Seagal’s Misstep Still Makes Us Howl

“On Deadly Ground” (1994) by Steven Seagal is exactly that.

It’s the result of Warner Brother’s reliable action movie star getting the opportunity to write, direct, produce and star in his first passion project post-“Under Siege” (1992).

It opens in Alaska and begins with a shot of a bald eagle, with Ric Waite’s widescreen cinematography and Basil Poledouris’ grand score highlighting visions of polar bears, views of mountains, and a massive oil rig that’s on fire.

So far, so good.

We meet Michael Caine’s vile and corrupt villain named Jennings, who oversees the platform and has hired his best man to put out the inferno. That’s Forrest Taft, played by Seagal, who comes in with the line: “Oh, thank God.”

Seagal clearly can’t direct himself, as his line readings are stiff, but he knows how to sell his image, as the moment Taft spreads the fire is established with a shot of an inferno rising behind Seagal. ; He’s standing in the center of the frame, smiling as everything behind him goes boom.

It is a great opportunity to earn money.

Later, there’s a bar fight in which Seagal defends a mistreated Native American, slowly beating up actor Mike Starr and simultaneously lecturing him on manners as everyone in the crowded bar listens intently and nods approvingly. everything Seagal does.

The battle with pool sticks in “The Pursuit of Justice” (1991) was much better, but it was true that it lacked morality. Here, Seagal drops the line: “What does it take to change the essence of a man?”

How does something like this happen?

When you’re the star of a handful of vigilante action vehicles, all with three words in the title (except “Under Siege”), and those movies gross far more than the cost of production, and you’re declared the next big action star , presumably a passion project is just around the corner.

Make no mistake, although “Under Siege” was directed by Andrew Davis (who followed it with “The Fugitive” a year later), featured Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey as the central villains and was sold as “Die Hard in a ship”. (long before “Speed ​​2: Cruise Control” attempted to make that claim), it was Seagal who inspired the long lines outside movie theaters on opening weekend.

Seagal had arrived with the surprise success of “Above the Law” (1988) but “Under Siege” was a box office success. That’s why Warner Bros. gave the tall Aikido master, typically dressed in black, with a ponytail and a whispering voice, the opportunity to make a prestige film like “On Deadly Ground.”

This was supposed to be Seagal’s “Billy Jack,” a macho action movie with a cause and the kind of PC Oscar bait the Academy couldn’t ignore. Instead, this is the kind of fun, spontaneous garbage that says, “For $350,000.00, I’d fuck up anything once!”

Let it be said: You probably can’t make a movie this funny on purpose.

“On Deadly Ground” is bad and was the obstacle from which Seagal’s film career never fully recovered (not even the inevitable and not at all bad “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” put him back on the A list).

Still, as far as self-absorbed and misguided star vehicles go, it’s one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.

Seagal’s heart may have been in the right place, but he needed a director to keep him focused. Wearing that chef’s hat, playing a muscular script and having less screen time than usual in “Under Siege” and, later, his brilliant cameo in “Executive Decision” (his final grace notes in the film) served him well. .

“On Deadly Ground,” on the other hand, is a fun ego trip, a self-parody that, curiously, sounds like “Roadhouse” crossed with “Dances With Wolves.”

The intentions were noble, as Seagal’s original title was “Rainbow Warrior” (!) and the plot describes an Exxon-Valdez-like oil spill that contaminates Alaskan wildlife and creates an even greater divide between indigenous peoples. who live off the land and the suit. and they bind snakes that abuse anyone who gets in their way.

Seagal understood his position as a movie star, but his performance is limited by his self-satisfaction. Much better is Caine, who goes for a movie that wasn’t worth it, and Joan Chen, who tries to inject some personality into Masu, a strictly sidekick role with little dialogue.

However, Chen now has Hall of Fame distinction for having been directed by David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Oliver Stone… and Seagal.

A pre-“Sling Blade” Billy Bob Thornton arrives in a few moments where he nails some laugh lines that are intentional. John C. McGinley enhances each scene with an intensity that the film never matches.

McGinley is a top-notch villain, and his speckled killer seems like an intentional choice: There’s an overlong torture scene inspired by the most infamous sequence in “RoboCop” (1987). It’s the ugliest scene here, although the violence is brutal but clumsily staged.

On the other hand, there is the poor use of slow motion, a photograph of Seagal wearing an embarrassing red and blue sweater and a blurry and hilarious dream sequence with naked Eskimos, a battle with grizzly bears and the mysticism of “Altered States” , which emerges as the film’s second biggest moment of wondering what he was thinking.

IMPORTANT FACT: ‘On Deadly Ground’ grossed $38 million at the US box office, far from 1992’s ‘Under Siege’: $83 million.

There’s also the part where Seagal protests, “I don’t want to resort to violence,” and then opens a closet with an army’s worth of weapons and ammunition. It feels like an outtake from “Naked Gun,” except we’re not supposed to laugh.

It’s always entertaining to offer Seagal some leverage for a notoriously self-indulgent failure.

Sporting a thick jacket and telling him that “the eagle and the bear are your spirit guides,” Seagal goes all “Jeremiah Johnson” during his second act, looking for more bones to break. This becomes a quasi-western, as Seagal even ties up a bad guy during the climax!

We get a lot of dialogue about how wonderful Forest Taft is, and also someone announces Taft’s reappearance by saying “He’s back,” a la “Poltergeist” (1982). Every time Taft fires a gun, he never misses and his punches always make contact.

He even sticks a knife in a villain’s head!

Chen’s Masu states that his late father, the Chief, would be proud of their work, despite how they work as a team killing hundreds of people and causing massive destruction to the environment.

At least the third act introduces us to R. Lee Ermey as the mercenary leader with an itchy trigger.

Then, when it seemed like the bad laughs had finally stopped, we see Seagal’s legendary faux pas in a final speech, delivered to a packed auditorium.

Seagal’s long speech from a podium, about alternative fuel sources, oil spills and Earth vs. Big Business, is interspersed with environmental images (punctuated by matte paintings, Inuit throat singing and genuine images of Exxon Valdez) that are play behind him and the amazed reaction of the audience members. shooting.

Seagal presumably believed this part would make him an Oscar contender.

Many others have reported this, but let me confirm what you may have heard: When this part of “On Deadly Ground” aired in a movie theater, people left early. Many people. The conclusion: kick it, don’t pollute, Forrest Taft is a god among men, roll the credits.

There were worse movies released in 1994 (“Departure to Eden,” “Mixed Nuts,” and “The Flintstones” come to mind), though they lack a greasy-haired supervillain declaring “Alaska is a third world country… only one that we happen to own! Hahaha!

To state the obvious, “On Deadly Ground” marked a turning point in Seagal’s career, the first time Seagal appeared, well, marked for death.

The end credits also have some delicious nuggets: this was filmed in Alaska, Los Angeles, Washington, and, yes, it was Bart the Bear in a supporting role!

While there is the sad lack of a Seagal tune on the soundtrack (unlike “Marked For Death” and “Fire Down Below”), the film makes up for this oversight by concluding with the Seagal/Nassa Productions logo, which is a glossy film. reel with a nail through it.

No, I didn’t make that part up.

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