Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Half Past Dead (2002)

Yes, this is Seagal making his anguish face in a do-rag.
Cinema doesn't get any better than this.

In the early 2000's, Andrzej Bartkowiak directed a trilogy of ridiculous action films with stupid names. In some sort of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup style experiment, they teamed up established martial artists with rappers. It worked out well and the films were mildly successful. While Jet Li was the martial arts draw in Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave, Seagal filled the role in Exit Wounds. I don't know, if I was Jet Li I'd be insulted. Seagal was way past his prime by this point. I suppose Half Past Dead was an attempt to recapture the magic, this time with Ja Rule instead of DMX and Kurupt as an added bonus comedy relief character. The title is certainly as stupid as any of Bartkowiak's films. I kept expecting a villain to ask Seagal for the time and him to whisper "It's half past DEAD!" and break his neck, but it never happened.

Seagal plays Sasha Petrosevitch, a Russian car thief who may or may not be an undercover FBI agent. He doesn't affect a Russian accent, the closest he gets is a cultural exchange with his partner Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) where he learns how to say "a'ight". I'm the whitest whitey ever, so I have no idea if Ja Rule's rhymes are fresher than DMX's or whatever, but he's certainly not as charismatic an actor. After crime boss Sonny "I've got a big wart on my forehead that's really distracting" Eckvall (Richard Bremmer) forces Seagal to take a lie detector test to prove he's not an undercover cop, he's hired along with Nick to steal a fancy sports car. Seagal treats the car pretty rough, leaping it so high that he scrapes the roof on an overhanging sign, before screeching to a halt and flinging his partner out of the passenger door, ten feet through the air and into the windshield of another car. This is Seagal's idea of a funny prank. Anyway, they are immediately raided by FBI agents, and in the ensuing gun battle Seagal is injured when he tries to save Nick. Seagal has a near death experience (hence the title) where he has visions of his dead wife.

Cut to some time later and Seagal and Nick are being transferred to the futuristic prison of New Alcatraz. It's the grand opening and while one of the reporters complain that the new prison is a step backwards in criminal warehousing, it looks alright to me. If anything it's a bit too lenient. The chief warden wears a leather jacket, calls himself El Fuego and he calls the inmates by gang-friendly terms such as "esé" and "homes". He lets them have Playstations in their cells, use power tools, he even lets Seagal and beat up a prison guard with no repurcussions. Just to get his aggression out, you know? I don't know, that seems like the kind of stuff that prisoners would take advantage of. Luckily the prison population consists pretty much entirely of lovable scoundrels, so nothing really goes wrong. Hell, there's a death row train robber named Lester who is practically angelic. He derailed the train and killed some Federal Marshalls, but it was an accident so it's okay to root for him. Because he's being such a good sport about this execution thing, El Fuego grants his last wish to spend his final hour chatting to Seagal. Who could blame him, that would be my wish too.

Seagal drinks tea with him in a cool glass-walled room with computer generated scenery on the walls. It's pretty fancy, and when your time is up the electric chair rises up dramatically out of the floor like it's Iron Chef or something. They should add some smoke, maybe some fireworks and dramatic orchestral music. Lester wants to talk about Seagal's near death experience (I don't know how he found out about that) but Seagal is pretty vague and tight-lipped about it. You'd think Seagal would at least humour him. Anyway, it turns out he hid the proceeds of his train robbery in a secret location, and the feds have been trying to get the information out of him. One of the FBI guys even interrogates him at gunpoint while he's sitting in the electric chair, right in front of the Supreme Court Justice. Pretty unprofessional. Before they pull the switch and fry Lester, a bunch of well-armed crooks parachute into New Alcatraz and take him prisoner with the hopes of forcing him to lead them to the hidden treasure. I should add that they kill about a dozen prison guards and let out all the prisoners (pretty stupid move on their part, actually) over the course of fifteen minutes, and nobody in the execution chamber is even notified. When their evac helicopter crashes into the roof of the prison, the crooks are forced to take everyone hostage and negotiate with the FBI for their escape.

The bad guys call themselves "49er One" through to "49er Twelve", with 49er One being the big cheese. His real name is Don Johnson (he doesn't wear a white suit or shoes without socks or anything) and he is actually one of the guys in charge of the prison. He is played by Morris Chestnut, last seen with Seagal in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, where he played the comic relief sidekick. Here he plays lead villain, a respectable step up. Usually a character like this would have some beef with the government, but here he is just a sociopathic asshole who likes money. Nia Peeples plays a woman in shiny skin-tight vinyl and a floor length trenchcoat (49er something, I can't remember). She does a few flips and dual wields pistols. She's basically the budget Trinity. Seriously though, the bright blue eyeshadow? Doesn't work. That kind of crazy, over-the-top makeup can work really well on a villian (eg Lola in Transporter 2), but that colour looks terrible on you. You're really more of an autumn. She utters a couple of lines but she's basically mute for the whole film. The rest of the bad guys are your standard goons.

