9. Seagal/ Gino fashions a makeshift flail out of a cue ball and a bar towel.  Improvisation like this shows his mental agility and tactical awareness. Likewise the cutaway shot explains to viewers how to “read” the movements that follow.

10. Tattoo confronts Seagal/ Gino.  Note how the shot composition establishes tension between the lone anti-hero on one side of the frame against an entire group of opponents on the other. This, in turn, establishes an almost mathematical ratio of power – three to one – that the hero must overcome in order to win the fight.  When he does (and we know he will), his character becomes marked as that much more “powerful” within the story.

11. Begin regular rhythmic sequence: Tattoo initiates the first group attack by stepping back and drawing his knife.  Although prison knife fighting tactics (Tattoo claims to be from “Attica”) usually involve grappling and/ or striking an opponent from behind, Tattoo attacks in a manner reminiscent of a martial arts training drill.  His attack is thus primarily choreographic rather than martial: the increased distance makes the movement easier to read.

12. End of regular rhythmic sequence: the fight is choreographed to be easy to follow.  Here “crack, kick” is immediately and rhythmically followed by “throw,” momentarily removing the combatant from the fight and allowing a rhythmic as well as a visual narrative pause.

13. “Sticks” is played by Daniel Inosanto, a world famous martial artist known for his skill at the martial art escrima (and for his friendship with Bruce Lee).

14. Seagal/ Gino blocks and attacks from the ground. Advanced Aikido practitioners take pride in being able to fight effectively while kneeling.

15. Here Seagal/ Gino uses a pool cue in the manner of a jo staff – one of the weapons traditionally associated with aikido training.

16. Sequence 3 (quiet syncopation): Single staff vs. double-sticks, aikido vs. escrima in a competition of movement skill. This phrase choreographically serves as a “feeling out” section that narratively allows the next phrase's fuller commitment.

17. The two phrases of this section are separated by a rhythmic break (both literally and figuratively).  Sticks increases the pressure of his attack with four loud evenly rhythmic strikes, culminating in a fifth strike...

18. ...that breaks Seagal/ Gino’s pool cue evenly in two. Auditory cues add to the movements' legibility (i.e. 1-2-3-4-break).

19. Double stick techniques require a high degree of coordination – clearly evident in the movement.  Here, as before, the editing does not “create” the fight, but rather serves to highlight the actor’s movement skill by displaying choreography within the shot.

20. The editing cuts back and forth rapidly between medium shots of Seagal/ Gino and Inosanto/Sticks.  These cuts add to the rhythm of the presentation, heightening tension and adding energy. But here the editing does not create the choreography.

21. One of the roles of editing in this fight – as in many martial arts fights – is to provide a clearer view of the hero's movements.

22. The loud syncopation of the next phrase conveys a narrative of increased effort and determination by both parties.  Double-stick versus double-stick: Seagal/Gino fights Inosanto/Sticks in the style Inosanto is famous for.

23. This showpiece section ends when Sticks/Inosanto rushes in and is caught in a wrist-lock.  In this film, aikido beats escrima in part because Sticks apparently forgot how to attack with both weapons at once.  Here, as in many film fights, choreographic aesthetics trump martial logic.

24. The final sequence extends the choreographic language of the fight through the spectacle of bodies flying through space. Large movements of this type provide a certain “cinema of attractions” as well as allowing a more “open” or “expansive” feel to the end of the fight.

25. Beginning and end: Seagal/Gino shoves the same man into the same phone booth to the accompaniment of the same sounds.  Choreographic “buttons” of this sort “punctuate” the fight narrative by telling the audience when to stop “reading” the choreography.

26. Before confronting his main adversary one on one, Segal/Gino deliberately discards his pistol.  As before, the film thus heightens the hand to hand combat to come.

27. Richie (William Forsythe) is neither the model of muscularity nor a realistic challenge to Segal/Gino’s martial skill.

28. Richie hits the wall. As in the final sequence of the bar fight, the spectacle of bodies flying through space creates an unique kinesthetic “feeling.”

29. Kinesthetic responses are governed in part by personal experience. We physically understand the images by degree, according to our own experience with the type of movement displayed.  Although few viewers probably know what it feels like to be hurled into a closet, many people nevertheless physically understand the sensation of falling down.


