Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are both connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Ken: Jim, film is a medium that explores paradoxes. It gives life and motion to the uncanny and the impossible. And so I submit to you that only film could truly encapsulate the man that is Steven Seagal, who cranks out a mountain of schlock each year and yet seems to be one of the laziest stars working today. How did Contract to Kill strike you, Jim? I’ll say that it was no Shadow Man.
Jim: The most fascinating thing about watching Contract to Kill is the knowledge that it exists as just one entry among countless, almost indistinguishably similar entries in Seagal’s post-2000 filmography. It’s the sort of movie that a desperate, middle-aged man might typically direct and star in as a vanity project, but after that film was released, you’d never see or hear from the guy again. Seagal makes movies like this, and then somehow enough people watch those films that he makes more movies exactly like this on a yearly basis. The question is obvious: Who the hell are these people, consuming these movies in any spirit other than ironically?
Ken: It beggars belief, doesn’t it? Really, this is why I suggested this feature for this month’s Bad Movie Diaries. While you are adept at finding the movies that are truly antithetical to filmmaking itself, I’m usually more interested in things that inexplicably have the backing of actual people with actual money. Movies like Ben and Arthur come about because of one insane person being enabled by a relatively small coterie of people, but there is measurable demand behind movies like Best Friend From Heaven and Contract to Kill. Or in other words, mankind has already fallen, and we are all doomed.
Jim: It really makes you want to conduct some kind of survey of the people who watched this film with something approaching sincerity. Find out their socioeconomic information, try to piece together a profile. Find out what makes them tick, and why they’d want to watch Steven Seagal wheeze his way down a stairwell and pretend to punch a guy before stopping to take a breather, rather than see, say, Iko Uwais become an avatar of athleticism and destruction in modern action films like The Raid or Headshot. If we could understand what would make someone choose Contract to Kill over one of those films, we’d understand a lot more about the human condition than we do right now.
Ken: I also want to point out that Mark Dacascos, the fellow we gently ribbed for his participation in Only the Strong, is out here on Twitter working a broadsword like he’s ready to triumph in the Mortal Kombat tournament, well into his 50s. And starring in Netflix’s Wu Assassins and John Wick 3.
Ken: Point being: There are no shortage of action stars out there doing great work, including older action stars, and Seagal is not one of them. Is it blasphemy to claim that Seagal isn’t a has-been, but a never-was, Jim? Because the not-entirely-ironic prevailing opinion among action junkies seems to be that there’s genuine love for stuff like Under Siege, when I really don’t think it’s that good, or that Seagal was that good in it.
Jim: I think there’s a baseline of appreciation for Seagal’s very early work, if only because he had considerably more natural charisma in films like Hard to Kill and Above the Law. By the time you get to On Deadly Ground only a few years later, though—still Seagal’s only directorial effort—it’s clear that the dude has already gone totally off the deep end. His opinion of himself has always been considerably greater than just about everyone else’s conception of him as an actor or a martial artist, but at least at the beginning of his career there wasn’t THAT wide a gulf between how he seemed to see himself and how the world saw him. Every single year since the mid-1990s has widened said gulf.
Ken: I could—and in fact did—write a whole thing about how the world enables Seagal. As a star, he’s an undisciplined prima donna who has alienated vast swaths of the industry. As a person, he’s pretty terrible. And yet he will not stop making these movies, and evidently nobody will stop him from making them. I settled on Contract to Kill as representative of his body of work because it’s one of the few that actually saw theatrical release. And right from the get-go, you can see this is going to be some total garbage. Jim, if you can only film in Eastern Europe, should your story be set in Mexico? Should your ostensibly Mexican cartel boss speak in a thick Balkan accent? At least consider Scarlett Johansson for the part first, I guess.
Jim: It was actually unclear to me whether the majority of the film’s events were meant to be occurring in Mexico or Turkey, and I hope you’re ready for this confusion to become a recurring thing as we attempt to discuss the plot of Contract to Kill. I will say that regardless of where they’re actually supposed to be, the Mexican cartel gangsters remembered to bring the washed-out yellow filter with them that invariably signifies “Mexico” in American TV and film productions. These are some truly jaundiced scenes.
Does the world have a healthy, yellow glow? It must be MOVIE MEXICO!
