Oh man, what the hell happened? I remember being a teenager, stunned at the amazing martial art (Aikido) performed by Steven Seagal in the opening five minutes of 1988’s Above the Law. I’d never seen such fluid and devastating cinematic combat, especially performed by an American. In 1988 Above the Law reset the bar for action cinema in the United States and thrust 6’5” Steven Seagal to the forefront of the action star A-list along Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme.
You’d think with such an amazing debut that even the expected sophomore slump would have only offered a temporary snarl in what should have been a brilliant career. But alas, Steven Seagal’s sophomore slump, slumped, and slumped, and slumped even more, until finally, in its death spiral he crashed and burned into the ranks of the Direct to Video B-list stars Marc DaCascos, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Jeff Speakman, and Jean Claude Van Damme.
Weirdly though, every few years some studio decides to test the multiplex waters by releasing a new Steven Seagal flick without the safety net of Direct to Video. The most recent trend is pairing the increasingly porcine Aikidoka with any number of popular Hip Hop stars, and in at least one case, Keenan Ivory Wayans. These films “The Glimmer Man”, “Half Past Dead” and any number of oddly titled action pics all share one thing in common other than a significant decrease in cool Aikido fights; they all suck. They don’t work as martial arts pictures because there aren’t enough prolonged fight sequences and they don’t work as action films because modern action films rely on cool fight and stunt sequences (which aren’t in these films), they don’t work as police procedurals because the scripts uniformly suck, and they don’t work as buddy pictures because Seagal is unable to offer a single likable trait for the audience to reflect.
What we get in abundance though is so-so Akido, most of it performed by none other than Steven Seagal’s stunt double, and the same plot tweaked here and there, then recycled over and over and over again. Seagal always plays a cop, even in films where his character isn’t really meant to be a cop, he’s a cop. He’s always a veteran of some special forces team that gets either an introductory scene that’s dropped in before the opening credits, or general back story lip service tow-thirds of the way through the film. He has fewer lines each movie, and even these he barely manages to mumble through. And perhaps most frightening, in his most recent film he shoots almost all of his scenes sitting at a table, on a park bench, or in the front seat of a Mercedes SUV.
What the fuck is up with that? I mean, come on. He’s an action star for chrissakes, get him off his increasingly fat ass and give us some action. If you watch the last three of Steven Seagal’s films you’ll see ALMOST as much action as a 42-minute episode of Monk, and certainly more martial arts type stunts from twitchy OCD suffering Tony Shaloub than you do from a 6th Dan Aikido fighter.
It’s not that Seagal is a bad actor, he isn’t, it’s that I think he stopped giving a shit a long time ago, right about the time his Austin Davis character selflessly sacrificed himself (in the first 20 minutes of Executive Decision) so that John Lequizamo’s Captain Rat could live.
I suppose, being in that same situation, I too would throw in the towel and forget trying to make half-decent flicks and move on to virtual second banana roles for guys like Jah Rule, let my Buddhist teacher go on record announcing me as a Tulka (reincarnated form of a Buddhist Lama), and go on a two-year long Big Mac and chocolate shake diet.
The good films in the Seagal canon always offer someone the audience can latch on to; Above the Law gave us both Seagal’s Nico Toscani the Italian Cop, Catholic, from a Mob family, but driven by the honor learned in Aikido, and Jazz, his partner played by the always excellent Pam Greer. We identify with him because he’s inherently good even when thrown into really bad situations and irrespective of the possibility to make an easy choice, say, having his family members in the Mob gun down the Columbians. He takes the high road. In Hard to Kill we can identify with his rage and guilt at failing to protect his family from a crooked senator, spending 7 years comatose, and having to adapt to a world where the transgressions against him are nearly forgotten by everyone involved.
In fact, the theme that dominates his good pictures is that the corruption trickles down from the top whether it’s the CIA (Above the Law), the US Government (Hard to Kill), or the Naval Chain of Command (Under Siege) and the films that really suck make the villain a standard villain.
