Blockbuster Ideology: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Action Cinema – Part 2

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 17, Issue 4 / April 2013 41 minutes (10082 words)


Film stars such as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, etc., have countless biographies, collections of criticism, and scholarly analyses devoted to their lives and their work. Action stars have received far less attention in the scholarly community, on top of which, any attention they have been fortunate enough to receive has often been negative, with them almost always ending up pariahs or, at best, colonized for the sake of a particular agenda that has no room for cinematic specificity/artistry. [1]

Reviewing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Derek Malcolm warned that “only a fool would not be worried that an action movie of [such] banality should be received with such evident satisfaction” (Malcolm cited in Tasker, 1993: 108), the success of “banal” action movies not just suggesting but demanding analysis. And indeed, as evidenced by the work of Andrew Britton, Robin Wood, and Stephen Prince catalogued in Part 1, the popular success of action cinema and the proliferation of “blockbuster ideology” was the catalyst for the initial scholarly interest in action cinema. Unfortunately, there has been little by way of evolution, with film studies on the whole only deigning to analyze action cinema in search of the invariably oppressive ideological machinations contained therein, the restrictive political framework homogenizing what is in reality a far more heterogeneous collection of aesthetic and ideological initiatives. As Yvonne Tasker perspicuously observes, if all action movies look the same, “then film criticism may well be viewing them through an inappropriate framework” (Ibid: 60). Along a similar line, Geoff King argues that a “threshold of ubiquity” has been reached in the study of action cinema and that “stronger arguments can be made about the relations of such highly mediated industrial products to the broader cultural landscape in which they are situated” (King, 2000: 6). The respective work offered by Britton, Wood, and Prince produced three exemplars; their scholarship laid the groundwork, they informed the scholarly community what was at issue aesthetically and politically in the analysis of action cinema. But with the goal of transcending the threshold of ubiquity, what is required is careful dialectical examination of the exemplary premises supported by empirical evidence. For the sake of theoretical clarity and continuity, the work of these three scholars will be explored in relation to the Seagal oeuvre under the mass art rubric provided by Carroll, isolating their most essential, most relevant, and most problematic postulations for interrogation. Prince, specifically in his promulgation of the Latin America film as the gold standard of political filmmaking in 1980s American cinema, most explicitly exhibits a concern with the massification argument, for which Above the Law (1988) serves as the most salient counterexample; Britton, with his disdain for the allegedly insipid generic repetition that took hold of the American cinema in the 1980s and threatened to putrefy future efforts into the 1990s and beyond, most explicitly exhibits a concern with the formula argument, for which Out for Justice (1991) serves as the most salient counterexample; and Wood, with his desire for a more explicit commitment to leftist politics in what he calls “oppositional cinema,” most explicitly exhibits a concern with the freedom argument, for which On Deadly Ground (1994) serves as the most salient counterexample. [2]

Above the Law: Stephen Prince and the Massification Argument

For Prince, the fundamental flaw in his position apropos his discussion of the Latin America film is his erroneous belief that “the practices and formal features associated with” his antediluvian Brechtian conceptualization of genuine political filmmaking can a priori “provide an aesthetic guarantee of the ‘progressive’” (Tasker, 1993: 57) [3]. Evident of the many contradictions and errors that contribute to the collapse of Prince’s theoretical edifice, his attempts to highlight generic differences between his invented categories such as the Cold War film and the Latin America film create a terminological minefield through which this particular essay will not seek to navigate. In an effort to reach the essential premise and its attendant presuppositions, Prince’s articulation of the Latin America film can be reduced to an attempt to argue for filmmakers with political aspirations to eschew the classical Hollywood tradition of linear storytelling, character-centered narratives, closure typically in the form of a “happy ending,” etc., because adherence to such concerns will a priori prohibit films from being ideologically critical/progressive with the amount of intensity and consistency necessary for the film to “work”. [4] To prove this, Prince discusses Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Burn! (1969) and lauds its ability “to treat social forces … as the causal agents of the narrative” (Prince, 1992: 88) and maintain a consistently critical point-of-view, a luxury afforded Pontecorvo due to his working outside of American film conventions, whereas Latin America films made either independent of or within the mainstream Hollywood cinema are intrinsically incapable of such a narrative procedure, “Americanizing” and “domesticating” the story by having it serve as background to a straightforward heterosexual romantic drama and subordinating the experiences of those groups fighting against American imperialism to the heroic journey of the archetypically heterosexual white male hero.

At one point in his discussion, Prince applauds the efforts of mainstream American cinema with their Latin America films for avoiding the “blandishments and seductions of genre in favor of constructing narratives which, while full of the melodrama, the action, and the adventure that one might find in typical genre films, still managed to venture forth in rather new directions” (Ibid), but then later posits that it is not the avoidance of such blandishments and seductions that is most worthy of praise in the Latin America films, but the subversion of them, their ability to “take narrative material and conventions frequently utilized in another ideological context and give them a different political inflection” (Ibid: 94). Past the equivocation, regardless of which position Prince happens to be supporting in a given sentence, the ultimate tragedy in his view is that no amount of avoidance or subversion will change the fact that box-office failure awaits any film not firmly in the Reaganite Entertainment mold, for, as Prince alleges, “clear ideological commitment and politically partisan filmmaking are quite foreign to the American cinema, and the tolerance for the political Left that informs many of these films is too far removed from the norms of American political discourse” (Ibid: 93-94). This leaves the politically critical filmmaker with the lose-lose situation of either eschewing classical Hollywood storytelling altogether in pursuit of a clear ideological position, which will preserve the film’s integrity but inevitably result in box-office failure, or acquiescence to the blockbuster ideology and strict adherence to the norms of classical Hollywood storytelling, which will compromise the critical position developed but at least allow for the possibility of box-office success. [5]

The piece of evidence on which Prince relies the most heavily for this contention is the Oliver Stone film Salvador (1986), which, for Prince, exemplifies the height of success a Latin America film could hope to achieve under the strictures of American filmmaking as well as the depths of its inevitable failure. Dramatizing events from 1980 and 1981, Salvador is a daring indictment of contemporary American political action, warranting Prince’s praise for the intensity and clarity of its political commitment. The plot concerns the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero as well as the rapes and murders of four American churchwomen, and the story was based on the experiences of American journalist Richard Boyle, who co-wrote the film with Stone and who was portrayed in the film by James Woods. To enhance the political specificity and emotional affectivity, Stone and Boyle worked to orient their narrative “with a carefully specified series of historical and political referents” in a practice “that is unusual for the American cinema,” featuring such anomalous moves as explicitly referencing existing political organizations/controversies and constructing metaphoric characters and set-pieces (Ibid: 95). Though the political struggle is “domesticated” by the politically sterile form of classical Hollywood storytelling, the film still stands tall in Prince’s estimation for its fierce castigation of the Reagan administration’s stance regarding death squad activities carried out by anti-communist regimes.

