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Back in the nineties, Steven Seagal was one of those action stars who, alongside the likes of Van Damme and Snipes, churned out bone-breaking, no-nonsense brainless popcorn flicks. It was the tail end of Schwarzenegger’s reign and audiences were ripe and ready for a new style of actions star: the martial arts action star. They provided all of the brute force of classic Arnie movies, only with an added edge. I think that audiences have come to expect more from films these days, much more—why have just a fists-flying action movie when you can have a dark spy thriller martial arts action adventure like The Bourne Supremacy? The era of the no-nonsense action film is almost dead. True fans of this kind of product have to scour the dregs of direct-to-video hell in order to find the odd hidden gem, because that’s where the likes of Van Damme, Snipes and Seagal now reside. Once in a while, however, you don’t quite strike gold, but you come across something that reminds you of the good old days. A good old decent bone-crunching action flick starring one of the old crew.

Shadow Man

Feature


It’s the anniversary of his wife’s death and Jack Foster is taking his daughter back to Romania, the birthplace of her mother. He’s an ex-CIA operative, with expertise in surveillance, weaponry and martial arts—amongst other things—but right now he’s just a dad who wants to take care of his daughter. When they arrive at the airport, however, she is kidnapped right in front of his eyes. Of course, all of Jack’s old training and knowledge kicks back in and he goes into action looking for her, but as he tricks, shoots and kicks his way through the city streets he uncovers a plot much more complicated than he anticipated.

It turns out that he is apparently the courier for a package which governments from across the globe, along with a fair amount of more shady individuals, want to get their hands on. The only trouble is, Jack is totally unaware of the package—he doesn’t even know for sure that he was ever carrying it. Still, he needs to find out where it is in order to bargain with the people who have his daughter, although you know that when the deal comes to the table, all hell is going to break loose.

Shadow Man is a no-nonsense martial arts action movie. It piles along at a reasonable pace, keeping you involved with the skimpiest of plotlines as it moves from one action set-piece to another. The story is almost insignificant but, at the same time, is coherent enough not to be an obstacle to your enjoyment of the action. It provides the motivation for the central character, excuses him almost all his physically aggressive behaviour, and helps the movie roll along to its climactic conclusion.

Shadow Man
Of course, it is a piece of DTV trash, but a nicely put together one which will have fans of this these old school kick-ass heroes thoroughly entertained and fondly recalling their favourite scenes from those golden days, which may not be that far gone. It is the kind of DTV movie which, if given a bigger budget and a bit more cleaning up at the editing stage, would have made the cinemas in the nineties and brought in a tidy profit.

After all, Steven Seagal movies were once a good gamble for production companies. His movies did not cost a great deal but proved to be popular and all he had to do was work his magic. What magic, I hear you ask? He’s just an overweight old man with acting skills that would make Roger Moore look positively thespian. Well Steven Seagal is one of the most proficient and experienced martial artists in the world. Seduced by the graceful art of Aikido, he moved to Japan at an early age to study it properly. He became an expert, not only in the martial art, but in the Japanese language and culture, and then went on to become the first western martial artist to set up a dojo in Japan.

He returned to America to spread this knowledge and was picked up by Hollywood producers who saw a cash cow that they could milk for all it was worth. But Seagal did not want to play the Hollywood game. At the peak of his career, on the back of an immense and unexpected success in the b-movie variation on Die Hard, Under Siege, Seagal was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. And what he chose to do was direct and star in a martial arts action adventure with an environmental message. On Deadly Ground was a terrible flop. Aptly directed and packed with explosive action, it contained so many heavy-handed messages of ecological and social significance that it scared audiences back into their caves. After all, why make an action movie and then attempt to preach to the audience about issues that are of global importance. We didn’t come to see that, they cried out, we came to see Seagal kick ass.

Shadow Man
I thought it was a stupid, but brave move. Seagal took a gamble at trying to reach a new audience—the kind of people who would perhaps not be touched by the messages given in more art-house offerings. He made a terrible mistake, failing miserably in his attempt to play Hollywood at its own game. After shocking revelations of mafia threats to him and his family, extortion and oppression, you can kind of understand how his career—and perhaps even his self-esteem—took a complete nosedive. He ended up in DTV hell, where he has resided now for over half a decade. Churning out several movies a year, his efforts have been generally abysmal. Not only were they low-budget, poorly-scripted, badly-acted efforts, but they did not have the one essential ingredient required for a watchable Seagal movie: Seagal himself. His fights were doubled, his voice was doubled, and he was even doubled for shots of walking down the street or getting into cars. Recently he made a movie where he didn’t even appear in the movie for the first twelve minutes.

