Since 2003, the films of Steven Seagal have gone straight to video in this country following the theatrical release of the box office and artistic flop Half Past Dead. Now, I'm the first to admit that Mr. Seagal is not the most talented dramatic actor working in cinema today. But when he first broke through as a martial arts/action film star in the late 80s, through the combination of sheer physical presence and skills (nobody snapped wrists better), as well as the good luck to work with genuinely talented writers and directors (including Andrew Davis, who went on to do 1993's The Fugitive), Seagal had appeared in a number of impressive, well produced and exciting action/adventure films. (Seagal's best include 1988's Above the Law and 1992's Under Siege, both directed by Davis, as well as 1995's Davis-less-but-still-good Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and 1991's Out For Justice.)
But for the past six years, Seagal has mostly starred (and co-produced/co-written) in several direct-to-DVD films filmed in various international locales (Eastern Europe seems to be a frequent location, though South Africa and Asia have also been used), with moderate (lower budgeted) production values. And he's made some stinkers: it's a chore to sit through 2005's Submerged and last year's awful Kill Switch (the latter released just after Seagal's pretty good suspense thriller Pistol Whipped, which was filmed in and around Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, among other locations in Connecticut) for example. However, when a good one does come along, like 2005's Into the Sun, it's a cause for celebration.
Set in Japan, Into the Sun follows the exploits of former CIA agent Travis Hunter (Seagal), who's brought back into the agency and has to investigate the assassination of Toyko's governor. But the plot goes all over the place as Our Hero discovers that the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Tongs have teamed up to take over the lucrative narcotics trade and, oh, yeah, wipe out anybody (including the governor) that gets in their way. Lots of sword and knife fights (and blood; this isn't for the kids) in this one, but what struck me the most was the downbeat, but energetic, tone of the film. Hunter and his allies eventually overcome the odds, but at great emotional loss to themselves. (I should point out that quite a few sympathetic characters are killed off in this one, so be careful who you become attached to.) Also, there's a sense that Japan's acceptance of "Western ways" (punk music, drugs, fashion, disrespect for older traditions) has corrupted the country internally.
That's a lot to read in an action film, but colorful villains, some good fight sequences, outstanding photography, a fine supporting cast (besides several Japanese actors from John Woo and Akira Kurosawa's films, look for Ghostbusters' William Atherton as Hunter's boss) and an outstandingly violent and bloody climax, help buoy the film from becoming too pretentious . Credit must go to director "pink", who handles the film's pacing with some style. And despite the awkward romantic scenes he has with his younger co-star Kanako Yamaguchi, Seagal (who, yes, is slightly slower and heavier, but aren't we all?) gives a more-engaged-than-usual performance. Probably because the star got to revisit his old neighborhood from his stay in Japan during the 70s, as well as co-writing the script, Seagal seems more involved than he's been in his recent films.
Although a far cry from his 90s heyday, Into the Sun is essential viewing for fans of both martial arts action films and Steven Seagal. Here's hoping (though I'm already hearing bad things about it) that his latest direct-to-DVD film, Against the Dark, Seagal's first straight horror film, will elevate the star back to his former glory. Into the Sun proves it's not impossible.