The Rise And Fall Of Steven Seagal

For a brief time in the late '80s and early '90s, Aikido black belt and B-movie arm-snapper Steven Seagal looked like he was destined to join the esteemed ranks of schlocky action heroes like Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 1988's "Above The Law" was a very serviceable debut (via IMDB), after all, and 1992's "Under Siege" was just solid action movie filmmaking (per IMDB). 

But then it all fell apart. Between his legendarily bad hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" in 1991, accusations of faking his martial arts prowess, sexual abuse, and physically assaulting his co-stars, you'd think the rising star couldn't fall any further. But by buddying up to Vladimir Putin, helping a SWAT team kill 100 chickens in a botched raid — that was all about saving said chickens — and producing just so, so many comically-bad movies that could be found with other "Awesome Action Epics" DVDs in the back of a thrift store, Seagal has done a better job turning himself into a laughing stock than he ever did getting people to take him seriously. You don't need to watch his movies to find out why, because your time would be better spent here — this is the story of the rise and fall of Steven Seagal.

Seagal debuts strongly with Above The Law

The '80s saw the rise of the muscle-bound martial arts ass-kicker, who roundhoused entire warehouses full of B-movie bad guys that couldn't aim, as described by Hollywood Insider. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are the most notable names, but guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris weren't far behind.

In 1988, a new name joined the ranks of these shredded badasses: Steven Seagal, star and co-writer of the crime thriller "Above The Law," per IMDB. The story follows Nico Toscani — played by Seagal — a former CIA operative who uses martial arts to help Chicago cops take down a heavily armed drug ring.

It wasn't great – Rotten Tomatoes gives it a lukewarm 50%, based on 20 reviews — but it still ranks among Seagal's best and most well-known films. More importantly, it was an effective launch pad for his career, establishing him as a chisel-jawed, no-nonsense name to watch. Roger Ebert even gave the movie three stars, and heaped praise on the leading man himself. "Seagal more or less deserves the buildup," Ebert writes, referencing the industry buzz surrounding him. "He does have a strong and particular screen presence. It is obvious he is doing a lot of his own stunts, and some of the fight sequences are impressive and apparently unfaked. He isn't just a hunk, either. He can play tender and he can play smart, two notes often missing on the Bronson and Stallone accordions."

Under Siege is Seagal's finest hour

Steven Seagal's "Above The Law" put him on the map, which would have been great news for him. The bad news? It was in 1988 (per IMDB), when the action B-movie genre was winding down. By the time he'd karate chopped his way to the top of the pile in the early '90s, the craze was ending, as described by The New York Times.

But he still had one bullet in the chamber – 1992's star-studded "Under Siege" (via IMDB). Seagal stars as Casey Ryback, a Navy SEAL who removes the chef's hat to thwart William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), a bitter terrorist who commandeers the USS Missouri with help from inside man Commander Peter Krill (Gary Busey). The initial takeover goes well, until the bad guys realize Ryback is stealing through the ship's corridors, taking out their accomplices one by one in the lead-up to an epic final showdown. As Roger Ebert points out in his three-star review, the formula is "Die Hard goes to sea."

"I walked into the screening in a cynical frame of mind," Ebert wrote, "but then a funny thing happened. The movie started working for me." The renowned film critic praises the cast, saying the villains are "superb, vile, and deliriously insane." As for Seagal? "[He] makes a convincing cook; he can hit a target with a carving knife at 20 paces." In the end, "Under Siege" is Seagal's highest-ranking movie — nabbing a well-earned 79% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Seagal's martial arts skills were always debatable

He built his on-screen persona from the get-go around his fighting skills, and everyone who knows anything about Steven Seagal knows the guy isn't just acting like he knows martial arts. He's got some chops: TV Overmind says he's a black belt in a relatively new style called Aikido.

The only problem? Aikido isn't a very well-respected martial arts form. In its analysis of the technique, Way of Martial Arts says it's more about mindfulness and passive defense than it is about taking down dangerous opponents. Putting aside the fact that a philosophy of harmony and selflessness seems like a weird fit for a try-hard macho man's man like Seagal, there's a reason most of his fight scenes involve him merely deflecting hard-charging bad guys — who don't seem to know what they're doing — as opposed to going on the offense and kicking them in the face. This is because that kind of reactionary fighting style is just about all Aikido is good for in a street fight. As Way of Martial Arts points out, Aikido can be effective in a real fight, but only if your opponent has no training whatsoever.