In the middle, where any film is a 50-50 shot between adequate martial arts flick and abomination are the ones where he has an agenda to push. On Deadly Ground being the most obnoxious of the middle films where Seagal plays a half Indian trying to protect Alaskan land from ruthless oil barons, which if it was not handled in such a ham handed manner, if the villains were not so mustache twistingly evil, and if he had not put on approximately 2 metric tons before shooting thus relying on a stuntman for his Aikido scenes, could have been an okay outing.
The real crap in his list can be distinguished almost exclusively by the caliber of “star” working as his partner. From Keenan Ivory Wayans (The Glimmer Man) to Tom Sizemore (Ticker) to L.Q. Jones (The Patriot) to DMX (Exit Wounds) to Jah Rule (Half Past Dead) to a bunch of virtual unknowns (Belly of the Beast, Clementine, Out of Reach).
Seagal let himself go a little more in each film until by the time we hit the abysmal Half Past Dead, where Seagal plays a cop pretending to be a Russian mob car thief, there is no Aikido at all and a couple of horrifically awful action set pieces designed to give Jah Rule screen time for wise-crackery rather than for Seagal’s ass-kickery.
Into the Sun presents another attempt to boost his career back towards getting his films into US theaters. He’s actually given a half decent cast of well-known Japanese actors to work with including (though not mentioned in the review) Chaiaki Kuriyama (of Battle Royale and Kill Bill Volume 1 fame).
Still, the reliance on first time director and full time furry rodent Mink manages to squander virtually all of the good elements in favor of jumpy-cuts and annoying music video graphics (such as frame removal for no good reason creating the image that a camera is swinging through the city, and occasionally speeding up and slowing down for no good reason).
Seagal’s acting hasn’t improved at all from Above the Law, where as a street-wise drug cop he can get away with alternating mumbles and speeches (also in near mumbles), but in films that really try to give him a human and tender side, such as Into the Sun where his scenes with Nayako should have been romantic rather than nausea inducing, he manages to mumble and leer at her like an idiot. And the fact that he’s, oh I don’t know, three decades older than she is only adds to the creepy old man vibe he throws off.
Into the Sun offers the chance to hear quite a bit of Japanese too spoken by Seagal and for the record he sounds just as punch drunk and idiotic in Japanese as he does in English.
Does it surprise me that Into the Sun went Direct to DVD? No. Does it surprise me that Seagal managed to complete an additional 5 films last year? Yes. But in that it goes to show that if he maybe starred in three films and put some real work into the writing/directing they might not suck. Rather though, he’s locked onto the same three scripts/plots like a rabid pit bull terrier locks onto the little runt of a kid down the block. And the results are just as tragic.
He can do better and has done better, but as long as he’s happy being a reincarnated Lama we can look forward to more and more reincarnated Steven Seagal movies with different titles.
Seagal’s most recent offering, Into the Sun, was both partly written and partly produced by the portly Lama. This film is a virtual remake of one of his best films, Out for Justice, transposed to Japan from New Jersey and starring Takao Osawa (of All About Lily Chou Chou fame) as his Yakuza nemesis, a role nearly identical to that played by William Forsyth in Out for Justice.
Into the Sun is directed by the enigmatic “mink” (and yes, it’s in all lower case letters) whose previous credits include nothing. This could mean one of two things – mink is really Steven Seagal or mink is an actual rodent farmed for its supple fur.
In either case mink demonstrates a stunning ability to emulate TV cop shows and hip-hop videos in establishing shots and grade-Z Direct to Video set pieces in the… well… the action set pieces.
Into the Sun attempts to present a situation where an up and coming Yakuza gang lord Kuroda (Osawa) pairs with a gang of Chinese Tongs led by Chen (Ken Low) and a Burmese drug lord Chang Choudong (Vikrom Suebesang) to corner the market on the Japanese heroin trade. Okay, so that’s believable enough in the world of celluloid, but where the premise falls apart is in characterization. Kuroda is absolutely insane and literally kills ANYONE who even accidentally questions his motives, leadership, or strategy. He also pits his small gang (there are only about 5 guys in Kuroda’s army of thugs for 90% of thte film) against the much older and entrenched Yakuza hierarchy and manages to wage a moderately successful war against guys who have a criminal history dating back to the Meiji.
