by Patrick Bromley
It's surprising how few action stars ever turned to directing. Despite the fact that almost every major headliner of the '80s and '90s became a brand name and could command above-the-title credit, almost none of them ever cashed in that clout to go behind the camera. Sylvester Stallone was directing even before Rambo: First Blood Part II made him a giant action star, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's directing was limited to an episode of Tales from the Crypt and one made-for-TV Christmas movie in 1992. Most of the others were content to appear on camera doing their respective things, occasionally contributing to a screenplay or stepping into a producer role but never calling the shots from the director's chair. Except, that is, for Steven Seagal.
Seagal was at the peak of his powers by 1994, following a series of box office successes that culminated in his biggest hit, Under Siege, in 1992, which grossed upwards of $150 million and gave Seagal a blank check to do pretty much whatever he wanted next. That movie would be On Deadly Ground, an action movie as vanity project that found the action star incorporating some of the environmental messages that mattered to him for the first time and beginning to rewrite his own mythology, a practice that would continue long into his DTV career. The story goes that Seagal was allowed to direct 1994's On Deadly Ground (then called Rainbow Warrior) in exchange for appearing in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, a movie I must admit to liking better than On Deadly Ground. This is more than just a vanity project for Seagal. It's also his first real stinker. It would not be his last.
As a director, Steven Seagal does a competent job in On Deadly Ground. The editing is sometimes too choppy, his coverage in the fight scenes could be better, and he relies too often on post-production slow-mo to punctuate the action beats. He's helped immeasurably by cinematographer Ric Waites, who does good work capturing the natural beauty of the Alaskan landscape; of course, there's also a world of difference between an action movie like On Deadly Ground, shot on 35mm with a budget of $50 million, and the DTV action movies we get today. Where Seagal the filmmaker lets down Seagal the actor is his indulgences, as this is a movie that exists to deify Steven Seagal, action star, and almost always does so at the expense of the narrative. Every other character in the film is tasked with espousing just how badass Forrest Taft is with lines like:
"Delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. And that won't come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed."
"He's the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline so he could piss in your campfire! You could drop this guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear, without his toothbrush, and tomorrow afternoon he's going to show up at your pool side with a million dollar smile and fist full of pesos."
Dances With Wolves thing but way worse because we never even see him gaining understanding or learning anything from the people whose culture he's claiming for himself; he's just the best of them because he's Steven Fucking Seagal. To make matters worse, he's totally willing to chuck all of that spirituality right out the window when it no longer serves his agenda, going so far as to mock the Joan Chen character for believing in it when all that matters to him is a bit of the ultraviolence. I'm not mad at Steven Seagal for sticking to his brand -- it's why I want to see On Deadly Ground in the first place -- but his mock enlightenment (I haven't even mentioned the scene in which he beats the shit out of Mike Starr and then asks "What does it take to change the essence of a man?" and Starr tearfully replies "I need time..."), coupled with his utter willingness to sell out said enlightenment to meet the requirements of the genre is cynical and desperate.
And then there is the final scene, in which Seagal gives an interminable monologue about protecting the environment to an audience of people who all know better than he does. Reportedly, the scene originally ran a staggering 11 minutes, but negative reactions from test audience gave the studio leverage to pressure Seagal into trimming it down. The sequence is filmed in wide shots and intercut with archival footage so that Seagal never delivers more than a line or two in sequence; most of it could be looped in after the fact. It's a rambling, unfocused college freshman speech -- Adam Sandler discussing the Industrial Revolution at the end of Billy Madison. I want to give Seagal the credit for having his heart in the right place, for wanting to make an action movie that contains an actual message, but it's really hard to get there with On Deadly Ground when Seagal can't get out of his own way long enough to make that message resonate.