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No Ditz Left Behind

This past weekend I was surfing through TV channels while making a long-overdue attempt at organizing some records when I chanced on the Steven Seagal movie Under Seige. While I'm an admirer (and one time beginning student) of his martial art (Aikido, not Karate-do), I seldom watch action movies of that sort so I missed this one when it came out in 1992. I gather it attracted a large audience at the time though. Watching it, I can see why.

It's all about that deep American value: No Ditz Left Behind

(This is long, but I do have a point that goes beyond the movie review. I welcome your responses and thoughts about how this applies to current events in Iraq and elsewhere.)

For those who don't remember the film (or haven't seen it), the plot is fairly straightforward. Seagal plays a Navy SEAL who was busted from the highly respected rank of Chief Petty Officer to lowly corpsman after striking an officer in an argument after a failed operation. He's now posted as the Captain's personal cook in the USS Missouri, a battleship on its last trip home before decommissioning. The Captain, who knows about his past, benignly allows him to keep a low profile (for instance, by avoiding dress uniform which would require him to wear his Silver Star, Bronze Star etc., which would reveal his past to the rest of the crew.)

The slimy and corrupt Executive Officer on the ship detests Seagal. He's already plotting to enable a rogue ex-CIA agent, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to hijack the Missouri and sell her nuclear and other arms on the black market. To get Jones and his accomplices on board to take over the ship, the XO plans a party for the captain complete with a stripper (played by Erika Eleniak, ex-Playmate and Baywatch actress). After confining Seagal in a refrigerated locker, ostensibly for insubordination but actually because he just can't stand him, the XO countermands the usual security procedures, leaving few marines on watch. When the party is going strong Jones and his mercenary band round up nearly all the ship's crew and lock them below decks, then take control of the ship.

The rest of the film, predictably, shows Seagal methodically escaping, figuring out what is going on and saving the day. It's HOW he does that, and how he's different from the XO and the rogue agent turned mercenary, that made this a popular film in the States, I think.

When we first meet Seagal's character, we don't know his past and he comes off as a cocky smartass who demands special treatment. But he's not unlikeable -- he makes a great bouillabaise, keeps the galley crew in good spirits. And there's the Captain's cryptic comment to the effect that "I don't know why you don't want to wear your medals. If I had those decorations I'd sleep in them!"

We also suspect Seagal's basically a good guy because the XO detests him and the XO comes off as (excuse the language) a pr*ck. He's status hungry, proud and overbearing and you can tell he disrespects the Captain for the latter's easygoing demeanor.

We learn more about both these characters later in the film, when Jones demands that the XO find out who that (now escaped) cook is. Seagal's personnel folder was in the now-dead Captain's private files and discloses the SEAL's identity, heroic past and official disgrace. On the other hand, we learn that the Captain had written up the XO for a psych evauation when the Missouri returned to home port because of the latter's abusive treatment of the crew. Whereas the SEAL accepted his demotion with quiet humility (more or less), the XO reacted to the well-deserved criticism of him by turning the ship over to Jones for a cut of the money they expect to earn.

Seagal's SEAL character is contrasted with Jones' rogue CIA agent in similar ways. We learn that the rogue agent had been responsible for some of the Agency's most spectacular covert ops but had spun out of control. The Agency tried but failed to kill him and the Missouri hijacking is his revenge. Jones delivers some deliciously over-the-top acting in this character, who is borderline psychotic but lethally dangerous nonetheless. In contrast, our SEAL -- equally accomplished -- not only accepts his punishment from the Navy but maintains his inward emotional and moral balance in response to his demotion and throughout the ensuing action on the ship.

While some of that apparent emotional balance is no doubt due to Seagal's limited acting range (to quote others, his emoting runs the gamut from A to B), it's significant that Seagal's personal martial arts background is in Aikido. Osensei ('great teacher', i.e. the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba) was known as the pre-eminent master of many Japanese martial arts in the early 20th century. However, despite his mastery of their techniques he felt something was missing in them. He found that 'something' in the spiritual teachings of a neo-Shinto school which emphasizes loving compassion to all and the unity of all beings.

