On Deadly Ground

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January 30, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Steven Seagal’s a pretty tough guy. He moved to Japan from the U.S. and excelled in their traditional arts; enough to claim the honour of being the first ‘gai-jin’ (well, Westerner) to open their own dojo in the country. Moving back to the U.S. he’s worked with a sheriff’s unit in Louisiana for over twenty years, helps to train SWAT teams and has schooled many celebrities in martial arts to boot. There was even a time when Seagal earned his money acting as a bodyguard and protecting others from harm. This can only raise the question, who’s there to protect Seagal from himself? Seeing as he did most everything else in his earlier films. Starring, writing, playing music and also presumably supplying some degree of input into action choreography and stuntwork, it was only a matter of time before the man found himself occupying the director’s chair too. Apparently the opportunity came with a little bit of savvy negotiation. Seagal would appear in a sequel to his popular action movie Under Siege and, in return, Warner Bros. would let him helm his own project. That project is On Deadly Ground and, putting aside any opinions either positive or negative, let me just say this—it really does have to be seen to be believed.

What’s remarkable about On Deadly Ground is that, while not necessarily a bad action film on the whole, the awkward and indeed impossible interplay between the mechanics of the genre and the ideology supposedly driving the film lift it up as a shining example of all things misguided in cinema. The story is of Forrest Taft (another quality action movie name) who works for the Aegis Oil Company as a specialist who helps extinguish oil rig fires. Aegis Oil is run by Michael Jennings, played by Michael Caine. This may be the first example of Seagal cutting corners by giving an actor and his character the same name thus making things easier to remember. Granted it could also do with Caine not being the first choice for the role but I like my version of events better. Aegis have been having a lot of trouble with their rigs of late and it turns out that they’re putting sub-standard equipment in to make a deadline that will allow them continued access to Alaska’s oil fields. Never mind why a very rich and successful organisation would be so disorganised as to fall dangerously behind on a schedule with billions of dollars at stake, the main reason seems to be that the management for the company are just a bunch of frothing mad loonies.

Thankfully Seagal isn’t so cynical as to paint everyone so simplistically and negatively. No, the Eskimo population of the film are all very positively portrayed as, well, mystic vision-seeing, magic-wielding, nature-loving, good-hearted people. Oh, they’re also good at riding horses because that’s just what they do (Joan Chen, of Twin Peaks, says so). For all that’s been made of African-Americans and their journey towards equality in cinema and elsewhere it’s got to be said that Native Americans and Eskimo tribes have a much, much longer path ahead of them. Anyway, Taft catches wind of Aegis’ evil and decides he has to bring it to an end. Unfortunately he can’t before he’s caught in a trap and nearly killed. At this point he is rescued by some Eskimos and healed (mystically), has some visions (mystically) and then realises that to save the environment and preach of peace and love he basically has to kill scores of people and then blow an oil rig sky high (a decision that is basically mystical in its total insanity).

Once again it’s the supporting cast that steal the show. Michael Caine looks like he’s having a ball whilst earning an easy paycheque. Scenery is put in front of him and he promptly devours it. Meanwhile, behind him, playing the exact same character he did in Surviving the Game which was made the same year, is John C. McGinley as MacGruder, Jennings’ right-hand man. It’s a shame McGinley didn’t stick to this path because it’s a lot more fun than his recent forays in a certain TV show that seems to mistakenly believe that it pioneered both whimsy and sarcasm when actually it just showed us another reason why TV producers should be banned from setting any more shows in a fucking hospital. Alongside these two primary villains we have an evil executive bitch that only sees dollar signs, Sven-Ole Thorsen as another heavy and a bevy of mercenaries that are called in to help eradicate Taft.

This group of mercenaries are mostly just used for fodder in gunfights but a nearly unrecognisable (to modern standards) Billy Bob Thornton does play one of them with a goofy, southern swagger which allows him to give a totally bizarre little speech about whether he should kill Taft with his gun’s stock retracted or in position (“it feels meaner with it in”). Seagal still shows the warning signs demonstrated in Marked for Death and more obviously in Under Siege (and abundantly in everything after this) in that he seems to believe that simply by standing around and grimacing solemnly he can command serious screen presence. Unfortunately the myth of Seagal as an ‘action star’ needed a lot more selling than it was given in this project. Everything that was once being built in Out for Justice is effectively entirely dismantled at this stage.

The action itself isn’t bad and is probably actually a step up from Under Siege as regards brutal martial arts sequences. A few scenes here allow Seagal to stretch his legs in free for all brawls that afford much use of arm locks and other nasty techniques. The choreography isn’t bad and this is certainly among the very best of his work in the field although it again lacks the bite of Out for Justice. The shooting sequences are less impressive but still serviceable with lots of explosions and a decent smattering of gore throughout. The core problem that dogs the film though is that it hardly matters whether or not the action scenes work or not. The entire vehicle that is this film is founded on such a mind-bogglingly stupid premise that it’s entirely impossible to believe that anyone could have greenlighted the project with a straight face. Seagal’s Buddhist beliefs have always seemed completely contrary to his action star persona as a badass guy who just looks for excuses to beat people up. It’s an action movie and randomly assaulting people is okay. That’s the genre, I’m fine with that.