Ken: One other thing is actually unclear to me: In the very first scene, two guys who are supposed to be Turkish are leaving the bad guy’s house before getting gunned down, and they are speaking in English but also being subtitled in English. I think. I checked my captions setting and it said they were off, but I then turned them back ON because with the sound cranked up and an uncharacteristically silent 11-year-old beside me, I was still unable to understand a word coming out of their mouths, or Seagal’s. Jim, were those guys speaking English in that first scene, and being insultingly subtitled? Because if so, that really sets the tone for this shit show.
Jim: They’re definitely speaking English, although my, shall we say … less than official … copy of the film was bereft of any kind of subtitles. Which is to say, I only rarely had any kind of idea of what Seagal was saying. His speaking style is a monotone, hoarse whisper, devoid of emotion, with zero inflection on any of the individual words. They just tumble out of his mouth like they’re coming off an unattended assembly line. Sometimes he slurs and sounds drunk. Other lines have clearly been ADR’d in post, but they sound exactly as unintelligible. In our defense, by the way, it’s awfully hard to know where the action is happening when THREE LOCATION CHANGES happen by the end of the opening credits.
Ken: That is also why I hesitate to even summarize what’s going on here—this movie is incredibly hard to follow, both due to editing and to the numerous scenes where Seagal and the other characters are talking and none of it makes any sort of coherent sense. The story of Contract to Kill concerns some attempted partnership between Muslim extremists and the Mexican cartels. You know, the exact sort of thing that wild-eyed Tea Party town hall organizers spouted at me with totally straight faces back in, oh, 2011, and which is not a thing. A CIA spook (Andrei Stanciu, who does indeed sound as if he’s from Romania) goes in search of Seagal hanging out at a watering hole in Mexico. He’s DEA and FBI, Jim! He’s the only hope to put a stop to this super evil team-up! Can you attempt to describe this dialogue? Can you break down for our dear readers how ridiculous and hard to follow this table-setting scene is?
Jim: I genuinely can’t, except to say that at one point, Seagal says (in a completely blank monotone): “Wow. I’m interested. Tell me more.” And then the other guy goes back to babbling. It’s painfully clear that Seagal having to speak in any scene is a true liability for any of the other performers present in the same room. He makes all their jobs much harder.
Ken: As we break the plot down, by the way, it’s important that I be clear that not only are this movie’s themes and politics regressive and racist as shit, but it’s also just ineptly made in every way, and because Seagal factors so heavily into it, it’s really clear he’s the problem. After he goes from rejecting to accepting this job to go kill these foreigners who HATE AMERICA, we need to have a scene where he intervenes as a couple barflies menace a waitress, because you know, of course. And because all foreigners look the same, they’re more Eastern European actors pretending to be Mexican. He beats them up, or the camera work at least implies that he does.
Jim: Every time Seagal runs afoul of someone in this movie, he just sort of edits them to death, with a helping hand from the foley guy. And of course, he never removes his tiny orange sunglasses, which I believe have been permanently attached to his face for the last five or six years at this point. Go look at his other films from 2014 or so onward—he’s wearing basically the same sunglasses and outfit in every single one of them. It’s always a giant, billowy black jacket that looks like a tunic and these little colored sunglasses. I can only assume that this is less a costume, and more what he just wears every day at home.
Suit jacket, or small kimono?
Ken: Oh, he’s showed up to interviews wearing similar stuff. This is just Seagal in his natural state. People dragged Harrison Ford for showing up in Blade Runner 2049 in his retired-granddad tee, but at least the guy, you know, acts when you put the camera on him. Very, very well, even.
Jim: Actors can act, as it turns out.
Ken: So, Seagal goes down to the border to gather intel by interrogating a coyote who is actually Yemeni, we find. Seagal just knows this instinctively, because he’s the best at everything and nothing anywhere is ever a challenge for him. He gets the guy to crack instantly, and then we find that the young, nubile female agent overseeing the case is one of his recruitment prospects. They have a history together, because Seagal also has a girl in every port. Totally believable, right?
Jim: Why would it not be?
I probably don’t need to tell you that this walk is in slow motion.
Jim: The bad guys’ overall plot is pretty much revealed in full here as well: They intend to use the cartel’s smuggling channels, tunnels, etc. in order to more easily sneak Middle Eastern insurgents into the U.S. It’s the rare action film where there really isn’t a “ticking clock” element in this respect—it’s not like Seagal & Co. have to stop the insurgents already in the U.S. from carrying out an attack. They just have to go hunt down and kill a bunch of obviously evil and foreign dudes, but they’re free to take their time in doing it. It’s a very casual contract to kill.
