Directed by: Matthieu Weschler
Starring: Steven Seagal, Fan Siu-Wong, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rudy Youngblood, Kang Yu
Ever since Steven Seagal largely disappeared into the world of DTV, over 20 years ago, I've longed to see him make a film with the kind of passion (misguided or otherwise) that we got to see in his eco-trilogy of ON DEADLY GROUND (1994), FIRE DOWN BELOW (1997) and THE PATRIOT (1998). We finally have that film.
Seagal plays the oddly named "Axe", a retired special forces team leader living a quiet life until his particular set of skills are needed to stop a deranged gangster. It sounds run of the mill - in fact it sounds a lot like MARKED FOR DEATH (1990) - and in certain respects it certainly is, but it's the execution and style of the film which elevate it to something so much more unique and enjoyable. (Though still likely only to be of interest to martial arts fans.)
Only a handful of Seagal's films could ever be complimented for their aesthetics, but this is certainly one of them. Director Mathieu Weschler has made this modest DTV feature one of Seagal's most cinematic. Reunited with the cinematographer of his previous film, THE BORDERLAND aka COVERT OPERATION (2014), Vincent Vieillard-Baron, it's beautifully shot and complemented well by Bruno Brugnano's charming score.
ATTRITION was a passion project for Seagal, whose adoration of Asian culture is well documented. Although a major star between 1988 and 1996, it wasn't until he was no longer a marquee name that he could immerse himself in this culture on screen. He tried it at the height of his fame with THE GLIMMER MAN (1996), but was pretty much laughed off out of cinemas by the masses. However, in two later features set in Asian countries, BELLY OF THE BEAST (2003) and INTO THE SUN (2005), he had moderate success. Particularly with the latter, which was a somewhat personal film.
Inspired by his time living as an Aikido teacher in Japan, INTO THE SUN saw him play a man who is an outsider in appearance who has an apparently superior understanding of the local culture than those around him. Something that earns him great respect. ATTRITION returns to that theme and is essentially the culmination of all that he tried to achieve in those earlier films. It once again puts Seagal in the East (specifically his beloved Thailand) and thus completes a second trilogy.
As author Vern has detailed in his book Seagalogy, there are particular themes woven through Seagal's filmography and this is no exception. More than INTO THE SUN, ATTRITION echoes BELLY OF THE BEAST. Not just with the Thai setting and kung fu themes (this time Seagal is a Wing Chun Kung Fu master), but also its slight supernatural dimension, its theme of finding peace through Buddhism and its plot about rescuing a kidnapped girl. It's practically a combined remake of both films with aspects of a few others such as the aforementioned MARKED FOR DEATH, THE GLIMMER MAN and THE PATRIOT amongst others.
It notably recalls his unique contribution to Albert Pyun's TICKER (2001). Where, as in this film, he played a highly skilled team leader more eager to make thought provoking statements than to harm others. Although he does the latter with gusto when he fells compelled to; as in THE GLIMMER MAN of course. TICKER also featured blues music, played by Seagal himself, and ATTRITION incongruously ups the ante on that too. The traditional orchestral score by Brugnano contrasts wildly with blues music that seems totally out of place in the setting. (There only because Seagal loves that music.) Most extraordinary is how the triumphant but somber ending immediately segues into a music video-style sequence of Seagal playing guitar and singing the blues during the closing credits.
For the majority of the films he's made in the last 15 years he's been only nominal lead. Seagal has been barely engaged with the material he's had to work with. Usually a sporadic presence at best, he conveniently established himself as a leader of teams in films such as SUBMERGED (2005), MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE (2006), ATTACK FORCE (2006), his TV series TRUE JUSTICE (2010-2012) and most recently CONTRACT TO KILL (2016). The latter a fairly awful film I praised simply because Seagal was not sitting entirely on the sidelines (which he did literally in the case of SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS (2016)) and doubled and/or dubbed much of the time when his character was on screen. ATTRITION revisits/recycles those conventions in its second half for entirely gratuitous reasons, but it's a forgivable mish-mash.
Following KILL SWITCH and BORN TO RAISE HELL, this is the third film on which Seagal is credited as sole screenwriter and he's clearly poured heart and soul into it. A lot of the dialogue is contemplative and philosophical. It opens and closes with monologues; bringing to mind the lengthy final scene in his sole directorial effort, ON DEADLY GROUND (1994). A film which also saw the star as a man who turns away from violence for more spiritual pursuits; albeit very briefly in that case. (That was also the first film where he would experience supernatural visions/dreams as in this film and TODAY YOU DIE (2005); also nominally about rescuing a young girl.)
A feature typical of recent Seagal films is the presence of a second martial arts-performing heroic character, one who is shown to be as good as, and often better, than he is. This gives the viewer more bang for their buck and takes the pressure off Seagal. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Bren Foster and Byron Mann, the presence of Louis Fan Siu-Wong (in his first role in a primarily English-language feature) here isn't about compensating for Seagal's shortcomings (here he's not doubled half as much as usual) but adds real weight to the film. Not to mention star power; certainly for the Chinese market. We also get stock supporting team players (including the obligatory young woman - one Seagal thankfully doesn't romance this time) but they're given only modest screentime and instantly forgotten about once the major set-piece is concluded. In this film Seagal is rarely absent and a significant presence throughout. (Something you couldn't say about most of the films he made in the 00s.)
The plot is threadbare, but it's never dull. Successfully bringing many of Seagal's passions together with a message not just about overcoming evil, but also the way martial arts has been corrupted and misused. (An allegation it would be easy to direct at Seagal himself.) While it's certainly derivative of recent Asian hits about kung fu masters, it's forgivable appropriation. Kung Fu movies have a long tradition and it's as much homage and indulgence, although like many Steven Seagal films it highlights its stars ego in the typical way it presents him. A man to be admired and respected as well as feared. A man who has turned from violence, who helps and heals (a way he first tried to present himself as in THE PATRIOT), but also a wise but humble authority figure. One who appreciates respect, but who also sees himself as inferior to some elders. A man who will do whatever it takes to rescue a kidnapped girl.
Save for a few truly gratuitous moments (and I'm thinking mainly about the presentation of women here), ATTRITION is a very classy film. Far from the standard DTV fodder Seagal's been disagreeably churning out in apparent contempt for his audience. With its crowd-pleasing set-pieces contrasting with a strong, clearly heartfelt message about focusing on the beauty of the martial arts and not its destructive power, ATTRITION would be a perfect headline feature for an event such as The Fighting Spirit Film Festival. A kung-fu film through and through, but with a bit of gung ho action and blues music thrown in for good measure. A curious mix to be sure, but one that works well enough to engage and thrill.
9 out of 10 (Richard Hawes)
ATTRITION is available to stream now on the 365flix platform [365flix.com]. In an unfortunate echo of the DVD release of INTO THE SUN, the film's substantial amount of non-English dialogue is not subtitled (it certainly wasn't at the time of this review) unless you turn on the closed captions for the whole film. (These subtitles at times appear faster than characters speak.) This is an unfortunate aspect of the otherwise excellent widescreen, high definition viewing experience. 365flix will also be releasing the film on DVD in November.