30. Richie introduces a knife into the combat: a new obstacle for the hero to overcome.

31. Richie is hit in the head with the frying pan he himself had recently used as a weapon. The fight narrative shows the hero, Seagal/Gino, deliberately allowing himself to be tested in this manner. When he succeeds, the narrative both demonstrates his physical dominance and allows the establishment of a particular type of “justice” within the film’s story.

32. Seagal/Gino is in complete control throughout this entire fight. Here Richie is about to be kneed in the face.

33. Richie is beaten so badly during this fight that he is often hit multiple times before he can even hit the ground.  Richie never succeeds in martially challenging Seagal/Gino in any significant way.

34. Much of the fight choreography is almost deliberately redundant. Here a badly bloodied Richie is thrown through a window, only to be then dragged back into the room and beaten some more.

35. Final justice in this film is neither poetic nor pretty and Richie’s death provides little narrative information.  Instead, this moment – like the man being shoved into the phone booth earlier – functions as movement “punctuation,” telling the audience when the spectacle of the fight is over.



Out for Justice

Steven Seagal is known for his fighting skill, and the fight sequences in his films stand out for the sense of "realism" they portray. Seagal's characters use quick and brutal tactics (Figures 1, 2). Elbows are snapped with audible cracks in Above the Law, eyes gouged in graphic detail in Marked for Death, and bodies impaled with broken pool cues in Hard to Kill (Figure 3). These graphic (some may say brutal) effects comprise part of Seagal's trademark and reflect his star persona (Figure 4). In real life Seagal holds a sixth degree black belt in Aikido, and he claims to be "the first white person to operate a dojo in Osaka" (Richman 306). An article in GQ magazine describes this aspect of Seagal 's star persona:

"Can this martial-arts master [Seagal] really do the things we have seen on film, the eyeball-gouging, back-snapping feats that have the young punks in the theaters turning to one another and squeamishly moaning 'Oh, shit?" Seagal, matter-of-factly, says, "Absolutely." Dan Inosanto, who apprenticed under Bruce Lee and now operates his own academy in L. A., says, "I've watched Steven instruct. I've felt his blocks. I've seen a lot of Aikido, and his is right up on top. He can make his work. It's for real." Seagal versus Lee? Seagal versus Norris? My money's on the big guy." (Richman 232)

As already mentioned, Seagal claims to have fought in real-life encounters with sudden, often violent conclusions. However, even though his filmed fighting sequences may appear "realistic," they are far from random or unstructured. To the contrary, they exhibit a choreographed aesthetic of form, rhythm and movement similar to dance sequences. Here I wish to offer an extended analysis of Out for Justice's barroom brawl sequence to illustrate this key concept for analyzing the dramatic use of movement in action films.

In this sequence in Out for Justice, Gino Feline (Seagal), a police officer, enters a bar seeking information about the whereabouts of a murderer named Richie Modono (William Forsythe). The brawl that results includes self-referential, choreographed, stylistically structured, rhythmic movement-sequences in the manner of dance. The first sequence begins when Seagal, as Gino, shoves one of the bar's patrons into a phone booth, at which point we hear the accenting sounds of a ringing phone bell and slamming booth door (Figure 5). Seagal then slowly walks across the bar and kicks the stool out from under another patron who tries to block his way. After briefly talking to Sammy (Gianni Russo), the unofficial leader of the gang inside the bar, Seagal slaps a man named Tattoo (Sonny Hurst) in the face. He then continues his slow stalk around the bar and shoves the bartender violently to the floor behind the bar; at this moment we hear the syncopated sound of breaking glass behind the bar (Figure 6). Seagal then breaks some more glasses and confronts the bartender again, taunting the bartender to fight. There is a brief, silent tension after which the bartender, a former boxer, attempts to throw a punch. Seagal immediately dodges the blow, blocks it and drops the bartender to the floor with a single, loud elbow strike to the face; once again we hear the syncopated sound of glass breaking behind the bar.

