O is for… On Deadly Ground
So, I have finally seen a movie starring Steven Seagal. It was… pretty much what I was expecting.
At least now Will Sasso’s parodies on Mad TV make a whole lot more sense. (Anyone know what I’m talking about? Remember Mad TV’s first few seasons? Hilarious.)
On Deadly Ground, directed by Seagal, stars Seagal as Forrest Taft, who works for Aegis Oil, which is run by Michael Jennings (Michael Caine—for some reason). He is shown putting out a huge fire, which another employee, Hugh Palmer (Richard Hamilton), blames on faulty preventers. It is evident to Forrest that there is something wrong with Aegis Oil’s rigs, and he figures that Jennings knows something about it. Jennings is shown explaining how important it is to get the new rig up and running in 13 days, or the land reverts back to the ownership of the Eskimos. Forrest meanwhile taps into the system at the rig and learns that there are several weak components of the rig mechanics, with the primary one being the faulty preventers. The faulty ones were used because another shipment would take 90 days, way over the limit to have the rig functional to maintain ownership of the land. Meanwhile, Hugh has evidence of the faulty preventers in the logbooks that he has both in hard copy and on computer disk. At this point, you may be wondering what the heck a “preventer” is, and so am I, because it’s never explained beyond the implication of maintaining pressure levels.
Jennings and his team, led by MacGruder (John C. McGinley), try to trap Forrest in another explosion (after they kill Hugh while trying to find the logbooks), but he is able to escape. He gets rescued by Eskimos, and they help heal him. The rest of the film up until the ending is kind of one long chase as MacGruder enlists mercenaries led by Stone (R. Lee Ermey) to help him track down Forrest and eliminate him. Forrest and Masu (Joan Chen), daughter of the chief of their village, plot how to take down the rig to ensure Aegis Oil loses control of the land, and stops polluting it.
The climax of the film involves a long sequence of fight scenes and explosions as Forrest destroys the rig, despite MacGruder’s and Jennings’ best efforts to prevent that from happening. After blowing up the rig and killing everyone on it, pretty much, there’s an extremely long scene of Forrest explaining how awful oil companies are, as the Eskimos get back control of their land.
It’s really quite more plot than I was expecting, which is impressive considering nothing really seemed developed throughout the film. Fortunately it touched on almost all my criteria, so let’s delve in to the list.
A is for… Accents
Interestingly Michael Caine’s accent seems muted somehow. He’s still British, but the accent doesn’t seem as pronounced. Perhaps, though, I’m more used to him playing characters that are extremely British (Ebenezer Scrooge in A Muppet Christmas Carol, Alfred Pennyworth in the Dark Knight Trilogy), so I notice it more in those roles, or maybe he embellishes it for those sorts of roles.
The native/Inuit peoples in the film have accents, for the most part.
Jennings’ thug Otto (Sven-Ole Thorsen) only has a couple short lines, but he seems to be German.
B is for… Bad Guys
Jennings seems to be the stereotypical horrible oil executive who will destroy anything in the name of getting more money for himself. He seems to be the CEO of Aegis Oil, though his title isn’t explicitly stated. He’s not really given a lot of depth.
MacGruder is Jennings’ number one guy, or maybe his security. It’s kind of hard to tell. Let’s say he’s his right hand man. He has no problem killing people for Jennings. He’s given even less depth, and if it weren’t for the fact that he’s played by the mean doctor from Scrubs, I’d likely not have paid too much attention to him at all.
C is for… Chases
There are very few vehicles in the film, and too much ground gets covered for a chase on foot, but there is a very lovely chase on horseback through the Alaskan wilderness, as MacGruder and Stone lead the mercenaries in a chase after Forrest and Masu. Truly, the Alaskan scenery is beautiful, and Forrest’s horse is amazing.
D is for… Damsels
The only female in pretty much the whole movie is Masu, daughter of the chief of their village. She translates her father’s words for Forrest, and helps him get back to civilization. She then helps Forrest with his weapons and explosives, and infiltration of the refinery and rig.
