NOTE: I apologize about the scarcity of photos for this review. However, despite being a recent film, the cinematography for The Patriot is so dark that I had severe problem culling usable stills. (Either that or the tape transfer was inept.) I eventually just gave up.
For the Jabootuist, the first viewing of an instant classic like On Deadly Ground is a bittersweet experience. For the length of the film, you sit enrapt. You stare at the screen stupefied, captivated, beholding something that’s as close to perfection as anything likely to be made by man. It’s a sublime moment. Yet even now an awareness lurks deep in your brain. It whispers to you mockingly, insidiously. Even as bliss enfolds you, you’re naggingly cognizant that this moment will seldom be matched. This is true even for those who dedicate a lifetime to seeking out Jabootu’s twisted progeny. And so, even while first watching On Deadly Ground, I knew that Steven Seagal would never again make its equal.
Not that he lacked the talent or the will to create more such wonders. No, it was because, even as the film majestically unspooled across that vast screen, it marked the beginning of the end of Seagal’s box office power. Such a fiasco could only occur when some misguided studio, all too desperate for a hit, extends much too much money and artistic autonomy to someone who blatantly doesn’t deserve it. Few people capable of foisting such monumental dreck on the public are ever in the position to do so. Irwin Allen, yes. William Shatner. Prince. And for brief, shining moments these few seem to become the living avatars of Jabootu itself.
Likewise, in some insane, spastic fit of miscalculation, is a Steven Seagal allowed to make a vanity project. Not only to star, but to direct and write or co-write the script. Vast resources, tens of millions of dollars, armies of men and women are put at their disposal, all to realize their malign, demented visions.
Afterward, the studios that cosseted them behold the horrors that their agents have spawned. Critics carve up their progeny, slashing them with pens dipped in acid and bile. Audiences hoot down their works and vote with their feet. Then, then are these special few individuals left bereft of the vast canvases that the full exercise of their powers demands. A steady parade of box office successes, culminating with Under Siege, afforded Seagal the rare opportunity to make anything he wished. Yet Frankenstein must always be destroyed by the monstrous thing that his hands created. And so the extraordinary, leprous perfection of On Deadly Ground ensured that Seagal would never have like opportunity again.
Yet Seagal soldiered fiercely on. Undaunted, he would create what abominations he could with the reduced resources he was given. It’s a mark of his genius that his subsequent works came within even spitting distance of his masterwork. So came The Glimmer Man, followed by the execrable Fire Down Below, which featured some of the most ludicrous ‘action’ set-pieces in film history. (Seagal’s ambition, meanwhile, can be deduced from his casting of veteran hambone Kris Kristofferson as the villain, undoubtedly hoping for a match to Michael Caine’s extraordinary turn in On Deadly Ground.) Even as each titanic box office detonation moved him further and further from the huge amounts of cash his muse required, he waited for his main chance.
Perhaps he took inspiration from tales of old. The legendary Beowulf in his youth slew both the hideous Grendel and the beast’s even more dreadful Mother. It was an act the valiant warrior would, no, could never equal. Yet in old age, the hoary Beowulf dared to battle a dragon, although doing so would surely mean his demise. So it did, but it was a glorious death, one remembered centuries later. Thus too, like some ancient, battle-scarred hero, Seagal went out on a final, epic note. He must have known that he would never match On Deadly Ground. Yet, knowing that he’d perhaps never have such chance again, he covered himself in glory, producing a film so utterly stupid and pompous as to leave his name hewn deeply into the halls of his dark god. In doing so he destroyed himself commercially, yet also made himself immortal in the manner of heroes immemorial.
The Patriot proved so grotesque that to release it to theaters would have been to throw good money after bad. Instead, it was unceremoniously dumped direct-to-video. There it languished in anonymity, waiting for the Faithful to seek it out. In bypassing even a token theatrical release, the film’s backers were admitting that they’d never see their money back. (The Patriot had a $35 million production budget.) As such, it’s difficult to imagine that Seagal will ever again be entrusted with the tens of millions of dollars required to bring his unique vision to the screen.
Which leads inexorably to the question: What now? Perhaps, as with fellow creaking action star Chuck Norris, he could parlay his declining martial skills into a popular TV series. But no. Norris, after all, is likeable, a valuable trait to those seeking admittance to viewer’s homes every week. And no one has ever accused Seagal of being likable. Character work, until he fades away playing villains in Cynthia Rothrock and Don “The Dragon” Wilson videos? I don’t think so. No, I fear little will be heard from Seagal in the future. So let’s lift a glass, my friends, to a genuine, unique talent. And let us toast what will perhaps prove his final full-scale endeavor. Here’s to you, Steve. Thanks for the memories, man.
