Monday, March 04, 2013

Films of Michael Caine: On Deadly Ground


Cast: Steven Seagal (Forrest Taft), Michael Caine (Michael Jennings), Joan Chen (Masu), John C McGinley (MacGruder), R Lee Ermey (Stone), Shari Shattuck (Liles), Billy Bob Thornton (Homer Carlton), Richard Hamilton (Hugh Palmer), Chief Irvin Brink (Silook), Apanguluk Charlie Kairaiuak (Tunrak).

Crew: Steven Seagal (director), Steven Seagal, Julius R Nasso and A Kitman Ho (producers), Ed Horowitz and Robin U Russin (writers), Basil Poledouris (music), Ric Waite (cinematography), Robert A Ferretti and Don Brochu (editors), William Ladd Skinner (production designer).

Synopsis: A rig owned by Aegis Oil catches fire in Valdez, Alaska. Ruthless company boss Michael Jennings brings in trouble-shooter Forrest Taft to stop the blaze. Rig foreman Hugh Palmer blames Jennings for the disaster, claiming his boss forced him to use faulty safety equipment. Forrest discovers the allegation is true. Jennings has to get the world’s biggest oil rig, Aegis-1, online soon or else oil rights worth billions of dollars a week will revert to the native Eskimos. The company is deliberately using faulty equipment because waiting for replacements would mean missing the deadline. Jennings has Palmer murdered and tries to kill Forrest too. But Taft survives the blast and is nursed back to health by the Eskimos. Forrest takes vengeance on the oil company, sabotaging Aegis-1 just before it goes online and drowning Jennings in oil. The Eskimos reclaim their land…


Martial arts expert Steven Seagal was just a minor action movie hero until Under Siege stormed the US box office in 1992. Its success gave him the clout to make On Deadly Ground, an action movie with a pro-environment message. Seagal was the star of the film, one of three producers and made his directing debut. Shooting began in 1993 with five weeks on location in Alaska. The cast and crew endured blizzards and wild extremes of temperature. ‘This is a picture I care deeply about,’ Seagal said in the movie’s publicity material. ‘If it wasn’t something special, I wouldn’t gone to the great effort and risk.’

He hired Caine to star as evil oil company boss Michael Jennings, continuing a Hollywood trend of hiring British actors to play villains for action features. Caine praised his boss in the studio-approved publicity material: ‘A first-time director brings a whole new load of fresh ideas. Steven has a very strong vision of what this movie is and should be. He earned my trust. I wouldn’t have come and just done a crash, bang martial arts film. There’s more to On Deadly Ground than that. Although we have an exciting piece of entertainment, the film does carry an important message as well.’ The actor explained his reasons for taking the role: ‘In a film called Mona Lisa (1986) I played a really dark character with no nice side at all, and I had a great time. I thought it would be fun to do it again.’

Behind the scenes Caine was less than impressed. During a public interview at the NFT in 1998, the actor said his experiences while making On Deadly Ground helped drive him into semi-retirement: ‘I … sort of stopped worked because the joy had gone out of doing it. I finally wound up in Alaska with Steven Seagal, which took quite a lot of joy out of it. I remember ringing down to the desk in my hotel and saying, “Could you send someone up for the laundry?” And they said, “The laundrette’s next door.” And I was freezing my butt off, and I thought, I don’t need this, so I stopped.’

After Alaska the production moved to the state of Washington for more location filming before concluding shooting at Los Angeles with further location work and interiors on a soundstage. There was a dispute between Seagal and Warner Brothers studio over the final cut of On Deadly Ground. The picture concludes with the star delivering an environmental lecture that attacks big business and alleges political collusion in pollution. Rumours at the time suggested Seagal’s original cut of the film had a 10-15 minute lecture, but the studio insisted this edited down to four minutes for the final cut.

On Deadly Ground was released in America with an R rating in February 1994. Lambasted by critics, it grossed nearly $40 million – less than half what Under Siege had taken. Seagal won the Razzie award as worst director for this feature and has not directed a film since. On Deadly Ground reached British cinemas a month later, with the BBFC requiring seventy seconds of cuts before granting a 15 rating. It grossed more than $2 million. On Deadly Ground was released on video several months later and remains available. A DVD version was issued in the US.

Reviews: ‘This is a vanity production parading as a social statement.’ – Variety
‘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 Washington Post

Verdict: On Deadly Ground has a car crash quality, being so compulsively awful it is difficult to tear your eyes away. Seagal acts with the panache of a rice pudding. His pro-environment sentiments are laudable, but the delivery is laughable. After an orgy of violence, the lecture at the finale carries no weight or credibility. Caine’s performance is among the worst of his career, with an accent that veers from Cockney to California and back again. Just as variable is his hair colour, appearing jet black in some scenes and dark brown in others, as if Caine was combing his locks with Marmite. Comparisons to his performance in Mona Lisa are risible, to say the least. Whatever the size of his fee for this farrago, it was not enough to match the indignity On Deadly Ground heaped upon his career.

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