Anatomy of a Shit-kicker
There are movies that we watch to broaden our understanding of the world around us, and then there are movies that we watch in order to escape that world. When you see the name Steven Seagal, you know the movie you are about to watch will be one of the latter. My mother calls Steven Seagal’s type of escape movies “shit-kickers,” and she enjoys them because she can watch them without having to participate in them, which allows her simultaneously to do more important things, like pay the bills. Now, not any old action film fits into the “shit-kicker” category—a movie must have at least four of the following key elements in order to be categorized with films like Hard Target (starring Jean-Claude Van Damme) and any Dolph Lundgren movie.
The first element is a simple plot, merely an excuse to have a fight or chase. More times than not, the plot barely holds up against basic common sense and a decent memory. Exit Wounds is no different. Orin Boyd (Seagal) is a Detroit cop whose violent tactics earn him a demotion to a downtown precinct with a bad reputation and a mostly black roster. Once there, Boyd uncovers a ring of corrupt and jaded cops who use drug money to supplement their measly incomes. However, we all know that uncovering a police corruption ring and actually proving its existence are two entirely different things. Enter Latrell Walker (DMX), the typical gangster, as exhibited by his wardrobe, his expensive cars, and his tough demeanor. Walker seems to earn his millions from drug deals, but we later learn that his actions are actually motivated by a desire to see his innocent brother let out of jail and to expose police corruption.
But all of this is extra. All you really need to know in Exit Wounds is that Seagal is a good cop and the bad guys are drug dealers. True to shit-kicker style, Exit Wounds’ simplicity falters on more than one occasion, where the plot stops making sense. For instance, when Boyd decides it’s a good idea to investigate the Piper Technical Center, where he encounters masked gunmen stealing heroin from a police vault in the building, the script does not sufficiently explain why he decides to go there or what he was investigating. Boyd continually happens upon major crime wherever he goes, and the movie doesn’t resolve all these many coincidences.
The second component of a “shit-kicker” is that the main character must be a renegade who is not easily disciplined or controlled—he likes to take care of business on his own. This trait causes him to get into many physical altercations. The first scene in Exit Wounds shows Boyd arriving to a speech on handgun control given by the Vice President. He arrives late to the speech, cueing the audience—and his superiors—to his renegade spirit. En route, he notices some shady characters who later try to kill the Vice President; Boyd single-handedly saves the VP by throwing him over a bridge into the water below. And, of course, he is reprimanded for his excessive force by his superiors, and subsequently demoted. Boyd’s nonconformity is further illustrated by the fact that he lives on a houseboat—this indicates a mobile and detached lifestyle. He can go where he wants, when he wants; he is completely independent. In addition, Boyd is single: renegades can’t be true renegades if they have to pay a mortgage and support a family.
The third requirement calls for one-dimensional characters who are either “good” or “bad,” in order to focus attention on what people are really coming to watch: the violence. Those distinctions encourage viewers to become invested in the violence because they have someone to root for, like sports teams. Boyd is the good cop because he can not be intimidated, bribed, or discouraged; Walker is good because he is willing to do whatever it takes for the right reasons.
And finally, women in “shit-kickers” exist only as secondary characters, used mainly for t&a shots or as tools to highlight the male hero. In Exit Wounds, the only female character who spends more than thirty seconds on screen is the female commander of the 15th precinct, Annette Mulcahy (Hennessy). She is dismissed by her men and by the film, serving only to give the okay to Boyd’s investigations “outside” the law. This is not to say that females can not act as major characters in these movies, but their roles are usually closer to Dulcinea than Medea.
All of the above characteristics work to facilitate the violence at the film’s core: a weak plot line allows for more fight scenes than might be allowed in a more disciplined story; a rebellious hero sticks his neck out more often than not; one-dimensional characters oversimplify good and bad, making fight scenes more entertaining; and a woman’s role is to underline the hero’s strength and justify his cause. Even though it includes all these characteristics, Exit Wounds’ fight scenes are decidedly weak. They are too short, they lack urgency and intensity, and they involve more gun use than hand-to-hand combat. Fighting and chasing are what is entertaining about this genre and Exit Wounds’ fighting and chasing sequences do not hold up. In addition, there is nothing particularly likable or identifiable about Boyd or Walker: they are neither personable nor flamboyant, nor do they go through any particular hardship before they beat the bad guys against all odds. There is a long history of well-made violent U.S. films (cop movies like Lethal Weapon, martial arts movies like Kickboxer, or a combination of the two, as Exit Wounds tries to be). Exit Wounds isn’t that, and neither is it a worthless movie worth watching. I suppose what it comes down to is that there is a secret fifth element essential to “shit-kickers”: they should always be watched on television, where you don’t have to pay outright and you have the option to change channels.