Ken: And because we basically already know the scope of the evil plan and the baddies spend the entire movie reacting to Seagal’s attempts to sabotage them, there really isn’t any dramatic tension at all. Seagal has drones, voice-changing software, CCTV cameras peering into the hotel that he’s hacked already. It all recalls the entertainments of the early-to-middle period of our endless Middle Eastern wars, when some pigheaded idiots still insisted they were the right thing to do. You’ll notice that these days, as the children born in 2001 now qualify to go die over there, that the Call of Duty shooter games and hyped up military action movies have all but vanished because it’s embarrassing to think about. Yet here’s Seagal in 2016, making this thing. How long do you think this script sat on a shelf before being produced?
Jim: I dunno. I couldn’t help but think that one of the primary intended audiences here is probably the Donald Trump political base, if only because Seagal’s goal is theoretically to shut down illegal activity at the Mexican border. You know that would get their motors going.
Ken: I think that’s a safe assumption. But in order to SHUT DOWN THE BORDER, Seagal needs his own team! So after getting Attractive Operative Whose Job Is to Dress Like a Woman (Jemma Dallender), the two go searching for another guy whose superpower is having a remote control drone. Jim, I have no idea what the reasoning behind this scene is, but maybe you can describe it for our readers.
Jim: This guy is played by actor Russell Wong, although it really feels like it would have been more on brand if it were a lesser Baldwin brother. Seagal and Woman Agent, whose name is Zara, go to meet up with him, only to be greeted by a drone with an assault rifle clumsily taped to it, as a child no doubt would if he had access to an assault rifle. The drone zips over their head while Seagal, curiously unfazed, tells Zara not to do anything about it. The drone then proceeds to shoot and blow up Zara’s FBI car, which is … a 20-year-old Honda Civic, I believe. This is apparently the way in which Agent Matthew Sharp applies for such positions, because Seagal then says something like “you’re hired” and he joins the team.
Jim: I’m going to have to remember this tactic for my next job interview.
Ken: I once got rejected for employment at a trade magazine for failing to destroy the publisher’s car in under a minute like in those Final Fight bonus levels, so I guess that’s plausible.
Jim: It is notable that Wong is probably the most competent stage combatant in this bunch, although his scenes are still filmed by a cameraman who appears to be suffering from severe muscle spasms.
Ken: I’m curious as to whether they did Wong dirty in order not to show up Seagal. I’d absolutely believe it if they did.
Following this completely nonsensical recruitment session, our team piles into a plane to fly out to Turkey, because Seagal knows that is where the meeting between terrorists and cartel guys is going to take place, again, FOR NO REASON. Whereupon we are treated to some of the absolute silliest dialogue in the whole movie.
Jim: This airplane ride is the absolute nadir for dialog in this film. Were you paying close attention here, Ken? Because Seagal just goes into total gibberish mode for a few minutes. I felt really bad for the other two actors he’s sharing the screen with here, because at least they were professional and learned their lines, while Seagal appears to literally be making them up as he goes. At one point he mentions Puerto Rico and says that the situation there is “kind of very distinct.” Every line is stuttered with long “uhhhhhs” as well. If these were his best takes, I’d be morbidly curious to see the BAD ones.
No screencap can really do justice to the insanity pouring from Seagal’s mouth in this scene.
Ken: I’m convinced they just went with the raw footage for most of this damn thing. At one point he legitimately says “It’s like a monkey trying to fuck a football.” What does it mean Jim??
Jim: Is THAT what he said? I remember what you’re talking about, but it was one of the lines I absolutely couldn’t understand. And lest we forget: This guy isn’t Tommy Wiseau. He’s not from some kind of Soviet bloc state, nor does he have a ready-made excuse for being totally unintelligible. English is ostensibly his first language.
Ken: You have to really appreciate how the other actors are supposed to be looking up to him like he’s Solid Snake.
Jim: Big Boss Seagal, the living legend.
Ken: They arrive in Turkey and do some surveillance on the meeting between the two parties, Jose Rivera (an actor whose nationality I can’t find anywhere but who looks and sounds Eastern European) and the Islamic terrorist bad guy al-Mujahid. Yet, despite the fact both are in this room right now, we learn that this is merely A meeting and not THE meeting, for some reason. Wong’s drone bumbles right into view and sets off suspicion between them, but this was apparently the play Seagal’s team intended. Wong does get made, but punches his way out of it in a jiffy. The good guys come away totally unscathed and the bad guys come away looking like chumps.