These are remarkable denunciations for an American film to offer. Salvador is politically sharp and passionate, committed to one side of the struggle rather than the other, and is able to sustain this commitment with clarity throughout much of its length. Stone embeds the political perspectives within an emotionally powerful narrative that is visualized by using sophisticated, politically informed cinematic techniques (Ibid: 97).

Praise invariably has its limit with Prince, who ultimately writes the film off as contradictory and, in the end, apolitical as a result of its adherence to generic formulas of American cinema. Despite the film’s commitment to the Salvadoran rebels rather than the U.S.-supported military death squads, the film features a scene near the end where, as violence erupts, a group of rebels executes some prisoners before retreating, prompting Woods to condemn the rebels for being “just like them,” the distinction that had been rigorously upheld between the rebels and the death squads collapsing as “all coherence vanishes” (Ibid). Having gone back on itself, the film becomes schizophrenic: On the one hand, it is a historical document of a civil war that exposed many of the problems of the Reagan-era foreign policy, while on the other hand, it is a “grim evocation of hopelessness, horror, and despair … eliciting only futility and defeat” (Ibid). And the point Prince makes repeatedly that would seem to be proven true by Salvador is that such cinematic failures are really political failures, the inability of the film to maintain its leftist commitment symptomatic of the inability of the Left to provide a viable liberating, organizational, or institutional presence in the U.S. or abroad (Ibid: 100-101), and this impasse is manifest in the resolutions of these films, which are always either politically equivocating or downbeat and cynical. [6]

The arrival of Steven Seagal should have been cause for uproarious celebration within such a crestfallen context, for if the political Right had the brawn of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, the political Left had finally found a film icon brave enough to offer a different perspective, smart enough to straddle the line between overt political commitment and classical generic fulfillment, and most importantly, financially successful enough to keep himself and his beliefs visible on the big stage. Asserting in countless interviews prior to the spring 1988 release of his debut film, Above the Law, that his film contained more than just martial arts and shootouts, Seagal proclaimed his commitment to dramatizing “a true story about CIA complicity in narcotics trafficking for the purpose of funding covert operations” (Seagal cited in Vern, 2012: 15). Seagal was guided by the same principles of narrative construction and aesthetic design as Stone was for Salvador, committed to a scathing portrait of capitalistic greed contaminating the CIA going back at least as far as Vietnam, with the CIA receiving the current support of the Reagan administration in Central America. Seeing how, in addition to serving as a political exposé, Above the Law was also to be a star vehicle to launch new arrival Seagal, the opening sequence both introduces Seagal’s character, Nico Toscani, in quasi-biographical fashion and establishes the political context for the narrative. [7]

After teaching Aikido in Japan for several years, Nico is recruited by the CIA and finds himself in Vietnam. The story begins in 1973 along the Vietnam/Cambodia border, where Nico and the man who recruited him, Nelson Fox (Chelcie Ross), are rendezvousing with a special team of “chemical interrogators” sent in by the CIA. Having been told the interrogators were sent to acquire “military intelligence,” Nico is horrified upon entering a shack where two Vietnamese men are being tortured by CIA team leader Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva) for information regarding a CIA shipment of opium. Told to keep quiet and mind his business, Nico intervenes as Zagon is about to cut off the second prisoner’s feet (the first prisoner had died because, as Zagon callously remarks in reference to the serum he administers, “This pussy, he just can’t hold his liquor”), fighting his way through Zagon and another CIA operative before Fox rushes Nico out into the jungle and away from Zagon’s men.

Reversal of fortune: Nico looking on in disgust as Zagon tortures a Vietnamese prisoner

This sequence is extraordinary when juxtaposed with such scenes of merciless physical and psychological torture of American soldiers administered by the Vietnamese such as the Russian Roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter (1978) or the torture scenes in Stallone’s Rambo films. In Above the Law, the positions are reversed, with the Vietnamese represented not as heartlessly sadistic persecutors but as victims of the homicidal gluttony of American imperialism and capitalism. As Seagal is being steered away by Fox, he screams at the CIA agents, “You guys think you’re soldiers, you’re fucking barbarians,” putting an exclamation point on what is unquestionably the most explicit indictment of American deleteriousness in Vietnam in any mainstream Hollywood film of the era. After getting Nico’s backstory and establishing the political context, the film jumps ahead fifteen years to 1988. Nico is now a Chicago police officer with a wife, Sara (Sharon Stone), and a new baby. On the streets, Nico is looking to bring down drug dealers, and surveillance on nefarious drug kingpin Salvano (Daniel Faraldo) yields a shipment being smuggled in with auto parts. Much to the surprise of Nico and his team, the shipment does not contain drugs and instead contains U.S. ordinance military C-4. Pulling on the thread, Nico ultimately unravels an assassination plot being carried out by members of the CIA, led by Zagon, in an effort to eliminate a nosy Senator who is poised to release information at a Democratic conference about CIA complicity in drug trafficking in Central America for the funding of counterinsurgency groups.

