2010 – 4.5 out of 10 stars on IMDB
Everyone has “their guy,” an actor whose movies you’ll watch no matter how horrendous they might seem. My guy is Steven Seagal.
As an actor, director, writer, and even as a musician, Seagal is completely unique (I’ll direct you to Vern’s excellent book Seagalogy for an explanation of how personal and uncompromising his work is). For years now, my dad and I have been on a mission to watch every one of his films – not only that, but chronicling every F-bomb dropped and every person he kills (he’s up to 659 and 498, respectively, with 41 arm snaps, 11 leg snaps and 16 neck snaps through 33 films).
In Born to Raise Hell, the latest in this glorious undertaking, Seagal (who also wrote the screenplay) is Bobby Samuels, head of a task force looking to rid Bucharest of drugs. His primary opponent appears to be Dmitri (Dan Badarau), a Russian mobster who uses vicious killer/rapist Costel (Darren Shahlavi) as muscle. I’m going to stop naming the actors now, because you’ve never heard of any of them.
Seagal makes a lot of daring choices this time around. For instance, he chooses to kill off the character who announces that his wife is expecting their first child. Didn’t see it coming. He also chooses to give himself a girlfriend at least 40 years his junior, and then makes the even bolder choice to include an uncomfortable sex scene in which she is completely naked but he somehow keeps all of his clothes on.
Sarcasm aside, this movie does have a few genuine surprises – like when Dmitri, who looks like the Big Bad early on, is shown to be an honorable Russian gangster (you know the type) and decides to team up with Seagal. Or when Dmitri’s ruthless blond henchwoman, who we see ruthlessly executing informants earlier on, ends up comforting his young son after Costel attacks his home. Meanwhile, Seagal’s one assistant, who is always skulking around and smirking and who seemed to obviously be a double agent, turns out to be just a regular guy.
This being a Seagal movie, there are a number of things that are downright bizarre. Dmitri’s criminal associates meet him in a park, where he is shown playing chess. There’s never anyone else around – are we to understand that he plays against himself all day? There is also a sequence were Costel and his gang walk out of their club, and it’s the most painfully protracted “cool” slow-motion walk you’ve ever seen, interspersed with shots of girls dancing and blowing fire.
Seagal provides himself with a number of crowd-pleasing (or at least me-pleasing) beat-up scenes. When he takes his girlfriend to a restaurant, two guys he beat up earlier swagger in and he brutalizes them again. He puts one through a glass display case. Never even breaks a sweat. When Seagal finally confronts Costel, it’s almost like his famous fight against William Forsythe in Out for Justice – he lets the bad guy come at him again and again, effortlessly turning aside his attacks and manhandling him. It’s almost as though Seagal is some kind of karmic avenger, allowing Costel’s own violent, destructive nature be his undoing.
The best and most definitively Seagalian scene is near the end. Dmitri is back in the park at his chess board, and suddenly a hand comes into the shot and moves a piece. Checkmate. Dmitri nods slowly and says, “Only a brilliant strategist could beat me in one move. Those can only be the hands of one man.” Then he looks up and, of course, it’s Seagal. The way the scene is shot, Seagal could have either beaten Dmitri on literally the first move of the game (which is impossible), or he made the finishing move of a game already in progress (in which case didn’t Dmitri technically beat himself?). Either way, it’s absurd, but it’s so oddly sincere that I nearly applauded.
A fun note on Seagal movies: most of the titles describe him, e.g. Steven Seagal IS Hard to Kill. Steven Seagal IS Marked for Death. Steven Seagal IS A Dangerous Man… and yes, as this movie once again proves… Steven Seagal IS Born to Raise Hell.