A brief silence follows, after which Seagal says, "I dunno, you know, I'm starting to get in a bad mood." Seagal threatens to roust everyone in the bar, telling them to "get up on the table." He then fires two rounds from a semi-automatic pistol in rapid succession into the ceiling — followed by the sound of brief screams and shuffling feet as the patrons of the bar scramble for cover. Sammy then loudly announces that the only "balls" Gino/Seagal has "is that badge and gun." In response, Seagal ejects the magazine from his pistol and clears the chambered round. He pulls his badge from under his shirt and announces to the entire bar: "Here's your trophy. Come and get it." (Figure 7) The sequence ends as Seagal walks slowly back out toward the middle of the bar, twirling a bar towel between his hands.

This first sequence serves several functions. It demonstrates Gino's blunt, outside-the-rules method of police work. And it provides a glimpse inside the character in whom we see a single-minded drive and purpose — a glimpse perhaps difficult to observe in any other way. Also, the seemingly effortless way in which Gino/Seagal dispatches both the man on the stool and the bartender displays both Gino's fighting ability and his use of direct, no-nonsense tactics. The relatively slow pace of the sequence — coupled with the syncopated rhythms punctuated with pauses — helps build a dramatic tension that did not exist before. And the repeated sounds of glass breaking and shuffling feet help to develop a shape and rhythm to the sequence as a whole — a shape and rhythm that will then be broken in later sequences for dramatic effect.

But perhaps this first sequence's primary function is to plausibly disarm Gino for the hand-to-hand combat. When Seagal, as Gino, puts down his pistol, a physical, hand-to-hand confrontation becomes, in effect, inevitable. The audience knows about Seagal's expertise at hand-to-hand combat. Even if members of the audience have not read about Seagal's personal claims to martial arts prowess, they have already witnessed Seagal's character, Gino, physically confront several other characters that set Gino up as a proficient fighter. Narratively, Gino's act of putting down the gun clearly functions to heighten the audience's anticipation of the physical combat to come.

Significantly, consciously to construct an atmosphere of heightened anticipation before a fight sequence runs counter to the notion that in an action film narrative, the fight sequences somehow "freeze" the narrative in its tracks. Since movement alone, in kinesthetic terms, can convey both emotions and idea, the action film narrative does not usually stop or slow down with the outbreak of physical violence. On the contrary, it can he argued that this anticipated display of martial arts prowess is in fact the main narrative focus. The screenplay and direction both concentrate on allowing just this sort of martial-movement display. Or to put it another way, this martial-movement sequence develops specific narrative and aesthetic elements valued here over other, more conventionally communicated concepts.

The second sequence in this barroom brawl demonstrates Seagal's famed talent to good effect. Once again, the action sequence employs kinesthetic elements and rhythmic musicality. This second sequence begins when one of the bar patrons attempts to attack Gino/Seagal from behind. Seagal sidesteps and blocks the attack, trapping the attacker's arm with the bar towel and throwing him over a railing in one swift, circular motion (Figure 8). Seagal then quietly slips a pool cue ball into a fold in the bar towel and spins the towel, in effect, fashioning a makeshift flail (Figure 9). Four men gather menacingly around him (Figure 10). Tattoo, the first of these men, pulls a knife and attempts to stab Seagal (Figure 11). Seagal immediately blocks the knife with his left hand and smashes Tattoo in the mouth with the cue-hall flail. A second man attempts an attack with one half of a pool-stick. Again, Seagal blocks the attack with his left hand and smashes the man on the head with the flail. A third man attempts an attack, but Seagal moves faster and smashes him across the face with the flail before he can strike. Seagal then kicks the man in the chest, sending him flying across a pool table. Another man attempts a running attack at Seagal's back, which Seagal simply catches, throwing the man over the pool table in one swift motion (Figure 12).

Each of these blocks and attacks is accented with clear, audible sounds. With each attempted attack, we hear the "swish" of air and the "thud" of a block; and with each attack of Seagal's flail, a loud "crack," as the pool-cue strikes like a drum on bone. These blocks and attacks have a regular rhythm — in direct contrast to the first sequence's syncopated sounds and pauses. Here, the sequence sets up a sort of musical rhythm ("block-crack, block-crack, crack-kick, throw"). This rhythmic sequence then ends the same way it begins. The first man, Tattoo (after spitting out his teeth) yells, "Mother-fucker, you knocked my teeth out!" and attempts an attack. Seagal blocks Tattoo's punch with his left hand and "cracks" him in the head with the flail in exactly the same rhythmic fashion as before.

