Sick Man of America: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Hollywood Action Aesthetics

In virtually all existing scholarship on martial arts cinema, what is indicated in the invocation of such an ostensibly vast (temporally and culturally) cinematic realm is the specific and narrow martial arts cinema of Hong Kong from the 1960s to the 1980s. The “Hong Kong style” is considered the gold standard not only for its impressive and innovative aesthetics, fight choreography, and stunt work, but also for its seemingly inherent political progressiveness simply by virtue of its not being from Hollywood. On the basis of this rigid temporal and cultural demarcation, scholars have not only ignored a great many of the various threads which have come together to form the unique cinematic patchwork known as martial arts cinema; even more problematically, scholars have all-too-easily dismissed (with extreme prejudice) the American thread as merely racist, Orientalist opportunism on the part of Hollywood filmmakers responsible initially (i.e. pre-Bruce Lee) for promulgating at best Asiaphilia and at worst Asiaphobia and responsible subsequently (i.e. post-Bruce Lee) for the corruption and castration of a once-politically and aesthetically virile national style. Against this deeply problematic view of a considerably more expansive and variegated realm of film history, I intend to trace the American inheritance of martial arts action aesthetics from the work of James Cagney to the work of Steven Seagal, in the process highlighting not only national specificities vis-à-vis Hollywood versus Hong Kong aesthetics but also tactical specificities vis-à-vis grappling versus striking.


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