The intensity and explicitness of the political commitment in Above the Law is shocking even by the standards of the Latin America cycle as formulated by Prince. Seagal went far beyond Stone and Boyle’s portrait of distant Central American civil disturbance and metaphorically took the battle from Vietnam through Central America and ultimately to U.S. soil. Regarding what Prince calls “politically informed cinematic techniques,” the opening credits sequence shrewdly intercuts stock footage from Vietnam of dirty, naked, terrified children running away from explosions; footage of police viciously assaulting protestors in American city streets; and a clip from the hypocritical speech given by Nixon (about how “nobody is above the law, nobody is below the law, and we’re going to enforce the law and Americans should remember that if we’re going to have law and order”) from which the film got its title. These images then give way to CIA operatives acting above the law and Nico protesting their disgusting actions and having to fight for his life for having done so. Beyond visual juxtaposition, the film also features a remarkable metaphoric sequence with incredible political density. Taking his family to Mass, Nico is present for a bombing in his local Chicago church that he learns later was an assassination attempt on Father Tomasino (Henry Godinez), a priest working with the Sanctuary Movement who was staying with Central American refugees hidden by Father Gennaro (Joe Greco) in the basement of the church. Knowing he was a marked man for having witnessed U.S.-sponsored death squad atrocities, Father Gennaro had talked Father Tomasino out of giving the Mass and ended up being the one killed by mistake. The tragic music, the rapidity of the editing, and the extent of the carnage as the churchgoers flee and as Nico struggles to carry out the injured makes for imagery that could have easily come from a documentary crew filming in Central America, added to which, the church setting metaphorically calls to mind the assassination of Óscar Romero, who was shot while celebrating Mass.

Political metaphor: The horrors of Central America experienced in the U.S.

Lastly, specifically regarding alleged CIA complicity in drug trafficking, Seagal again ups the ante in relation to his action movie peers. While Rambo: First Blood Part II portrays governmental bureaucracy as haplessly impotent and requiring the intensity of commitment embodied by Stallone’s hard-bodied hero to right (in all senses of the word) the world’s wrongs, and while Predator (1987) portrays the CIA as necessarily duplicitous “for the greater good” and operating with essentially good intentions, Above the Law is far more daring in its portrayal of illicit governmental activity as quotidian, as just one of the many facets of the American imperialist machine at work. Prince lauds Salvador for being timely, but Above the Law was (as many of Seagal’s later films would be, as well) actually ahead of its time. Above the Law was released eight months after Oliver North testified at a televised Congressional hearing and only five months after the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair was released, and it is no coincidence that, during a scene in the film where Nico’s partner, Jax (Pam Grier), is connecting the dots regarding the refugees she and Nico had found in the church, she is shown watching just such a hearing led by the Senator being targeted by Zagon and his crew, who is shown cross-examining an off-screen CIA agent clearly doubling for North based on the aforementioned Congressional hearing. Moreover, whereas most of the attention at the time was devoted to the arms deals and the hostage controversy, Above the Law focused on the drug trafficking angle, which would not receive mainstream media attention until Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” articles published in 1996, which oddly read as a by-the-numbers plot summary of Above the Law, from the allegations of CIA-sponsored drug trafficking, the government shielding inner-city drug dealers from prosecution (as Zagon shields Salvano from Nico’s reach and the even longer reach of the FBI), and the obsession with invading Nicaragua leading to the Reagan administration compromising itself ethically and ideologically. [8]

As many scholars have shown over the years, postulating a Brechtian cinematic style as the only storytelling style conducive to political commitment has its limitations, but even if such a questionable postulation is conceded for the sake of argument and Prince’s articulation of genuine political filmmaking via the Latin America film is deemed valid, it is still not sufficient grounds for dismissing all of the politically-motivated American film products of the 1980s, as Above the Law admirably proves. The ostentation of Eisensteinian montage long disavowed, simpler yet equally efficient methods of juxtapositional imagery have taken its place, methods utilized with adroit purpose and coherence in Above the Law. And while the film is unquestionably a “typical genre film” following a “goal-oriented” protagonist (and one who is a heterosexual white male, to boot), it is nevertheless able to construct a narrative with all the requisite generic elements that still dares to “venture forth in rather new directions,” a narrative where social forces serve as the “causal agents of the narrative,” and a narrative that takes the material and conventions of the action film, frequently utilized in different ideological contexts such as in Stallone’s near-Fascist actioner Cobra (1986) and Schwarzenegger’s troublingly equivocal Raw Deal (1986), and gives them a “different political inflection.” For the myriad ways Above the Law fits the Latin America mold fashioned by Prince, its most admirable success is in the single area where it does not fit the mold, that area being the alleged impossibility of showcasing a clear and consistent critical political position. Herein resides the political superiority of Above the Law to all of the films chronicled in Prince’s text. This is not to say that Above the Law is “better” in its deployment of generic conventions, in the skill with which the formal features of the cinema were utilized, in the expertise of the performers, etc., as compared to any other film(s) of the Latin America mold (or any other mold, for that matter). Such value judgments are for the individual viewer to determine. Political superiority here is in reference to Prince’s erroneous claim that the Latin America film, by virtue of its adherence to conventions of American filmmaking, is either intrinsically prohibited from being politically critical/progressive or, at the very least, incapable of being politically critical/progressive with any sort of consistency. Above the Law, due to Seagal’s real commitment to critiquing American imperialism and governmental contempt for the law of the land, succeeds in offering a clear, intense, and consistent political position, and the final image of the U.S. Capitol building, accompanied by a voice-over from Seagal’s character warning of the dangers of allowing the actions of those in power to go unchecked by the people they serve, does not contradict its message, as Prince alleges any and all Latin America films with political aspirations are fated to at some point along the way, but reinforces its message with a sincere call to action on the part of the American people. And, lastly and most significantly, Above the Law, in spite of the fact that it was “politically partisan filmmaking” with a “clear ideological commitment” (not to mention that it was also the debut film of an unknown who had never acted a day in his life), was #4 at the box-office its opening weekend, leading to a five-film run for Seagal where every film of his debuted at #1. [9]

