Steven Seagal works hard at being a mystery man, but sometimes he’s a puzzle without even trying. Consider his bulky physique, his waddling gait, that dust-broom ponytail, and acting skills so wooden you expect to see splinters sticking out of his head. Factor in a flat, coarse delivery and martial-arts skills nowhere near as fluid and pyrotechnic as those in a John Woo film, and you have to wonder how this scowling hulk could have become a Hollywood leading man, especially in the lean-and-hard world of action movies.
But you have to understand that when it comes to Steven Seagal, none of those things matters. To fully comprehend Seagal’s appeal, most recently exhibited in On Deadly Ground, first start with the two scientifically proven categories of action flicks: MPC (Madman Provokes Calamity, such as the two Die Hards, the first Terminator, and this summer’s Speed) and the equally durable and entertaining PTH (Pushed Too Hard, e.g., Stallone’s Rambo trilogy and the first Death Wish). In PTH, a basically decent person minding his — or, occasionally, her — own business is forced to endure one atrocity after another before fighting back. Billy Jack, the grade-A 1971 B movie about a counterculture figure who karate-chops the establishment when he’s not philosophizing about spiritual needs, initiated the genre, but it is Seagal who is its master.
Appearing on the scene with 1988’s Above the Law, Seagal proved his timing and on-screen presence were impeccable, even if his much-disputed background isn’t. (Did he really work for the CIA? How good at aikido is he? Would he look like Michael Bolton if he washed that gooey stuff out of his hair?) The action genre was then languishing: Stallone and Schwarzenegger were trying to broaden their appeal, making lame comedies; Chuck Norris had stalled. Into this wasteland strutted Seagal, a brooding avenger dressed in black and steeped in Far East philosophies — a minimalist warrior for the back-to-basics ’90s.
Seagal’s work is minimalist too. All of his films to date have nearly identical elements: A virtuous man battles wimpy, corrupt corporate forces, with at least one scene in which Seagal takes on a gang of thugs, turning them into pinwheels or making their limbs move in ways nature didn’t intend.
Half of his six-film oeuvre is more than credible, with the pre-ponytail Above the Law resembling a ’70s TV cop show gone big-screen, while its follow-up, Hard to Kill — Seagal as a jaded cop exposing a crooked Senator — has a relentless pace. Under Siege, a crafty Die Hard rip-off about a terrorist takeover of a battleship that is undermined by a jaded Navy SEAL-turned-cook (guess who), demonstrates the benefit of hiring costars who can act — namely, Gary Busey and the delightfully deranged Tommy Lee Jones. On the downside, Seagal’s hapless attempt at an Italian accent helps derail the plodding Out for Justice, while Marked for Death, potentially his most exotic film (Seagal takes on a Jamaican drug posse) is undone by murky cinematography.
In a way, you have to admire the ambition behind On Deadly Ground, Seagal’s self-directed eco-thriller that aspires to be a definitive PTH work and a slide show about how multinational companies are soiling the planet. The plot centers on an oil baron (Michael Caine) who will dispense with anyone to complete an ill-equipped refinery.
Despite panoramic sweeps of the Alaskan frontier, the film exposes Seagal the director as the hero’s most unbeatable foe. Caine is at his heavy-handed worst, and the brawls are as flabby as the star. In the movie’s infamous epilogue, Seagal (as jaded company troubleshooter Forrest Taft) sermonizes about big business destroying the planet’s ecosystems. The intent is noble, but reading lines like ”The plankton is dying,” he sounds like a grumpy gym coach forced to teach social studies for a day. And you have to wonder about an environmental warrior who saves the earth by blowing up said refinery.
Aside from one quiet moment between Taft and his Eskimo companion (Joan Chen), the movie is far from hopeful. In his films, Seagal is pushed to the brink by a world gone wrong, but there is little or no catharsis: Deep down, he knows he’s only won one small battle in an endless war. For all his bravado, Seagal is ultimately the lost action hero. Hard to Kill: B+