Tattoo's two attacks thus serve to tie neatly together or bookend this rhythmic sequence, allowing the audience to more clearly understand the progressive narrative of the greater fight. The second sequence has much faster action than the first, and rhythmically more regular action. This pacing establishes a contrast between the two sequences, in effect creating a rhythmic tension between them, but it also serves to develop a sense of flow within the fight as a whole.

This sense of flow is further developed in the third sequence — which begins with the introduction of a martial artist name Sticks (Daniel Inosanto, Figure 13). As Sticks approaches, Gino/Seagal is struck with a pool cue on the back of the leg by the man he had earlier thrown over the railing, effectively dropping the protagonist to one knee. Seagal turns around and strikes the man in the head with the flail again, in the same manner as before (Figure 14). Sticks then approaches and begins to attack Seagal with a half pool cue in each hand. Sticks attacks here with a variation on the double-stick fighting style of Escrima — a Philippine martial art. Seagal, still on his knees, abandons his cue-ball flail and picks up a full-length pool cue which he then uses in the manner of a jo stick to fend off Sticks' attacks (Figure 15). Seagal and Sticks spar like this for several seconds. Their exchange is punctuated by the rapid sound of syncopated taps as each opponent attempts to find an opening in the other's defense (Figure 16). These "feeling-out" sounds then begin to build to a crescendo as Sticks closes in and delivers four hard, loud, evenly rhythmic attacks (Figure 17).

These attacks cumulate in a fifth blow which splits Seagal's pool-cue neatly in half and continue as each man confronts the other, double stick to double stick (Figures 18, 19). We hear the sound of loud syncopated taps (a rhythm which can be described as "quiet syncopation, 1-2-3-4-Break, loud syncopation"). This loud, syncopated "double stick versus double stick" phrase continues for a full fifteen seconds, longer than any other phrase in the entire fight series.

The tension within the ambient sound phrasing is further enhanced visually, with the use of several rapidly edited cuts in the film itself. The viewer's gaze rapidly shifts between views of Sticks, views of Seagal, and a series of wider views of the two of them in context (Figures 20, 21, 22). These cuts come progressively more rapidly until Seagal is struck in the hand and partially disarmed. Sticks then runs in to attack. Seagal avoids the attack and catches Sticks' right hand, lifting him to his toes with the application of a finger lock (Figure 23). We hear the Seagal film hallmark sound of breaking or separating bones. Gino then retrieves half his pool cue and dispatches Sticks with one swift, loud strike to the head in a way that recalls the second sequence.

The sequence has an unmistakable rhythmic quality. During the rapid editing, for instance, the audience cannot see all that is going on, yet the rhythmic sounds continue and build throughout. In these instances, the fight storyline is told primarily through the rhythmic ambient sounds of the combat. However, this rhythmic pattern derives from fight choreography as well as from editing.

To illustrate the choreographed structure of this fight sequence, I will note how different a structure it has than that of a fight sequence involving largely unskilled combatants, such as that seen near the end of Conan the Barbarian. In Conan's final battle scene, separate and largely unrelated attacks and parries are edited together in order to create the illusion of a longer fight sequence. In effect, the editing hides a lack of martial skill and creates a pattern that exists only in the final, edited version.

In Out for Justice, however, the combatants engage in much longer attack-parry combinations between edited cuts. These longer sequences have a rhythmic pattern unto themselves, and thus they display the actors' level of martial skill. The editing in Out for Justice does not hide a lack of martial skill; rather, it emphasizes a level of skill already attained by the actors. For example, in the "quiet syncopation" section leading into and including the "1-2-3-4-Break," the camera holds to a single view over Seagal's right shoulder, clearly showing the action. Both men feint and parry ten times in rapid succession before the edited cuts to show Seagal's pool cue break in two. The shots in the "loud syncopation" section, likewise, stay on each man long enough to display up to nine individual attacks, feints, or parries with the double sticks before the edited cuts to the next man. The martial use of double stick techniques requires a remarkably high level of coordination  — clearly evident in the movement itself. In this film, that trained skill can be seen and heard between and independent of any edited cuts.

