Posted by: Benrus | May 31, 2008 5:43 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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