On Deadly Ground (1994)

Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground has been universally panned by critics. It actually holds a zero at Rotten Tomatoes, that bastion of review aggregate nonsense, and has been widely derided for being too preachy and for being a “vanity project” for its director and star. That may well be true, but something about this 1994 actioner with an environmental message is intriguing.

Message movies have always been greeted with a sure degree of trepidation, so Seagal’s decision to venture in after his successful Under Siege was certainly a gutsy one. He was riding high after the biggest box office take of his career and actually had received some critical accolades, so taking to the Al Gore path before Al Gore took it was a risk. As expected, fans and critics didn’t take well to Seagal’s insistent “tirade” at the conclusion of the picture and found it more in service of himself than anything else.

Seagal stars as Forrest Taft, a specialist in handling oil rig fires. He works for Aegis Oil, a monstrous monolith of an oil company headed by the evil Michael Jennings (Michael Caine). Jennings is adamant that his Aegis One, a massive oil refinery in Alaska, will open without a hitch and generate millions in revenue a day. He hires extensive security forces to help fight off the pesky Eskimos who don’t agree with the refinery.

Taft, with the help of foreman Hugh Palmer (Richard Hamilton), soon discovers that Jennings is using some faulty equipment to expedite the opening of Aegis One. Realizing that his boss doesn’t give a shit about the environment, Taft changes his nature and becomes the bee in Jennings’ bonnet. With Jennings upping the violent ante, Taft has no choice but to get violent in return and commences the mission to take down the rig.

Much has been made about the apparent hypocrisy of On Deadly Ground, with Seagal’s character increasing the body count and property damage by the truckload while criticizing the oil company’s ruination of the environment. Taft does explain to his female counterpart (Joan Chen) that he didn’t want to get violent but has no choice, suggesting that listening to the gods and spirits of the Eskimo world is all well and good but the “real world” demands more urgent solutions.

It’s hard to say that Seagal is being hypocritical here, especially given the fact that we’re all hypocritical throughout the courses of our daily lives. The violence, courtesy of explosions and guns and his martial arts prowess, is seen as a means to an end – and Seagal is all about the end in this instance. In his view, the only way to combat the evil represented by Jennings is through blunt force and elaborate explosives.

A lot of On Deadly Ground is really silly. While Seagal perhaps deserves credit for trying to introduce his audience to waves of Eskimo culture and environmentalism, the approach is clumsy. The sequences involving the spiritual quest of Forrest Taft are downright dumb, although the visuals of Seagal wrestling and stabbing a bear are hilarious.

As is usually the case in Seagal’s films, his character is hiding something. Taft is once no mere oil worker; he has a past that comes to the surface when a group of mercenaries is brought in by Jennings to take him out. This accounts for his alarmingly quick martial arts skills and his ability to string together explosive devices in ways that would make MacGyver green with envy.

On Deadly Ground isn’t a very good film in the traditional sense of things. It has its heart in the right place – and that’s more than I can say for many of the genre’s wealth-worshipping crapfests. While Seagal’s approach the vital cause of caring for Mother Earth may be as subtle as a broken arm and as silly as the hand slap game, credit is due for trying to raise the bear…er, bar.

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