‘On Deadly Ground’ at 30: Seagal’s Misstep Still Makes Us Howl

Action hero's ill-fated eco-adventure delivers lectures and laughter

Steven Seagal’s “On Deadly Ground” (1994) is exactly that.

It’s the result of the reliable Warner Brother action movie star getting the chance to write, direct, produce and star in his first post-“Under Siege” (1992) passion project.

It opens in Alaska and begins with the shot of a bald eagle, with Ric Waite’s widescreen cinematography and Basil Poledouris’s grand score highlighting visions of polar bears, mountain vistas and a massive oil rig, which is on fire.

So far, so good.

On Deadly Ground - Original Theatrical Trailer

We meet Michael Caine’s vile, corrupt villain named Jennings, who oversees the rig and has hired his top guy to diffuse the inferno. That’s Forrest Taft, played by Seagal, who enters on the line, “Oh, thank God.”

Seagal clearly can’t direct himself, as his line readings are stiff, but he does know how to sell his image, as the moment Taft diffuses the fire is established with a shot of an inferno ballooning behind Seagal; he stands in center frame, smiling as everything behind him goes boom.

It’s quite the money shot.

Later, there’s a bar fight in which Seagal stands up for an abused Native American, slowly beating the crap out of character actor Mike Starr and, at the same time, lecturing him about manners while everyone in the crowded bar listens intently and nods approvingly at everything Seagal does.

The pool stick battle in “Out for Justice” (1991) was far better, but it admittedly lacked the moralizing. Here, Seagal drops the line, “What does it take, to change the essence of a man?”

How does something like this happen?

When you’re the lead in a handful of vigilante action vehicles, all with three words in the title (save for “Under Siege”), and those movies gross far more than the cost of the production, and you’re declared the next big action star, a passion project is presumably right around the corner.

Make no mistake – although “Under Siege” was directed by Andrew Davis (who followed it up with “The Fugitive” a year later), showcased Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey as the central villains and was sold as “Die Hard on a boat” (long before “Speed 2: Cruise Control” tried to stake that claim), it was Seagal who inspired the long lines outside movie theaters on opening weekend.

Seagal had arrived with the surprise hit of “Above the Law” (1988) but “Under Siege” was a blockbuster. This is why Warner Bros. gave the tall, typically black-clad, pony-tailed and whisper-voiced Aikido master the opportunity to make a prestige picture like “On Deadly Ground.”

This was supposed to be Seagal’s “Billy Jack,” a macho action flick with a cause and the brand of PC Oscar bait the Academy couldn’t ignore. Instead, this is the kind of amusing, unselfconscious trash that sports the line, “For $350,000.00, I’d f—anything once!”

Let it be said- you probably can’t make a movie this funny on purpose.

“On Deadly Ground” is bad and was the speed bump from which Seagal’s film career never entirely recovered (not even the inevitable and not-bad “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” put him back on the A-list).

Still, as far as ego-centric and misguided star vehicles go, it’s one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.

Seagal’s heart may have been in the right-ish place, but he needed a director to keep him centered. Wearing that chef’s hat, serving a muscular script and having less screen time than usual in “Under Siege” and, later, his brilliant cameo in “Executive Decision” (his final movie grace notes) served him well.

“On Deadly Ground,” on the other hand, is an enjoyable ego trip, a self-parody that, bizarrely, plays like “Roadhouse” crossed with “Dances With Wolves.”

The intentions were noble, as Seagal’s original title was “Rainbow Warrior” (!) and the plot depicts an Exxon-Valdez-like oil spill that pollutes the Alaskan wildlife and creates a further rift between the indigenous people living off the land and the suit and tie snakes who abuse anyone standing in their way.

Seagal understood his standing as a movie star, but his acting is limited by his self-satisfaction. Far better is Caine, going all in on a film that wasn’t worth his time, and Joan Chen, who tries to inject some personality into Masu, a strictly sidekick role with little dialogue.

Nevertheless, Chen now has the Hall of Fame distinction of having been directed by David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Oliver Stone…and Seagal.

A pre-“Sling Blade” Billy Bob Thornton gets in a few moments where he manages some laugh lines that are intentional. John C. McGinley enhances his every scene with an intensity the movie never matches.

McGinley is a first-rate villain and his bespeckled killer seems like an intentional choice: there’s an overlong torture scene inspired by the most infamous sequence from “RoboCop” (1987). It’s the ugliest scene here, though the violence is brutal but clumsily staged.

On the other hand, there’s the poor use of slow motion, a photo prop of Seagal wearing an embarrassing red and blue sweater and a hazy, hilarious dream sequence with naked Eskimos, a grizzly bear battle and “Altered States” mysticism, which emerges as the film’s second biggest what-was-he-thinking moment.

FAST FACT: ‘On Deadly Ground” earned $38 million at the U.S. box office, a far cry from 1992’s “Under Siege” – 83 million.

There’s also the bit where Seagal protests, “I don’t want to resort to violence,” then opens a closet with an army’s worth of guns and ammo. It feels like a “Naked Gun” outtake, except we’re not supposed to be laughing.

To cut Seagal a break- even for a notoriously self-indulgent failure, it’s always entertaining.

Sporting a heavy jacket and told that “the eagle and bear are your spirit guides,” Seagal goes all “Jeremiah Johnson” during his second act, searching for more bones to snap. This becomes a quasi-western, as Seagal even lassos a bad guy during the climax!

We’re given loads of dialogue about how awesome Forest Taft is, as well as someone announcing Taft’s reappearance by saying “He’s ba-ack,” a la “Poltergeist” (1982). Whenever Taft fires a gun, he never misses, and his punches always make contact.

He even sticks a knife into a villain’s head!

Chen’s Masu states that her late father, the Chief, would be proud of their work, despite how they tag team killing hundreds of people and causing mass destruction to the environment.

At least the third act gives us R. Lee Ermey as the leader of mercenaries with itchy trigger fingers.

Then, when it seemed like the bad laughs had finally ceased, we get Seagal’s legendary misstep of a concluding speech, delivered to a crowded auditorium.

Is Steven Seagal still "dangerous"?

Seagal’s lengthy speech from a podium, about alternate fuel sources, oil spills and The Land vs. Big Business, is interspersed with environmental footage (marked by matte paintings, Inuit throat singing and genuine Exxon Valdez footage) playing behind him and awestruck audience member reaction shots.

Seagal presumably believed this bit would make him an Oscar contender.

Many others have reported this but allow me to confirm what you may have heard: when this portion of “On Deadly Ground” unspooled in a movie theater, people left early. LOTS of people. The takeaway: give a hoot, don’t pollute, Forrest Taft is a god among men, roll credits.

There were worse films released in 1994 (“Exit to Eden,” “Mixed Nuts” and “The Flintstones” come to mind), though they lack an oily-haired super-villain declaring “Alaska is a third world country…just one we happen to own! Ha ha ha ha!”

To state the obvious, “On Deadly Ground” marked a turning point in Seagal’s career, the first time Seagal appeared, well, marked for death.

The end credits also have some delightful nuggets: this was shot in Alaska, L.A., Washington and, yes, that was Bart the Bear in a supporting role!

While there is the sad lack of a Seagal tune on the soundtrack (unlike “Marked For Death” and “Fire Down Below”), the film makes up for this oversight by concluding with the Seagal/Nassa Productions logo, which is a shimmering film reel with a nail driven through it.

No, I didn’t make that part up.

One Comment

  1. I remember renting this when it came out on VHS and thinking it was a dog. One of the worst movies I can remember watching back in the 90s.

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