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PUBLISHER: Titan Books
One of the benefits of the democratization of opinion in this information age is that it’s allowed for film criticism to explode into realms heretofore unseen. Subject matter generally deemed “stupid” or unworthy of a critical eye has been picked up and lauded by writers who have finally been able to find their like-minded (or at least sympathetic) audience through these new information channels. One of the treasures of this internet film critic explosion has been frequent Ain’t It Cool News contributor Vern, whose lengthy reviews and examinations of ‘bad ass cinema’ has garnered him quite a fanbase (although to be fair, has also gotten him accused of mental retardation more than a few times). So what better subject to tackle in his first non-independently published book than the entire film oeuvre (and some related pop culture ephemera, such as two released CD’s and a titular energy drink) of action star Steven Seagal.
While not a subject that immediately comes to mind as a wellspring for film criticism, Vern takes a look at Seagal career chronologically, examining each film (from his most popular era to his current DTV status) looking for the social, political, spiritual and defenestrational links that tie them all together as a complete auteur-like package. Vern argues that no other action star of recent years has a body of work that almost uniformly has a personal stamp like that of Seagal’s, and after four hundred plus pages of analysis you wouldn’t dare disagree with his rigorously researched conclusion. Government and business corruption, the push and pull between Eastern philosophy and religion and Western culture, and a passion for the dismantling of wrists are all prevalent in almost every film he’s made, and even when some of these facets are missing Vern is able to contextualize why these elements might be missing due to the time period in which it was made or storyline constrictions, etc. It’s an honest-to-goodness in-depth examination of each film, which might sound like overkill to some, but is nirvana to anyone who’s longed for film criticism that doesn’t talk down to its reader and treats all subjects as worthy of analysis, no matter how slight.
The book’s biggest secret weapon is Vern’s writing style, which should be immediately familiar to most internet movie nerds worth their salt. It’s got a fantastic stream-of-consciousness vibe that allows for tangents to be gone on, but never at the book’s expense. It’s always in the service of a quick joke or further Seagalogial study, so you never get the feeling that Vern’s trying to pad out the pages of the book with jokes to distract from the fact that he has little to say on the subject of Steven Seagal. Which segues into what else makes this book so great: While it realizes the inherent ridiculousness of its subject matter, it never takes the task of analyzing the throughline that connects all of Seagal’s work any less than seriously. It’s a genuine rigorous analysis of the political and sociological subtexts of his work, without the dry exclusionary tactics that so many books of the university press utilize when tackling similar subjects. It’s the rare book that plays into my penchant for wrist-breaking and will still feel right at home next to my copy of 5,001 Nights at the Movies (although, and I’d have to read Taking It All In to be sure, I don’t think a line like “You can’t get a boner in front of a bear” ever appeared in Kael’s body of work), the perfect symbiosis of high art deconstruction with a low art subject matter.
That isn’t to say it’s a dry summary of each Seagal movie followed by examples of what connects them together, this book is one of the funniest I’ve read in a long time. Vern’s enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through loud and clear, and it’s infectious. It made me want to go out and rent Steven Seagal direct-to-video movies, which even the best of critics would be hard pressed to pull off. Vern also realizes his subject matter isn’t above ridicule and the jokes about Seagal increasing usage of stunt doubles and weird outfits in later films are some of the richest the book has to offer. But Vern also realizes that there’s something worth digging deeper into with this particular action star, and the world is a slightly better place for that.
Honestly, this book is tailor-made for the prototypical CHUD reader; it treats an object of the ‘low’ cinema with the sort of analysis and genuine appreciation that is usually reserved for more canonical filmmakers or actors. This trumpeting of genre work as being just as worthy of discussion and analysis as any other picture is exactly what the spirit of CHUD, and furthermore, film criticism should be all about. It doesn’t just do what good film criticism is supposed to do, which is make you look at a familiar subject in a new light, it makes the subject feel completely fresh and rejuvenated as well. It’s the rare book that restores your faith in film and the future of film criticism. And yes, this is all in response to a book that looks at the career of a man who’s become something of a pop culture punchline in recent years. You won’t read a better book of film criticism this year, and you can take that to the bank. To the blood bank.