So how does Seagal play a part in all of this? Easy, he’s a sword dealer and former CIA spook (like you didn’t know that was coming) living in Japan who is recalled by Agent Bloc (William Atherton) to lead an FBI agent, Sean (Matthew Davis), around Tokyo to help investigate the assassination of a Japanese governor.
This governor ran on a very conservative platform of maintaining Japan’s exclusionary immigration policies and almost immediately suspicion falls on any number of non-Japanese ethnic groups entrenched in Tokyo and on the Yakuza.
The Yakuza involvement seems unusual, but maybe it was put in for western audiences. The Yak hasn’t, at least in modern history, been all that involved in Japanese politics with the exception of throwing money around. But I guess if this was shot in the USA it would be the mob killing the New Jersey Governor, and that would sort of make narrative sense, we get it transposed to Japan.
The film actually opens in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma) where Chang Choudong’s bag of rebels run the opium poppy trade on the border with Thailand. Watching the border village where Choudong and his men are preparing a shipment, and where, correspondingly, a steady line of Burmese are commuting, are Travis Hunter (Steven Seagal) and Jones (Eddie George). They are connected via satellite to William Atherton back at CIA HQ somewhere in Tokyo. Once the two agents ID Choudong they are cleared to assassinate him.
However, two of Choudong’s foot soldiers take a liking to one of the female commuters and follow her into the bushes when she strays off to pee. Travis Hunter, being a man of honor and immune to the common sense pleas of Jones, shoots one of the men in the chest. Although both CIA operatives have silencers on their rifles, Hunter takes the unsilenced AK-47 of the fallen Burmese guy and shoots the other guy in the chest.
This act alerts all of the soldiers and Choudong who immediately give chase. What the hell was Travis thinking? Aside from the fact that he’s just spent the better part of a day watching Choudong’s army assemble, he kills these two dudes in the manner best designed to bring that army running after them.
Oh, and Jones is black so you know he’s about to die. Being black and Steven Seagal’s partner in the opening sequence of a Direct to DVD feature is akin to being a Star Trek red-shirt on an alien planet told to go into the dark cave with only a tricorder.
Hunter and Jones call for emergency evacuation and run off to meet an incoming Huey. How the Burmese, firing approximately 900,000 rounds at Steven Seagal’s porcine backside manage to miss him is anyone’s guess but they do. Jones doesn’t get off so lucky, he takes a shot to the chest and dies in Seagal’s arms as the chopper lifts off.
Exit Jones –
Back in Tokyo the assassination occurs in the lobby of a hotel. The assassin escapes on the back of a motorcycle but takes a bullet in the shoulder.
He is never seen again.
Cut to the inside of a high-rise office, this is CIA HQ where Agent Bloc (William Atherton) is going over the report of the assassination, over the phone, with someone in the US government. He is told that this might have some connection to International Terrorism and because of the Department of Homeland Defense, he is asked to find out as much information as possible in a joint CIA and FBI t ask force.
Apparently no one actively working for the CIA has any clue about Japanese culture. This prompts him to call on Seagal, now retired and apparently a merchant dealing in both antique and new samurai swords. Seagal initially refuses, but as is the case with every other film of this type, offers to gather information to help out his old boss.
He is paired with FBI agent “Sean” (Matthew Davis) who:
1 – speaks NO Japanese
2 – Is completely clueless about Japanese culture and mannerisms
Why the FBI is operating inside another country is anyone’s guess, but he is, and so we are stuck with him. The idea, I think, was to present a character with which the non-Japanese savvy audience could identify, and through whom, the audience would learn to navigate all of these weird old-school norms and customs that most of us wouldn’t understand. What happens though is that Sean is so goofy and inept he provides little more than comic embarrassment to Steven Seagal’s Buddha-like understanding of all things Japanese.
