Friday, October 7, 2022

Steven Seagal’s pro-Putin gushing couldn’t be easier to ignore – so why don’t we?

It’s never been easier to ignore Steven Seagal. The martial arts star isn’t exactly an ubiquitous presence on the late-night talk show circuit. The action hits of his heyday don’t festoon the banners at the top of Netflix. Whole generations of kids will have now reached adulthood without once hearing the words, “Hey, how about we go check out that new Steven Seagal movie?”

Seagal has continued making films, mostly direct-to-video, though the shine of early Nineties thrillers like hard to kill and Under Siege faded long ago to nothingness. Over the past three decades, Seagal has faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault (all of which he has denied). This has probably contributed to his drastic tumble away from the Hollywood mainstream, but it’s not the only factor. Even during his pomp, Seagal was largely known as a peddler of high-octane schlock – an all-action martial arts man whose ability to deliver any kind of dialogue convincingly was rather beside the point. Over the past few years, Seagal’s film work has migrated to obscure streaming productions (and the 2017 Chinese film China Salesman, which also starred Mike Tyson). But he’s found a new means of holding people’s attention: as one of Hollywood’s few vocal cheerleaders for Russia.

Back in 2018, Vladimir Putin anointed Seagal as a special envoy for Russia to improve ties with the US. Seagal, who has been a Russian citizen since 2016, has made headlines in recent months for his brash statements on the war in Ukraine (a country he was banned from entering in 2017, after being deemed a “threat to national security”). On Sunday (10 April), the actor spoke at a 70th birthday dinner held in his honor at a Moscow restaurant, which was also attended by a number of prominent Putin allies (including Russian state TV host Vladimir Soleviev, described by The Guardian as “one of the country’s most notorious propagandists” and Russian journalist Margarita Simonyan, both of whom have been placed on an EU sanctions list). Speaking to the crowd, he told them: “I love all of you and we stand together, through thick and through thin.”

That Seagal would harbor such sentiments shouldn’t come as a shock: he has previously described Putin as “one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader, alive today”. In 2014, he characterized Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “very reasonable”. It is, perhaps, no wonder that people – including popular US podcaster Joe Rogan – were duped earlier this year into sharing a fake CNN report about the actor who falsely claimed Seagal had joined up with Russian special forces stationed near Kyiv. With most celebrities, such a story would be as transparently fabricated as they come. With Seagal, clearly, anything seems plausible.

What is it about Seagal that makes him such a cheap tabloid curio? On some level, the appeal is skin-deep. He is a strange-looking man, by Hollywood standards: with his tinted glasses, imposing frame and shoebrush-thick goatee, his is an aesthetic that catches the eye and doesn’t let go. His career has been peppered with tales of behind-the-scenes dysfunction, whether it’s his dismal stint hosting Saturday Night Live or alleged confrontations with co-stars and stunt co-ordinators. But Seagal’s love affair with Russia holds only a bleak rubbernecking magnetism.

In a time when celebrities are tripping over themselves to be clear how fervently they oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Seagal is an abject outlier. Even Gerard Depardieu, a Russian citizen who had previously praised the Putin regime, has condemned the war, prompting a response from the Kremlin. But then again, Seagal is an outlier from Hollywood in pretty much every sense of the word – an outcast, whose sole cultural relevance comes in the form of a handful of gaudy thrillers from 30-odd years ago. His words hold no sway with anyone, really, however objectionable they may be. If a henchman is felled by an aikido throw in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does he make a sound?

Now, before anyone mentions it, there’s obviously some degree of irony in devoting an 800-word column to a man I’m arguing should be given the global silent treatment. But this is the problem with Seagal. Once he’s in your peripheral vision, it’s hard not to look. When the dust settles, however, and Putin is judged in the cold light of history, Seagal will be little more than a strange, sorry footnote.

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