Hey folks, Harry here... Vern, being one to only see the arty movies like the ones he mentions below is the perfect choice to review that hero of the Arthouses... I'm of course talking about Steven Seagal and his latest starring success... ...ahem... Anyway, lest you get tired of reading about Seagal's Private Investigator on Drudge-linked stories, now you get the skinny on the top man himself. And if you ever sit down with Seagal for lunch, play the... "How would you kill me" game, where you just continually ask him, once every 4 minutes or so how he would kill you. I hear this is amazingly entertaining as Seagal has an endless variety of ways to kill the annoying fuck sitting across from him. Go on, give it a try!
Vern reviews BELLY OF THE BEAST by Ching Siu-Tung
I know you are fans of the hong kong cinema, martial arts, karate, and etc. So I bet you probaly know who Ching Siu-Tung is. Or maybe you know him as Siu-Tung Ching, or Siu-tung Chin, or Tony Tung Yee Ching, or Xiaodong Cheng, or Tony Ching Siu Tung, or just plain Tony Ching. I don't know, the dude has lots of names. But the point is not what the dude's name or names is, the point is what the dude does. He may not be as well known in the united states of america as your John Woos or your Yuen Woo Pings or your Tsui Harks. But I bet you've seen some of his works before.
This is the man who directed A CHINESE GHOST STORY 1, 2 and 3. This is also the man who directed the SWORDSMAN 1, 2 and 3. And ROYAL TRAMP 1 and 2. He choreographed the fights for Johnny To's fucked up super hero movie HEROIC TRIO and then went on to direct its sequel, a dark little postapocalyptic fucker we call EXECUTIONERS. He also directed NAKED WEAPON, NEW DRAGON INN, THE DUEL, MAD MONK and DR. WAI AND THE SCRIPTURE WITHOUT WORDS.
Not that I've seen most of those movies but I bet you have. Good shit, right?
Well now Mr. Ching, or Xiaodong as some call him, or Siu-Tung, but he lets me call him Tony-- well Tony has directed BELLY OF THE BEAST, a Canadian/UK/Hong Kong co-production in the language of English. It will be released here on the DVD type format on December 30th, the eve of the futuristic year 2004. Although it is in a bit more of an americanized style, Tony was able to do the kung fu choreography and include many of his usual motifs and themes: magic and mysticism, stylized martial arts with wirework, swordplay and even androgyny/gender confusion (the main theme of the SWORDSMAN trilogy).
BELLY OF THE BEAST is a tale of international type intrigue. Two men, Jake and Sunti, were undercover with a drug cartel in Thailand ten years ago when their cover was blown. They had to shoot their way out and Sunti accidentally killed some poor lady holding a baby. To atone for his sins, Sunti became a buddhist monk.
But now Jake's daughter has been kidnapped, allegedly by the terrorist group Abu Karaf, but he thinks by someone else. So Sunti abandons his peaceful life as a monk and to save the innocent the two of them must outsmart and outfight gangsters, cops, CIA, terrorists, military police, an asskicking transvestite and a magic archery dude powered by some voodoo wizard.
This movie is all over the map. It begins in the real world of cops and drug dealers, but ends with a duel between black magic and buddhist prayer. There is a very complicated plot with lots of different factions, some nice Thai scenery and many varied flavors of action.
The down-to-earth characters like the cops and the terrorists do not use kung fu, they have a closer hand-to-hand style, like streetfighting or aikido. They use guns, so there are machine gun shootouts which do alot of damage to the surroundings, and Tony puts alot of effort into making them look poetic with tiny bits of debris showering everywhere in slow motion, sort of like snowflakes.
Then as the plot gets more complicated Tony begins to introduce more magical characters who use traditional weapons like swords or a bow and arrow. These characters can fly on wires and do alot of showy posing. Their fights are more exaggerated - they can kick people into the air or cut a whole table in half with one swing of the sword. The character of Jake is really our eyes and ears inside this movie, or the main character if you will. He starts out with the more normal style (he is an american CIA agent) but he is knowledgeable of asian culture and history, he wears a tunic also. As the movie goes on he begins to use swords and shit and he is powered by a temple full of praying buddhist monks which makes him do more kung fu type shit with an obvious stunt double, because the guy playing him is kind of too chubby and slow to do any impressive moves.
