Steven Seagal is for me the most interesting.
Seagal made his name with a series of classic films: Out For Justice, Hard To Kill, Above The Law, Marked For Death.
Then he tried to use his fame to save the planet by highlighting environmental issues in his films (On Deadly Ground, Fire Down Below). And promote his spiritual beliefs by regular championing Buddhism (The Glimmer Man, Out For A Kill).
Sadly the public didn’t want to hear these messages. Or at least not from Steven Seagal through the medium of action cinema. Now, for many, Seagal is just that stony-faced fat guy who’s in a lot of incredibly bad films that always seem to be on TV.
All this is a roundabout way of getting to Half Past Dead (2002). For those of us who care about Seagal, the film marks a turning point in his career. How the lean, mean aikido machine became the chunky, pony-tailed parody of his former glory.
Excluding his cameo in Machete, this was Seagal’s last US theatrical release. Big Steve’s ‘message movies’ had caused a mid-career wobble temporarily salvaged by the unexpected success of the message free Exit Wounds. With his career on life support Steve followed up with Half Past Dead. It flat-lined at the box office, and Seagal was consigned to the world of DTV.
Seagal plays an undercover cop who nearly dies - hence the title - during the arrest of car thief Ja Rule. Still undercover Seagal and Ja Rule wash up at in the same prison just as a criminal gang led by Morris Chestnut break into the prison. They’re out to get a death row inmate Richard Bremmer, who’s about to be executed, to reveal where he’s stashed millions of dollars of gold bullion.
Ja Rule is cast here as the comedy sidekick. This is a period in Seagal’s career when it was compulsory for old totem face Seagal to be paired with a comedic foil. They are always a sign of decline. It's why no-one likes Scrappy Doo.
There’s a painful scene where Ja Rule attempts to teach Steve how to talk street. Seagal has the good sense here to look embarrassed and pretend he can’t master the patter. Sadly, it was evidence of only a brief flickering of good judgement. In a few films time Seagal was regularly humiliating himself by adopting a bemusing jive talking patois, a language spoken exclusively by him.
The fight scenes in Half Past Dead also display traits we’re to become very familiar with in later Seagal efforts. There’s a paucity of kicks with a heavy focus on close hand-to-hand fighting. There’s a ridiculous fight where Seagal and the main villain swing about on chains. It’s like something out of the TV series Gladiators.
Embarrassingly Steve doesn’t even have the best fight in the film. This falls to Ja Rule who dukes it out with a flashy female bad-ass played by Nia Peeples. It’s far from classic stuff, but it’s still the standout.
I also need to mention the soundtrack. It’s clearly not enough that they’ve paired Seagal with Ja Rule (the Dogg Pound’s Kurupt also stars) they slap hip hop tunes all over the film. Or at least they do in the first half. As confusingly in the second most of the action is sound tracked by nu-metal which was all the rage back then.
It’s like the producers are desperately targeting these different youth demographics they keep reading about in magazines. All it does is make Seagal look every one of his 50 years and paunchy inches.
Now, Charles Bronson managed to keep grinding out action films into his 70s. He did it by unswervingly sticking to what he did best. He didn’t do it by latching onto punk, new wave and acid house.
OK, so we need to talk helicopters and there’s plenty here for us to get stuck into. Director Don Michael Paul (never trust a man with three first names) throws us a bit of a fake early in the film. The villains plan to escape the prison by helicopter. However, a storm causes the chopper to crash into a guard tower and then through the roof of the prison, where it hangs dangerously above the prisoners heads.
Later, Seagal and Ja Rule use the guns aboard the helicopter in a fire-fight with the villains. A rocket launcher is fired at them, but incredibly Ja Rule manages to shoot the missile before it hits the chopper. The copter then plummets from it’s precarious perch into the ground, where it catches fire but doesn’t explode.
So far so disappointing. But Don Michael Paul is saving himself for the finale. Having blackmailed a helicopter out of the FBI, Morris Chestnut flies away of the prison with Richard Bremmer and a female hostage (Linda Thorson) - pursued by Seagal aboard another chopper.
Chestnut throws Thorson out the chopper to stop the pursuit, but Seagal suicidally dives after her. Only, surprise, he’s got a parachute on and he’s able to save her. Meanwhile, Richard Bremmer rips open his shirt to reveal he’s wired up with explosives. He then blows himself, the villains and the helicopter up.
Don Michael Paul doesn’t fluff this. Richard Bremmer winks cheekily at Morris Chestnut after he’s signals his intent to blow himself and the chopper up. There’s a warm glow of anticipation as we await the inevitable explosion.
When it comes, it does not disappoint. A nice, dirty, orange fireball erupts and wreckage is thrown out towards the camera engulfing the screen.
Seagal’s sky dive pursuit of the hostage is a delightful little extra. But let’s not forget we’ve seen that sort of thing in a lot of other films (Eraser, Live And Let Die, Point Break amongst others).
Exploding helicopter innovation
We’ve reviewed over 50 films at Exploding Helicopter and this amazingly is the first one we’ve seen where suicide is the method of destruction. I can’t believe it’s really the first, but for the time being it holds that honour.
Do passengers survive?
Yes. Linda Thorson's character survives only by dint of being thrown out of the helicopter and subsequently saved by the skydiving Steven Seagal.
Yes, with her tight leather cat suit and stylised make-up she’s a walking wet dream cliché for movie fan boys but Nia Peeples is still the best thing in this film.
Perennial jobbing actor Tony Plana plays the prison warden with pantomime theatricality. To show how 'street' he is, he utters every third line in Spanish. Maybe he just thinks he’s in Mexico?
“Yeah I was dead. Now I’m back.”
The film reuses a skydiving sequence from Navy Seals and unused shots of Alcatraz prison from The Rock.
There’s also some random casting in Half Past Dead. Former Pebble Mill presenter Ross King has a tiny role as a FBI officer. Sixties icon Linda Thorson (The Avengers) appears as a judge, and bizarrely Murder She Wrote and A-Team creator Stephen J. Cannell also appears.
The films spawned a little known sequel Half Past Dead 2. Kurupt returns in the lead role, and Tony Plana cameo. It speaks volumes that neither Steven Seagal or, for that matter, Stephen J Cannell returned.
Review by: Jafo