The rapidly edited cuts themselves thus clearly do not hide a lack of movement ability, but rather the editing directs the viewer's attention to specific details within the fight and further heightens the tension of a very skillful exhibition. Although the editing does, of course, dictate the fight's final presentation, the skillful exhibition of movement principally establishes the fight's rhythmic pattern and tempo, not the editing itself. Editing can enhance the audience's understanding and kinesthetic appreciation of the fight, but here it does not "create" the fight.

After Sticks is dispatched, a fourth sequence develops which largely abandons rhythmic cadences for a more visually aesthetic display of bodies flying and tumbling through space. This sequence begins as one man runs in to attack Gino/Seagal from behind. Seagal, still on his knees, turns in time to catch the attacker's wrist, and with another turn of his body, Seagal throws the man back from whence he came — to the cracking sound of breaking or separating bones. The man's legs and feet spectacularly circle through the air in a high, graceful, yet painful-looking arc. A second man then rushes from the opposite direction and attempts to strike Seagal in the head with a beer bottle. Seagal once again catches the man's wrist and turns the man's body, throwing the attacker over his shoulder. And once again the man's legs and feet sweep in a high graceful arc through the air — again to the cracking sound of breaking or separating bones. A third man jumps up onto a pool table and attempts to kick Seagal in the head. Seagal stands and blocks the kick, momentarily trapping the attacker's leg. Seagal then punches the man directly in the groin and sweeps the man's other leg out from under him with a pool cue. As the attacker falls painfully to the table, his legs rise in a high arc directly over his head (Figure 24). This final attacker's end thus recalls both the graceful throws administered to the other two in this sequence as well as the emphatic ending beats of previous sequences.

The entire fight then concludes as it began: Seagal approaches the man he had earlier shoved in a phone booth and once again shoves that man inside — just as before and once again to the to the sound of a ringing phone bell and slamming booth door (Figure 25). This fight's structure, taken as a whole, is far from random. It has a clear beginning, middle and end, and it is set apart and neatly book-ended with the same man's being shoved inside the same booth to the same sounds. It displays a definite tempo and rhythmic patterns — characterized by a slow build to a climax, alternately syncopated and regular rhythmic beats, and self-referential patterns that repeat within and between phrases. In addition, the editing is deployed not to hide a lack of movement skill, but rather to demonstrate the actors' high level of actual martial skill, especially the protagonist's.

The spectacular throws demonstrated in the last sequence characterize Aikido, the martial art for which Seagal is famous. Aikido techniques utilize a system of joint locks and circular throws. In addition being effective, these circular movements are inherently graceful and spectacular. Their use here functions to show Gino's unbeatable martial quality. But more importantly for the action film as a genre, the movement's spectacular, circular nature — the bodies' flying head over heels through the air — functions as a kinesthetic cinema of attractions.

Theories of kinesthetic response imply that the spectacular, gracefully arcing throws seen in the above brawl's last movement sequence will inevitably evoke in the viewer some form of physical, emotional sympathy or response. John Martin expresses this idea in the following way: Through kinesthetic sympathy the viewer responds to the dancer's impulse which has expressed itself through a series of movements. Movement, then, links the dancer's intention and viewer's perception of it.

"To a certain degree it is possible to say that no movement can be made by the human body which is not wholly non-representational. The body cannot conceivably be made to do anything, in other words, which the body cannot do. Even in the case of the acrobat and the contortionist we are made to feel, through muscular sympathy, the strain, the difficulty of the tricks performed, and hence to have a corresponding sense of courage, skill, superiority, or sometimes revulsion for abnormality." (12)

Since every human body intrinsically knows what it feels like to move a human body through space, movement itself evokes a "feeling" through a process of the viewer's muscular sympathy or empathy. The aesthetic appreciation of the movement does not occur entirely mentally. The body itself, through empathic physical sensation, participates in the process of understanding the viewed movement. Martin's description implies that this process extends beyond even what we normally consider "physical sensation" — implying that physical sensation includes elements normally considered "emotional," such as "revulsion," and also abstractions such as "courage," "skill," or "superiority." In addition, Connerton's earlier description of bodily-sedimented memory implies that these emotions and abstractions have something to do with individual, physical memory. In other words, physical empathy expresses itself through emotional response based on prior, personal experience.

