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On Deadly Ground
review by Joe Burrows
Of all of those general questions that spread through any realm of competition, the one that is always the most intriguing is “Where did it all go wrong?” This can be attributed to almost anyone involved in a competitive field but many pundits like to apply the question to certain dynasties. We all like to offer our own opinions on when a certain person or franchise “jumped the shark”, so to speak. Last year’s New England Patriots…Guns ‘n Roses…Mike Tyson; everyone has their takes on where these dominant forces failed. Some are more opinionated (me, I think the Patriots thought the game was a forgone conclusion & upon hearing everyone on ESPN and their mother proclaim the Pats the leaders of the free world, the Giants went out and played the game of a lifetime) and others seem pretty obvious (Axl’s a nutbag perfectionist that seemingly alienates everyone within five feet of him and Tyson’s a combination of too much success coming to a person with a street upbringing & lack of mental faculties). For Steven Seagal, the moment is fairly easy to point out. Warner Brothers wanted the big man to reprise his role of super soldier/cook Casey Ryback for the upcoming sequel to Seagal’s hit Under Siege (the film is Seagal’s biggest starring gross to date, at $83.6 million). Seagal agreed…as long as he got to direct his own effort down the line. Something about fighting a mystical bear, the environment, big oil, etc. I’m sure he had them at “mystical bear”. The WB folk agreed to let Seagal helm his own project…hence, On Deadly Ground. And you thought Patton Oswalt’s mind was boggled by Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (PEOPLE!).
The Plot, as it was:
Seagal portrays Forrest Taft (judging by Seagal’s impending girth, Taft was a descendant of twenty-seventh American President William Howard Taft), a troubleshooter for the Aegis Oil company who finds out some rather unsavory things about his employers. Apparently, his boss Jennings (Michael Caine…really?) knowingly has faulty equipment in his soon-to-be-operating AEGIS-1 oil rig, which will cause a catastrophic oil spill once it malfunctions. Taft’s curmudgeon co-worker Palmer (Richard Hamilton) knows of the company’s secrets…and is soon brutally dispatched by Jennings’ personal killer MacGruder (John C. McGinley). However, Palmer manages to copy the info to a disc before his demise so Taft gets his hands on it (despite the fact the disc doesn’t figure into the story again…trust me, it gets worse). Instead of going to the authorities with the data (remember, EVERYONE’S corrupt, so that option’s out), Taft goes the logical route: he nearly gets killed by Aegis henchmen, discovered by Indians (one of them being Joan Chen, who must be hated by her agent beyond all reproach), goes on a spiritual quest & decides the best cause for action is to murder the baddies & blow the damn oil rig all to shit. If your cranium isn’t spewing blood form your ears at this point, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.
Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Even though 1994’s Pulp Fiction was arguably the film that killed the collective Action star, On Deadly Ground did more than enough damage to Steven Seagal’s career on its own. It’s really nothing more than a $50 million egofuck that masquerades as a message pic, as Seagal’s good intentions are muddled in a morass of shitty plotting & a high quota of stuff going boom. These things are the norm in a mediocre Seagal movie but here they end up taking away from the all important “message”. To wit:
* Taft decides he’s going to blow up the oil rig but in such a way that oil won’t spill into the ocean. That’s all well and good but what about the burning oil fumes? I’m sure that adds to air pollution, genius. I could see if the rig was encased in a bubble-like fortress, keeping the fumes boxed in until the air could be purified but…C-MON!
* Forrest’s file gets pulled up to reveal his shady government agency past (not this again!) & that's apparently news to Jennings as his men are on their way to kill Taft. These men have never heard of background checks BEFORE they hire people?
* Apparently, as long as it’s in the name of saving the environment, it’s ok to murder 30+ people who most likely are not all mercenaries and have not been told why exactly a 6 ft., pony-tailed madman is snapping their clavicles & blowing shit up.
