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‘On Deadly Ground’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 19, 1994

Consider this an oily warning: Clint Eastwood had "Unforgiven." Steven Seagal has "Unforgivable."

However, he calls it "On Deadly Ground."

Martial arts maven Seagal has long been on deadly ground with critics, and this, his directorial debut, is likely to keep him there. He didn't write the script for this story about an Alaskan oil industry troubleshooter who, er, shoots a lot of trouble in the Alaskan oil industry while finding his environmental conscience, but he might just as well have.

When Forrest Taft (Seagal) makes his entrance to cap an oil rig fire, someone says "Oh, thank God!" Soon after, an Inuit saved from a barroom beating by racist oil workers tells Taft: "You're about to go on a sacred journey." Someone calls him "the Chosen One." Someone else calls him "the Spirit Warrior." Another person calls him "the patron saint of the impossible."

Even Taft's enemies can't stop talking about him; problem is, they all sound like publicists.

Especially Michael Jennings (Michael Caine). The dastardly Jennings is head of the Aegis Oil Co., eager to jump-start a super-rig named Aegis One before land rights revert back to the local Inuit tribe. Unfortunately, because of faulty equipment, it's highly likely that the rig will blow and despoil the pristine landscape.

Once upon a time, Taft and Jennings were associates, but you know something's wrong when Taft wonders things like "How much money is enough?" and "What does one say to a man with conscience?"

He also warns, "If you smell anything, get out of here," but that's addressed to some colleagues, not audiences, who, having paid to see this, will presumably stay for the whole thing.

Overall, the things Taft says, and the situations he finds himself in, are more appropriate to a comic book than an action film, from a brief spiritual sojourn in an Inuit village to the final showdown and blowup at Aegis One. Recovering from an attempted assassination, Taft engages the Inuit elder (Chief Irvin Brink) in deep talk in which a menagerie of spirit animals gets invoked, from mouse and hawk to bear and, frankly, a lot of bull.)

Taft does eventually connect with principle and with Masu (Joan Chen), a beautiful Inuit activist whose most daring deed is throwing oil on Jennings's new suit. Masu spends much of the film tagging alongside Taft, ducking and waiting while he takes care of business against assorted mercenaries. Alaska, it should be noted, is also along for the scenery and naturally comes off better than Chen.

Seagal, of course, has made his name as a martial arts hero, and he allows nothing here to tarnish that mythology, though an embarrassed Michael Caine looks to be having second thoughts from his first frame to his last, when he begs, "Go ahead, shoot me!" The film probably feels the same way.

The neophyte director often lets words speak louder than action, nowhere more clumsily than in the film's epilogue. Patterned on the congressional testimony that ended his debut, "Above the Law," Seagal-as-Taft delivers a very long lecture (with documentary footage) attacking big business and the oil cartels while supporting alternative energy programs. This originally ran 15 minutes but Warner Bros. reportedly insisted it be cut back. Unfortunately, it still feels like 15 minutes. If only that were true of "On Deadly Ground" as a whole.

"On Deadly Ground" is rated R and contains violence, profanity, nudity and Steven Seagal.

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