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REVIEW | On Deadly Ground (1994)

9 Nov 2017

Ecospolitation meets egosploitation in Steven Seagal’s infamous passion project. Fortunately nobody told Michael Caine or John C. McGinley to take it seriously. 


Country: USA | Runtime: 101m | Director: Steven Seagal

Starring: Steven Seagal, Michael Caine, John C. McGinley, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Hamilton



What happens: Forrest Taft (Seagal) is a tough as nails oil industry trouble shooter working for Michael Jennings (Caine), a psychotically evil criminal type using faulty components in order to meet a deadline. Aware of his dodgy doings, Taft and his buddy Hugh Palmer (Hamilton) threaten to expose Jennings. Palmer is murdered by Jennings' henchmen, but an attempt to off Taft meets Seagal's ego head-on. After a lengthy period recovering with a Native American tribe, Taft recovers a computer disc from Palmer's home and heads for Jennings' new oil refinery. Once there he faces off against mercenaries lead by Stone (Ermey), ultimately killing all the bad guys and blowing everything up.



"Hey Forrest is here, the fire's as good as out!"


When Under Siege, Seagal's fifth action vehicle, took $157 million at the international box office, the vainglorious aikido virtuoso's next two movies became pretty easy to predict. The only uncertainty surrounded which would come first: the inevitable sequel to Under Siege, or the ego-trip the studio would allow him to make in exchange for starring in the inevitable sequel to Under Siege. It seems Steve had the upper hand because this self-aggrandizing faux environmental calamity limped into theatres one year ahead of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.




"Anyone else wanna play with Cupcake?"



Surprisingly, On Deadly Ground remains the only movie directed by the notorious narcissist. Unsurprisingly, it's hilarious (the opening scene sees Seagal step from a helicopter and light his cigar with a naked flame as oil rains down around him). Aside from the man himself, a string of breathtakingly two-dimensional supporting characters are key to the movie's appeal. Taft's father figure Palmer is such a kindly old man he somehow seems to be even kindlier and older than Santa. And Jennings is so cartoonishly evil that he'd twirl his moustache if it hadn't been scared off his face by the twitchy malevolence of John C. McGinley's MacGruder. R. Lee Ermey stretches himself as a no-nonsense military type and, trying harder than anyone while receiving nothing in return, Joan Chen makes a welcome appearance as Taft's love interest, Masu. She's introduced halfway through the movie during the interminable spiritual phase, and spends the rest of its runtime following along silently behind him. The supposed lovers share so little dialogue we can't even judge how appalling their chemistry is.



"To hell with the goddamn Eskimos!"


Chen's casting highlights one of several hypocrisies Seagal is guilty of in On Deadly Ground. Famously the movie only exists in order for him to deliver a message: big business is destroying the Alaskan environment and marginalising the Native Americans who have called it home for thousands of years. But Seagal undermines his point by gleefully blowing up half the state and casting a Chinese woman in the only vaguely prominent indigenous role. That the explosions and casting concessions are designed to shore up the movie's commercial potential for paymasters Time Warner seems like the icing on a very insincere cake.


Such fraudulent choices prevent Seagal successfully weaving his message into the movie's fabric, so at the end we're treated to a seven-minute monologue highlighting the harm done by corporations and urging us to change our ways. Seven minutes of a bullying, misogynistic, narcissistic serial liar telling us we need to be better people. Unbelievably it was originally meant to be forty minutes (seriously) but booing at test screenings forced a rethink.



"The plankton is dying."


In the context of egosploitation, On Deadly Ground is an unusual movie. It shares some themes with Neil Breen's work, particularly the vague mysticism and obsession with the evils of big business. But, as a mainstream action movie, there has to be compromise. Breen wouldn't have cut down his forty- minute diatribe for commercial reasons. He wouldn't have to, he self-finances his movies. I'm sure Seagal could have financed this thing himself, or at least avoided studio interference, if he had chosen to work on a smaller scale. But he wants to be the big man in the big movie... which means it was his ego that prevented his ego having the free reign it clearly wanted. Oh yeah, and he fights bear.



EGOWATCH: The first words of the movie are 'thank God, Forrest's here’. Then he steps out of a helicopter (in snakeskin boots and a seal fur coat), lights a cigar and blows up a fire with more fire. He single handedly takes down dozens of heavily armed mercenaries, an oil refinery, a helicopter and one of the world’s major corporations. The only woman in the movie falls in love with him before they speak. Every character hangs on his every word. He’s effectively immortal and he enjoys beating up bullies way too much. For a mainstream movie, this is a dream-cypher that’s way out of control. 








WHAT?: 7



Typical early Seagal, just with a twist more stupidity.



Video: Steven Seagal's Top Five Most Badass 

Character Introductions






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