I have been faithfully watching this rubbish, desperately clinging to the ever-decreasing number of action scenes and few one-liners that populate his movies, in the hope that one day things would change. It is not much to ask Seagal to actually be in his own movie—after all, he is the only reason people would see one of his movies. I prayed that he would stay on set for the duration, do the ADR himself so that it was always his voice and—most importantly–do the fight scenes himself. What is the point of a Steven Seagal martial arts action movie where he doesn’t even do the martial arts himself?

Shadow Man
Shadow Man is almost unique amongst his DTV efforts. Today You Die saw him body doubled for entire fight sequences but hardly voice doubled, Out of Reach saw him on set for most of time but voice doubled (by the actor who played the bad guy of all people) and Mercenary for Justice had him fighting and talking himself, but hardly actually in the movie. Shadow Man has him on-screen for most of the movie, doing ninety-five percent of his own lines and providing us with about half a dozen fight scenes which he does himself.

Possibly the best aspect of this for the fans is the fighting, and they will be pleased to hear that the fights are (whilst not great), highly watchable and extremely reminiscent of his early good stuff. The opening scene where he shows off some techniques in a dojo harks back to Above the Law, the ‘ Macguyver sequence’ where he fashions a shotgun out of piping and booby-traps a room is a nod to his classic Under Siege efforts, and the fight scene in the drug dealer’s house is a superb Seagal brawl (pick any of his first six movies), where he kicks, throws, and breaks necks just like in the good old days. He does his trademark single-shot-to-the-head several times with a handgun, clothes-lines a policeman and closes out the movie with some eye-gouging (a la Marked for Death).

In fact the only fight double I noticed was during the shadow-fight credits sequence, something which can be easily overlooked. The big man doesn’t exactly look in shape, but he’s enthusiastic, aggressive and still pretty damn fast. He even has a couple of decent one-liners in a movie with a story that is not exactly clever, but is at least coherent (well, strong enough to tide you by as it leaps from action scene to action scene). Realistically, it is the best we have had from Seagal in a long, long time and, with a little polishing and a better story fans might even have some hope of getting another decent Under Siege sequel before he retires. Personally, I have heard big things about his upcoming directorial action vehicle, Prince of Pistols, and if Shadow Man is anything to go by I think that this could be the start of a much needed comeback.

Shadow Man

Video


Shadow Man is presented in a fairly decent 1.85:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Detail is reasonably good throughout, with good clarity and negligible softness. Grain is also kept to a minimum and there are no significant signs of edge enhancement. The colour scheme is quite broad and well represented, despite the restrictions of the locations. Blacks are solid, the transfer exhibits no signs of any print defects, and overall it is a perfectly good representation of this DTV movie.

Audio


We get a reasonably boisterous Dolby Digital 5.1 track to accompany the movie, which has got one of the best scores to have adorned a Seagal effort since the turn of the Millennium. The score plays out throughout, giving the surrounds the most action, but we also get plenty of effects (in the way of bones breaking, gunshots and explosions) to keep them busy as well. Dialogue is clear and coherent (even Seagal’s mumbling), coming predominantly from the frontal array.

Extras


In the way of extras, all we get are trailers for some other releases. First up, the Seagal efforts: Black Dawn is a DTV sequel to another one of his DTV movies (which is a particularly bad sign) and it is worth avoiding, as well as his DTV effort Submerged, which is reasonably entertaining, probably thanks to the fact that it co-stars Vinnie Jones. There are a couple of DTV Wesley Snipes movies: The Marksman, which is pretty mundane and doesn’t even feature any martial arts and The Detonator, where he at least looks a little more enthusiastic. Second in Command is Jean Claude Van Damme’s latest DTV vehicle and it’s actually quite good. Van Damme seems to have succeeded where others have failed in this market, having made the thoroughly enjoyable Wake of Death and now this military actioner where he has a couple of fab fights. The final DTV trailer is for the Cuba Gooding Jr. action vehicle Endgame in the style of In the Line of Fire and co-starring the great James Woods. We also get trailers for the dramatic Samuel L. Jackson thriller Freedomland, the disappointing video-game tie-in Silent Hill, the excellent modern-day western starring Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Boondocks.

Shadow Man

Overall


Shadow Man is a decent DTV action vehicle for ageing martial arts master Steven Seagal. For those with any kind of taste in quality movies, it will be just as disappointing as you would expect from an above-average DTV film, but for fans of Seagal, it marks a considerably better effort than they have been used to over the last few years. The video and audio presentation are decent and the disc is devoid of extras (as you would expect) but that should not stop anybody interested in seeing a slight return to form from the Aikido master and being reminded of his glory days.


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