Under Siege

It's beautiful, it really is. The weather is fine, and so is the irony. It's Phoenix, a city whose explosion of uncontrolled development has been accompanied by an explosion of uncontrolled violence. All proceeds from today's carnival are being donated to children of deceased police officers, people who died in the line of duty. And the day is being dedicated--by Governor Jane Hull, no less--to an actor who's made some of the most gratuitously and thrillingly violent movies ever to appear on a screen.

For years, Arizona resisted honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday. But today--Wednesday, March 4--is officially Steven Seagal Day. And I, for one, have no problem with that. Almost more than life itself, I love trashy action movies featuring martial arts experts masquerading as actors. And Steven Seagal is the Stanislavski of bad acting.

AMC is opening a new 24-screen megaplex in Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. To mark the opening, it's roped in Seagal. To justify his presence, it's having a Steven Seagal Festival, at which only his movies are being shown.

The show is set to start at 5 p.m. I get there around 4:30. There's an outdoor stage in the center's Palm Court, and 50 or so people are standing around it, waiting for local band the Beat Angels to play. It's a warm day, the first that's warm enough to tell us that winter is over.

I stand at the front. At 5:10, I look over my shoulder and see that the crowd behind me has multiplied. There are hundreds now, and it's still growing. The people present are a far cry from the usual white, tie-wearing patrons of Arizona Center; young, old, families, groups of friends, every color and social class are represented. Two middle-aged men are standing behind me. One asks the other, "Have you seen all his movies?"

"Yeah. I own 'em all. Every one of 'em. Except Fire Down Below."

The Beat Angels come onstage. The uninformed might think that this band was the reason for the size of the crowd. It's one of the most exciting live bands I've ever seen. This is almost entirely because of the charisma of the front man Brian Smith. He doesn't look human. He's so skinny that when you first see him from a distance you peer at him to make sure he's real, that he's not some mannequin they've brought on as a gag before the show really starts. With his mop of hair, sunglasses and tight black pants, he resembles a demented stick insect.

But when he performs, he becomes huge. He never stands still at the microphone, but dances and gesticulates and kicks his legs in the air with an ease that indicates that, despite his famous drunkenness (or perhaps because of it), he's remarkably limber. The acoustics are so bad that you can't hear a word he's singing, but it doesn't matter. The power comes from the way he and his voice float on the wave of music that comes from behind him.

The set is well-received, and Smith makes it plain that the irony of the occasion is not lost on him. He keeps addressing the audience as "kids," which most of them haven't been in a while.

Then a "special guest" appears--Alice Cooper. Backed by the Beat Angels, he dedicates songs to Seagal, and, bizarrely, Joe Arpaio, who mercifully isn't anywhere to be seen. It doesn't occur to Cooper that if Seagal ever made a movie about our beloved sheriff, Arpaio would be the villain, the subject of a Seagal stomping. When Cooper performs "Jailhouse Rock," some people start dancing. But most are preoccupied with a black helicopter that keeps flying over the scene.

It turns out that the helicopter does carry the man they're here to see. When it lands and his security people escort him through the throng, his fans go ape shit. One guy starts crying. "I love you, Steven! I love you, man!" he bawls. Various women scream similar sentiments. People climb on each other's shoulders to get a look at him before he reaches the stage.

Jane Hull is already up there. Seagal hugs her. He's wearing a dark, embroidered jacket, and his hair hangs in a ponytail. He puts his hands together and bows to the crowd.

Hull reads a proclamation, praising Seagal's abilities as a martial artist, actor(!), writer and musician, and his efforts to increase awareness of HIV and environmental issues. She announces that all proceeds from this gig will go to "survivors of Phoenix police," and for a second I imagine she means people the cops have tried and failed to kill.

Seagal takes the mike and says he's honored to be here. He takes off his jacket, revealing a kind of Oriental muscle shirt. For a guy who plays action heroes, he's pretty flabby. Then he picks up a guitar and plays some blues, backed by legendary bluesman Taj Mahal, who won a Grammy Award. Seagal's a competent guitar player, but not a guitarist. His performance is interrupted when two employees of Hooters (it says so on their shirts) are brought on to kiss him on the cheek.

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Barry Graham