Jim: The whole plan just revolves around turning these easily duped terrorists and drug smugglers against each other. Which is much easier when you have access to instantaneous, magical voice-changing software, like Seagal does. Then you can just call one guy while pretending to be the other and threaten him directly over the phone! They’ll be home in time for dinner!
Ken: This is actually a little treat for us amidst this garbage, isn’t it? Seagal is placing this call while driving. He is known for being one of the least convincing drivers in movies. Here, it’s clear he’s been green-screened into a car that he’s using to tail the Middle Eastern terrorists in a bid to make them believe they’re being followed by the cartel. It’s clear that Seagal skipped basically any location shooting for this movie. They couldn’t get him into a car on a closed track for even one measly establishing shot.
Jim: Ken, if they could have shot his fight scenes from the makeup trailer, they probably would have. I counted the number of times that Seagal ran or did anything other than walk in this movie. That total is “zero.”
Ken: He sells his fights about as hard as I tried to sell those Blockbuster summer movie passes back in the day—which is to say, as if he is not making a commission, Jim.
Eventually SOME incident does happen. Zara gets nabbed—not before a truly stupid sex scene with Seagal, though. He doesn’t even take his shirt off, because of course not. I’m sure there’s a clause somewhere in his contract that says he gets to share a scene with a topless woman a minimum of once per movie.
Jim: He gropes her, naturally. His sunglasses remain glued to his face. Everything is as you would expect it to be.
Ken: There was one other hard-to-understand bit where Seagal realizes he’s been played and the real target is some related terrorist who was a CIA trainee. Seagal acts as if this is some betrayal of his original contract, but “Actually I wanted to plausibly deniably have you kill a different foreigner” has zero impact on the plot, because he needs to waste the other two anyway.
Jim: It just needlessly complicates things. Dude already has a “CONTRACT TO KILL” a bunch of terrorists, but he feels betrayed that the most important one to kill is a different member of the posse than he was led to believe? He would literally have killed that guy anyway, even if he wasn’t informed. It turns out to be utterly unimportant, regardless. All that matters is that Seagal and Russell Wong have to go storm the bad guy’s compound and retrieve their easily captured lady friend.
Ken: And that’s about it, truly. There’s no challenge in that final stretch. A good chunk of screen time is Seagal lecturing the Real Target before just shooting him in the face. At no point is Seagal outmaneuvered, put under pressure, his plans frustrated or changed up. This is like when I tell an anecdote about something in my day that went 100% right that I’m not even surprised did so.
Jim: Does Seagal even take a bump or fall at any point in this? I can’t remember him ever being knocked down by anyone.
Ken: Not a one. Because he is the BEST, Jim. He is the one you go to when you need to put out a CONTRACT TO KILL.
Jim: The tangential support of “an attractive lady” and “a man who owns a drone” makes him even more unstoppable, though.
Ken: I openly wondered, a couple years back, how Seagal can be both THIS bad and THIS visible. It can’t just be Russian meddling. Do you have any thoughts on this, Jim? The answers may well be the key to averting catastrophic societal decline.
Jim: I honestly don’t know. Some small portion of the audience in any of his modern films are jerks like us, who are just pointing and laughing, but that doesn’t make these things profitable. It’s not as if there’s a lack of other straight-to-VOD action titles, or better produced films out there that feature much more competent and exciting action. Traditionally, a physically washed up action star would get by via his charm or charisma, but Seagal has neither of those things. He brings nothing to the table as a performer. He’s like the least valuable asset to ever star in any of the films we’ve ever watched in this series.
Ken: I’d gladly watch another movie featuring Jimmy Bennett of Fatal Deviation fame over a Seagal feature. Sincerely.
Jim: And it’s not like you can’t make an action film about a badass older guy, if you want, but Seagal’s films won’t admit that he’s a 67-year-old blob of a human. He’s still dressed up like a bloated Neo from The Matrix in all of them. At least the modern Liam Neeson action movies have admitted on some level that this guy is over the hill, but still kicking ass. Seagal’s character in this film literally has the audacity at one point to say that his “best days are ahead of him.” AHEAD OF HIM, KEN!
Ken: I suppose there’s some kind of draw he still holds, somewhere in this world. May I never visit those places. They can green screen me into them instead. I’ll bet whatever feature you grace us with next will be one where the star is more present, Jim.
Jim: There’s no way it could be as cynically calculated to make a buck as Contract to Kill, with its runtime that expires a couple seconds after the credits get it to the all-important 90 minute benchmark.
Ken: And somehow, still 90 minutes too long. Until next time, sir.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.