Half Past Dead
review by Gregory Avery, 15 November 2002

The title of Half Past Dead refers to the fact that the protagonist was at one time clinically dead for twenty-two minutes (?!?) before being successfully revived. Once this is mentioned, it is never brought up in the movie again. What credibility the movie may have had flatlines after it is announced that the action is taking place on "New Alcatraz", built right on the old Alcatraz Island (the renovation costs must've been enormous), which features one of the tiniest penitentiary blocks in motion picture history, and is run by a warden who was once a convict himself and is named "El Fuego" (meaning that he's badder than any of the other convicts could possibly be).

One dark and stormy night, a group of dignitaries, including a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (played by the formidable Linda Thorson, best known as Tara King, the last of John Steed's co-Avengers), arrives to see the warden "inaugurate" his new "state-of-the-art execution chamber" (which looks like a Rodeo Drive clothing showroom without the racks). The prisoner sentenced to die that night is a judge (Bruce Weitz) who stole a fortune in gold from a train and hid it but---oops!---killed five people when the train derailed. Just as he's strapped into the execution chair, from out of the sky, in drop a gang of criminals, guns blazing (and the Europeans think that people in the U.S. are gun nuts, for some reason!), and they strap the Supreme Court Justice into the execution chair so they can kidnap the judge and...well, on top of everything else, it's a morality tale! The chief villain (played by rap musician Ja Rule) says on several occasions that "God is dead", chastises the female judge for championing women's rights while remaining unmarried, then leans close to her, gauges her scent, and pronounces, "Your bait is still fresh." (Tara King would've spat in his eye and then made him beg for more.) The convicted judge, on the other hand, is calmly resigned to his fate and has no fear of mortality. (He and the protagonist exchange Zen secrets, at one point, like two school kids who are in on the same joke.) And the movie never misses an opportunity to show the beaded wristband which Steven Seagal wears on one wrist (the actor converted to Buddhism).

The last time I saw Seagal was...oh, geesh, I think it was in  On Deadly Ground, the movie where Michael Caine, wearing a spot of plaster on his face as if he'd cut himself shaving, played the heavy by yammering into the camera while we were wondering why Michael Caine was appearing in this movie. (Probably so that he could go on to do fine work in lower-budgeted movies like Blood and Wine and Little Voices.) Then, Seagal himself expelled a huge amount of hot air at the movie's end for, I don't know, ten minutes, telling us about how we should be conserving the environment. Actually, the environment could do with a bit more conserving, but I doubt if the movie or Seagal won over any hold-outs.

Well, there have been some changes since then. In Half Past Dead, Seagal, standing in the middle of it all, appears almost entirely in close-up, usually heavily shadowed, and wearing tent-like outfits that disguise his form. During an opening shoot-out, he ducks round a corner the way Patty Duke ran off-stage during the musical numbers in Billie so that Donna McKechnie could step forward and perform the dance routine. When Seagal does get into a fight, the camera, again, moves in as close as it can get to him. The only honest-to-Godfrey one-on-one fight sequence that occurs in the film is between Morris Chestnut (who plays what amounts to second-banana to Seagal) and Nia Peeples, who wears clouds of blue mascara around her eyes and swings her limbs while wearing a bat-like outer coat.

Then, somebody decided, no, wait---let's end the movie with some X-treme skydiving stunts! So, in the worst piece of commercial moviemaking I've seen in years, all story logic and continuity is tossed right out the window so that the movie can do just that. Good grief. Laugh and roll your eyes all you want, but what lingers most in recollection is the sight of Seagal, trying to hang onto being an action hero while clearly being past it, and trying to make himself hip and up-to-date in spite of it. (There are loads and loads of heavy-acceleration metal and hiphop numbers dolloped onto the soundtrack.) All we're expected to do is just get stoked on the usual on-screen overkill of explosions and violence. The audience is already heading for the exits. The movie starts out ludicrous, but ends up sad.

Written and
Directed by:

Don Michael Paul

Starring:
Steven Seagal
Morris Chestnut
Ja Rule
Nia Peeples
Tony Plana
Claudia Christian
Linda Thorson
Bruce Weitz

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian
.

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