The problem comes when Seagal tries to both foreground his spiritual and pacifistic beliefs while also retaining the mechanics of an action film. The results are stupefying to say the least and often absolutely hilarious. Early in the film we get a legendary scene in which Seagal calls out a tough oil worker who is picking on an Alaskan native. Seagal challenges him to a hand-slap game that allows the victor of each round a free shot at the other. Seagal pummels the guy and then asks him, “What does it take… to change the essence of a man?” Well Steve, apparently extreme violence is your answer even though you seem to never acknowledge it. So begins the problem with Seagal’s screen persona. You can’t realistically preach pacifism based on a platform of fear of physical retribution. Their have been many great men and women throughout history that have rallied behind non-violent means and none of their causes could be summed up as, “do not commit acts of violence or I will pummel you into the floor like a bitch.” That isn’t actually a credo of non-violence, that’s the building blocks to authoritarianism.

All of which leads us to the amazing idea of saving the environment by blowing an oil rig sky high. Seagal does just this and walks triumphantly away, an environmental hero, while plumes of black smoke billow into the atmosphere behind him. Um, well done? Trying to offset all this unreality in the film Seagal closes with a speech, originally clocking in at 11 minutes according to the IMDb’s trivia page, in which he claims that the oil lobby has withheld better technology from the people to further their own stranglehold on industry and that we must strive for better ways. It’s a noble sentiment, if a bit ludicrous given the format but Seagal goes ahead and does it anyway. The film also contains presumably factual references to oil companies hiring mercenaries to help them out in the third world. It’s an important subject but honestly, this is not the mould for shaping this message. It simply couldn’t work; not with Bergman or Kurosawa or Tarkovsky or Seagal or anyone else in charge. It’s just crazy. Okay, actually maybe Samuel Fuller could do it but that’s different.

As for Seagal’s direction, there’s not too much to be said really. Although he occupied the director’s chair I suspect he had plenty of help from an experienced crew, as do most first timers. The real deviations from action movie norms come not in stylistic effects within shots but instead in the focus of certain sequences of the movie as a whole; those being, random sequences involving “vision journeys” and so on. Alaska sure is a beautiful part of the world and the photography certainly does capture that. The similarly themed, if not so ridiculously heavy-handed, Fire Down Below also benefited from the glories of its natural setting, but in a sense it only further highlights the discrepancies between theme and event throughout the entire film. I have no problem with naked women, but you have to wonder just why an action movie needs a fevered dream sequence involving them alongside some traditional throat yodellers. Seagal is routinely referred to, by an Eskimo elder, as a bear which is admittedly kind of funny when you consider that now, in his more portly state, if he just grew some facial hair he probably could fill the roll for some lucky gay guy1.

In the end it’s impossible to rate On Deadly Ground like you might another film. The fundamental disconnect between the supposed central ideology of the film and the action movie mechanics that invariably have to take centre stage make it a fascinating and hilarious mess even if those action mechanics generally work quite well. It’s not the action scenes that are the problem here but the interludes between them that are filled with spiritual visions and ecological mumbo-jumbo. The two can’t meet but the film smashes them together anyway in the hope something credible might form. Unsurprisingly, to no one but perhaps Seagal, credibility is something this film never quite brushes with. After all, how are we supposed to react to a peaceable eco-warrior who keeps a shed out in the wilderness stocked with military grade explosives, “just in case.”

As far as eco messages go, this is the cinematic equivalent to PETA. Only an idiot could buy into it, but it’s fun to laugh from the sidelines. That being the case I’d probably give this film something like a 6/10 for pure visceral action but, because of the other elements, it’s simply impossible to skip to that conclusion. Instead this film takes on a special role for me. Like Tommy Wisseau’s The Room, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce or John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears, Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground exists in a realm separate and distinct from bad or good. It’s just funny. “So bad it’s good” funny. The film ushered in the steep decline in Seagal’s credibility even if he managed a few more films that at least were watchable before descending to the lowest depths of action movie hell where he’s resided for about a decade now. This is the end. Seagal may as well have blown up his career at the end of the film as much as the oil rig. As if to cap off this monumentally mishandled exercise in social consciousness the film’s closing credits roll to ‘We All Live Under One Sun’ by The Scorpions. Yes, The Scorpions. Like I said, you have to see this film.

1 Seagal denies his beardom however, replying, “Tell him I am a mouse, hiding from hawks in the house of a raven.” The Eskimo elder replies, “That’s just what a bear would say.” Apparently bears are gibberish spouting lunatics (though apparently not so much that they’d put up with Timothy Treadwell’s shit, but whatever). If all this dialogue sounds good to you then your services are needed to raise this film’s 3.8/10 status on the IMDb. I also have a bridge that’d look great in your living room.

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