Out for Justice: Andrew Britton and the Formula Argument

Along with his leftist views, Seagal has also always been fascinated by codes of honor and complicating ethical responsibility, which he frequently dramatizes via organized crime, be it the Italian or the Russian mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese triads, etc. Out for Justice is a seminal Seagal text due to, among other things, its featuring the most explicit rendition of this thematic thread in the Seagal canon, weaved into a story that still retains a distinct political edge. Seagal is cast as a New York City police officer named Gino, whose partner and best friend, Bobby (Joe Spataro), is slain by one of their old childhood friends and current drug-addled wannabe mobster, Richie (William Forsythe). Out for Justice offers several insights into Seagal’s conflicted sense of morality in an equally conflicted social context (a theme to which he would return with even greater explicitness in On Deadly Ground) while also exemplifying the kind of genre hybridity and evolution displayed by the action film from the 1980s and into the 1990s, the illumination of which can be provided as a counter to Britton’s considerably less charitable outlook on the destitution of genre filmmaking in the 1980s and his cynical prognostication for the future of American cinema. In addition to Britton’s essay on Reaganite Entertainment, another earlier essay of his on the problematic incorporation of Vietnam into genre films of the 1970s is equally germane to the present discussion of Out for Justice. In discussing Reaganite Entertainment, Britton juxtaposes it with 1970s genre filmmaking, which he considers, by comparison, far more “interesting, contradictory, and disturbing” (Britton, 2009: 98). [10] For Britton, the source of this admirable quality of 1970s cinema was Vietnam. He chronicles how America’s experience with Vietnam and the cultural discord of the era resulted in the “disintegration of the grid of beliefs and assumptions through which, since the McCarthy period, reality had been filtered” (Britton, 2009: 76), leading, in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977), to depictions of heroic protagonists in relation to whom a situation is posited (in this case, Vietnam) which has “destabilized the structure of values which support and justify the hero’s agency,” and as far as analysis of such films is concerned, “the upshot of the contradiction is a hero whose activity … appears as compulsive and psychotic” (Ibid: 80).

Seagal as Gino: Complicating the ethics of violence

Seagal’s character in Out for Justice is similar in many ways to his character in Above the Law: Both are Italian-Americans, both are Vietnam veterans, both have scores to settle, both have strained marriages, and both occupy a tenuous middle ground between criminality (represented by both characters having connections to the Italian mob) and authority (represented by both characters being cops). The differences in their characters, however, can be attributed to a subtle shift in emphasis discernible in the two films. Whereas Above the Law was looking to the past insofar as it was an indictment of American action in Vietnam and into the future insofar as it was concerned with the potential ramifications of continuing down the morally dubious path apropos Central America and U.S. foreign policy in general, Out for Justice is concerned with the here-and-now effects of living in a post-Cold War and post-Vietnam American context. Lacking the convenient “Evil Other” figures that had served to ensure the contours of moral righteousness, action cinema in the 1990s was no longer of the bright red, white, and blue stripes of much of the action cinema of the 1980s. Rather, there was a modification process at work where, as explicated by Susan Jeffords, the hard-bodied hero of the 1980s, who had been charged with embodying the “Right” kind of political action and a certainty of moral righteousness, was now seeking, lacking dragons to slay, to integrate himself back into American society and especially the American family. In an analysis of Kindergarten Cop (1990), Jeffords argues that the ending of the film “anticipates the endings [of many 1990s action films] that are resolved through the man’s return to his family,” with the message of 1990s action cinema being that “the emotionally whole and physically healed man [of the 1980s who had been fighting to right the wrongs of the 1970s] wants nothing more than to be a father, not a warrior/cop, after all” (Jeffords, 1993: 200).

Out for Justice both subverts the new project of the Right in 1990s action cinema and also counters Britton’s pessimistic position regarding mainstream Hollywood cinema in and beyond the 1980s, and it does so by mobilizing the central dramatic contradictions/ambiguities that gave the Vietnam films of the 1970s their resonance and affectivity. In his defense of the diversity of classical Hollywood cinema against Bordwell’s homogenizing formalism, Britton ends his polemic with a hypothetical that perfectly encapsulates “the spirit in which the great classical movies operate,” wherein Jane Austen defiantly says, in response to the question of how class conflict and the oppression of women can possibly be dramatized to a bourgeois audience, “You think it can’t be done? Watch!” (Britton, 2009: 467). If this is the way Britton conceptualizes genre storytelling at its most inspired, as a challenge to burrow as deeply as possible into the conventions and expectations of genre in an effort to come to an understanding that enables, on the one hand, an incisive articulation of ideological commonplaces and moral dilemmas that can speak to historical and political specificity and, on the other hand, an appeal to universal ideals of right and wrong, then his condemnation of blockbuster ideology as established in the 1980s can be seen as being a double-edged condemnation alleging that not only can no one successfully achieve the inspired cinematic brilliance of a Fritz Lang or an Alfred Hitchcock (both cited specifically by Britton), but no one is even interested in such an undertaking due to a defeatist acceptance of its impossibility.

It is not enough to hope that directors will emerge who have more radical sympathies and a greater readiness to contemplate the real conditions of the social present [in contrast to, for example, Lucas and Spielberg] … the greatness of the popular American cinema has always been inseparable from the quite extraordinary ideological productivity of its conventions [and] the contradictory diversity of the cultural traditions which fed into them … [but the blockbuster ideology of the 1980s] is not intrinsically favorable to the progressive exploration of cultural contradiction (Ibid: 153).

While this unmistakably has shades of Prince’s massification argument vis-à-vis personally expressive oppositional political cinema as anathema to the mass blockbuster product, Britton’s emphasis on the deterioration of American genres from the 1970s to the 1980s displays a fidelity to the formula argument and its scorn of hollow repetition as the goal to be sought rather than an unfortunate side effect to be avoided, a position Out for Justice rejects as thoroughly as Above the Law rejects Prince’s position vis–à–vis the Latin America film. If Dirty Harry (1971) is action cinema’s über-text, it must not be viewed as appearing ex nihilo. It is a conspicuous extension of Bullitt (1968), and both are distinctly the progeny of the “good gangster” films of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. [11] In films like ‘G’ Men (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936), the iconic gangster figures Cagney and Robinson traded their gangster stripes for police badges in an effort by Hollywood, under the new rule of the Production Code, to retain the popularity of the gangster film while ostensibly condemning the violent spectacle that was such an integral part of the success of films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931), and the transparency with which Hollywood repackaged the gangster film led to the expansion of the already ideologically problematic gangster genre to accommodate an even more contradictory sub-genre, and it is from out of this complex negotiation of genre and ideology that the action film was born. Action films from Bullitt and Dirty Harry through Out for Justice and Demolition Man (1993) all the way up to Christopher Nolan’s recently completed Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins [2005], The Dark Knight [2008], The Dark Knight Rises [2012]) have tinkered with the mechanics of the good gangster cycle as a way of foregrounding the ethical dilemmas inherent in upholding the law. [12]

While following distinctly from the earlier exemplars in the good gangster mold, Out for Justice is anomalous in relation to its antecedents and prototypical in relation to its descendants in the way it seeks to aggravate rather than mitigate the actions of its ostensible hero. Seagal’s “hero,” Gino, is undeniably a bully. He is mean; he is rude; he shows little regard for authority figures, be it his police captain or the Mafiosi he comes in contact with; and most importantly, this all manifests in violent behavior. Astonishingly, where a film like Rolling Thunder is careful (if not unscrupulous) in its construction of a narrative which seeks “to adduce a cause (Vietnam) to which effects can be ascribed and, in so doing, to permit identification with a heroic project which can be at once admired and thought of as a psychotic aberration” (Ibid: 83), Out for Justice is not concerned with such mitigation. The narrative function seems, on the contrary, to be to exacerbate the problems that the Vietnam films chronicled by Britton were created to quell. By wearing a beret with the insignia of the 5th Special Forces Group, Seagal is coding Gino as a Vietnam veteran, but his increasingly pathological actions over the course of the film do not, in marked contradistinction to the 1970s Vietnam films, beg for “apology and endorsement” in place of “diagnosis and condemnation” (Ibid).

