As I’ve said before, Forrest Taft is the most ridiculous of all of Steven Seagal’s personas, including the actual real life Steven Seagal, and the Alaska-set On Deadly Ground is his most unintentionally hilarious action movie: directed and starring the actor, it lays its heavy-handed environmental message on thick and ends with Taft lecturing a crowd of people on the free energy supression conspiracy theory, a kind of drawn-out coup de grâce for the preceding 90 minutes (though thankfully the scene was cut down from an initial 11 minutes; now there’s a director’s cut that doesn’t need to see the light of day).
Every time I watch it my favourite part changes. In the past I considered that finale to be a highlight. I’m not sure if Taft’s Native American vision amuses me the most at the moment, though, or whether it’s the bar fight scene in which he convinces a giant oil rig worker to change his ignorant, racist ways via a round of slapsies (or whatever the game is called where you are from). And just when I think I’ve reached a decision, I always remember the joy I get from watching Michael Caine’s face as he delivers the line ‘You wanna know who he is? Try this: delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. And that won’t come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed!’
Seagal’s Taft (hey, that’d make a good name for a beach house / a boat / a horse) is the good guy, of course, while Caine’s oil baron Michael Jennings is the villain. The former is an ex-special-forces-trainer-turned-fireman who specialises in extinguishing drilling- and rig-related fires, while the latter plays a Texan who has implausibly developed a strong south London accent. Jennings is cutting corners in order to get a new oil rig online by a certain date, having shafted a load of Native Americans for the rights to the land in the first place; when Taft gets wind of the ruse, the Texan tries to have him rubbed out, employing a team of thugs led by John C. McGinley’s wooden MacGruder (yes, really) and featuring Billy Bob Thornton in an early minor role.
You know the drill from here. Seagal engages in a number of fights (usually involving a group of bad guys who, for some bizarre reason, choose to attack him one at a time), from which he repeatedly emerges victorious, though considering the actor’s proficiency in aikido his scraps always seem leaden to me, even by usual late 80s/early 90s standards. The rest of the time Seagal does nothing to dispel accusations that this is nothing more than a ludicrous vanity project. When we first see Taft the camera slowly pans up the actor’s body to reveal his majestic, swivelling head (replete with dangling cigarillo, as you do) and there are many more shots designed to further cement The Seagull’s movie star credentials: Taft is seen silhouetted against burning fires, looking pensively across the landscape while sitting astride a horse, taking down gun-wielding bad guys with his bare hands, etc. etc. It’s all rather ridiculous, but enjoyable all the same.
Meanwhile Caine’s contempt for this film is writ large across his face, and clearly his mood darkened as the shoot progressed. By the end he’s so unenthusiastic you can just about make out the dollar signs revolving in the black holes where his eyes used to be; there are a couple of token (and poor) attempts at a Texan accent at first, but within about five or ten minutes the Englishman has all but given up. He is sporting jet black hair and looks, bizarrely, like a cross between Action Man, Don Draper and Seagal himself.
There is something oddly entertaining about the whole spectacle, particularly when you realise that the actor-director is tackling this folly with unabashed solemnity. And, in all honesty, it’s difficult not to admire him for his attitude. It’s easy to mock but he exhibits a genuine commitment to certain causes here way before the state of the environment became a cause célèbre (aside from Exxon Valdez-sized oil slicks, anyway) and also during a time when green issues were barely registering on the radar of the mainstream news media; there are far more in the movie industry that pay lip service to such a subject, and Seagal at least backed up his stance with action. So while the actor’s ridiculousness is often patently obvious, let’s give the man the credit due as well. (However I’ll stop the praise there and point out that during this period of his career he was plagued by accusations of sexual harassment, often from co-stars: optician Cheryl Shulman even filed a lawsuit against Seagal, claiming that he beat her and threatened her during the filming of On Deadly Ground, though it was dismissed by the judge in question. Ironic, perhaps, that the Forrest Taft character has the line ‘what does it take to change the essence of a man?’ in this film.)
Ultimately On Deadly Ground is a stinker, but there’s some fun to be had with it, and it must be said that if some of the work by cinematographer Ric White appeared in a film by a celebrated director, or if it was turned in by a more revered DP, then it would still be championed today (with the caveat that it’s presumably difficult to make the Alaskan landscape look anything other than stunning). I also refuse to completely dismiss any movie that has R. Lee Ermey delivering the line: ‘My guy in D.C. tells me that we are not dealing with a student here, we’re dealing with the Professor. Any time the military has an operation that can’t fail, they call this guy in to train the troops, OK? He’s the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline so he could piss in your campfire! You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear, without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he’s going to show up at your pool side with a million dollar smile and fist full of pesos.’
However let’s not get carried away. There’s a reason why Seagal picked up three Razzie nominations (for worst picture, worst actor and worst director, the last of which he won). There’s a reason why On Deadly Ground picked up a few more on top of Seagal’s personal haul: Joan Chen, dismal as the love interest, was also nominated, while there were further ‘honors’ bestowed upon the screenwriters and the composers of the film’s original song.
Directed by: Steven Seagal.
Written by: Ed Horowitz, Robin U. Russin.
Starring: Steven Seagal, Michael Caine, Joan Chen, John C. McGinley.
Cinematography: Ric White.
Editing: Don Brochu, Robert A. Ferretti.
Music: Basil Poledouris.
Running Time: 96 minutes.