Eco-commando Seagal dots landscape with bodies

February 19, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Here it's only February and we've already got a good candidate for Worst Movie of the Year. This is Steven Seagal's witless, leaden, crackpot "On Deadly Ground," which is a kind of "Billy Jack Goes to Alaska."

They may have to write a new book of Ecclesiastes to account for this one: the old "Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity" just doesn't go far enough. Seagal, who directs this mess himself, modestly portrays himself as the savior of the "natives," as this politically correct he-man styles the Inuit, while at the same time he grossly condescends to characterize them as helpless children without resources who can only prevail with his majestic help. He goes so far as to end the movie with a blowhard sermon on the evils of oil companies and the combustion engine while the "natives" gaze in reverent adoration at his magnanimity, sagacity and radiance.

And when he's not lecturing on the environment, he's killing people and blowing things up with the zealotry of a Saddam Hussein. It happens every time: scratch a self-styled savior and find a self-appointed executioner.

Isn't there some grotesque inner contradiction in all this? Here's a proclaimed "friend of the earth," and a purveyor of the values of the ecology -- which are conservation, cooperation, and comprehension of the whole of the cosmos -- who at the same time is willing to kill anything that moves. And many of the deaths are pure murder: sentry-killing, wanton gleeful disposal of endless anonymous bad guys, that sort of thing.

And the worst death is reserved for a woman who, in my study of the movie, hasn't done anything wrong. Shari Shattuk plays evil oil baron Michael Caine's executive assistant. Not his assassin or sniper or torturer, but his executive assistant! She kills nobody, she just pours the coffee for her boss! She gets her face torn off in a car accident, which also soaks her in gasoline, and then she gets to watch, screaming, as the gas spreads to the fire that will burn her to death in a picturesque fireball. No fate is too terrible for those not on Seagal's side on environmental issues.

Even "On Deadly Ground's" fight sequences are lame. Seagal is a far more gifted martial artist than he is an actor or director, and his dazzling Akido skills, a blizzard of punch and counter punch, have been the hallmark of his earlier films. But here they go completely undisplayed as he continuously stages the fights in darkened bars or the bowels of oil rigs; the antagonists look like cats fighting in a bag.

The plot could have been written by a first-grader. Seagal is a legendary oil rig fire fighter who's called in to tame a blaze in one of Aegis Oil's satellite pumps. While there, he tumbles to a conspiracy to complete a massive offshore refining project using substandard parts, which will end up "in ecological catastrophe." Thus the oil company tries to kill him.

He escapes to an Inuit village where he undergoes some elementary hocus-pocus in Eskimo ways -- including a nude Eskimo orgy, if you can figure that out! -- then sets off to even the score by blowing up the huge project.

The rest of the movie follows as this eco-commando kills his way into the installation, kills everybody inside it, then kills his way out of it. It never occurs to him that there's a name for such behavior: it's called "terrorism."

Every actor in the film is trashed. Poor Joan Chen is the "Girl" (movies like this always have a "Girl") who hangs around looking dazed. Caine is a gibbering cartoon of corporate malfeasance who snarls and yelps at everything. John McGinley plays Caine's chief bad guy, but seems unsure whether or not he's supposed to be the villain or the comic relief.

Only two actors manage to cut through the miasma of vanity and sanctimony that otherwise obscures the action: Lee Ermey, who so many years ago was the D.I. in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," still comes across as tough as brass bushings as the leader of a pack of mercenaries hired to get Seagal. And Billy Bob Thornton, the Arkansas-born actor and writer (he wrote "One False Move" and played its villains) has an amusing turn as another mercenary who can't decide whether to open or close the folding stock on his submachine gun. He alone in the whole

movie wants to do it right.

MOVIE REVIEW

"On Deadly Ground"

Starring Steven Seagal, Joan Chen and Michael Caine

Directed by Steven Seagal

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R

0 stars

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