Violence as catharsis: Another troubled Vietnam veteran embarking on a quest for revenge

Another narrative tool beyond the Vietnam backdrop as a means for exculpating psychosis in the 1970s Vietnam films was the doppelgänger trope. Britton goes back to The Searchers (1956) as an example of an inspired utilization of the trope as a means to critique the hero; this in contrast to its deformation in a paradigmatic 1970s film like Rolling Thunder, which employs the trope not to make use of its contradictory power but as a way to solidify the identification with the hero (Ibid). Continuing the analogy between The Searchers and Rolling Thunder, Britton illuminates the narrative operations of the two films in light of their many similarities as well as their crucial differences.

The gang that murders [the wife and son of Charlie, the protagonist in Rolling Thunder], and effects his own symbolic castration, erupts immediately after [Charlie] has discovered that his wife has had a lover [while Charlie was held as a POW in Vietnam]—a lover she now wishes to marry. As in The Searchers, then, the villain does what the hero wants to do. But the gang is also really there. While, inasmuch as it functions symbolically, it defines Charlie’s subsequent actions as pathological, its intolerable existence in a contemporary America of which it seems, on the available evidence, to be representative confers on the recreation of Vietnam in the Midwest a certain monstrous appropriateness. There is certainly no sense that any other action would be more appropriate, and its monstrosity is counterbalanced by the extremity of the motive and an elimination of other possibilities … In the ensuing moral vacuum, Charlie’s “craziness” appears as integrity … [and] the justice of his cause re-creates his social/ethical function (Ibid: 83-84).

If, between The Searchers and Rolling Thunder, there is something of a thesis/antithesis dialectic, Out for Justice appears as a unique synthesis of The Searchers through a Rolling Thunder prism. Following Bobby’s death, Gino becomes dangerously and increasingly schizophrenic emotionally, and the unpleasant certainty that he will be the one to kill Richie takes him to a dangerous ethical precipice. On the outs with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and lacking significantly in the fatherhood department, there is a consciously ambivalent position being taken up in regards to Gino that seeks neither to condemn him nor praise him, but instead to simply put his actions on display as indicative of problems of masculinity in this new age of American society. The end of the film features an explosive bloodbath similar to the finales of Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, though the intensely personal one-on-one encounter between Gino and Richie at the end of Out for Justice brings a lot more to the table vis-à-vis the doppelgänger trope, placing it closer in this regard to The Searchers. In his superb and largely theoretically sound historical overview of the action genre, Harvey O’Brien erroneously extrapolates from Aaron Anderson’s magnificent analysis of martial arts cinema in general and Out for Justice in particular that, “in narrative terms,” fight scenes are “essentially redundant,” taking this egregious assertion even further than the Seagal canon by stating that “this is true of all martial arts films” (O’Brien, 2012: 11). O’Brien has clearly misunderstood Anderson’s chief aim to, in his words, “reconsider to what extent these action sequences actually ‘freeze’ the narrative” (Anderson, 1998). O’Brien is taking for granted the premise that Anderson was striving to debunk, and Anderson’s choice of Seagal as his debunker is fortuitous, for Seagal’s films are some of the best candidates to counter the ignorantly pejorative notion that action scenes are just “spectacle” putting the “juvenile” story on hold [13]. The final confrontation between Gino and Richie is anything but redundant, for it takes all of the rage within Gino—rage primarily directed at himself—and gives him an outlet on which to take his rage out, in brutally violent fashion.

The notion in Rolling Thunder that “the villain does what the hero wants to do” also applies to Out for Justice. As seen in the opening of the film, where Gino and Bobby are together in a van preparing to make a bust, Gino is very much a mentor figure, asking Bobby about the personal problems he had been having lately and if there was anything he could do. As Gino is loath to discover later in the film, Bobby was into drugs and was having an affair with Richie’s girlfriend, seduced by Richie’s mobster lifestyle and dipping his toe a little too deep into the criminal pool. Gino is saddened and disgusted as he goes through the film uncovering more and more dark secrets from his friend’s life, confronting Bobby’s widow in one scene near the end of the film about her late husband’s transgressions. Gino is clearly a man who has been turned upside down and inside out by the morass of contemporary existence, continuing down this path of vengeance almost arbitrarily because it is the only thing that gives him a sense of ethical consistency. So when it comes time to face off against Richie, the anger in Gino boils over, and he prolongs the confrontation to administer as much pain as Richie can take. As the living embodiment of the darkest aspects of his own personality, Richie absorbs the pain like a black hole, and with each landed strike, Gino appears to become more enraged, until he finally kills Richie. With Richie dead on the floor and corpses surrounding him in a small house that has been effectively turned into a war zone, Gino says aloud, “That’s for Bobby,” but the statement sounds hollow; even the Mafiosi who show up looking to make an example out of Richie for bringing such negative attention to the mob question Gino’s sanity upon seeing him inside the house. And, of the utmost significance, the epilogue sees Gino tentatively reunited with his wife but with his son nowhere to be seen, as if to say, even though the film is ending with Jeffords’ paradigmatic scenario of 1990s action cinema where the warrior/cop hero-father reunites with his family, the “happy ending” is far from complete. Gino is still suckered into a violent confrontation with a man whom he bullies by virtue of his superior strength and fighting skill, indicating that, unlike the at-peace, “healed” warrior/father Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, Gino, for as much as he may want to retire his badge and gun for domestic tranquility, cannot deny the fact that he is a soldier on the front lines of the war for his own (and, by extension, America’s) soul, and, for as cathartic as his experience may have been, just as was the case for De Niro’s disturbed cabbie at the end of Taxi Driver, the war is far from over.