Speaking of which, who in the hell wants a primer on modern Japanese culture masquerading as an action flick? I can think of one reviewer who, should he never see a westerner being taught to eat with chopsticks in an action movie again, it would be too soon.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Into the Sun, right…
So Travis and his faithful squire set off to see what they can learn about the recent goings on in the Yakuza.
Meanwhile, Chen’s Chinese gangsters (the Tongs) are in the midst of a blood oath. Interestingly one of the foot soldiers refuses the blood oath because “I hate the Japanese and refuse to serve them.” Which, considering the history of bad blood between Chinese and Japanese doesn’t seem too fat fetched. What does seem far-fetched is that Chen is so immediately willing to sign on as muscle for the upstart Yakuza gang. He has nothing to gain really, and Chen, of all people, should know that Kuroda doesn’t have his head screwed on straight and will, without question, turn on him at some point or another.
The first clue that Travis and Sean find linking the Tongs and the Yakuza is in the security cam footage of the assassination. Travis notices that the assassin is wearing a specific kind of medallion that identifies him as a Tong.
Oops, guess he didn’t think anyone would notice. Mink uses a ridiculous device to show which gang members belong to which ethnic group that becomes more idiotic as the film goes on too. All of the Tongs, and I mean ALL OF THEM, wear garish Hawaiian shirts and gold medallions all the time.
Chen also eats like a pig when we see him eating, which is surprisingly often.
Anyway, Travis decides to check out some of his friends in Chinatown to see if anyone can shed some light on this whole gang allies plot point and visits his old Kung Fu teacher. Since we are led to believe that Travis is much more skilled in the Japanese martial arts, specifically Iado and Kenjutsu, it seems strangely convenient that he has a Chinese teacher.
And as can be expected this teacher speaks in fortune cookie wisdom.
We also learn that Travis was the Kung Fu teacher’s daughter’s teacher… got that? And now she is “assigned” to follow him around and act as his bodyguard.
The hell? This doesn’t make even a lick of sense, more so because she doesn’t show up again until the last 10 minutes of the film to offers a few swift Wu Dang kills during the climax.
Okay, the Kung Fu teacher explains that he knows that Chen is trying to corner the drug market in Chinatown but doesn’t bother to explain how he knows this. He also offers to visit with the Tong leader and ask him to break his arrangement with Kuroda.
Travis, satisfied by this turn of events, leaves to find someone who knows the Yakuza side of things. Now, Travis has contacts within the Yakuza, it’s been established that in his dealings as a sword dealer he has been involved to some extent in Japanese crime while still managing to hide his identity as a CIA agent.
He visits with his girlfriend Nayako (Kanako Yamaguchi) a LOVELY woman who works at a chi-chi nightclub that seems to cater almost exclusively to the Yakuza gangsters. She gives him the name of an Irezumi, i.e. Japanese tattoo artist, who probably has the most up-to-date information on the current Yakuza roster.
It’s never clearly explained why Travis seems at first only to peripherally know Nayako, then two scenes later appears to be engaged to her, then two scenes after that knows her only as a passing acquaintance. I don’t know, maybe they stitched the film together out of order…
Anway, Nayako sets up a meeting between Travis and Kojima the tattoo artist.
Meanwhile, Kuroda is busy making things complicated for the Yakuza hierarchy. He is rapidly acquiring territory by massacring the other soldiers in service to other bosses. He does so by sending his army of four men to shoot up wherever these guys are hanging around.
Kuroda has one lieutenant, Fudomyo-o (Koysuke Toyohara) a cowboy-hat wearing murderer who rivals Kuroda’s savagery.
We also meet a couple of other virtually useless peripheral character who is under orders from Agent Bloc to keep an eye on Travis and Sean, Jewel (Juliette Marquis). She follows Travis around in her blood red Honda and alternates between transmitting pictures to CIA HQ and talking to Agent Bloc. She ads literally NOTHING to the story, yet here she is.
The next day Travis and Sean visit Travis’ childhood neighborhood and as they enter a noodle house accidentally bump into a teenager. The teenager, Kawamura, returns with several friends. They are the lowest level of Yakuza soldiers working for Kuroda.
