Even before the first imposing images of hero Forrest Taft (Steven Seagal) register on the screen, the audience is fully aware of the signature that will codify “On Deadly Ground.” On three separate title cards we are informed that this is a “Seagal/Nasso Production” of a “Steven Seagal Film” starring Steven Seagal. The rest is window dressing in this filigree thriller with eco trappings and a decibel and body count that strains mind and matter.
This is a vanity production parading as a social statement. It nonetheless has enough sound, fury and flash to satisfy the action crowd who have propped up Seagal’s career.
It should perform on the level of his earlier efforts, but is a decided step backward from his previous pic, “Under Siege.”
Seagal is a Red Adair-style trouble shooter/fire quasher for Aegis Oil Co. in Alaska. After imploding one fire, he comes to the alarming discovery that it was preventable.
The greed of chairman Michael Jennings (Michael Caine) is responsible for the installation of substandard equipment. To meet a deadline on a project, Jennings has put lives and the environment in jeopardy.
As Taft is of pure heart — and graphically beats the crap out of bigots and bullies on several occasions to make that point — he shifts sides to the noble, if primitive Inuit, who recognize him as a Spirit Warrior.
It’s later revealed that Taft is a former CIA operative who dropped out to enjoy the purity of the last frontier. When that’s sullied, he gets mad and naturally inflicts the maximum retribution.
“On Deadly Ground” shares a lot with other first works by action stars-turned-auteurs. The output from Cornel Wilde to Sylvester Stallone and beyond is unerringly narcissistic, featuring heroes with a touch of the Messiah.
Seagal, both as actor and director, filches heavily from “Billy Jack.” However, he lacks Tom Laughlin’s acting technique and the ability behind the camera to keep the story simple and direct. When he ventures into the mystic, the result is patently inauthentic.
Nonetheless, he presses on, dropping little pearls about the environment (stopping the plot momentum in its tracks). Horrifying rumors of a concluding 10 -minute speech prove unfounded, with that turn whittled down to a near four-minute infomercial about being good to Mother Nature.
The film is slick and hollow. The work of the supporting cast ranges from uncomfortable (Caine) to loony (John C. McGinley’s heavy) to improbable (Joan Chen as an Inuit activist).
All this can be forgiven, given the rule that absolute movie power corrupts movies absolutely. Hopefully, Seagal will get back to basics and won’t make “A Spokesman Is Born” next time out.