More trouble brewing: Gino is still not at peace after his catharsis

At the end of his attack on Reaganite Entertainment, Britton attempts to minimize the monolithic conception he had thus far advanced in a backhandedly complementary and characteristically supercilious attempt to speculate on Hollywood’s bleak future.

For all its monolithic appearance, [Reaganite Entertainment] has its contradictions. Cutter’s Way [1981], True Confessions [1981], Reds [1981], Heaven’s Gate [1980], Blade Runner [1982], Victor/Victoria [1982], Raging Bull [1980], Six Weeks [1982], Scarface [1983], Under Fire [1983], The King of Comedy [1983], Silkwood [1983], The Dead Zone [1983]—there is no masterpiece here (though Raging Bull comes close), but then one is not primarily concerned for masterpieces at this stage. These films remain facts out of which something could come, and while it is perhaps more difficult now to imagine the future lines of Hollywood’s development than at any previous time, we cannot assume in advance that the opportunities which these works represent will not be put to use (Britton, 2009: 154).

Considering how Above the Law managed to transcend Prince’s conceptualization of genuine political filmmaking even with the bar set as high as Prince had it, it should be no surprise that Seagal’s subsequent effort with Out for Justice is able to transcend Britton’s pessimistic outlook on genre filmmaking seeing as he had set the bar so low. Admirably, however, Out for Justice goes far beyond Britton’s bare minimum and represents an exceedingly challenging transmogrification of the action genre, drawing out all of the ethical ambiguities inherent in the genre and situating them in a determinate sociopolitical context in accordance with Seagal’s distinctly leftist position, which would continue to evolve in subsequent efforts.

On Deadly Ground: Robin Wood and the Freedom Argument

Having reached the point in this discussion where morality has become central, it is fitting that the line being traced through the Seagal canon reaches its final destination in On Deadly Ground, the most quintessentially Seagalian of all of Seagal’s films. Choosing, subsequent to the 1992 release of his blockbuster hit, Under Siege, to make a film of his own, Seagal embarked on a passion project for which he would co-produce, direct, star in, and collaborate on the screenplay. On Deadly Ground, even more so than Above the Law, owes a tremendous debt to Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack, a politically explosive and spiritually significant work that no doubt inspired the intensity of Seagal’s political commitment and his detour into the spiritual realm. On Deadly Ground is also a significant film for the way it offers a rejoinder to Robin Wood’s slightly less pessimistic but still resoundingly negative diagnosis of Hollywood cinema in and beyond the 1980s vis-à-vis Britton. For Wood, “reassurance is the keynote” (Wood, 2003: 144) in the films of the era, the length of the leap the spectator is expected to make “from generic expectations to specific transformations, the transformations being as much ideological as conventional” (Ibid: 145), having been drastically shortened, resulting in repetitive and reductive films with little to recommend from an oppositional standpoint. It would therefore have been no surprise had On Deadly Ground been one of Wood’s favorite films of the 1990s and perhaps the most impressive action film ever attempted, for it takes all of the negatives Wood attributes to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking of the era and leaves them behind while taking the positives Wood bemoans as having no place in mainstream Hollywood and fully embraces them, crafting a narrative that, again ahead of its time with its environmental conscientiousness and condemnation of indifferent oil companies, stands today as eerily prophetic and wholly justified in its urgency. [14]

On Deadly Ground casts Seagal as Forrest Taft, a former employee of the U.S. government [15] currently working for the homicidally greedy Michael Jennings (Michael Caine), the CEO of Aegis Oil, a company looking to get its new state-of-the-art oil rig online in Alaska, where the Alaskans are seeking to reacquire the land rights promised them if the new system, Aegis-1, does not make its deadline. Where Nico in Above the Law was brought up to but refused to cross the ethical line, and where Gino in Out for Justice was going back-and-forth before settling precariously right on the line, Forrest in On Deadly Ground is depicted in the early sequences as already living comfortably on the wrong side of the line, and the ensuing narrative would not be one of battling back demons but of redeeming a morality and spirituality that had been thoroughly corrupted by capitalistic greed. Called a whore by his friend and foreman for Aegis Oil, Hugh Palmer (Richard Hamilton), for burying his head in the sand for the sake of his six-figure salary in the face of serious breaches of ethics by Jennings and his company, Forrest is forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and he starts to dislike the image he sees staring back at him.

Soul searching: Forrest as a disillusioned “company man” fighting big business

Hugh convinces Forrest to snoop around the Aegis Oil files, and Forrest soon discovers that Jennings is forcing his rigs to use faulty equipment in order to ensure Aegis-1 goes online in time, regardless of the damage to the rigs, the environment, and the people working for him. Jennings has Hugh killed to keep him quiet and he attempts to kill Forrest as well by sending him off to an Aegis site and blowing it up along with Hugh’s body and any leftover evidence. Forrest is fortunate to escape with his life and he is rescued by local Alaskan Eskimos, his encounter with whom sets him off on a journey inward reminiscent of the spiritual quest undertaken by Billy Jack in accordance with Native American beliefs in his classic counterculture film. Whereas the Reagan administration sought to reach back to the 1950s for its moral, political, and spiritual compass, Laughlin and Seagal each sought out older and more indigenous traditions as a means of calling attention to the advanced state of moral and spiritual disintegration in American society. By appealing to the Native Americans, notoriously victimized by early American settlers, and Eskimos, similarly indigenous and “simple” people represented as victims in On Deadly Ground, Laughlin and Seagal are striving to put capitalism on trial, indicting it as a morally and spiritually bankrupt ideology.

