I am writing today's entry in My Year Of Flops, examining 1994's On Deadly Ground, on the recommendation of reader Alasdair "Wee Willie" Wilkins, a junior at Harvard. I have been diligently sucking up to Mr. Wilkins in hopes that when this whole writing thing dries up and I am found out as a fraud, a fake, and worst of all, a Medium Talent, then I can exploit Wilkins' collegiate fondness for The Onion and secure a janitorial position in one of the Fortune 500 companies he will soon be running. My innate awe and respect for the chichi institution where Mr. Wilkins is currently a matriculate is only matched by my fierce, class-based hatred of everything Ivy League.
I know it is a mistake to make assumptions about people based on their name and alma mater, but I can only imagine that as I write this, Alasdair is polishing a giant diamond, pouring himself expensive Scotch out of a silver decanter, and chuckling genially as he flips through a 1953 issue of The New Yorker.
Mr. Wilkins promised that On Deadly Ground is just about the batshit-craziest bad movie in existence. He is not wrong. I have included an unprecedented number of clips so that you, dear reader, will know that this film actually exists, and that I didn't merely hallucinate it during a peyote-induced weeklong vision quest in the deserts of Arizona. Words really cannot do justice to the film's surreal insanity, especially hackneyed, clichéd words like "Words really cannot do justice to."
The film embodies the comic contradictions at the core of Steven Seagal's increasingly ridiculous persona. Seagal is, after all, a high-profile Buddhist who makes his living pretending to beat the shit out of people. He's a self-styled tough guy synonymous with a hairstyle favored by 10-year-old girls. Seagal is universally considered one of Hollywood biggest, most misogynistic, violent assholes, yet he travels the world lecturing about Eastern spirituality. The David Rakoff essay collection Fraud has a very amusing essay touching upon Seagal's peculiar sideline as a spiritual teacher.
Before On Deadly Ground, Seagal was on a steep upward career arc: With each successive film, his budgets and box-office grosses got bigger, until he finally crossed over into A-list territory with 1992's Under Siege. All of Seagal's previous films made money, but Under Siege was his first bona fide blockbuster. He seemed to have left behind the second-rate likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and Chuck Norris, and he was poised to compete with superstars like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone.
Then came his 1994 directorial debut On Deadly Ground, and his career went from red-hot to lukewarm, and then to ice-cold. Direct-To-DVD Purgatory lurked in Seagal's near future. (Literally. My next Direct-To-DVD Purgatory column will cover Kill Switch, where Seagal fights sex criminals, and Against The Dark, where he fights vampires. Seriously. For some reason, you don't see Schwarzenegger fighting the undead in direct-to-DVD cheapies these days.)
On Deadly Ground casts Seagal as a dead-eyed, richly compensated goon for evil oil tycoon and bolo-tie enthusiast Michael Caine, who appears to have dyed his hair jet-black with the same printer cartridges Creed used to look younger on The Office. Dig the Sergio Leone-shooting-Clint Eastwood mythic introduction Seagal gives himself. Now compare it to the dismissive way he introduces Caine.
The film subtly sets up Seagal's waning moral compass by having his old pal Crusty McOldguy grouse, "You used to be a good man, Forrest. Now you're nothing but a whore."
Seagal takes frequent gulps from his pocket flask in an attempt to dull the pain of fighting for the forces of super-evil, but his slumbering conscience awakes when he spies veteran tough guy Mike Starr abusing an Eskimo in a bar.
Our hero challenges Starr to something called "the hand-slap game." The rules are simple: If Seagal manages to slap Starr's hands, he gets to take a swing at Starr. If Starr manages to slap Seagal's hands, then he gets to live out the dreams of you, me, and every decent person on Earth, and punch Seagal right in his fucking face. I should probably mention here that I was a Seagal fan growing up; he actually figures prominently in a key chapter in my upcoming memoir. But a key part of growing up is realizing that things we swallowed uncritically as children are, to borrow a phrase from Sir Zodiac Motherfucker, wack as fuck, and do not, in fact, own, as we previously imagined.
Starr is quickly defeated. "I got a big pair of balls between my legs," Starr brays in an unmistakably Andrew "Dice" Clay-like cadence, pre-ass-whooping, but several punches from Seagal induce a spiritual epiphany.
"What does it take… what does it take to change the essence of a man?" Seagal rasps at a suddenly humbled Starr, who reverently responds, "I need time to change. Time."
Just when it appears that the film couldn't get any deeper, Seagal mirrors Starr's existential angst by confiding, "I do too."
This whiplash-inducing tonal shift from dumb-ass action-movie rowdiness to achingly sincere pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo encapsulates the film's singular lunacy, though it often comes off like a piss-poor remake of Tom Laughlin's similarly schizophrenic, similarly piss-poor Billy Jack. Come for the ass-kicking, things blowing up, and tough-guy banter, stay for the mystical horseshit and heavy-handed lectures on the importance of protecting Mother Earth.