I could bring up numerous more instances of vanity & hypocrisy (and downright idiocy) but I’d be sitting here until frost formed on my testacles (seemingly because I wouldn’t be able to turn the heater on because I would be too busy typing said instances). Some people are skilled enough craftsmen to blend Actioner & message pic into one whole but Seagal isn’t one of them. The big guy uses a sledgehammer to pound his points home (witness his climactic, post rampage speech, which was edited from an astounding 11 minutes to about 3 in the final cut!), all while ignoring the fact that the rampant mayhem blunts any attempt at taking him seriously. If that’s not enough, the portions involving Seagal & the Indian tribe are hilarious in how the symbolism just becomes downright insulting (just add smoke, mirrors, mystical talk & big tittied Indian women). Caine can chalk this up as his most embarrassing role in his career, left to do nothing more than curse & chew heavy scenery (and have oil slicks in his hair fluctuate in color from scene to scene). If there’s anything good about this swill it’s that there is some snappily read lines from R. Lee Ermey (the tiresome “Who we’re dealing with” speech, which does at least sound fresh coming from Sgt. Hartman) & a chunkier, younger Billy Bob Thornton (“I wanna feel solid.”). And fans of Seagal will get their fix of their hero taking out extras with his bare hands, all whilst looking at some choice cinematography from Seagal film vet Ric Waite. However, fans will also have to fight through much nauseating preaching & spiritual doubletalk to see that stuff. There are plenty of Seagal flicks to see without that stuff getting in the way.
Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- The venerable Sven-Ole Thorsen makes his latest appearance here, as henchman Otto.
- Director Irvin Kershner (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Never Say Never Again) is the director of the TV spot Jennings is in.
- Bart the Bear (The Edge) is the bear that Seagal fights in his dream sequence. His hometown listed on IMDB is Baltimore, Maryland. Hey, hometown bear! I’d say he’s on par in hometown celebrity with Mel Kiper Jr.
Body Count/Violence: 38. Those critics grilling the makers of Pulp Fiction & Natural Born Killers over its violent content apparently skipped this bloodying the same year. Seagal brings his message to the masses via shooting, knife through the head, snapped wrists & limbs, gratuitous weaponry, kicks to the balls (watch out for that overdubbing!), explosions, car crashes, impaling via explosives & tree branches, torching, oil drowning, helicopter blade mutilation, etc. The barfight scene, which concludes in Forrest pounding remorse into a bullish barfly (Mike Starr) via the “hand slap” game, is arguably the most laughable scene in the film (as well as being instrumental in making Seagal look more like a douche). However, it doesn’t begin to touch the sadism of the scene where Palmer is murdered. Apparently, Steve felt that scene involving an old man having his fingers bashed with an ivory club & being cut into with a pipe cutter would make his cause seem more sympathetic. Well, he got it partly right.
Sexuality/Nudity: The dream sequence involves a dancing, topless Indian woman & several, fuller figured, topless Indian women. I’m sure Seagal was perusing a National Geographic before coming up with this.
Language/Dialogue: Fairly strong, as not many villains swear with the conviction of a pissed off Michael Caine.
How bad was it?:
Out of the 30+ films in Seagal’s storied career, this and The Foreigner have the great distinction of scoring a big, fat 0% on rottentomatoes.com. Critics chided the uneasy juxtaposition of Seagal’s bone crushing violence & heavy handed preaching, as well as Caine’s campy performance & obvious comparisons of the film to Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack series. Some critics say this is his worst film ever, while some have saved that award for any one of his DtoDVD features. Speaking of awards, Seagal nabbed a Razzie in 1995 for Worst Director (while the flick was nominated for five other Razzies). One of the few positives cited is Billy Bob’s brief role as mercenary Homer Carlton, which is pure redneck BBT at its finest.
Did it make the studio’s day?:
Despite its status as a hopeless debacle, ODG did keep one Seagal tradition going: opening up #1 at the box office. Debuting on 2/18/94, it was the fifth Seagal flick in a row (starting with 1990’s Hard to Kill) to open at the top spot with a gross of $12.7 million. It actually took audiences a while to catch on to its badness, as it fell out of the top 10 nearly a month afterwards. When it sank, it sank fast as it went from 6th on the March 11th weekend to 11th & 17th the next successive weekends. It ended its run with a gross of $38.6 million and became the first Seagal vehicle to not turn a profit in America. Since ODG, only two Seagal films (Fire Down Below & Exit Wounds) have opened at #1 and Half Past Dead was his last film to be seen in theaters (released 11/15/02). As Homer Simpson once put it: “The moral of the story is…never try.”
Entertainment value: ***/*****
Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.