I wish I could meet Steven Seagal, not only to ask for his autograph but also to sit down with him and discuss what's made his recent string of movies so disappointing for even a devoted fan like me. I would use "Born to Raise Hell" here as an example, being sure to compliment the film's strengths but also making clear to him exactly what about it sucks. I'm not so naïve to believe that Seagal is in total creative and technical control of each of his features, but perhaps I could convince him to take a more hands-on role in their production and perhaps aikido-chop the idiots who are truly responsible for the lackluster nature of some of these movies.
The plot: an international drug task force operating out of Romania, headed by ex-Interpol agent Samuel Axel (Seagal), sets its sights on bringing down the operations of a deadly and sadistic gang of drug traffickers...
People who don't like Steven Seagal by default are going to hate this movie. Seagal occupies most of the scenes (perhaps still making up for his absence throughout most of Against the Dark?) and his character is boisterous, arrogant, and most of the other characters cow to him in one way or another. Surprisingly, I found myself appreciating this: a supercilious Steven is still more fun to watch than the detached, bored-looking dope he played for a while in movies like Flight of Fury. However, whatever effort he seems to have made for this film is marred by extensive dubbing of his voice - something not present in his movies to this degree since the picture I just mentioned. There aren't any other real technical snafus to be seen, but further post-production add-ins like nonstop slow motion, freeze-frame shots galore, and way too many time-killing collage scenes continue to have the movie feeling more like Seagal's trash pictures of yesteryear, moving him further and further away from the high standard he had achieved with Urban Justice.
The action scenes are composed mostly of boring shootouts, but there are a couple hand-to-hand encounters which, while not too flashy, feature Seagal doing just about all of his own moves and getting some good aikido throws in. There's also an impressive instance wherein he kicks a thug so hard that the man flies about six feet through the air before crashing through a bench. These lead up to the finale with martial artist Darren Shahlavi, who had been running around the rest of the picture as the necrophilic, drug-dealing main villain. This is where things get *really* disappointing, to the point of costing my rating an entire star. Shahlavi had consistently delivered great physical performances in the past, and one of his most recent movies - Ip Man 2, released on the same day as "Born to Raise Hell" - featured him in some very good fights with Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung; in this one, however, he has one very brief fight halfway through the film before getting absolutely manhandled by Seagal during the climax. The fact that Shahlavi had just been in an internationally-acclaimed martial arts masterpiece makes this ugly and one-sided encounter more disappointing than Seagal's similar exchanges with Gary Daniels and Byron Mann: at least they didn't have any recent major successes behind them to live up to.
At this point in our conversation, if I had been able to speak freely and if the rumors concerning Seagal's temper and ego were true, I figure he'd either have left the room in disinterest or he would have me by my throat. I'd quickly try to point out that the acting is decent in general and, despite being shot in Romania, the film's cinematography is less grey than I expected and pretty fun to look at...but would this be enough to save me? It certainly isn't enough to save the movie, which I fear can be shelved along with the growing number of failed DTV outings starring the Buddhist Bonecrusher. I doubt that I'll ever actually have this conversation with Steven, but I'm still holding out on the hope that he's going to get back on the horse and make it worth being a fan of his again; right now, it really isn't.