On Deadly Ground is a 1994 environmental action-adventure film, co-produced, directed by and starring Steven Seagal, and co-starring an all-star cast that includes Michael Caine, Joan Chen, John C. McGinley, R. Lee Ermey, Kenji Nakano, and Billy Bob Thornton in one of his early appearances. The film held a #1 position at the box office and exemplified the dangers of pollution. It earned $38.6 million during its theatrical run, failing to bring back its reported $50 million budget and received negative reviews.
Aegis Oil operates Aegis 1, an oil refinery and several oil rigs in Alaska. They purchased the oil rights from the local Alaskan Natives 20 years ago, but will lose them if the refinery isnât on-line by a certain deadline. With 13 days to go, and billions of dollars at stake, the company cuts corners and uses faulty equipment. Hugh Palmer, a rig foreman, is aware of this; as he predicts, his rig catches fire. It takes Forrest Taft (Seagal), a specialist in dealing with oil drilling-related fires, to extinguish the fire. Taft refuses to believe Hughâs story of faulty equipment, but discovers that itâs true after accessing the companyâs computer records. Michael Jennings (Michael Caine), the ruthless CEO of Aegis, believes that Hugh's carelessness is to blame and arranges for him to be âdealt withâ by his henchmen MacGruder (John C. McGinley) and Otto (Sven-Ole Thorsen).
Jennings is alerted to Taft's activities and orders that Taft be also removed. MacGruder and Otto torture and murder Palmer. Taft is set up for a trap by investigating a supposedly damaged pump station. He is badly wounded by an explosion, but survives and is rescued by Masu (Joan Chen), the daughter of Silook, the chief of her tribe.
MacGruder and Otto are unable to locate Taft's body, and Jennings assumes that he is still alive. Taft is being cared for by Silook's tribe. After unsuccessfully trying to leave, using a dogsled, Silook has Taft undergo a vision quest in which he sees the truth. When made to choose between two women, Taft opts for the elderly, clothed grandmother, forgoing the erotically-charged nude IÃ±upiaq seductress. The grandmother warns Taft that time is running out for those who pollute the world. Taft realizes that he has no choice but to see the refinery closed. He leaves, with MacGruder and Otto hot on his trail.
At Silook's village, they demand to know where Taft is. Silook refuses to give the information and is fatally shot by MacGruder. Jennings berates MacGruder for killing Silook. They bring in a group of New Orleans based mercenaries led by Stone (R. Lee Ermey) to finish off Taft before he can stop Aegis 1 from going on-line. They also have an FBI Anti-Terrorist Unit at the refinery.
Accompanied by Masu, Taft (who is probably ex-CIA and an expert on sabotage and demolition), collects weapons and explosives and manages to enter the refinery complex. MacGruder (who was killed by Taft by throwing him in the helicopter's propeller for killing Hugh and Silook), Otto (who was killed earlier at Hugh's cabin) and Jenningsâ ruthlessly efficient female assistant Liles (who crashed her truck on a gasoline tank), are powerless to stop him and are all killed in various gruesome ways.
Taft and Masu confront Jennings and string him up, dropping him into the oil, effectively drowning him in his own wealth. A series of explosions destroy the rest of Aegis 1.
As an epilogue, Taft, far from being arrested for sabotage and multiple murders (self defense), is asked to deliver a speech at the Alaska State Capitol about the dangers of oil pollution, and the companies that are endangering the ecosystem. This speech is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's monologue at the end of The Great Dictator. During the speech they show a scene of one of the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell systems developed by Perry Energy Systems.
- Steven Seagal as Forrest Taft, a specialist who puts out oil fires and who runs afoul of Aegis Oil
- Michael Caine as Michael Jennings, a corrupt, ruthless CEO of Aegis Oil
- Joan Chen as Masu, the daughter of Eskimo tribe chief Silook
- John C. McGinley as MacGruder, chief of security of Aegis Oil and Jennings' main henchmen
- R. Lee Ermey as Stone, the leader of the mercenary group based in New Orleans
- Shari Shattuck as Liles, Jennings' treacherous secretary
- Billy Bob Thornton as Homer Carlton, one of Stone's men
- Richard Hamilton as Hugh Palmer, rig foreman of Aegis Oil
- Chief Irvin Brink as Silook, chief of the Alaskan Eskimo tride
- Apanguluk Charlie Kairaiuak as Tunrak
- Elsie Pistolhead as Takanapsaluk
- John Trudell as Johnny Redfeather
- Mike Starr as Big Mike
- Sven-Ole Thorsen as Otto (as Swen-Ole Thorsen), Jennings' other henchman
- Jules Desjarlais as Drunken Eskimo
- Irvin Kershner as Walters, the director of the Aegis Oil commercial
On Deadly Ground has received negative reviews from critics. The film bears a 10% freshness rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews.
At the time of its release, Gene Siskel included the film in his "Worst of" list for 1994, singling out the melancholy tone of the film, and the quality of Seagal's dialogue. On their syndicated TV show Siskel & Ebert, Siskel called the film's pyrotechnics "low rent" and stated that he "didn't think the fight sequences were anything special." However, he noted that Seagal's speech at the end was "more interesting than the actual fighting." Roger Ebert, for his part, called the speech "absurd," and "shameless" but opined that while "it doesn't pay to devote close attention to the plot," "if you like to see lots of stuff blowed up real good, thisâd be a movie for you." The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
Variety film critic Leonard Klady referred to the film as "a vanity production parading as a social statement" and commented that the film seemingly borrowed heavily from the earlier film, Billy Jack but opined that Seagal lacked "acting technique and the ability behind the camera to keep the story simple and direct" that Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin, exhibited. Like Siskel, Klady also singled out the speech by Seagal's character at the end of the film.
Seagalogy author Vern considers On Deadly Ground to be one of Seagal's defining works, writing, "It's the corniest, most unintentionally hilarious movie of his career... But it's also Seagal's most sincere and his most ballsy," going on to claim, "You can't understand Seagal if you haven't seen On Deadly Ground." He points out that many of the most important themes and motifs that define Seagal's work are present here more overtly than in any of his other films. Themes of environmentalism, political corruption, spirituality and adoption of a foreign culture figure into much of Seagal's oeuvre, but are clearly at their most explicit in On Deadly Ground (most notably in the environmentalist lecture which ends the film). Likewise, specific story elements common to most Seagal films (for example, the characteristic explanation of Seagal's character's Black Ops past [here delivered by R. Lee Ermey] and the requisite bar fight [common to most of Seagal's 90s movies]) are particularly prominent here as well. He points out that since this remains the only film Seagal personally directed, it makes sense that his unique interests would be well represented, consistent with auteur theory.
Awards and nominations
- On Deadly Ground at the Internet Movie Database
- On Deadly Ground at AllMovie
- On Deadly Ground at the TCM Movie Database
- On Deadly Ground at Box Office Mojo
- Audio of Seagal's closing environmental thoughts