While the yakuza teen battalion assembles outside Travis reminisces about his childhood to Sean. Once Kawamura returns Travis excuses himself from the table and beats the ever-loving-shit out of Kawamura and his friends.
This is the only really decent fight scene in the movie, so savor what you get. Seagal demonstrates that he still has better than decent fighting chops as he wails on the gang, stuffs a couple, face first, into vending machines and snaps the arms and legs of the others. Unfortunately, the action is shot exclusively from the waist up so no blatant hint of Seagal’s pear-like shape is visible. While this works to hide his girth (along with the knee length leather coat he wars in EVERY scene) it makes the fight claustrophobic and clumsy.
But you can’t have a bad Steven Seagal movie without this sort of fight choreography.
Sean, meanwhile, wanting to help and demonstrate his awesome power, manages to throw no punches but does manage an accidental discharge of his pistol.
This brings the cops running who take Sean to the police station. As they stuff him into a cruiser her is already dialing Agent Bloc to spring him.
Travis talks briefly with another virtually useless character, Investigator Maeda (Sokyu Fujita), but rather than mention that he is chasing down a very likely and dangerous alliance between the Yakuza and the Tongs, simply sort of smiles and walks away mumbling something about agency business.
Back at CIA HQ Travis tells Agent Bloc that Sean is too young and inexperienced to work the Tokyo beat then heads off to meet with Matsuda, one of the ranking Yakuza generals in the city. Travis figures that Matsuda knows who is working up the ranks of the Yak hierarchy and wants to find out how far their involvement is with the Chinese. He brings Sean along and tells him to tell anyone who asks that he is one of Travis’ students.
Travis, of course, neglects to tell Sean what it is that he teaches so that in a few minutes when asked for more details about his training he comes off looking like an ass.
Matsuda steers them towards Kuroda’s fish house, which we learned a little earlier, is where the drugs are coming into the country and being distributed to the street dealers.
Matsuda also says that if it is Kuroda, then they will deal with it. Matsuda though, is scared. Kuroda has already made threatening gestures to the head of the organization, Ishikawa, and has made it clear that if anyone gets in his way they will be killed.
Illustrating this point in another scene is Kawamura, black and blue and swollen all over, making amends for being Travis’ punching bag by cutting off his pinky at Kuroda’s fish house. Kuroda is so impressed by this act that he shoots Kawamura in the head.
Kuroda and his team head off for drinks while Travis dispatches Sean to take pictures of Kuroda’s fish house from across the street. He is under orders not to get involved at all with anyone.
Travis spends the afternoon making kissy faces at Nayako. She pledges her love to him, which, like being a black actor in the opening scene, is a death sentence. With Nayako’s death watch underway we are led off to meet Kojima the tattoo artist.
Kojima corroborates the information Travis learned from Matsuda and explains that he hates the Yakuza but likes their money, which is why he still does their tattoo work.
Sean decides he’s had enough of taking pictures and, against orders, starts snooping around the fish house. He finds Kawamura’s finger in the trash and is captured by Kuroda’s men.
Travis visits again with Nayako that night.
Also that night a group of Yakuza soldiers break into the apartment where Kuroda’s soldiers spend their time drinking Asahi beer and watching monster movies, and kill them all.
Kuroda and Fudomyo-o kill Sean.
Fudomyo-o mentions that Travis is known for his skill as a swordsman. Kuroda laughs it off (big mistake) and says that swords aren’t as good as guns, and speed beats power any day. This introduces one of the most idiotic plot inconsistencies in this film. Kuroda comes right out and says he doesn’t care about or respect the “old ways” including the use of swords, and for 99% of the film shoots people. But you know the climax of the film will be a sword fight, right?
The Chinese Kung Fu teacher approaches Chen and asks about the Tong’s relationship with the Yakuza. He is never heard from again.
That night Kuroda and Fudomyo-o visit Nayako’s club, but she’s antsy around them and betrays Travis, well… not really, but Kuroda figures out their relationship pretty easily.
