Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Pistol Whipped (2007)

Well, at least there are no naked women in the tank.

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Seagal's getting pretty old and fat. I know you don't want to believe it, but you know in your heart that it's true. No amount of Seagalian squinting is going to turn John Seeger from Mercenary for Justice into Gino Felino from Out for Justice. Consequently, it's getting harder and harder to buy him as an invincible bad-ass. Fortunately, Seagal takes a pretty refreshing turn here in Pistol Whipped. Seagal plays Matt (just Matt, short for "dumb, unlucky son of a bitch" according to Seagal), a washed-up, alcoholic ex-cop. He gambles, he womanises and he neglects his daughter. It doesn't get too grim and gritty, he doesn't stick a gun in his mouth or pass out in his own vomit in a back alley, but he's definitely a haunted man who's past has caught up with him.

It seems that many years ago some cash evidence was stolen and Seagal, already a womanising, gambling drunkard by this point, took the fall. Seagal now spends his nights drinking himself stupid and losing all his money at high stakes poker games that take place in the lobby of a theater for some reason. After losing the last of his cash to some shady characters, he is approached by a fellow named Blue (Paul Caulderon). He takes him to a run-down movie theater (I guess they were short on shooting locations) to meet a mysterious figure known only as the Old Man (Lance Henriksen in an extended cameo). The Old Man offers to pay off his considerable gambling debts in exchange for performing a series of assassinations. He claims to work for the government, taking care of criminals that have become "not just above the law, but beyond it", thus establishing this film as spiritual successor to Above the Law. He calls their operation "Extra-curricular Justice".

I've seen a lot of Direct-to-Video Seagal, I'm used to unmotivated double-crosses and shifting allegances, but these guys are something else. First they're telling him he doesn't have to do it if he doesn't want to, then they're threatening him at gunpoint and telling him he doesn't have a choice. Then when he accepts, Blue gets the boot in by telling him his targets have families just like him. I mean, come on, do you want him to do it or not? His first target is some mafia asshole who is rude to women, so you don't feel bad when Seagal shoots him in the head. Seagal takes him out in the middle of a crowded restaurant, stabbing his henchmen with silverware and making a huge mess. The Old Man hired Seagal because he was highly skilled in silent assassination, a "ghost". Doesn't seem like the actions of a ghost to me, unless it's some sort of violent, crazy ghost, like the one in Poltergeist. I guess he's out of practice.

It's a refreshing change to see Seagal playing someone so vulnerable. Even Seagal's mumbling style of non-acting works in his favour, making him seem nervous and uncomfortable, a man who is ashamed of himself. Of course, all of that goes out the window when a hot, young woman named Drea hits on him in a bar. A couple of smooth moves later ans her clothes are scattered on the floor of his house next to Seagal's 4XL shirt. She's working for the Old Man obviously and the fact that Seagal doesn't pick up on this straight away makes him seem desperate and kind of pathetic (not sure if that was intentional). However, as she points out later in the film, she totally wanted to do him anyway (or give him some "good lovin'" as Seagal puts it). She even implies that he has a huge dick over breakfast the next morning, which is a bit more information than I needed to know.

So everything seems to be going pretty well. He even begins to learn how to balance his assassination job with his fatherhood responsibilities. Unfortunately, things takes a turn for the worse when he is asked to kill his daughter's step-father. If the thought of moral ambiguity in a Seagal film has you breaking out in a cold sweat, you needn't worry, turns out (spoiler ahead) that he is actually a corrupt bastard, and even worse, he was the one who engineered Seagal's frame-up and fall from grace. This twist comes out of nowhere and makes no sense whatsoever. Up until now he has been presented as a great father and husband, everything Seagal could and should have been. He's even been really nice to Seagal, doing him favours and covering for him when he bails on his daughter. As soon as the twist is revealed he goes out and kills the kindly priest who provides Seagal with spiritual guidance, and by the end of it he even holds his own step-daughter hostage. Oh well.

The film's climax takes place in a cemetery during the priest's funeral. Steve and his boys plan on taking out Seagal when he comes to pay his respects, which is not really appropriate behaviour at a funeral if you ask me. There's a pretty good gunfight, with lots of slow motion, bloody squibs etc. It's no John Woo, but it's violent and exciting. Drea plays sniper on the roof of a mausoleum and even Blue lends them a hand. Eventually Seagal manages to take out Steve and just before he dies Seagal asks him whether he'd like to be cremated or buried. He says "buried" so Seagal blows up a car and roasts his corpse. "You're cremated now, motherfucker!" Ouch. We can only guess what would he have done if Steve had asked to be cremated. Seagal's little girl watches the car go up in flames and starts screaming and crying. I felt pretty bad, I imagine that seeing your father murder your step-father in cold blood would be a pretty traumatic experience, but it turns out she was only upset because she thought Seagal might have been hurt. Phew, close call. Seagal ends up back together with his ex-wife, which isn't really surprising because she's been on the verge of making out with him every time they met. The film ends with Drea approaching him in a church with another assassination mission (a reference to The Killer, maybe?). Apparently the target's is the director, which I think is a bit harsh. The film wasn't that bad.

So basically Seagal looks pretty fat and old in this film. It fits with the character, but they still pull out as many tricks as they can think of to disguise his weight. He wears all of his shirts untucked (Seagal's parade of ugly shirts continues unabated) and his leather jackets zipped up with his hands in the front pockets. The dude in charge of airbrushing the DVD cover must have worn his stylus down to a nub: Seagal looks like he's made out of plastic. Despite all this, Seagal does take part in a number of fight scenes that prove that while he may not still have it, he's got visitation rights with it every second Saturday. He punches, he stabs and he fires guns aimlessly. It's all good. Stunt double are kept to minimum and, shockingly, there doesn't seem to be any post-production dubbing. Hallelujah! It seems he's putting in the effort. In keeping with his more vulnerable character, he even gets injured at one point by a bullet in the arm. Of course, by the end of the film his injury is forgotten about, but it's the thought that counts. Director Roel Reine employs a few too many fancy camera moves for my taste, but the action is reasonably coherent. There's also a decent car chase, even if it is marred by some Black Dawn quality green-screen.

I wouldn't say that Pistol Whipped is Seagal's Rocky Balboa, but it's hard not to see the parallels between this film and his movie career. Like his character's career in the Force, Seagal's movie career started out promising with a trilogy of solid action films but as his box office draw increased the films became more impersonal. Unfortunately, the more personal films that followed were colossal failures, much like the poor personal choices his character made in this film. After getting banished to Direct-to-DVD, the movie career equivalent of getting kicked off the Force, he fell in with shady characters like Michael Keusch and Don E. FauntLeRoy and wallowed in rushed, poor quality films. He neglected his responsibilities to us, his fans, but with this film it seems like Seagal is finally making an effort. He's trying to redeem himself, kicking his twin habits of post-production dubbing and stunt doubles. My analogy is running out of steam, but what I'm trying to say is that this is a good indication of what we can expect from Seagal in the future, I hope he'll still be manhandling goons and breaking wrists at 72, like Charles Bronson in Death Wish V.