Pop Culture
Mar 03, 2023, 06:28AM

The Strongman Populism of Steven Seagal

Defender of the underdog.

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This week, Vladimir Putin took a break from overseeing the invasion of Ukraine and teasing the international community with intimations of nuclear war to honor actor and Russian citizen Steven Seagal with the Order of Friendship for his “humanitarian and cultural work.” (Past recipients include noted humanitarians Christine Lagarde and Rex Tillerson.) The award comes as no surprise to those who’ve paid any attention to Seagal’s recent embrace of authoritarian regimes, dovetailing with multiple sexual assault allegations in an extraordinary late-career heel turn for the “defender of the underdog,” to quote indie rock weirdos Royal Trux.

Trux fans unfamiliar with Seagal’s filmography might assume their tribute—perfect nonsense (“One thousand miles of rays of suns is my inspiration”) delivered with all the polish of a drunken barroom singalong—is tongue-in-cheek, another prank from the band who demanded full creative control in their major label deal with Virgin and turned in an album with a grimy shit and puke-filled toilet on the cover. Yet it’s exactly this kind of defiant attitude in Seagal’s films that likely appealed to punks like Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema in the first place.

What’s more difficult to square is how the left-of-center politics of Above the Law, Hard to Kill, and On Deadly Ground gave way to Seagal’s more recent 180-degree turn toward autocratic rulers. It’s tempting to cite Seagal as a prototypical example of horseshoe theory, but that’s an oversimplification. For one, even in his early career, Seagal was hardly Eugene V. Debs. He was an Aikido instructor turned action star who had long made dubious claims regarding his involvement with American intelligence agencies, which are typically portrayed in his films as corrupt arms of perpetual conflict and violent intervention. This distinguishes Seagal’s movies from those his contemporaries, which—save for a few other odd ducks like Bill Duke’s Deep Cover and Roger Donaldson’s White Sands—usually depicted the CIA heroically.

If Seagal served as the prototype for anything, it may be the anti-deep state, MAGA iteration of conservative politics that has gained currency in the last decade. The villains in his movies rarely wear any specific political stripe but tend to be political creatures in some form or another, like Above the Law’s CIA goons, Hard to Kill’s Senator Trent (William Sadler), and Under Siege’s ex-CIA agent turned terrorist Bill Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), who turns on the agency after they attempt to assassinate him. These movies evince a mistrust in the US government, with a particular focus on its intelligence agencies, at least partly spurred by boondoggles like Iran Contra (to which the plot of Above the Law alludes heavily). The fundamental message that threads most of Seagal’s early work: the powerful will always abuse their power, and the only thing that’ll stop them is brutal, bone-breaking violence.

The major exceptions in his early filmography are Marked for Death, a film that swaps the usual avatars of our evil empire for a Jamaican drug lord named Screwface (Basil Wallace), and Out for Justice, whose villain is an almost comically psychotic crack addict (William Forsythe). As much as Seagal loves to challenge the CIA, the DEA are always good guys in his movies, which adhere to the era’s facile “drugs are bad, m’kay” orthodoxy as firmly as any contemporaneous action film. This not only explains why he’d ultimately embrace a politician like Rodrigo Duterte, whose draconian anti-drug campaign killed thousands of the Philippines’ poorest citizens, but it also hints at what Seagal’s politics are really all about. If he’s the “defender of the underdog,” his defense is highly selective and according to his own prejudices and whims, carrying a whiff of vindictiveness and cruelty that always gives away the fascism underneath the GI.

For example, there’s a memorable scene early in On Deadly Ground where a white oil worker (Mike Starr) bullies a drunken Inuit man in a bar, whom Seagal defends in characteristically belittling terms (“Did you use those to beat up on this little native man?”). He challenges him to a game of hand slap that predictably ends in the bully’s humiliation. Then he poses a question steeped in typical Seagalian pseudo-profundity: “What does it take to change the essence of a man?” The bully, practically in tears at this point, responds, “I need time to change.” Seagal nods. “I do too,” he says, patting him on his shoulder as he leaves.

What’s the purpose of this ridiculous scene? In narrative terms, it sets up a story arc in which Seagal’s protagonist, a firefighter who works for the villainous Aegis Oil, will change his own essence for the better. But in action movie terms it conveys that, if time’s limited, beating someone’s ass can also be an effective means of changing their essence. In this sense, Seagal isn’t unique; rather, he’s one in a long line of action stars whose populist appeal is inseparable from their strongman affect (see: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris), a kindred spirit to Putin and Lukashenko.

On Deadly Ground ends with Seagal giving a long speech at the Alaska statehouse about the importance of protecting the environment from destruction, which points to the most salient distinction between 1990s Seagal and his current incarnation. Though Seagal didn’t explicitly support Donald Trump’s election, he did congratulate him on inauguration day and ignored the massive deregulation of environmental standards that took place during his presidency, including the authorization of oil and gas drilling in previously protected areas of Alaska—the exact thing he speaks out against at the end of On Deadly Ground.

“They have made it a crime to speak out for ourselves,” he tells the audience. “And if we do so we're called ‘conspiracy nuts’ and we're laughed at.” His words portend the current era of unending antagonism we find ourselves trapped in, where politics are defined less by issues or beliefs and more by resentment and contempt for an amorphous “they,” a large tent that casts its shadow over everyone from the deep state to anti-vaxxers, depending on who’s got the microphone at the given moment. Well past his prime, Seagal’s starring roles now mostly consist of him sitting in office chairs, stroking his dyed goatee. He’s no longer the action star America wants, but for a nation of self-styled underdog defenders who are less concerned about defending anyone than stroking their own egos and asserting their dominance, he’s certainly the star it deserves.

  • It is really stupid to attach political interpretations rather than the true complexity of other things. This says more about the writer than Seagal; I never sat through one of his movies because they are so bad and hardly worth analyzing, never mind doing so cluelessly. lLnking him to John Wayne, Chuck Norris, and Clint Eastwood again, men are in no way comparable says a lot more about the author and his myopic woke left-view. A really shiity article.

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