On her way to her car that night Fudomyo-o kills her with a sword.
Then Fudomyo-o and another soldier go off to kill Ishikawa.
Travis collects Kojima and Mai Ling, who as a group head off to talk to Chan. Chan orders them out of his restaurant but his soldiers fall before the might of Steven Seagal’s stuntman. Chen is thrown from a high widow and killed.
Travis gets word that both Nayako and Sean are dead from Inspector Maeda who vanishes completely from the film following this announcement.
Mai Ling is told not to come with them even though it’s clearly established, though never said, that Chen had her father killed and because of the alliance between Kuroda and Chen she has a reason to want revenge. She reluctantly agrees to stay behind.
Travis and Kojima then head off to Kuroda’s house, which is in the country somewhere, all armed with swords. We learn here that Kojima’s wife and kid were killed by Kuroda and he wants revenge.
This plot development makes absolutely no sense at all in respect to the other plot elements we’ve seen. It’s as if Steven Seagal and the other writers couldn’t bring themselves to having Kojima simply be willing to go and kill a bunch of gangsters for no good reason, so they spring this silly revenge thing on us really late in the game. It feels tacked on because it is tacked on.
Kuroda now has a whole bunch of sword wielding soldiers ready to do his bidding. I guess you can buy them like beer and Kogal panties from Japanese vending machines…
This army of hip samurai makes no sense at all, I mean not at all, as we’ve never seen any of them in the film thus far.
Travis and Kojima cut through them pretty easily. This is actually a pretty good sequence as much of it is shot looking down from the ceiling so we get to see all the action as it’s intended. It’s not as good as it could be though because the rooms are really small and a hulking leather clad fat guy like Steven Seagal (or his stuntman) takes up much of the available space.
Mai Ling disobeys orders and enters the fray. She saves Kojima who’s been injured, and sets about way laying a whole mess of guys using her amazing Wu Dang swordplay.
Kojima finds Kuroda and is shot unceremoniously, but lives.
Travis engages with Fudomyo-o and slices him up then goes to look for Kuroda.
Travis and Kuroda fight and Kuroda is killed (naturally). Why Kuroda doesn’t just shoot Travis is anyone’s guess. I assume though that him pumping Seagal’s bloated body with lead would have been anticlimactic and wouldn’t have played into the whole action star vehicle thing.
Cut to the Travis, Mai Ling, and Kojima leaving the house.
Cut to Agent Bloc talking by phone to Jewel who with a cleaning crew, is destroying evidence at Kuroda’s house by spraying it all down with some blue liquid. I don’t know what it is, but it apparently destroys DNA.
Cut to the police arriving after the cleanup team has left and declaring that the evidence is all ruined.
Finally we see Matsuda receiving his promotion to the top of the Yakuza pyramid in a traditional ceremony. I guess this is meant to show that the balance of the Japanese mob has been restored and that we are supposed to be happy that their honor is restored, or something. But these guys are gangsters, killers, dope dealers, pimps, loan sharks, and scumbags, so it’s just a blatant way for Seagal’s script to hammer home the old ways theme that runs through the film. However, it’s like glorifying the change in leadership of the Italian mob in a film about Bootlegging told from the perspective of a cop… It’s silly and bordering on the offensive.
Cut back to Agent Bloc calling Travis on his cell phone about another job.
End movie, take wakazashi, place tip just below belly button, thrust deep, make a crosswise cut, then a diagonal cut upwards to the sternum, then a cut downwards towards the left kidney, keel over, die.
Into the Sun could have been a hell of a lot more fun, and a hell of a lot more action oriented, and a hell of a lot less plot heavy. For what it is, Into the Sun manages to overwhelm the audience with unnecessary details and side roads away from the central conflict between Travis and Kuroda. Rather than having them duel in the narrow streets and shady underworld, we are left to watch as neither character interacts until the very, very end.
I didn’t care about Sean, or Nayako, or anyone else in the film as none of them have even remotely interesting stories. They are just there so there isn’t anyone with which to identify.