There you have it, folks: Getting your ass whooped by Steven Seagal is a profound spiritual event with life-changing, transformative ramifications. Seagal must have beaten his own ass pretty badly in one of the deleted scenes, because before long, he's having a life-changing epiphany of his own.
Seagal learns from Crusty McOldguy that Caine is using dangerous, malfunctioning instruments to extract oil, so that oil rights won't revert back to the Eskimos. In retribution, Caine henchman John C. McGinley delivers perhaps the bloodiest variation on the old "there's no 'I' in 'team'" spiel in film history as he terrorizes Crusty McOldguy. Or at least I think it's McGinley. Judging by his sinister goatee, it could very well be John C. McGinley's evil twin.
After nearly getting blown up in an explosion that could demolish a city block but leaves Seagal with only the faintest bruises, the protagonist is nursed back to health by sexy Eskimo (sexskimo?) Joan Chen and her father, who thinks Seagal is a bear. Everybody gets set straight with more of the film's patented mystical mumbo jumbo.
The white man has done many horrible things to Native Americans, but the following fantasy sequence could very well be the worst:
Holy motherfucking shit. Oh God, oh man! Where to begin? With the Vaseline-smeared, out-of-focus lens, otherwise known as the "Barbra Streisand special?" Or the part where Seagal wrestles and kills a bear? What about the naked gyrating Native Americans of various shapes, sizes, and genders? Or the part where Seagal encounters a tawdry Eskimo temptress while wearing what appears to be one of Diddy's leftover fur coats? Of course it would be hard to beat the elderly shaman-lady waxing wise about white men who have "defiled the sacred mother," or the climactic shot of Seagal rising out of the water, purified, sanctified, a man reborn. I feel it is necessary to remind skeptical readers that Warner Brothers spent $50 million to make this movie, and that I did not make it up specifically for this column.
Throughout the film, Seagal's expression never changes, though the context changes dramatically. First Seagal's tight-lipped grimace and glare convey world-weary apathy and soul-sickness. Later, Seagal's tight-lipped grimace and glare betray the intense focus of a warrior on a divine mission of justice and retribution.
After his mystical vision, Seagal vows to protect the sacred mother of us all by bringing the pain to his former employer by doing everything in his power to keep Aegis 1, Caine's beloved oil rig/refinery, from going online and causing unimaginable environmental harm. This clip illustrates how celebrities made clumsy, obvious political statements in the dark days before The Huffington Post.
Scared shitless, Caine hires a team of mercenaries led by R. Lee Ermey to track Seagal down and kill him. But the legendary tough guy/marine is no match for the energy-drink-shilling ponytail enthusiast. At this point, On Deadly Ground follows what I like to call "The Poochie Rule"—whenever Seagal isn't onscreen, the other characters talk about him like he's a cross between Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Rambo, Zohan, and God.
When McGinley wonders who the hell could be causing so much trouble, Caine answers, "Who is he? You want to know who he is? Try this. Delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. That won't come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed."
Ermey goes even further, telling a flunky, "Any time the military has an operation that can't fail, they call [Seagal] in to train the troops." (Of course, if the military has an operation in which failure is not only an option, but an option preferable to victory, they hire one of Seagal's cheaper competitors.) But that isn't all. Ermey goes on to enthuse, "You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle in a pair of bikini underwear without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he's going to show up at your poolside with a million-dollar smile and a fistful of pesos. This guy's a professional, you got me?"
Does that even make any sense? I wanted the film to delve even further into the deepest bowels of arrogant lunacy, to have Ermey scream, "What kind of a man is he? You could triple-team his granny while wearing dirty neon knee-socks and send his dog to military school, and he'd show up six months later wearing a necklace of human skulls, brandishing letters of acceptance from six elite private colleges with the ghost of Greta fucking Garbo sitting in his lap, making him his favorite ice-cream sundae. That's who this guy is." Instead, we have to settle for Ermey boasting that Seagal is "the kind of guy who would drink a gallon of gasoline so he can piss in your campfire."
In the film's climax, Seagal travels to Aegis 1 and proceeds to wrack up a body count worthy of a world war. One of his victims is Billy Bob Thornton, who gets his 20 seconds of shine in this clip:
$50 million will buy you an awful lot of explosions and the slumming services of two Academy Award-winners. Speaking of Academy Award-winners, here's Caine's big death scene:
Ah, but it's all a mere prologue to the real soul of the film: Seagal's endless lecture at the Alaskan State Capitol about the importance of protecting the environment. This speech originally ran an agonizing, almost unimaginable 11 minutes before preview audiences angrily rebelled. It still feels 11 hours long.
On Deadly Ground didn't save the world, do much for the environment, or made Warner Brothers money, but in marking the beginning of the end for Seagal's richly unmerited career as a major movie star, it accidentally made the world a better place.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco