When I was a kid in the 1980s, my only martial arts practice consisted of imitating Bruce Lee’s howls and watching the TV show Sidekicks. To me, the martial arts stars of that era were gods.
Steven Seagal definitely ranked near the top in my pantheon of cinematic heroes. My jaw dropped after watching the aikido master play a cop with an attitude in 1988’s Above the Law. I idolized him after he embodied an ex-DEA agent with an attitude in 1990’s Marked for Death. And I had no doubts about his divine box-office talents after his performance as a former Navy SEAL with an attitude in 1992’s Under Siege.
But during the ensuing decade and a half, my reverence slowly diminished, and it certainly won’t be renewed after watching Steven Seagal’s latest project, Against the Dark, in which he plays a sword-wielding vampire hunter with, well, an attitude.
Don’t get me wrong: This direct-to-DVD effort isn’t boring. It just seems as if no one among the cast or crew tried that hard.
The result plays like an extraordinarily average B movie, complete with a small-time budget (reportedly $9 million), a one-location setting (a hospital) and a been-there-done-that plot (Steven Seagal plays the leader of an elite killing squad who must save a group of survivors after a vampire virus decimates society).
However, I give Steven Seagal bonus points for trying out a new genre: Against the Dark marks his first foray into horror flicks. He’s still got the same slicked-back hair, expressionless mug and monotone delivery he’s had for the past 21 years, but now he’s hacking up bloodsuckers instead of snapping the wrists of terrorists or tossing gangsters through plate-glass windows. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look out of place among the fangs, guts and gore.
He also gets a gold star for finally trying some new fight choreography. Steven Seagal’s biggest contribution to cinematic history will always be that he took what was once thought of as the unfilmable soft style of aikido and made it a thrilling, elbow-shattering, head-tossing method of on-screen fighting. Many of the seventh-degree black belt’s joint locks, bone breaks and throws have since become essential additions to the stunt coordinator’s arsenal.
But while icons like Jackie Chan continually strove to reinvent themselves throughout the 1990s, Steven Seagal never graduated beyond his XYZ-with-an-attitude approach. His career peaked with 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and he’s been stuck in the direct-to-DVD market ever since Half Past Dead bombed at the box office in 2002. So far in the 21st century, he’s made a string of forgettable B movies and is better known for endorsing a line of energy drinks and getting curious looks for his blues music and Buddhism.
Perhaps recognizing his rigid choreography, yearning for past glory or simply compensating for his aging body, Steven Seagal changed his ways for Against the Dark. He draws from his bokken training and wields a sword. It’s intriguing to watch him handle the mishmash of aesthetics, but it’s too bad he kills each vampire after only a few slashes. It makes the fights too short to enjoy.
Even worse, first-time director Richard Crudo (cinematographer of American Pie) and editor Tim Silano muddle the action with too many quick cuts. Thankfully, Steven Seagal’s sidekick Tanoai Reed picks up some of the slack.
Tanoai Reed is actually the stunt double and cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In Against the Dark, he gets a chance to step out of his famous relative’s shadow, playing a vampire-killing workhorse named Tagart. Tanoai Reed’s combat sequences combine street brawling, gunplay and the use of cool bladed weapons that look like a hybrid of a tonfa and a kama. As a talented stunt fighter and competent actor, Tanoai Reed brings much-needed oomph and crispness to the on-screen battles.
However, it’s a tad odd that before almost every one of his action scenes, Tanoai Reed’s character is ordered by Steven Seagal to “sweep” a room full of vampires solo. He belongs to an elite squad of vampire hunters, so why not exterminate their prey as a team? From a stunt coordinator’s point of view, it showcases Tanoai Reed’s skills, but from a character-logic standpoint, it’s rather stupid.
I’m not sure if Tanoai Reed’s mini suicide missions are a symptom of poor staging by fight coordinators Dickey Beer and Gabi Burlacu, poor directing by Richard Crudo or poor writing by scribe Mathew Klickstein—or a combination thereof. Matthew Klickstein’s screenplay is amazingly predictable—save for one short subplot about a human father caring for his vampire daughter—and doesn’t give the star much to do. Steven Seagal has zero character arc and back story.
Then there’s the laughable dialogue. Steven Seagal issues such ridiculously obvious commands as, “Kill anything that looks infected.” In another scene in which his team saves a little boy, he turns to his crew and proclaims for no particular reason: “We’re not here to judge who’s right or wrong. We’re here to decide who lives or dies.”
All that does little to elevate Against the Dark beyond its ilk. And that’s too bad for Steven Seagal because although he’s now older, the world’s most famous aikidoka appears to be willing to expand his repertoire. Perhaps he realizes the same thing I did after watching Against the Dark—that he’s but a mere mortal after all.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)