In "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," Pierre Nora also describes "memory" in terms which place it not in the mind, but in the body itself:

"[T]rue memory … has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body's inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories … [Memory is] spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective…" (289)

In kinesthetic terms, this means that individuals may experience different aesthetic sensations to the same movement based on their own unique history. For instance, a person confined to a wheelchair may experience a different emotional response to watching another human body run than a fully able-bodied person watching the same movement might. Likewise, a person who has experienced joy on a high-dive platform may feel differently about watching a high-dive competition than might a person whose "memory" includes a great fear of heights. Through the process of physical memory, then, the process of kinesthetic sympathy occurs in specific ways based in part on individual differences in viewers' bodies and experiences.

We can analyze the last movement sequence in Out for Justice as kinesthetic spectacle. We might describe both a "revulsion" apparently felt by the "young punks in the theaters turning to one another and squeamishly moaning 'oh shit'" and also a vicarious thrill of power or superiority felt by the viewer. We would consider the possibility that "memory" has an individual, physical aspect expressed in part through "bodily practices" (in essence, movement). Such an understanding of the mechanisms of viewer response suggests that an audience's aesthetic understanding and appreciation of martial movement in the action film exist on several heuristic levels.

For example, some viewers are themselves skilled or aspiring martial artists. This is evidenced by the many martial arts film stars who grace the pages of the many "Insider Kung-Fu" or "Black Belt" style magazines. This segment of the viewing audience derives a certain level of enjoyment and understanding that draws on their own prior knowledge or aspirations. The kinesthetic effects produced in these viewers may include a sort of "insider" muscular sympathy. That is, any members of the audience who know what it feels like to throw someone through the air, or who have themselves been thrown through the air, will experience a more specific kinesthetic response relative to their own prior knowledge than will someone who does not have such prior muscular memories.

In addition to this insider level of appreciation, most viewers experience the more general kinesthetic reaction discussed above. Even if most viewers do not have prior muscular understanding of what it feels like to hit someone with such force or to be hit themselves, they will still experience a certain level of intrinsic understanding of the movement itself. This segment of the audience, even without prior muscular memory of the specific type of movement displayed, will still experience through "muscular sympathy" some "corresponding sense of courage, skill, superiority" or possibly just a "revulsion" for the "abnormality" displayed through the visibly broken limbs and the bodies flying through space. In other words, any given segment of the audience, although lacking insider muscular memory or prior knowledge of the martial arts, will still get enough information through the viewed movement to experience some type of kinesthetic response. Even though they may not have physical memories of specific movements, they may still physically understand the movement enough to turn to one other and "squeamishly moan, 'Oh shit.'"

Another level of kinesthetic appreciation comes from viewing things that can not normally be seen any other way. This is like the joy of watching a cinema of attractions. Enjoyment on this level comes from understanding, however tenuously or imaginatively, the "difficulty of the tricks performed." In this way, we feel a kinesthetic appreciation for the performer's virtuosity. Since "the body cannot conceivably be made to do anything … that the body cannot do," any time we see someone do something that we ourselves do not believe we can do or that we have not ever thought of doing or are afraid to do, we may inevitably feel something — a sense of awe, perhaps, or a vicarious rush of muscular sympathy. The virtuosity of the movement itself evokes the viewer's kinesthetic response.

When audience response is analyzed in terms of these heuristic levels, Out for Justice's action sequences entail much more than "display of the male body." In fact, muscular bodies on display do not predominate anywhere in the entire film. Seagal is neither overtly muscular nor does he appear to "display" what muscular development he does possess. Throughout the long fight discussed above, he appears dressed in long dark pants and a baggy long-sleeved shirt. Most of the bar patrons also wear baggy winter jackets or long sleeved shirts. Only two bar patrons wear what could be considered a variation on the standard muscle tee shirt; one of them is fat, overly tattooed and ugly, and the other is young and rather scrawny. Neither of them, in short, correspond to the model of muscularity even though they dress according to that model's prescription.

I would argue, therefore, that far from offering a "suggestion of action" in order to "compensate" for a display of a "passive" body, the movement sequences provide Out for Justice's main attraction. To discuss displays of muscularity in the films' action sequences is either irrelevant or at best secondary to the incidence of movement. I will explore this aspect of my argument in more detail by providing a close analysis of the film's last major fight sequence.