Also of significance apropos the connection between Billy Jack and On Deadly Ground is how neither Laughlin nor Seagal allowed their films to operate inside a narcissistic vacuum. Discussing Clint Eastwood (another action icon with whom a juxtaposition with Seagal would undoubtedly prove fruitful), Bruce Headlam marvels at the “complicated transaction” in Gran Torino (2008), Eastwood’s microcosm of contemporary America wherein “people’s actions are at odds with their beliefs” (Headlam, 2008), as if it was a new development in action cinema without a lineage from Laughlin through Seagal. The latter, in particular, is thoroughly cognizant of the present moral quagmire. Forrest’s rescued morality and newfound spirituality are not enough to protect the environment and stop the capitalist machine metonymically invoked by Aegis Oil. While the final speech given by Forrest at the Alaska State Capitol building about environmental safety and the need for big business to put the safety of the planet before the almighty dollar is the most referenced aspect of this film, it is the impassioned diatribe against Masu (Joan Chen), the daughter of the Eskimo chief whose tribe rescued Forrest earlier and who accompanies Forrest to stop Aegis-1 from going online, that is the most emblematic of the political position being advanced by Seagal. After professing his love for “the spirit world” and assuring Masu that he has not forsaken all that her people had taught him, Forrest nevertheless forces her to confront the same difficult truth with which he is grappling vis-à-vis the impotence of utopian rhetoric in the face of the rapidly deteriorating fabric of American society.

What do you think, some angel is gonna miraculously come down out of the sky and stop, say, 350 billion tons of oil from being spilled into our oceans every year? Maybe some ghost will stop all the cars from using gasoline, maybe somehow, some spirit will trip the big switch and all the technology that’s been repressed for the last 70 years will suddenly be ours and it’ll be a better place to live, a beautiful place. Maybe I should send my spirit guide over to Aegis-1 to stop it from going online so that Jennings can’t fuck you and your people out of your land and your way of life forever. See, I love the spirit world and I loved your father, but it doesn’t matter right now. What really matters is the cold, hard reality of this world, and that’s what we gotta deal with. I didn’t want to resort to violence. I don’t have a choice, and I’m not taking any chances this time, ‘cause I can’t.

Here, not only are Forrest’s actions at odds with his beliefs, he knows it, and worst of all, he knows there is no way to reconcile it, at least not in this initial stage of the revolution where what is required first and foremost is action.

Right and/or wrong: Forrest and Masu debating the proper course of action to stop Aegis-1

In the 2003 edition of his original 1986 text, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan, Wood wrote a new chapter on which to close out the book entitled, “Hollywood Today: Is an Oppositional Cinema Possible?” to which the answer was, for him, a resounding, “No.” Recalling Prince’s claim that the failure of “Left Cinema” is a failure of leftist politics more generally, Wood argues that all of the attempts to break free from the Reaganite Entertainment mold in and beyond the 1980s failed to offer a complete and coherent worldview. Initially, when he talked about Blade Runner in his essay in response to Britton, Wood discussed alternative endings that would have been true to that which had gone before while eschewing the “happy ending” inclination to which Ridley Scott had originally acquiesced.

The first scenario involves the film noir ending in which Rachel is retired by Deckard’s superior who is then killed in turn by Deckard (himself mortally wounded, perhaps) in a final gun battle. In the second, Deckard joins the replicant revolution. The former is probably too bleak for 80s Hollywood, the latter too explicitly subversive for any Hollywood (Wood, 2003: 166).

Of interest here is how, similar to Britton, Wood’s pessimistic view of Hollywood’s subversive potential kept him from being able to predict and ultimately embrace the arrival of someone like Seagal, who enacts in On Deadly Ground (with uncanny similarity to the narrative of Blade Runner) the same basic heroic progression of the company man who comes to question his role in the scheme of things, while pushing the envelope even more daringly than Blade Runner and taking On Deadly Ground to that place too hastily deemed by Wood “too explicitly subversive for any Hollywood,” with Forrest, by the end of the film, joining the native Alaskans, who have reacquired their land rights, in their revolutionary quest to prevent similar situations where big oil companies threaten the fragile ecosystems of the Earth. Furthermore, in Wood’s postscript on the possibility of an oppositional cinema in post-Reaganite Hollywood, the only bright spots in his estimation were the films of David Fincher and Jim Jarmusch, both of whom still failed to produce the type of oppositional cinema Wood would have liked to have seen. In analyzing Fight Club (1999), Wood ultimately condemns the film as “politically irresponsible” for the way it depicts terrorism as the antithesis of capitalism, lamenting the absence of “a positive alternative in the form of organized political protest” (Wood, 2003: 341). This, however, is the exact position to which Seagal was responding in On Deadly Ground. Wood betrays a profound naiveté in the belief that, whatever his conceptualization of “organized political protest” is, it would not at some point lead to violence. If the goal of any such protest is something as profound as overthrowing the system that currently allows the United States to run, to operate with the belief that an oxymoron of “peaceful action” will be all that is necessary to get those in power to change that which is constitutive of their existence is to be ignorant regarding the “cold, hard reality of this world.”

Far from providing merely “a further dose of impotent desperation to prevent [America] from starting a real political revolution” (Ibid), Seagal provides, in On Deadly Ground, an affective exercise in propagandistic filmmaking, sagaciously weaving his political sentiment into a thematically rich and thoroughly entertaining action film that showcases the need for and the potential for success in a revolutionary leftist movement in opposition to capitalism, one that emphasizes morality, spirituality, environmental safety, and political conscientiousness but that also understands and is thus prepared for the potential for violence as a result. If, along with Adorno and Horkheimer, Wood’s filmic freedom argument hinges on the assertion that action cinema “leaves no room for imagination or reflection,” that all it provides is “reassurance,” On Deadly Ground is a perfect example to the contrary as a film that demands reflection on the part of the audience by foregoing reassurance in the face of a genuine crisis in American society, a crisis that is still very much in the foreground of contemporary political discourse.


As a first pass through terrain as expansive as the philosophical resistance in film studies to action movies, it goes without saying that there is still much ground to be covered. Despite all that has been said of the films of Steven Seagal, there is still a tremendous amount of material that has gone unexplored, from the evolution of his various moral and political concerns from his early theatrical releases to his more recent television and Direct-to-Video efforts to the uniqueness of his Aikido aesthetics as compared to the more traditional high-flying aesthetics of Hong Kong martial arts/action cinema. Moreover, for all that has been said regarding action cinema, this discussion has considered the films of only a single star, leaving a plethora of other stars and films, past and present, available for analysis. Nevertheless, hopefully this brief excursion into the labyrinth of academic film studies and the place action cinema has occupied/should occupy therein is sufficient cause for scholars, regardless of personal taste, to (re)examine action cinema. Thus far countenanced only for its political currency if countenanced at all, action cinema requires considerable reconsideration on the political front to say nothing of the need for serious engagement with the ramifications it presents for genre and star studies as well as for its unique aesthetics. Action movies have for too long been denied serious consideration by the minds best-suited to unearth the abundant wealth of its aesthetic, thematic, and political composition, leaving film studies considerably impoverished as a discipline. Commitment to understanding and analyzing the cinema in all of its wondrous multidimensionality requires a commitment to engaging even those products of the cinema most offensive to conventional notions of genuine film art, for as we unquestionably live in exceedingly unconventional times, so we should start assessing the cinema on the unconventional terms intrinsic to its constitution.