Liles (Shari Shattuck) is Jennings’ corporate publicity/public affairs person, or maybe something to do with legal, and she is extremely on-the-ball and just as slimy as Jennings is.
E is for… Explosions
The opening scene introduces Forrest trying to put out a fire at an oil substation. He uses some sort of drum that, when it explodes, retards the fire. The explosion is pretty large but Jennings doesn’t duck, which is notable only because all of the oil workers do and MacGruder hits the deck after them.
At the second substation, 101, MacGruder detonates an explosion to both cover up the evidence of his murder of Hugh, and also kill Forrest.
Forrest has been stockpiling explosives in a cabin on a mountain, and uses C-4 to totally destroy the place. The helicopter that had been carrying the mercenaries gets caught in the explosion, and it’s genuinely an impressive bit of cinematography as the helicopter catches fire and explodes. It’s so nice to see practical effects and not CGI.
Also during the chase, Forrest sets up a booby trap for the mercenaries, which involves military grade explosives, wire, and a mousetrap.
He also uses an explosive to both take out more mercenaries and also blow up part of the cliff-side, so that the mercenaries’ horses can’t make the jump the way his and Masu’s can.
At the refinery he uses the phone system to call in an explosion, which causes many explosions and fires afterwards.
Forrest detonates an explosion in an elevator. Where he and Masu are at this time, because they were last scene in the elevator, is up to viewer interpretation.
In the control room, Forrest fiddles with the buttons, levers, and knobs, which manipulates the pressure throughout the refinery, which culminates in an explosion.
Forrest sets up a shaped charge to cause the preventers to implode, which will prevent an oil spill.
Ultimately the oil rig explodes in a series of chain reactions, and it appears that small fireworks were used to add to the visual drama.
F is for… Flashbacks
There aren’t any flashbacks in On Deadly Ground, though their use may have served to develop Forrest a bit more, but there is a vision quest dream sequence thing. In the vision quest Forrest kills a bear and becomes “reborn” through some unsubtle water imagery, though it becomes somewhat confusing as to what exactly is a vision and what might be real.
G is for… Guns
Full list at the IMFDB.
There aren’t any guns for quite a while in the film, with the first notable guns being the handguns and machine guns MacGruder and Otto and crew bring with them when they storm the Eskimo village looking for Forrest. Of course MacGruder winds up shooting the chief and blaming him for what happened, though it was MacGruder who needlessly shot him.
Forrest has a bag of weapons stashed away at Hugh’s house, which MacGruder and Otto don’t seem to find as they ransack the place looking for the logbooks. Forrest specifically says he has a .45 stashed away.
Hugh has a handful of shotguns displayed, and Forrest and Masu take them, but not before there’s a shootout at Hugh’s house between them and the mercenaries. Hilariously, one of the mercenaries chucks his machine gun at Forrest.
Along with his military grade explosives, Forrest also has guns stockpiled in his cabin.
While the booby trap is enacted during the chase, MacGruder fires his gun randomly at nothing until Stone tells him to knock it off. What the heck is he doing? He just saw Forrest and Masu above them on a cliff; they aren’t going to have come back down!
Improbably, Forrest uses a 2-liter soda bottle as a silencer on his gun.
There is of course a shootout at the refinery, which was inevitable so why bother with the silencer? They all knew Forrest was coming.
H is for… Helicopters
There is an Aegis Oil helicopter that Jennings and MacGruder use to get around. The first shot of the movie as the opening credit montage ends is the helicopter flying over more scenery. What’s notable about this helicopter is that it’s an actual set piece, not just a tool for transport or to establish a scene or carry gun-toting men. Actual conversations happen inside of it.
The mercenaries travel in a creepy-looking-by-comparison black helicopter.
I is for… Improvisation
In the interminable bar scene that served no point other than to demonstrate what a bad-ass Forrest is supposed to be, Forrest uses a coil of rope as a weapon.
His booby trap during the chase seems improvised.
Blowing up the cliff so it can’t be jumped is genius.
Forrest uses a 2-liter bottle as a silencer on the refinery.
He uses his machine gun to detonate gasoline.
A room is rendered flammable so no guns can be used, forcing Forrest to come up with another weapon: a pipe ripped from the wall, which he uses like a bo staff.
Also at the refinery, he uses a wire cable as a lasso to catch Jennings.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
Forrest throws an oil worker through a glass window during the bar fight. It appears to be real glass, not the safety stuff that always looks fake.
On the refinery Forrest uses his pipe/staff to fling a guy through a window. Not through the open door next to it, or to the ground, or the wall, or past that little room entirely, but through the small window.
K is for… Kill Count
Forrest kills one of the mercenaries at Hugh’s house by shooting him twice in a row, then a third time later on.
It’s unclear how many other mercenaries are killed versus wounded, except for the guy impaled on the tree branches after being thrown off his feet by the booby trap.
Many more mercenaries, Aegis employees, and who knows who else are killed on the refinery and rig.
Stone is killed in a memorable fashion, as he taunts Forrest with his rifle, and Forrest rips it out of his hands and shoots him with it.
L is for… Limitations
Forrest has absolutely no limitations, as is basically stated by both Jennings and Stone. He is described as virtually god-like.
M is for… Motivation
Jennings’ motivation is obviously money. He needed to rush construction on the Aegis-1 rig in order to maintain the rights to the land and the oil underneath it. He explains the rights are worth billions of dollars a week.
Forrest, of course, wants to stop Jennings and his greed from harming the environment. Other than that there’re no personal reasons for him to fight Jennings, other than Jennings wanting him dead. But there was no reason for Forrest to engage in battle initially, other than checking out what was wrong at the substation from the beginning. Pretty much if Forrest didn’t have it out for Jennings, Jennings wouldn’t have it out for Forrest.
N is for… Negotiation
There really isn’t any room in the film for negotiation between Forrest and Jennings, as they don’t share too many scenes once the plot gets going, and neither one would be willing to compromise anyway.
MacGruder does torture Hugh and eventually kills him because he won’t reveal the location of the logbooks.
O is for… One Liners
Forrest, sounding “deep” during the bar fight where he’s playing slapsies: What does it take to change the essence of a man? (The answer apparently being slapping his hands then hitting him in the stomach. Public humiliation may be part of that, too. The idea, while meaningful, doesn’t seem to play a part in the rest of the movie, as the bad guys all die and Forrest doesn’t seem to have needed to change his essence, unless it’s some sort of foreshadowing of his spirit quest and rebirth as a bear warrior. …I could be thinking too much about this. …but not as much as some people over in a particular discussion thead on the IMDB here.)
Jennings, somewhat disgusted: You didn’t find Taft… But you managed to kill an unarmed Eskimo.
Stone: How do you want him delivered?
Jennings: *angry stare*
Stone: I see.
Stone: Whatever he is, he’s a damn problem.
Masu: Doesn’t look like anyone is expecting us.
Forrest: Nothing could be further from the truth.
Liles, in Poltergeist-girl voice: He’s ba-ack.
MacGruder, while escaping: I am not that stupid.
Jennings: Oh yes you are.
Kennings to Liles as she inches towards the door: Where are you going?
Liles, clearly lying and trying to follow MacGruder: …To the bathroom…
Stone: I want you to protect this like your sister’s cherry.
Forrest, to Jennings: I wouldn’t dirty my bullets.
Masu: Dirty one for me, Forrest.
P is for… Profession
And here we finally get to my main problem with the movie: what does Forrest do, and what is his relationship to Jennings?
He puts out the fires on the oil rigs/substations/refineries, whatever. Hugh says he sold out. Forrest has his full name printed on his truck (a Suburban, which is not terribly environmentally friendly). He has access to confidential files, but his name is flagged when he searches. He clearly works for Jennings, but doing what and why, since he doesn’t seem to like him very much? If Forrest is such a loose canon, as Jennings implies by being afraid of him, then why do they have a history of buying hookers in Bangkok together? Nothing makes sense, and if I’m questioning what the heck someone is doing in a particular place, it makes it hard to care about what he’s doing there.
His spirit warriors are a bear spirit and an eagle spirit, for what that’s worth.
Jennings describes Forrest as the “ultimate fucking nightmare, and that doesn’t come close to this guy when he’s pissed.” So… why does he work for you, Mr. Jennings? Is it a “keep your enemies closer” kind of deal? Because it’s just really confusing.
Stone describes Forrest as “patron saint of the impossible,” and as being unknown in databases until 1987. Everyone throws out a guess as to who he used to work for: CIA, NSA, DOD. Stone eventually also lists a bunch of weird “Chuck Norris-style praises” that make no sense considering he doesn’t even know who the guy is. Seriously, how can he know that Forrest fits the bill of, “Any time the military has an operation that can’t fail, they call this guy in to train the troops,” and, “He’s the kind of guy that would drink a gallon of gasoline so he could piss in your campfire” if he can’t find anything about him in the computer? During the chase he seemed disappointed that Forrest didn’t live up to whatever expectations he had, and after a few booby traps he’s suddenly a god? Shoving perfection onto a character doesn’t make that character have those traits. Show, don’t tell.
So aside from doing something unspecified for Aegis, and loving the environment, the viewer doesn’t really learn much about Forrest. Though he does have an oddly appropriate name.
Q is for… Quagmire
Again, especially considering Jenning’s fear of Forrest and Stone’s awe of him, there is no situation in which Forrest seems to be outmatched, outgunned, in danger, at risk of failing, nothing. He doesn’t even seem to break a sweat, despite his leather jackets.
R is for… Reality, or Suspension of Disbelief
I know nothing about oil rigs, so I can’t say anything about that aspect of the film.
I do, however, find it strange that Forrest would stock a teeny cabin up on a mountain with all of his weapons, however he acquired them. Wouldn’t you want something easier to get to? What if he couldn’t get a horse, or didn’t have a helper?
And, of course, if Forrest is so scary, why would Jennings employ him? If he doesn’t know Forrest’s history, how does he know how good he would be at his job?
S is for… Sidekicks
Masu counts as a sidekick, though she doesn’t seem to do much after they get back to civilization other than carry stuff and follow Forrest’s orders. Her motivation is two-fold between fighting Aegis and getting revenge for her father’s awful death. Perhaps she’s already started to develop a thing for Forrest, too. Other than being proficient at riding horses, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for Forrest to bring her into such a dangerous place at the refinery. The viewer isn’t treated to her firing guns or doing anything useful other than translating what her father says.
T is for… Technology
Hugh has the log books for the substation on his computer and on a 3.5-inch floppy, so they must be really tiny log books. The logbooks provide a weak excuse for MacGruder to come in and torture him before having Otto kill him. MacGruder does a crummy job of ransacking the house and looking for them anyway.
Forrest uses a comm unit in his cabin of weapons so that the mercenaries can track him there.
The refinery doesn’t seem to have any sort of fancy security system, so maybe Jennings was cutting corners there as well.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
It’s not exactly unexpected, nor is it even explicit, but during the end credits Forrest and Masu are holding hands in a canoe.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
Overall there aren’t too many vehicles in the film aside from helicopters, Forrest’s giant truck, and horses.
A la Indiana Jones, Forrest uses a helicopter propeller to kill MacGruder, though unlike Indy and the giant goon he faced, Forrest shoves MacGruder into it, or at the very least holds him in place.
W is for… Winning
Forrest and Masu make it to the refinery, and Forrest enacts his plan to destroy the place. He kills and injures a lot of people while simultaneously causing a lot of damage and explosions. As he systematically makes his way through the refinery to the rig, he does away with his enemies:
MacGruder dies a bloody death as Forrest lets a helicopter blade cut him up.
Liles drives a truck into a gas tanker, and the spilled gas ignites.
After tying Jennings up, Forrest shoots the cable holding him, so he falls into a vat of oil and apparently drowns, or something, as the viewer never sees him again. Nothing happens for a while, but the place does eventually explode. However that doesn’t stop me from thinking this feels an awful lot like an origin story for a Batman villain.
So, the refinery and the rig are completely destroyed.