After doing the Die Hard thing for a while, Seagal ends up negotiating with 49er One to swap Lester for the Supreme Court Justice. Seagal knows he can't take them all on himself, but luckily the prisoners are housed right next to a room filled with machine guns and explosives. Kurupt blasts the gate with a bazooka (propelling him ten feet backwards and through a window... comedy!) and pretty soon all the prisoners are gearing up for a final battle. There's no power struggles or infighting or anything. They all just step in line behind Seagal. A huge gunfight follows, with Seagal and Nick manning the machine gun in the cockpit of the crashed helicopter, but after the hostages are exchanged we find that the bad guys have pulled a fast one, it's not the Supreme Court Justice at all, just some woman.

Luckily Seagal pulled some tricks of his own. Lester has decked himself out in a suicide bomber vest and once the Seagal performs a mid-air, sky-diving rescue of the Supreme Court Justice, he blows the bad guy's chopper sky high. That bit was pretty good, I must admit. Nick was supposedly killed during the gun battle, but at the end it's revealed that he survived and Seagal manages to pull some strings and get him out of prison early. There's a bit during the credits where Kurupt talks on a prison phone with his girl on the outside, which is funnier than any of the comic relief he did during the film.

There's also a lot of plot points that don't go anywhere. I mean, how can you specifically point out that Seagal has a titanium knee and then not have him knee someone in the balls (or skull) with a hilarious metallic "clang" sound. It's sloppy filmmaking. They also point out he's Russian, but he doesn't have any Russian mafia contacts or drink any vodka or anything. It doesn't figure into the film at all. There also might or might not be a bit in the film where Seagal is an undercover FBI agent who is trying to bust that crime boss Sonny Eckvall who killed his wife. He mentions that he'd captured the guy at the end but they don't even show it, it just feels tacked on. That is, it would feel tacked on if it were in the film. Which it might be, but I'm not saying either way.

There's some good over-the-top action, like when Seagal flips around a gun that's caught in a door, turning it on the bad guys. Seagal also has a mid-air fight with 49er One while they are both swinging on some chains, like on Gladiators. They are taking cues from the Matrix, so most of the fights are quite acrobatic, with lots of flips and people getting thrown about. Seagal is doubled for pretty much everything. There's some annoying editing tricks (skipped frames, slow-motion etc) but it's not too hard to follow what's going on. Unfortunately it really suffers from it's toned-down rating. There's lots of gunfights that try to ape John Woo. You've got your slow-motion leaping, your dual pistols (although I don't think FBI agents normally carry twin pistols in crossed-draw holsters), your sparks (oh God, do you ever have your sparks, it's like they're in a fireworks factory) but there isn't the sense of drama or tight choreography. Plus, it's pretty rare that somebody ever gets shot and when they are there isn't even any blood. It gets pretty ridiculous when you've got people standing about 5 meters apart, firing round after round and not hitting jack shit.

The soundtrack is a blend of techno, nu-metal and hip-hop. The bad guys get all the rockin' metal guitars while the good guys get the hip-hop. During the fight scenes they compromise on techno. Look filmmakers, if you're going to blank out all the swearing, don't include songs in the soundtrack that feature "motherfucker" as a prominent part of the lyrics. It's just common sense. Besides, you think all the kids who are going to see this film because of Ja Rule (most of them, probably) haven't heard the word "motherfucker" before? Those motherfuckers probably use the word "motherfucker" a hundred motherfucking times a day.

Needless to say, this film did not recapture the magic of Exit Wounds and instead was Seagal's last cinematic release, dooming him to Direct-to-Video. It was written and directed by some guy named Don Michael Paul and while I only listened to the first few minutes of his commentary, he was talking about fusing hip-hop and action like he was really breaking new ground. That ship has sailed, buddy, it's not even the first time Seagal explored this territory. After this film he wrote and directed 2007's Who's Your Caddy. I've never seen and I don't plan to, but apparently it's a comedy where a rapper and his entourage try to enter an exclusive golf club full of stuffy white conservatives, presumably hoeing the fertile comedic ground of white people acting like this, and black people acting like this. So it's good to see that he's still on the cutting edge.

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