I’ve written before that Steven Seagal the action film icon is quite different from Steven Seagal the real-life man. The actual Seagal has been accused of sexual misconduct and of being egomaniacal. He has, without question, cozied up with tyrants like Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and American President Donald Trump. Even his reputation as a bona fide badass is questionable at best; the young Seagal was one of the most talented martial artists in mainstream cinema, but he has spent the last two decades gaining weight and having stunt doubles perform most of the action scenes in his movies. Considering that Seagal is a terrible actor, and his athleticism was his main draw at the peak of his career, this makes you wonder why anyone should bother seeing one of his later films in the first place.
Yet there is something appealing about the Seagal mythos. Any decent person should loath the man he actually is, but the men he plays in his movies represent what any hero in our world ought to be. A standard Seagal character, as a mononymous author named Vern wrote in “Seagalology,” is the best at everything he does but remains humble. He appreciates and learns from other cultures, humiliates bullies by giving them a taste of their own medicine, stands up to more ominous authority figures even when they represent supposedly untouchable institutions (the US government, large corporations) and — most important of all for this film — recognizes that one of the great causes of our time is protecting the environment.
This brings me to Seagal’s 1994 movie “On Deadly Ground.” From a career standpoint, this was a disaster for Seagal, a film that single-handedly knocked him off the Hollywood A-list and relegated him to the cheap theatrical and straight-to-DVD releases he is notorious for today. Yet from an artistic standpoint… Well, it’s a very interesting movie.
Not good, mind you. But genuinely interesting.
First, a word about the action scenes. Like all Seagal movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s, “On Deadly Ground” is exceptional when it comes to meeting the requirements of its genre. Seagal’s impeccable martial arts skills are thrilling to watch, the pyrotechnics make things blow up real nice and the Alaskan scenery where the story is set is shot in a way that duly emphasizes its breathtaking grandeur. These details are made all the more impressive by the fact that Seagal directed this movie himself. Say what you will about the man’s acting, but at least on this occasion, he was a competent director.
“On Deadly Ground” is distinguished not by its quality action scenes, though, but by its message. It tells the story of a fixer named Forrest Taft (Seagal) who discovers that a corrupt oil company is destroying the environment in order to exploit the land rightfully owned by indigenous Alaskans. This was a passion project for Seagal, one that he insisted on making as a prerequisite to starring in the vehicles studios wanted for him, and it shows. The man had something he wanted to say to the world… and what he wanted to say was not only right, but remarkably ahead of its time.
Several moments stand out:
- When Michael Caine’s villainous oil executive decides he needs some positive publicity to offset his latest polluting misdeeds, he stars in a treacly and hypocritical pro-environmental commercial. Anyone who remembers how British Petroleum tried to save face after its 2010 oil spill can attest that this moment was eerily prophetic.
- In another troubling echo of real life, the movie’s plot is based around Caine’s oil executive using substandard parts on his oil rigs in order to meet deadlines and save money.
- At the end of the movie, Seagal delivers a big pro-environmental speech that makes a compelling case against the power of Big Oil. Among its best lines: “Big business is primarily responsible for destroying the water we drink, the air we breath, and the food we eat. They have no cure for the world they’ve destroyed. [They care] only for the money they make in the process.” and “As long as there is profit to be made from the polluting of our earth, companies and individuals will continue to do what they want. We have to force these companies to work safely and responsibly, and with all our best interest in mind, so that when they don’t, we can take back our resources and our hearts and our minds to do what’s right.”
Does this amount to a recommendation for “On Deadly Ground”? No. For one thing, I cannot morally look past Seagal’s record as a terrible human being, one that transcends normal diva levels and enters the realm of the outright sinister. For another, the plot is formulaic, full of holes and hokey and the acting (aside from Caine and John C. McGinley of “Scrubs” fame as one of his sadistic goons) cringe-inducing. For a third, despite Seagal’s best intentions on the cultural diversity front, his characterization of Inuits is simplistic and offensive. They exist not as individuals, but as cardboard cutouts representing benevolence who exist to help a white savior (the Seagal character) realize his destiny.
Yet 26 years ago, before I knew that Seagal was a bad guy in real life or could deconstruct movies on an artistic level, I saw “On Deadly Ground.” Even as a nine-year-old boy, I sensed that Seagal was trying to create a different kind of action hero, someone who addressed real-world problems instead of fighting cartoonish bad guys. I knew that it was unusual for an action film to have an environmentalist message. It impressed and inspired me, the Matthew Rozsa that did not know who Steven Seagal really was.
Seagal was right about the biggest issues of our time, even if he has since turned on his own previous principles. Frankly we needed the Seagal who made “On Deadly Ground” to become a much more influential pop culture figure. The problem was that “On Deadly Ground,” for all of its flaws, was better than the man who made it.
It’s sad. That’s really all I can say about that.