Sunday, 4 October 2009

Ruslan (2009)

In this film Seagal plays a Russian crime novelist.
Yes, really.

For some reason this film is known under the title Driven to Kill in the US, which is kind of weird because although it sounds like a pun about cars there isn't a car chase in the entire film. I guess they wanted a title that followed fundamentalist Seagalian title grammar (ie adjective, preposition, verb). Over here we aren't such hardcore Seagalogists (it's mainly a Christmas and Easter thing), so it's known under the much better title Ruslan.

The film starts with Seagal having lunch with his much, much younger girlfriend. She offers him a three way with her best friend if he shows her his paper cup trick, which is kind of like the shell game or three card monte, except if you guess wrong you get a metal spike impaled through your hand. When she asks him how he does it he replies "The secret is to not give a fuck", which is coincidentally how Seagal is able to produce up to four direct-to-video films a year. She is so turned on by this that she sexily bites her lip, but thankfully you don't find out whether she followed through on her offer. One hot, young girl making sexy eyes at Seagal is bad enough, two would have blown my already overtaxed suspension of disbelief and we're only a couple of minutes in.

The inexplicably hot, young girlfriend is a typical feature of modern-era Seagal, but here he plays a completely different character than usual. Rather than an ex-CIA agent he is Ruslan, an ex-Russian gangster who now writes crime novels under the pen name Jim Vincent. We know he's a Russian novelist because he's got a post-it that reads "Tolstoy, Chekov, Pishkin" stuck up on his monitor while he writes his terrible pulp crime thrillers. I guess for inspiration. Thankfully his Russian background isn't pointless window-dressing like in Half Past Dead. He's got the sleeve tattoos, he's got the accent (sometimes) and he even he attempts a few words of Russian here and there, even if they dub over him when it's important or when other Russian-speaking actors would make him look bad.

He is busy writing his latest novel when his ex-wife calls him up and asks him to be at his estranged daughter Lanie's wedding the next day. Like in Pistol Whipped, his ex-wife is now married to a huge asshole (a defense lawyer named Terry Goldstein) but she is still so attracted to Seagal that she all but fucks him right in front of her new husband. He discovers that Lanie (Laura Mennell) is engaged to the son of a big-time Russian gangster who betrayed him in the past. Small world! His would-be son-in-law Stephan (Dmitry Chepovetsky) assures him that he has no intentions of following in his father's footsteps but sure enough some gangsters bust in, kill his ex-wife and attack his daughter.

Lanie survives the attack however, and Seagal manages to convince the police to keep things quiet while he tracks down the attackers. He also goads Stephan into helping him by basically calling him a pussy in front of his dad Mikhail (Igor Jijinike who played the scary Russian bad guy in Indiana Jones and the Search for More Money). He does this to upset Mikhail and to make sure that Stephan didn't have anything to do with the attack, but I also get the impression that it's his way of sizing him up and making sure he's good enough for his daughter. It's like one of those films where the father and the son-in-law bond over a fishing trip, except here they are bonding over murder.

It used to be that every action film would include a scene in a strip club but it doesn't happen too much these days. Or if they do it's some alternate-universe bizarro strip club where guys buy $15 watery beers to ogle fully clothed women. Well, here they bring that old tradition back, the girls take their tops off and everything. Seagal even has a bonding experience with his would-be son-in-law while they are having a private dance in a back room. They look very uncomfortable during the whole thing and the stripper must be pretty jaded because when the two of them start openly discussing all the murders they've committed she doesn't even flinch. Naturally some mobsters show up, leading to a surprisingly gory knife fight with squirting gouts and blood and messy impalements.

The fights are generally well executed with relatively subtle use of stunt doubles and decent editing, though they are often uncomfortably brutal, on the level of the curb stomp in Kill Switch. Seagal rams a broken glass into some asshole's face, he smashes a pawn shop owner's head through a glass countertop when he refuses to give out information and he stabs a guy in the neck with a metal spike and has to fight him until he bleeds out. He also savagely beats a guy with a plank, but the brutality is undercut by the fact that it's clearly made from balsa wood. The best one is where he stabs someone in the eye with the barrel of his gun and then pulls the trigger. That's some hardcore shit. Give Seagal a hockey mask and this could almost be a Friday the 13th sequel.

After his strip club fight a couple of cops arrest Seagal but they are generally useless and do diddly-shit. His ex-ex-wife's new husband bails him out and unsurprisingly he turns out to be an even bigger asshole than first thought (in some ways this movie is like a fantasy for divorced fathers). It all culminates in a final showdown where Mikhail and his crew dress up in police uniforms and storm the hospital where Lanie is recovering. It's not exactly Hard Boiled but there is a lot of gunfire and Seagal manages to do some pretty cool stuff, such as set up ambushes and make an improvised nail bomb.

Thankfully this film is a huge step up from Kill Switch and Against the Dark. In fact, I'd say we are back up to a Urban/Renegade Justice level of quality here. Very promising. Although Seagal is looking pretty chunky and his hair is looking more and more like a brillo pad with a widow's peak, I appreciated the effort he put into his role and that the film is free of Seagal's questionable sartorial choices (although he does manage to work a dragon shirt into the opening scene). This is Seagal's first film as part of a new distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, and if this is the level of quality we can expect from Seagal in the future then I'm looking forward to his next blood-spraying, wrist-snapping adventure.

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