though they are portrayed as heavily influenced by the east, there is something about steven seagal that seems more genuine than his contemporary jean claude van damme. while seagal imbues his movies with asian martial arts, philosophy, and religion, it always feels more like a career/marketing move when jcvd does it. it’s no surprise that seagalogy is a word and a book before there is such a thing as van damme-matology. unlike jcvd, who became famous from corey yuen‘s no retreat, no surrender, and worked with (and in turn dragged down to his level) directors like john woo (hard target), ringo lam (maximum risk, replicant, in hell), and tsui hark (double team, knock off), seagal never worked with an asian director until late into his career, during his direct to video era. 2003’s belly of the beast is the first of two seagal movies directed by a hong kong film veteran (the second is out of reach by leong po-chih) unless you count albert pyun, who directed seagal in ticker in 2001, or clementine directed by south korean filmmaker du-yeong kim. but seagal has only a small part in that movie.
this is directed by tony ching siu-tung, not a household name in the u.s. like woo, lam, tsui hark, or yuen woo ping. he’s the action choreographer for john woo’s a better tomorrow ii and the killer, stephen chow’s shaolin soccer, zhang yimou‘s hero, house of flying daggers and curse of the golden flower. more importantly, he’s the director (or at least a co-director, dependent on where you look) of the seminal chinese ghost story trilogy and the swordsman trilogy.
seagal plays jake hopper, who’s of course, an ex-something agent. in the i.o.a.s. (inconsequential opening action sequence) we see him and sunti (bryon mann from ghost ship, ryu from street fighter 94, crying freeman 95, catwoman, reunites with seagal in a dangerous man and tv’s true justice) negotiating deals in thailand ten years ago. as per i.o.a.s. regulations, things do not go as planned. seagal becomes a cat burglar and mann becomes a monk. the premise finally kicks in when seagal’s daughter jessica (sara malakul lane from sharktopus and fhm magazine cover) and her friend sarah winthorpe (elidh macqueen) are TAKEN by thai terrorists. luckily, seagal’s mission in the opening credit sequence takes place in thailand, so it’s fortunate that his daughter and her friends are also on vacation and get kidnapped in thailand. and wouldn’t you know it, seagal’s former partner, the one who encountered the unexpected event in the i.o.a.s. who became a monk, he’s also in thailand. it’s almost like they are gathering everyone in one location so they can shoot a movie.
that’s a very brief plot summary of the movie, and this time it’s not because of my boredom in writing them. it probably doesn’t speak well for the movie but everyone seems to have a different idea of some of the smaller plot points. between netflix, imdb, wikipedia, and various online reviews, i’ve learned details that i wouldn’t have otherwise gotten from seeing the movie myself. as seagal tends to mumble, it helps tremendously to watch the movie with high volume, since there’s no subtitle on netflix instant. or maybe on dvd with the subtitle on.
with a title such as belly of the beast, it’s hard not to make jokes about seagal’s body shape at the time the movie was made, as quite a few internet reviews have. so i’ll leave the jokes to people funnier than i am. what’s unexpected though, is that the movie almost comes right out and make the old/fat jokes in the opening. in the second i.o.a.s., while seagal is cat-bulgaring hudson hawk skateboard style (minus the singing), right before he leaves the house he’s breaking into, he stops by the fridge and takes a bottle of water. and then when he gets home, we see that his fridge is full of tupperwares with post-it notes on them from his daughter, with dates and content written. i’ll buy that he’s so old that he needs to take a drink of water before finishing his cat-burglary, but he’s not so old that he can’t make out what to do for dinner when they are all prepared for him. not once did the movie mentioned that he has dementia or his daughter thinks that he’s lost his memory.
speaking of his daughter, what is it about well off young people who feel the need to go on vacation not only in a third world but also go into the woods. have they not seen deliverance? or hostel? or hostel part 2? or the hills have eyes? or the hills have eyes remake? well, i haven’t seen any of those either but i know that if i were to “vacation” in such country, and get the urge to swim, i would go to the hotel swimming pool, not some lake in the middle of the woods. as i mentioned in surviving the game, nature/wilderness=danger, city=safe.
even though i mentioned taken, belly of the beast actually came out five years before. it’s actually more realistic than taken. seagal doesn’t know that his daughter is kidnapped until the agent he’s secretly working for tells him about it. his daughter also doesn’t go through as perverted a scheme as liam neeson’s daughter. he also needs more help from ex-partners and colleagues than neeson. action hero should probably know better than to trust a guy who looks like tom sizemore, especially if he’s not your main sidekick, and his last name sounds like a combination of ray and liotta. funny that taken is more entertaining and popular than this d-t-v movie. ten or thirteen years ago, i don’t think anyone could believe that a seagal movie would be more plot driven than a qui-gon jinn go-in-a-room-and-kick-everyone’s-ass death wish type movie, or that oskar schindler would make a more entertaining action movie than casey ryback. it’s more of a buddy cop movie instead of a one man against an army type deal.
there are certainly seagal elements in the movie. his character wants one thing and one thing only, to rescue his daughter. there’s an effective sense that he can’t trust any authority, thai or otherwise. there’s an especially brilliant sequence in a police station. released in 2003, it’s especially interesting that while the u.s. agencies blame it on islamic terrorists, he’s the only one who figures out the real villain. they even casually touch on 9/11.
but most of the credits belong to the director. the budget is about the same as most seagal movies in the d-t-v era but ching manages to make it look legitimate, almost a proper theatrical movie. there are plenty of beautifully shot thailand sceneries. they also seem to be able to afford bigger rooms, instead of the low ceilings and small rooms in seagal’s later d-t-v movies. the stunt double scenes also don’t feel as much of a cheat as some of seagal’s later d-t-v movies (at least they are not as painful as the required sex scene between seagal and a younger woman, monica lo in this case). it’s overall passable even though you know it’s not seagal doing all the stunts. there’s even a bullet time (bullet, sword, and arrow time to be precise) effect that doesn’t look as cheap as the one in out for a kill. and i can’t imagine how much money, time, and effort they put in during post-production and on special effects to make seagal a foot taller than everyone else in thailand. chris tucker made that joke with jackie chan but here they actually go through the trouble of showing it.
i also admire the fact that instead of giving him a rapper/african american partner, or have him talk cajun/ebonics/southern, there seems to be a certain respect to the country. there are quite a few scenes focusing on seagal respecting and appreciating buddhism. the supernatural element of monks vs. voodoo priest seems unnecessary and out of nowhere but it is not surprising considering ching’s earlier chinese ghost story movies. sure there are out of place wire fu but then so do the swordsman movies. and i haven’t even mention the female henchwoman who turns out to be a man, like asia the invincible in swordsman ii and iii.
we are still on a downward spiral comparing to the seagal from the golden age (up until under siege 2: dark territory and executive decision). your enjoyment depends on how much seagal you’ve seen. it’s not as out and out hilarious and wtf as out for a kill, or double team/knock off, not as artistic as hard target, but it has way more personality than the d-t-v born to raise hell and against the dark, and feels less generic and demographic pandering than today you die, and theatrical releases like the glimmer man, exit wounds, or half past dead.
p.s. despite the poster, i don’t recall any car chase in the movie. they should have put a monk or voodoo priest or a voodoo doll instead of the fast and furious looking car.
comeuppance reviews of belly of the beast
direct to video connoisseur’s belly of the beast review
lurple.com reviews belly of the beast
mitch from the video vacuum reviews belly of the beast
vern’s belly of the beast review
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