Many in the martial arts community have been calling Seagal's bluff for years, and they started doing so during his ascent to fame. A June 1992 episode of Black Belt Magazine – from the same year when "Under Siege" was released, per IMDB — details the time a group of slighted, unconvinced karate and kickboxing masters tried to arrange a fight with Seagal, with the goal of exposing him as a fraud. Sadly, no such event took place.

Seagal bombs on SNL

Given the limited amount of time the writers have to produce culturally relevant material, the sheer number of sketches per episode, and the hit-or-miss comedic chops of celebrity guest hosts, it's amazing "Saturday Night Live" is as funny as it is. Sometimes you'll get a Tom Hanks or Steve Martin who leads the cast in a hilarious round of comedy. Other times, such as in April 1991, you might end up with a Steven Seagal — who Mental Floss says is widely considered to be the single worst host in the show's history.

Yes indeed, after decades of nearly weekly episodes and no shortage of lousy hosts, Steven Seagal bottoms the list. According to Tom Shales' book "Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests" (via Ultimate Classic Rock), Seagal was exceedingly difficult to work with, shot down almost every idea the writers had prepared, and refused to appear in any skit that didn't frame him as a macho tough guy. Furthermore, he had his own sketch ideas. Shales relates one particular observation from the time: "... some of his sketch ideas were so heinous, so hilariously awful, it was like we were on Candid Camera," according to cast member Julia Sweeney. 

She wasn't alone — the New York Daily News reported that "SNL" chief Lorne Michaels agrees with the dismal sentiment, saying, "No, that was Steve Seagal," after host Nicolas Cage jokingly said he thought he'd be the worst host the show had ever seen in a 2014 episode.

Seagal turns to direct-to-video content

Steven Seagal punched his way into our video collections with 1988's "Above The Law" (via IMDB) and joined the ranks of schlocky B-movie glory with 1992's "Under Siege" (per IMDB). After these, though, he hasn't done many notable movies. Sure, there was 2010's "Machete," where he played Rogelio Torrez, former partner of the titular character (Danny Trejo) turned criminal, according to IMDB. It was just self-aware enough to sell the schlock, and walked away from the explosion with 71% on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer.

But in the years leading up to "Machete," Seagal avoided the big screen and instead spent years prowling the dank basements of direct-to-video purgatory. According to his IMDB page, during the first decade of the 21st century, 16 out of 24 films he starred in went straight to on-demand or DVD, without even a limited theatrical release in major markets. 

Furthermore, almost all of his direct-to-video films suffered from the exact slate of issues one might imagine: low budgets, lazy writing, plots centered around clichéd locations such as abandoned warehouses, and with a handful of recyclable prop guns. One notable example is "Black Dawn," which doesn't even star Seagal in any fight scenes, owing to him leaving the production halfway through filming, per IMDB,

Seagal pumps out the crap

A direct-to-video career doesn't exactly scream "quality." But some of Steven Seagal's latest movies are shockingly, hilariously bad, well below even the depths that their low budgets and lazy cover art would typically suggest. 

The biggest issue with getting the word out about these so-bad-they're-really-bad bombs is that almost nobody has bothered to watch — and therefore review — the vast majority of them, so there's no Tomatometer score or reputable review to cite. But you can probably get the gist by glancing at a cover and seeing a past-his-prime Seagal, with that awkward jet-black goatee and an M16, scowling in front of a photoshopped explosion.

There are some notable examples in this rogues gallery, though whichever one takes the cake and pukes on it is up to whoever's brave enough to watch them. As described by Space Ice (via YouTube), Seagal's "Out For A Kill" is so lazy Seagal actually performs an entire fight scene sitting down. There's also 2016's "Sniper: Special Ops," which sounds like a fun shoot-'em-up video game, but fails to deliver any fun at all, according to John Noonan in FilmInk. And, if its nonexistent critics' score and 10% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, "The Perfect Weapon," in which Seagal plays a dystopian futuristic dictator — and also that dictator's clone for one of the most laughable twist endings you'll ever not bother to see — isn't much better.

Seagal has physically abused his co-stars on numerous occasions

Steven Seagal doesn't just act violent or pretend to take himself way too seriously. Instead, his on-set behavior seems to indicate he's not much different when the cameras aren't rolling. For example, Sean Connery told Jay Leno that Seagal broke his wrist on the set of "Never Say Never Again," a Bond movie where Seagal was a fight coordinator (via Vanilla Midget TV). He even said the wrist was still technically broken years later, and that he still didn't have full mobility.