Part 1


1 The notion of colonization is discussed at length in Barrowman (2012).

2 For the sake of time and space, a systematic analysis of the entirety of the Seagal oeuvre is unfeasible. For a more in-depth analysis of the multidimensionality of the Seagal iconography and persona across his entire diverse output, see Vern (2012). Additionally, in spite of the fact that Seagal had complete control over only one of his films (On Deadly Ground), he is still being considered the presiding auteur, or, more accurately, “starteur.” For theoretical justification of the concept of the starteur, see Barrowman (2012). For a more in-depth discussion of its applicability to Seagal, who frequently exercised creative control during production (if not during the writing and editing phases, as well), see Vern (2012).

3 For the most lucid interrogation of the type of Brechtian theory being offered here by Prince, see Murray Smith (1996: 130-148). A magnet for irony, it seems, Britton, as well, offers probative insights against Brechtian frameworks in film studies (2009: 103-105).

4 Against this Svengali-like conceptualization of political filmmaking, Geoff King points out a crucial distinction to be made between implications and effects (King, 2000: 116), a distinction missed/ignored by Prince. Furthermore, Prince’s conception of genuine political filmmaking seeks to construct an ideal critical spectator that is at odds with the type of spectator envisioned by Brecht. As Smith asks, “How critical is the spectator who can only be constructed as critical by an estranging text?” More to the point, “if the assumption is that critical spectators are as textually determined as naïve spectators, then it makes a mockery of the distinction itself” (Smith, 1996: 138-139).

5 One can only assume that the conspicuous absence of Billy Jack (1971) was a calculated omission on Prince’s part due to the fact that it so thoroughly eviscerates the position he is seeking to advance, and the fact that the greatest debt owed by Seagal to any film prior to his own work is to Billy Jack is no coincidence.

6 Prince evidently missed the incoherence of this position, for if the failure of (for lack of a better term) “Left Cinema” is directly correlative to the failure of the political Left, then it would stand to reason that no product of Left Cinema, American or otherwise, could possibly be successful according to these terms, thus making his evaluations entirely arbitrary.

7 In his study of Schwarzenegger, Saunders notes a “confounding discursive slippage between film and reality that persists in relation to Schwarzenegger” (Saunders, 2009: 37), slippage that is even more confounding and persistent in Seagal’s case and which is explored more fully by Vern (2012).

8 Webb’s “Dark Alliance” articles were included and expanded upon in a subsequent book of the same title (Webb, 1999). Also, the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair is included in the Bibliography, though it is freely available via Google Books.

9 Box-office statistics were obtained via Box Office Mojo. Also of note, going beyond mere “discursive slippage” and displaying what Saunders observes vis-à-vis Schwarzenegger a “perspicacity bordering on prognostic” (Saunders, 2009: 1), Seagal’s move from #4 at the box-office to #1 eerily echoes the line Nico has in Above the Law in response to an FBI Agent telling him he just reached #4 on the Most Wanted List: “Number Four? I want to be Number One.”

10 In keeping with the “scholarly exchange” between Britton and Wood, Britton’s position on the American cinema of the 1970s is very close to the position advanced by Wood in his influential essay on the “incoherent text” (Wood, 2003: 41-62), both essays originally appearing together in the Spring 1981 issue of Movie dedicated to American cinema in the 1970s.

11 The important place occupied by Dirty Harry in the development and evolution of action cinema is chronicled by Harvey O’Brien (2012: 18-28), while the concept of the “good gangster” was developed by Fran Mason (2002).

12 Interestingly, American television has in recent years begun to supplement Hollywood in the elaboration of this thematic, most explicitly in the characterizations of Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) in The Shield, and Forensic Scientist Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) in Dexter.

13 This widely held assumption regarding the place fight scenes occupy in the overall narrative of action and martial arts films is critiqued at length in Barrowman (2012).

14 In a 2012 interview with Michael Schiavello, Seagal points out the irony of Al Gore receiving both an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth while On Deadly Ground, which predates the latter film by over a decade, received then and has accrued since not even a fraction of the respect/prestige Gore has enjoyed in spite of the projects in both cases being identical.

15 Part of the evolution of Seagal’s characters is the move away from explicit employment, either with police departments or intelligence agencies, to more shadowy and clandestine realms of past and/or current government work. For more on this development over the course of Seagal’s career, see Vern (2012).


Adorno, T.W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Anderson, Aaron. “Kinesthesia in Martial Arts Films.” Jump Cut 42 (1998).

Barrowman, Kyle. “Bruce Lee: Authorship, Ideology, and Film Studies.” Offscreen 16.6 (2012).

Bowman, Paul. Deconstructing Popular Culture. London: Palgrave, 2008.

Britton, Andrew. Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Britton, Andrew. Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Carroll, Noël. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Cabury, William and Leland Poague. Film Criticism: A Counter Theory. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982.

Hamilton, Lee H. and Daniel K. Inouye. Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. New York: Times, 1988.

Headlam, Bruce. “The Films Are for Him: Got That?”The New York Times, 2008.

Jeffords, Susan. “The Big Switch: Hollywood Masculinity in the Nineties.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Eds. Jim Collins, Hilary
Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins. London: Routledge, 1993.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

King, Geoff. Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

King, Neil. Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Mason, Fran. American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction. London: Palgrave, 2002.

O’Brien, Harvey. Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back. London: Wallflower Press, 2012.

Prince, Stephen. Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Saunders, Dave. Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.

Seagal, Steven. The Voice versus: Steven Seagal. Interviewed by Michael Schiavello., 2012.

Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Great Britain: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Smith, Murray. “The Logic and Legacy of Brecthianism.” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Eds. David Bordwell and Noël
Carroll. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.

Vern. Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. London: Titan Books, 2012. Second Edition.

Webb, Gary. Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. New York: Seven Stories, 1999. Second Edition.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and camera movement to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 17, Issue 4 / April 2013 Essays   action film