Oh yeah, one thing before we go on, I don't know if this is relevant at all but this character I mentioned named Jake... well. There's only one way to put this. He's played by Steven Seagal.
Okay, so many of your readers do not share my interest in Seagalogy, but I hope you fuckers can hear me out for a minute here okay. thanks.
First of all, Mr. Seagal is obviously taking this role very seriously. Like Robert DeNiro in RAGING BULL and Benicio of the Wolf in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Seagal has gained alot of weight to play this character. He plays Jake Hopper as a big dude, about twice as big as the characters he played in ABOVE THE LAW and OUT FOR JUSTICE. I know, I know, alot of people make fun of Seagal for his new size, and because he moves so slow. I think in this one though they actually made him look kinda intimidating. I never noticed him being all that tall before but here it seems like he's about six inches to a foot taller than every single other character.
And you know how Clint Eastwood makes his age a theme in UNFORGIVEN, IN THE LINE OF FIRE, BLOODWORK, and etc.? Well Seagal is taking baby steps toward that type of approach. Usually he plays an ex-CIA doctor, or an ex-CIA fireman or some stupid shit like that. Here I guess he's an ex-CIA CIA agent, because he's retired but then he makes money under the table breaking into places and stealing secret information for his friend in the CIA. So anyway, he breaks into this place, does some somersaults and slides around on the floor and shit, and you can hear him breathing like he's really out of shape.
Then - and I swear on christ's balls I'm really not making this up - as he's sneaking back out of the place he stops and checks to see what's in the fridge. Okay, so all he takes is a bottle of water but still. He checks the fridge. That suggests some fuckin self awareness.
After that you find out that his daughter (pre-kidnapping) is very protective of him and cooks up pre-tupperwared meals with post-it notes telling him not to eat red meat and shit like that. And then later on a CIA agent refers to him as a "washed up old man." That's about it but at least he's headed in the direction toward movies that acknowledge that Steven Seagal is the only person who buys Steven Seagal as a young, healthy action hero.
Now I'm not gonna blow smoke up your hole and say this is one of Seagal's best works. I still think OUT FOR A KILL (2003, d: M. Oblowitz) and ON DEADLY GROUND (1994, d: S. Seagal) are his funniest. But this one has some good laughs and hits some of the classic Seagal motifs. And Tony's contributions definitely make this a unique chapter in the Seagal saga.
When I saw THE EAST IS RED (1992, d: Tony) I gotta be honest, I had no fuckin clue what in shit's name was going on. Maybe it woulda helped if I had watched the other ones first, or even knew there were other ones, but I doubt it. I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot, or tell its asshole from a hole in the ground, or whatever the saying is. But you know what? I didn't care. Because all I knew was there was some lady that was really a man named Asia the Invincible and people were flying around doing kung fu in midair and shooting yarn out of their hands and birds out of their mouths and who knows what kind of crazy fucked up shit is gonna happen next. Nobody knows. I was pretty impressed by that one.
Tony uses a similar technique in BELLY OF THE BEAST, in that it is hard to follow. But not in that you don't care. It's not good enough to make up for not making any sense. First we see the girls kidnapped by terrorists, and the CIA thinks it was the Abu Keraf, because they got a video from the Abu Keraf showing them holding the girls hostage and making demands. But later Seagal says it wasn't the Abu Keraf, and the CIA knows it, and next thing you know he's fighting these magic kung fu people and there's a wizard in a temple somewhere poking needles in a voodoo doll. I must've missed something in there somewhere.
There's some funny Seagal stuff in here. You know how Seagal always finds somebody getting picked on in a bar or club and saves them? In this one he helps a gal (hooker?) getting pushed around in a dance club where he is going to meet "an old friend" from the CIA. As he's leaving the club she says, "I want to thank you for what you did for me at the club." And they're still in the club!