The final looooong scene has Forrest preaching about clean energy, and explaining the Eskimos have their land back.
X is for… X-Rays
Like I said before, I don’t think Forrest even breaks a sweat, let alone gets hurt. Too bad John McClane doesn’t have his luck.
Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
There are vague comments that Jennings and Forrest have a history together, but it never gets developed. Perhaps Forrest works for Jennings to keep an eye on him, and vice-versa? If Forrest had reason to suspect Jennings was corrupt, wouldn’t he have tried to expose him earlier? His actions here to kill all these people and destroy Aegis-1 cannot be simply because of faulty preventers in the one substation.
Z is for… Zone, In The
The whole movie basically depicts Forrest as being “in the zone” on-top-of-things being awesome and perfect. It’s tiring, actually. If he always excels then he never truly does anything special. He also doesn’t seem to do anything particularly awesome or wonderful; there’s a lot of talk and minimal demonstration of his magical abilities.
So, yeah, wow. On Deadly Ground. What a mess of poor character development, a too-long first act that explains nothing, and weird choppy editing that just made the ludicrous dialogue stand out even more.
Other than the beautiful shots of Alaska that set the stage, there are no reasons to watch this movie. It doesn’t even really fall into “so bad it’s good” territory. The scenery really was gorgeous, though the opening shot of the eagle looked fake, like it was filmed at a zoo or something.
The beautiful wilderness contrasted perfectly with the sterile shots of Aegis-1; to go from natural grandeur to the cold, mechanical manmade structure subtly illustrated how horrible the oil company was.
Oh my God, what was with the fringed leather jackets? I counted four, not counting the shirt he borrows from the village. The jackets were totally distracting, like the cravats in The Day of the Jackal. They looked ridiculous and didn’t add much to the character, aside from maybe emphasizing he’s a man of the land. But that could have been done without fringe and beads. And the red one at Aegis-1! If you’re trying to blend in, a red fringy jacket is not the way to go about doing so.
That whole bar scene to set the stage for Forrest’s bad-assery just didn’t work. It was too long and didn’t add much. Maybe if the slapsies part was cut out it would have at least established Forrest as being good at hand-to-hand, but the scene just dragged on pointlessly. And if Forrest is a regular, as he seems to be since the owner calls him by name, and if he’s as bad-ass as the movie is trying to make him, why pick a fight with him? Seems like he’d be the last person anyone would want to fight with.
There’s a lot of racism in the bar scene towards Eskimos, which is interesting because they aren’t often represented in film so it’s not something an average viewer sees much of on screen. It’s sort of implied that Forrest is a Native American as well, but it might be a misinterpretation on my part.
It may have been just a problem of transferring the film to the DVD I watched, but the aspect ratio changed from 16×9 to 4×3. Most of the movie was in 4×3, but the opening credits, two scenes in the middle, and then the end credits again were 16×9. It was really distracting and weird, and I don’t know if it was a poor transfer, intentional to show more in those particular frames, or maybe the wrong lens kit was used those days of filming.
If nothing else, the film provides a nice glimpse into Inuit culture, from sled dogs to village life to throat singing and spirit rituals. What’s kind of strange though is that Forrest celebrates Eskimo culture but then basically says their spiritual beliefs are nonsense compared to the real world where spirits can’t help. So, a mixed message that may be a veiled attempt to convince any Inuit people watching to reconsider their cultural beliefs.
Forrest’s message about environmental responsibility and renewable energy at the end of the movie is just interminable. Maybe the ideas were all new in 1994, but here in 2013 the ideas aren’t new and as such the scene plays as extremely preachy and uninteresting. I kind of wanted to just shake Forrest and tell him to move on.
Anyway, to wrap this up, On Deadly Ground suffers greatly from a lack of actual character development. When it’s not even clear what the main character/god does and why he’s there, it’s a problem. The movie isn’t long; there’s time to add some development for all of the main characters and make them all less one-dimensional. A little bit would have gone a long way towards making the movie actually get its message across, rather than just confound viewers.
Though nothing can adequately clarify why Michael Caine agreed to do the movie at all.