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Category: Martial Arts

12/02/09

Permalink 11:15:20 pm, by bobcalhoun Email , 1105 words, 7496 views English (US)
Categories: Martial Arts, Television

There’s Never a Steven Segal Around When You Need One

Steven Segal

The suspect is up against the oversized red truck. One of the arresting officers has the familiar grimace of many insomnia-fueled cable TV binges. “Steven Segal! It’s Steven Segal!” the suspect exclaims, motioning towards the uniformed cop in question and making the other officers on the scene nervous. The perp is right. It is Steven Segal. With one pullover, the suspect’s mundane brush with the law (DUI, a blown taillight, whatever) has intersected with such Hollywood action flicks as Under Siege or Marked for Death. However, this perp won’t get to test his martial arts skill against Segal on a high-jacked battleship or a speeding train. If he’s lucky, he’ll get Segal’s autograph on something other than a traffic citation or arrest report.

Something tells me that this sort of thing is going to happen a lot on A&E’s new celeb-reality show, Steven Segal: Lawman, which premiered Wednesday with a pair of half-hour episodes. The show follows Segal in his crisp, blue sheriff’s uniform as he patrols the streets of the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana . As loony as the concept of Lawman may be, you can’t really call it a comeback because Segal never left. Sure, the days of $60 million budgets are behind him, but Segal has been cranking out straight to DVD potboilers since the end of his early 1990s heyday. He’s also appearing with Robert DeNiro and Jessica Alba in Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming Machete, the expanded version of the faux trailer from Grindhouse (2007). Still, Lawman has generated more interest in Segal than he’s probably seen in years, although links to A&E’s promotional vids for the show are usually followed by many a “WTF!?!” and calls for Segal’s retirement, at least as far as my Facebook feed is concerned.

Any need for an image makeover is one that Segal shares with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which made him a reserve deputy 20 years ago. The last time this law enforcement agency got this much national attention was when it was one of the police departments that blocked mostly African American refugees from fleeing New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in what is now referred to as the “Gretna bridge incident.” It should come as no surprise that Segal’s partner on the force, Colonel John Fortunato, is also the commander of the department’s public information office. If that wasn’t enough, Captain Alex Norman, another officer that patrols the streets with Segal, serves as commander of the community relations division. Segal is not only there to show them marksmanship and aikido takedowns but also the Zen of Hollywood publicity.

Segal and Fortunato
Reserve Dep. Chief Steven Segal demonstrates his command of the zen of backseat driving for his partner, Col. John Fortunato.

The resulting product is little more than an infomercial for Steven Segal’s ego. “As a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts,” Segal informs us in the first three minutes of the inaugural episode, “I’m trained to remain calm in the face of adversity and danger. When the world is speeding by for others, I see things for what they are. A cock of the head, a foot planted forward or back, a flick of the wrist, they all tell me something: whether somebody’s gonna’ fight, pull a gun or run.”

Evidently this extra sensory perception akin to the Marvel Comics hero Daredevil imbues Segal with the ability to backseat drive. During a high-speed chase he tells Fortunato to veer left or right. “Let me drive Steven!” his partner pleads.

“I’m just telling you where the holes are,” Segal replies. Steven Segal can see things no one else can see; do things no one else can do.

Throughout the two opening episodes, Segal reminds us repeatedly that he is an expert in the martial arts. He also mentions “Zen archery” and the “Asian Zen lesson” and the “Zen method of breathing” to the point where I can see the SNL spoof of the show before it’s been written and drinking games conjure themselves. During the cablecast, several ads aired for BBQ Pitmasters on the Learning Channel. Why can’t Segal be BBQ Pit Master instead of a Lawman? Then he can drone on about the “zen method of grilling” and how being a practitioner of the martial arts allows him to sense the meat as it starts to sizzle.

The mostly white sheriffs are shown patroling predominantly African American neighborhoods.

At times, Segal and his cohorts seem like an occupying force as they ride through “the ‘jects” (as Segal refers to the projects) in massive SUVs. With the exception of veteran officer Sgt. Lawrence Matthews, who is African American, all of the officers depicted in Lawman so far are white. Making them seem even more distant from the community they serve, many of them have New York or Northeastern accents. I can only wonder if scene after scene of white cops tasering black men will have the desired PR outcome for a sheriff’s office that was once caught up in the ugliness of the Gretna controversy. It was also hard not to view this show through the prism of Warner Herzog’s brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. It’s easy to substitute Segal for the manic Nick Cage here and scenes of alligators didn’t help. If only Segal started snorting all the contraband in the property room and seeing hallucinatory iguanas everywhere. Then we’d have a piece of cinema on our hands.

Segal is still trying to prove that he’s the badass he portrays on the screen and his ability to put a slug through his own bullet hole in a target is astonishing. But this approach only makes you want to see less of him. Jean Claude Van Damme, Segal’s rival in the martial arts movie biz, was able to accomplish much more by debunking his image in JCVD (2008). Van Damme’s fourth-wall breaking soliloquy where he speaks of the disillusionment of the dojo, the media, romance and shattered dreams was enough to get me to rent Ringo Lam’s Van Damme cloning epic Replicant (2001). The sight of Segal hurrying to get into each frame to look important won’t get me to tune in next week.

The celeb-reality show as a genre has given us family comedies (Hogan Knows Best, The Osbournes), romantic farces (Flavor of Love, Rock of Love) and now with Steven Segal: Lawman, it has given us a cop show – a bad cop show.

Beer, Blood and Piecemeal.

The rock and reading odyssey of a 300-pound hulk.

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