Before Al Gore there was… Steven Seagal. Right of his box-office hit Under Siege, Seagal used his moment of fame and power to make a movie about what concerns him the most; the environment. The name of the movie is On Deadly ground. Another three word title which make up most of Seagal’s movies.
In his directorial debut Seagal directs himself as a lone crusader who stands up to an evil oil company. Mostly by blowing lots of shit up including an oil refinery. How’s that good for the environment you say? It’s all about the message, not about the packaging.
Of course nobody would watch a movie like this without such a packaging. Not until 2006 at least. That year a documentary conquered the earth and the political agenda. Looking at it that way Steven Seagal is a visionary. He calls himself a God and in 12 years we’ll probably find out he wasn’t lying.
Back to the packaging: The story this time is really simple (aren’t they always?): Steven Seagal is Forrest Taft. An ex-agency-man named who’s now working for Aegis Oil handling difficult tasks. When we first meet Forrest he has to put out a fire nobody else is able to. A friend and colleague tells him that the fire was caused by faulty preventers. Forrest does some investigating of his own and finds out that this story checks out. In the mean time his friend is murdered by Aegis Oil hard men who then also try to blow up Forrest.
Forrest merely survives. He’s picked up by an Eskimo and brought to his village. There he’s healed by magic Eskimo medicine and goes on a spiritual journey to find himself. Or something like that. Once he’s totally recovered and wrestled a bear in the Spirit World he’s going out to bring the oil company down by blowing up their newest oil rig. Naturally the oil company isn’t going down without a fight and enlists a group of mercenaries to take on Forrest. Forrest Taft is… On Deadly Ground!
On Deadly Ground can be split up into four parts. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Part 1: Forrest employed by Aegis Oil
Forrest is introduced as the ultimate bad-ass. He comes in to put out a fire no one else is able to. We see hem get off the chopper in a cool way. The camera pans from his feet up to his head when he turns around and lights a cigar. He goes into the blazing fire and rigs it with explosives. Everybody is ducking and taking cover, but not Forrest and the head of Aegis Oil: Michael Jennings (Michael Caine). They stand there like nothing is happening.
The first part has another one of those bad-ass moments when Seagal does his ultimate bar fight. He helps a native Eskimo who is bullied by one of the oil workers. This naturally results in him beating up a dozen or so people and breaking lots of limbs. Even one of them is an senior citizen. Maybe he was just reaching for his walker. Now he needs a wheelchair. Way to go Forrest.
By the way, I’m not sure how an employer would react if one of his employees puts 20 others in the hospital with broken limbs, but it is never heard of again. Maybe they were from a competitive company, who knows. But bar fights are nothing out of the ordinary in a Seagal film. What is however, is the showdown between Forrest and head bully Big Mike (Mike Starr). This memorable scene consists of them playing a game of hand-slap. As Forrest explains it: “One man leaves the circle. I miss, you get a shot. You miss, I get a shot”. This results in a severe ass-whooping of Big Mike and is ended by the following conversation:
Forrest: What does it take to change the essence of a man?
Big Mike: I need time…, I need time to change
Forrest: I do too
Forrest pats the man on the back and walks out with the Eskimo native. Now when did you ever see a bar fight end like this? Never! That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with. On Deadly Ground goes deeper than you’d ever imagine. I bet you are still pondering about what it takes to change the essence of a man?
So here we are: Forrest Taft is established bad-ass and philosopher. Oh and he beats up the elderly.
Part 2: The spirit journey
Once Forrest gets on the bad side of Aegis Oil they decide to let him go. Instead of handing him a pink slip they try to blow him up. Well they blew up the building he was in but like the title character in Darkman his body is merely launched 100’s of meters away. Unlike Darkman there are no burning wounds, just some shrapnel in his back. An Eskimo finds him and takes him to his village here Forrest wakes up.
The Eskimo village is where Forrest comes in contact with all kinds of stuff about the Spirit World. Like him being “Nanook The Man-Bear”. I wonder how being a man-bear works. Do you hibernate and eat raw salmon or something? Or is it more like Marshall Bravestarr where you just yell “strength of a bear” and become really strong. Forrest doesn’t need that. He can hand-slap.
But OK, I’ll just go with it. Part of his healing process is a lengthy sequence made up of montages. Montages consisting of naked Eskimo women are performing some ceremonial dance and stuff like Steven fighting a bear (to test his bear strength). Really crazy shit. After 20 minutes of Eskimo exposure Forrest is finally one with the bear or something like that. He’s now established as man-bear. His character has developed from bad-ass to philosopher to grandpa-kicker to man-bear.
Part 3: Payback on Aegis Oil
Now the man-bear is healed and out for destruction. Meanwhile Aegis Oil has to get a rig operating before a certain deadline or they’ll lose their oil rights to the Eskimos. So to ensure Forrest Taft isn’t a problem they hire a crew of mercenaries led by the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. It’s in this part of On Deadly Ground we get the mayhem we expect from a Seagal movie. Mountain cabins are blown up, helicopters crash, booby-traps explode and one-on-one fights result in broken limbs.
You know, the usual stuff.
After taking out half of the mercenaries they retreat because they know where he’s going. Yeah, you could have probably figured that out without losing half your men first by chasing him in his territory. So everybody ends up at the Aegis Oil Rig where of course everybody eventually gets beaten, shot or blown up due to Seagal. It also seems there were tons of new henchmen just around the corner as the rig is crowded with armed men. They must be half price at Wal-Mart or something. Even the FBI shows up after receiving news about the terrorist threat that is Forrest Taft. They leave quickly after things start blowing up.
Part 4: The epilogue
Now there are two things about the epilogue: Forrest is about to give a speech, But how is this possible? The man murdered dozens of men and blew up an entire oil rig. The murders of his friend and his spirit-journey-mentor do not justify this. Nor does blowing up an oil rig to prevent an environmental disaster (I still don’t understand how that works). None of these things give a civilian the right to just murder and destroy as he sees fit. Maybe man-bears stand above the law in Alaska. But that wouldn’t make sense because according to Nico Toscani nobody is above the law.
Now the other part is that Forrest gives a lengthy speech about the environment and oil pollution by large companies. This guy was making $350,000 a year working for one just a week ago. Now he’s a passionate preacher about how bad and evil the oil industry is. That’s kind of quick to adjust your point of view and even become a spokesperson in my opinion. Unless they pay him $400,000 or more of course, then it makes sense.
So this is Seagal’s masterpiece. Well not quite actually. On Deadly Ground isn’t as bad as it is generally conceived but it the worst Seagal movie up until that point. The packaging is actually OK. There are lots of classic Seagal fights, but does an environmental message really belong in a movie like this? It made no difference to the world. For that we needed to wait 12 years and a stolen US election. But it’s a nonsensical yet fun movie and certainly Seagal’s most personal. It’s just that after Under Siege I expected something better.