What do you get when you cross a blockbuster action picture with trendy environmentalist thinking? ON DEADLY GROUND, boorish action star Steven Seagal's clumsy directing debut, is the short answer.
Forrest Taft (Steven Seagal) is an industrial troubleshooter, working for sleekly satanic oil magnate Michael Jennings (Michael Caine), whose company, Aegis, holds a fistful of valuable Alaskan oil leases. An ex-CIA top-secret operative and secret tree-hugger, Seagal turns against his boss when
he learns that the Aegis refinery, which must become operational within three weeks to satisfy the terms of the leases, is a substandard construction that will lead to untold environmental destruction. Jennings and his toadying aides-de-camp try to kill Taft, but he's rescued by Inuit
tribespeople, who believe he's the incarnation of the bear spirit destined to teach white men respect for Mother Earth.
Taft at first resists, telling the medicine man that he's only "a mouse hiding from hawks in the house of the raven." Inevitably, the medicine man replies that this is exactly what a bear would say. Taft finally sees the light in a soft-focus vision quest, during which he must choose between the
company of a writhing, exotic, naked babe and a weeping crone with a rattle. Which spirit woman holds the key to enlightenment? Taft has to think about it, but makes the right choice in the end.
Taft joins forces with Masu (Joan Chen), the tribal chief's comely daughter, and undertakes to teach Jennings and his underlings--including a venal publicist (Shari Shattuck) determined to manipulate media perception of the conflict--the lesson they need by blowing up their refinery and
extensively kicking butt. He does so despite the best efforts of Jennings' small army of mercenaries. In the film's much-ridiculed conclusion, Taft lectures at the Alaska State Capitol to a rapt crowd of reporters and Eskimos in full tribal gear about vanishing plankton and water engines, and the
dangers of ignoring the natural wisdom of primitive cultures in favor of the self-serving lies of rapacious industrialists. At some three minutes, the scene is three minutes too long; it was widely reported to have originally run close to ten.
Loud, stupid and clumsy, ON DEADLY GROUND professes to be everything the average action adventure picture isn't: socially relevant, racially conscious, and deeply suspicious of the macho stereotypes celebrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Seagal himself, in his earlier and
less enlightened films. How else to explain the bar room brawl in which Seagal's righteous Forrest Taft is driven to action by the need to prove to a racist, homophobic lout that it takes more than big balls to make a man? Unfortunately, his proof is delivered in the form of a vicious and
flamboyant beating, somewhat undermining the admittedly laudable message.
It's apparent that Seagal imagines Forrest Taft to be a sort of Samurai seeker, a latter-day Billy Jack, using his martial arts training to empower America's indigenous people against the perfidious doings of greedy money men and corrupt and/or indifferent elected officials. In fact, Taft is the
mirror image of Seagal himself, a jowly blowhard with a lardy posterior whose size is eclipsed only by that of his ego. ON DEADLY GROUND is an infelicitous hybrid of BILLY JACK and DANCES WITH WOLVES, alternating between scenes of righteous anti-establishment mayhem and spirit world hokum.
As a performer, Seagal is singularly lacking in grace and charisma. As a director, he more than lives up to his ham-fisted acting. ON DEADLY GROUND is a movie for those who can't be trusted to understand anything but a fist to the gut, a picture in which wicked capitalists hate smelly animals
and call Alaska a Third World country, while good guys groove on the land and wear cool buckskin jackets. Government is indifferent, businessmen are corrupt, and the news media are a pack of lazy whores. There may well be more than a little truth in these characterizations, but ON DEADLY GROUND's
crude huffing and puffing is too comically repellent to be taken seriously. Whether anyone really left the film committed to save the environment is doubtful, but it performed as well at the box office as Seagal's previous efforts.
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: What do you get when you cross a blockbuster action picture with trendy environmentalist thinking? ON DEADLY GROUND, boorish action star Steven Seagal's clumsy directing debut, is the short answer. Forrest Taft (Steven Seagal) is an industrial troublesh… (more)