Near the end of Out for Justice, Gino/Seagal engages Richie in a final hand-to-hand fight sequence. At this point in the film, Seagal has either killed or incapacitated all of Richie's henchmen and has Richie cornered in a bathroom. Richie emerges from the bathroom and throws down his empty gun saying, "What are you gonna do? You gonna arrest me? I'm out of bullets!" Gino/Seagal still has bullets in his own pistol. Instead of arresting or simply shooting Richie, Gino ejects the clip from his pistol and removes the remaining chambered round (Figure 26). It is a movement reminiscent of the earlier bar room brawl. Gino says, "That's a shame because those bullets could have saved you a lot of pain."

Once again, the script clearly demonstrated the scene's narrative intent by having Seagal discard his pistol. It gestures that the fight sequence which ensues exists solely for the pleasure of watching Steven Seagal, as Gino, demonstrate his martial-arts prowess. The fight's outcome is never in doubt. The audience has already seen Gino/Seagal single-handedly destroy every other adversary — sometimes entire rooms full of them — and well knows that Richie stands no chance of winning. Seagal has, in fact, already won. He simply abandons one avenue of beating Richie for another, a hand-to-hand engagement. Richie himself is fat and slow and seems to display no martial arts skill at all (Figure 27). And yet the fight sequence lasts for a full two minutes — almost as long as the entire bar room brawl sequence and many times longer than any individual fight within the brawl.

This Richie-Gino fight sequence begins when Gino throws Richie across the length of an entire room and backward into a wall (Figures 28, 29). The rest of the fight progresses in a similar manner, in which Richie never succeeds in seriously injuring Gino/Seagal in any way even though he attempts to attack Seagal with his body, his fists, pieces of furniture, knives, frying pans, and finally a corkscrew (Figures 30, 31). Instead, Seagal takes each of the weapons Richie finds and beats Richie with them, throws him across tables and through windows, and hits him up to five times in rapid succession before Richie can even hit the ground (Figures 32, 33, 34).

In the end, after Richie dies with a corkscrew driven through his forehead, the audience essentially has gained no new narrative "information" or answers to plot enigmas (Figure 35). The audience knows that Richie is doomed before the fight begins. Any pleasure in the scene comes simply through watching the fight progress. The story of this fight is simple: the hero, Gino/Seagal, deliberately allows the villain, Richie, to test the hero in physical confrontation. In the course of this confrontation the hero overcomes a series of obstacles (body, fists, pieces of furniture, knives, frying pans, etc.) and reestablishes justice (of the "an eye for an eye" sort) on a level playing field (no gun) in a manner reminiscent of a medieval trial by combat in which God alone is judge.

Although neither Gino/Seagal nor Richie "display" their body for the audience to view, they act out an enormous amount of movement. This movement, in and of itself, creates a kinesthetic spectacle which communicates meaning and emotion to the audience. The movement itself conveys the narrative as well as any aesthetic concepts or emotions involved. The effect can be either pleasing or revolting depending on individual preferences and bodily memories, but the kinesthetic effect itself is the primary focus of the scene.


The theoretical description of spectatorship in this essay is not intended as general theory of film spectatorship or expected to have universal application. Rather I wish to introduce a heuristic device to allow a discussion of martial movement as movement in kinesthetic terms. Theories of bodily memory imply that the aesthetics of viewed human movement has some physical impact on the viewer's body — that movement aesthetics themselves are "felt" as well as "thought." Conventional Western paradigms of "thought," however, largely exclude kinesthetic experience. Philosophers through the ages have wrestled with the juxtaposition of psyche and body without clear success. In contrast, all theories of kinesthetics imply that the Cartesian split represents a false dichotomy. Kinesthetic theories assert that certain mental or psychical elements have physical manifestations and that certain physical movements likewise have mental or psychical referents.

Clearly, Steven Seagal's film Out for Justice includes a spectacle of movement which cannot be analyzed in terms strictly limited to either muscularity or narrative plot function. In martial arts cinema, it seems that the spectacle of movement is itself paramount. To analyze films of this type, then, means to discuss and analyze movement. Fortunately, methods of dance analysis have been and are being developed which allow just this sort of analysis.

(Continued: Works cited)