This spirituality pervades Aikido teaching and practice, both in the cultivation of inner serenity while in the middle of conflict and also at the physical level in the flowing movements of the art and its emphasis on ways to counter force without inflicting more force, when possible. Unlike Karate-do, which overcomes force with superior force, the ideal outcome of an Aikido encounter is that the Aikidoka redirects an attacker's force without needing to counter-attack. My sensei called the various judo-style throws "helping the attacker get to where he's determined to go". However, when mastered, Aikido is arguably the most lethal of the open-hand martial arts. (It also incorporates weapons in the form of the Japanese sword.)

Which brings me to the No Ditz Left Behind principle.

Seagal's SEAL character in Under Seige is not identified as a Aikidoka, but he embodies many of the characteristics of one: the ability to blend into his surroundings (moving silently just beneath a group of mercenaries, for instance); exquisite sensory awareness (advanced Aikido exams may present the blindfolded candidate with multiple attackers at once); and mastery of a variety of techniques (open hand throws, punches, kicks, blocks, joint locks, knife work).

But perhaps the most characteristically Aikido element -- and, I will assert, American element -- of the Seagal character is the way in which he interacts with the ditzy dancer, who fell asleep before she was due to come out of the party cake and so was overlooked during the roundup of the sailors. Seagal knows something's very wrong but he doesn't know the nature of the ship takeover when he runs across this semi-hysterical bimbo belowdecks. His first thought is to hide her in a locker where she'll be safe while he investigates further, having already survived an attempt by two of the mercenaries to kill him.

The ditzy blonde will have none of that and makes so much noise he agrees she can come with him. It's a useful plot device, but from most perpectives it's highly improbable. Most contemporary scriptwriters would have the protagonist gag her and maybe knock her unconscious to get her out of the way. (Or would have her be cool, calm and a deadly shot.) But Seagal reacts as an Aikidoka would, by accepting the situation and seeing what he can make of it.

At first she's a lost cause. Depite pronouncing they're going to die, she seems unwilling to do much more than emote. When Seagal gives her a semi-automatic rifle and explains what he wants her to do, she responds, "I have two rules. I don't date musicians and I don't kill people."

Still, in spite of our exacerbation exasperation with this ditz -- and there is no better word for the blond stripper with well-endowed mammaries and seemingly not a clue in her head -- we tend to admire her spunk, I think. We're not really surprised when she ends up tossing granades with the best of them, any more than we were surprised when the XO turned out to be a snivelling resentful traitor. Or when the ex-SEAL takes on a difficult mission single-handed and succeeds despite being, at this point in his life, "just a cook" with a ditzy companion provided, improbably, by the Universe.

No Ditz Left Behind. Hollywood is enamoured with flawed, world-weary protagonists -- not 'heroes' -- but audiences know better. Seagal's character flows with events and integrates the stripper into his plan not only because she was making enough noise to alert the mercenaries, but also because she explains she did so because she's claustrophobic and couldn't stand to be shut into the locker where he wanted her to hide.

That same combination of compassion with strength, that willingness to put oneself at risk to protect others, gives power to photos we've all seen of US soldiers tenderly cradling children in Iraq. It's why the realism of the Brezhinski crowd in Washington doesn't resonate much outside the Beltway, even when the US public is war-weary and frustrated with the failure of Iraqis to step up to the plate and act as we hope we would after being liberated from the depredations of a tyrant.

The Iraqis have few stories like Under Seige and no aikido dojos to teach these virtues. The Arabs in particular are shaped by a culture with very different stories whose thrust, T. E. Lawrence notwithstanding, tends not to provide much training for service to others of this kind. But our culture does, and we can and should be proud of that fact.

We just need to realize that not all apparent ditzes rise to the occasion when given the chance.

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