But while that incident appeared to be accidental, Seagal's run-in with John Leguizamo was anything but. In an interview with AV Club, Leguizamo said that Seagal showed up to the set of the 1996 film (via IMDB) "Executive Decision" and announced, unironically, "I'm in command. What I say is law." But it got even worse: "I started laughing and he slammed me with an aikido elbow against a brick wall and knocked all the air out of me," Leguizamo said. "I dropped to the ground, and all I could say was, [gasping] 'Why? Why?'"

According to The Observer, Seagal threatened to attack Leguizamo if they ever ran into each other on the red carpet, after learning Leguizamo had mocked his "feminine form" in the graphic novel "Ghetto Klown" — in which Leguizamo recounts embarrassing stories of Hollywood peers. But Leguizamo isn't worried about that. "I don't think he's invited to a lot of red carpets," he said, before marveling at how Seagal had turned into such a "putz" and "egomaniacal diva."

Seagal's law enforcement antics have gotten him into trouble

One of the most surprising — and yet somehow least surprising — things you're likely to learn about Steven Seagal, is that he's actually a licensed police officer, and his exploits can be seen on "Steven Seagal: Lawman" (via IMDB). But, as one might expect, the "Executive Decision" star doesn't spend his screen time in the show saving cats from trees or handing out parking tickets.

In the promotional video for one episode (via ReelzChannel), Seagal mumbles, "Right now, my team and I are gearing up to take down a suspect, Jesus Sanchez Llovera. Wanted for animal cruelty ... Given what we know about this guy, we feel that it's going to be safest to deploy SWAT. We'll be using two armored personnel carriers to breach the perimeter."

If that sounds like overkill, it's because it was. According to a lawsuit by the homeowner (as reported by TMZ), Seagal's insane, dangerous stunt was followed immediately by a platoon of SWAT officers, decked out in full riot gear. They stormed the Llovera's house and inadvertently massacred more than 100 of the chickens they had allegedly shown up to rescue, while the rest of the critters bolted for cover. The Llovera family puppy was also tragically killed in the incident, so — in addition to seeking $100,000 in damages — Llovera demanded Seagal write a written apology to his children for killing the 11-month-old puppy, which he described as a "beloved family pet."

Seagal has been accused of sexual assault

As reported by Sky News, Steven Seagal was accused by "Die Another Day" Bond girl Rachel Grant of pulling her top down and forcing her onto his bed in a hotel room, back in 2002. She further alleged that after she rejected him, she didn't get the part she'd been auditioning for in "Out For A Kill."

In an interview with Movieline, Jenny McCarthy described an incident in which Seagal allegedly ordered her, who was auditioning for a role in "Under Siege 2," to undress, before grabbing her and ordering her to stay silent after she protested.

And In 2010, TMZ says Seagal was sued by Kaden Nguyen for repeatedly attempting to grope her and even forcibly drugging her. In the same lawsuit, Nguyen alleged that Seagal was engaged in sex trafficking, because he was attended to around the clock by young Russian women who were to fulfill his every need. Another TMZ article reports that Seagal had a habit of luring women to his home under the guise of discussing movie roles, only to make sexual advances on them. Blair Robinson claimed she fled one supposed film opportunity after Seagal tried to claim they should mutually massage each other.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Seagal goes all in for Putin

Russia faced near-universal global condemnation after launching the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But while the hammer of international sanctions and isolation hit hard, they weren't left completely alone. Steven Seagal — a film actor whose most successful film, "Under Siege," was released 30 years earlier (via IMDB) — maintained his friendly public stance towards Russia's Vladimir Putin, one which was controversial even before the war.

As reported by Newsweek, the cinematic action hero has concrete ties to the Kremlin, and while viral rumors that Seagal was actually on the ground in eastern Ukraine fighting with the Russians were untrue, he has fostered a relationship with Russia for decades — and didn't back off an inch after the war began. If anything, his warmth towards Putin's regime only grew. Indeed, as seen in an April 2022 clip on Twitter, Seagal even gave a motivational speech to high-ranking Russian officials. Additionally, another Newsweek article reported that Seagal condemned the Ukrainian use of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) — one of the most potent weapons the defenders were provided in the war, through the latter months of 2022 — and even seemed to back up Russian talking points about the need to "denazify" Ukraine via invasion.

In October of 2022, The Independent reported that Seagal wished Putin a very happy birthday on Instagram, saying with zero sarcasm, "Today is President Putin's birthday. I just think that we are now living in very, very trying times. He is one of the greatest world leaders and one the greatest presidents in the world."