Later she comes home and finds her roommate dead (in a wedding dress?) so Jake and Sunti take her somewhere else (explained in an awkward voiceover) where she flashes back to what just happened 30 seconds ago! "There was blood everywhere!" Seagal comforts her, if you know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, what I mean is it dissolves to them fuckin.
She's like half his age and one third his size and they just met and she found her friend dead ten minutes ago and he says it's his fault. So they start fuckin. Don't worry though, this is not french or directed by Vincent Gallo, it's not real graphic.
But that doesn't mean he doesn't love his deceased wife. There's a scene where his daughter (how many movies use the line "After mom died, I'm all he's got"?) is locked up in a cell praying to her mom to help dad save her. Meanwhile Seagal is in bed kissing his wedding ring. It's kinda like that scene in AMAZING MOUSE TALE ADVENTURES or whatever, the statue of liberty mouse cartoon. You know little Fievel is up on the roof singing "Somewhere Out There" and his sister is doing the same thing on a roof miles away. They don't know it but they're BOTH up there, looking at the same moon, thinking about each other.
Have you ever been in the dentist's office and they play that song? You always picture those mice up there singing, but it's the adult contemporary version so there's a guitar solo, so you picture a mouse steps out onto the roof playing a guitar. I think I speak for all of us on that one.
Anyway I never watch cartoons, for your information IMO.
But about BELLY OF THE BEAST. I think there is a little bit of Seagal's subversive politics in there, but it's pretty muddled. He definitely seems to be saying something about governments using "the war on terror" as an excuse for other agendas. He even explicitly says something about "since 9-11" but nothing too blunt. I always like how Seagal puts this kind of more challenging stuff into his dumb action movies. But come to think of it maybe I should be angry. Have you ever wondered - maybe Seagal really DID used to work for the CIA (or "the company" as he calls it) and now he's a sleeper agent. If this pony-tailed clown with the fancy shirts is making movies about government corruption, ecological carelessness, the plight of Native Americans, etc., then nobody will take these legitimate causes seriously. It would be a sinister plan.
Anyway, most Seagalogists don't care as much about the political type subtext as they do about the action. Seagal is just as slow and unconvincing as in all of his recent movies, and whenever "he" suddenly does a big spin kick or something without his face showing it is laugh out loud funny. But his opponents are pretty good, and there are some cool action ideas that I liked.
I like action movies where the hero has to fight against the Man, so I like that Seagal decides to kick everybody's ass while handcuffed inside the police headquarters. That's an uphill battle we've all considered before so you gotta commend the dude.
Then there is a part where Seagal sees that a sniper is about to shoot a dangerous terrorist. But the terrorist may be the only person that knows about where his daughter is, so instead he kills the sniper even though "a whole world of trouble is gonna come down on us."
But the best action stuff is the weird stuff only Tony would do. For no reason at all, one of the bad guys is a man passing for a woman (think Asia the Invincible). Seagal pulls the poor guy's shirt down and says "I liked you better as a bitch." The guy wears heels and does wire fu but unfortunately Seagal defeats him pretty quick.
In the final battle Seagal fights a guy who shoots arrows at him. The first arrow goes in slow motion and Seagal shoots it apart in mid-air. The guy keeps shooting more arrows and Seagal actually cuts one in half with a sword.
I know, I know, bullet time and all that. But you have to admit if it was anybody other than Seagal it would be a great badass moment.
The weirdest thing about the movie is how in the last fight the arrow guy is being powered by a magic wizard and Seagal is being powered by a temple of Buddhist monks praying. I guess it is modest by Seagal standards to attribute his fighting to religion instead of him just being a tough guy. But still I wouldn't think buddhist monks would want to use their prayers to help some guy kill another guy. But then I'm not the reincarnation of Rinpoche, so I guess I wouldn't know.
Now I know you guys probaly want me to go on all day about this movie but I'm gonna have to cut it short because I can't give it all away for free. Major publishers please feel free to contact me about publishing my complete guide to the Seagalniverse, SEAGALOGY: THE FILMS OF S. SEAGAL. Otherwise, that's it for today.
I know, I know, I never fuckin update