The film opens with a series of gorgeous Western panoramas, presumably meant to evoke the classic Westerns of yore. Needless to say, though, John Wayne and Howard Hawks have nothing to worry about. Instead, if anything, this movie represents Seagal’s final evolution into the Billy Jack of the ’90s. On Deadly Ground might have signaled the beginning of this transformation, but now it’s complete. The didactic left-wing politics, the outlandish portrayal of rednecks, the insane paranoia about the government, the self-righteous identification with comically noble and wise American Indians and, most importantly, the huge, overwhelming egotism on display. Not to mention the (supposedly) audience-pleasing bursts of pacifistic ass-kicking. If you thought Jim Carrey was eerie playing Andy Kaufman, wait until you see this impersonation. Seagal’s not aping Billy Jack so much as channeling him.
After the parade of scenery we cut to a herd of cattle. Stereotypical ‘cowboy’ music accompanies the introduction of the manly Dr. Wesley McClaren (Seagal) and his crusty old sidekick, Frank (L. Q. Jones). Ridin’ hard, they rope and bring down a steer, which McClaren inoculates with a shot. Frank then points out some buzzards circling in the distance. Riding cinematically over a ridge — wow, just like in a real Western — and down a hill, the duo find a prostate wee red pony. I’m sure John Steinbeck would be thrilled at the homage. Frank goes to shoot the sick animal, but, of course, McClaren stops him. He’s the hero, you know, and believes he can coax the pony back to health. (Super-Veterinarian!)[Actually, I’m pretty sure the pony just has a cold. You know why? Because he’s a little horse! Get it? Man, I still got it.]
Holding the animal in his arms, he and Frank ride back to McClaren’s ranch. Meanwhile, we see a ‘credit’ (cough, cough) informing us that the movie was based on William Heine’s novel The Last Canadian. (?!) This probably explains the film’s original shooting title, “The Patriot, Eh.” After the pony is taken to the stable, we learn that it belongs to Holly, McClaren’s cute young daughter. Holly, meanwhile, is shown still abed, establishing the early morning time frame. McClaren decides to hold off telling her that the animal’s been found, lest it should fail to recover. Frank predicts the worst. “I don’t think your home-cooked jungle juice can do it this time.” Presumably he’s referring to the script, co-written by Seagal.
I’d like to make a suggestion. Should any of you wish to see this movie, get the DVD. (Oh, and consult a psychiatrist.) Not that there’s much to in the way of extras on this disc. In fact, it’s rather bare boned. It doesn’t even have the obligatory trailer — no theatrical release, remember? — or one of those lame text ‘actor profiles.’ Nor, in this case, is it because of the widescreen presentation, although I always prefer those. No, I suggest the DVD because of the one other feature you can’t get on the video. Subtitles. Sure, the film’s in English. But Seagal adopts a really lame and mushmouthed ‘Western’ accent here. When combined with his trademark whispery voice, well, half the time you can’t make out what the heck he’s saying. Seriously. However, just hit the Subtitle button on your DVD remote and problem solved. Hmm, now if I could just find a button that made the movie less moronic…
We cut to a nearby tract of land. Federal agents are surrounding the place, the home of militia (oh, brother!) leader Floyd Chisolm. Gee, there’s an original plot conceit. The siege is in its 52nd day, and being conducted by a mixture of ATF, FBI and U.S. Marshals. I guess OSHA was busy. We cut inside the house. There, head bad guy Floyd Chisolm is holding forth to his worshipful followers, all of whom are, needless to say, dressed in fatigues. He quotes Jefferson (of course) as a bwaa-wa-wa-waing mouth organ plays in the background. I hope you like mouth organ music, because it’s quite the staple of the movie’s score.
Just to make sure we get that Chisolm’s a bad guy, we note that he’s really fat and greasy looking. He quotes FDR, noting that while he mistakenly got us to fighting with the Nazis, he was still a “very brilliant man.” (They have Chisolm mispronounce ‘Delano,’ just to make sure that we know he’s a fraud and a doofus.) As Roosevelt was the architect of Big Government as we know it today, I’d have thought that he would be the last guy militia types would be quoting. But what do I know? To cap things off, he gives a rather ho-hum ‘ominous’ anti-government rant as he fires up his crew.
Anyhoo. Chisolm reveals to his aghast followers that he plans to surrender. That way his acolytes will be spared, while also robbing the government of the opportunity to murder him. (Which is silly. Everyone knows Our Government only kills nutty religious guys, not nutty militia guys. Oh, right. Ruby Ridge. Never mind.) His minions express shock and sadness at this unexpected turn of events.
We cut back to the McClaren ranch. A jaunty old-style rock ‘n’ roll number plays, letting us know how different this place is from Floyd Chisolm’s. (Duh.) McClaren is making Holly an omelet as Frank helps her with her homework. This is one of those nauseating scenes used to establish just how gol’ darn happy everyone is. See, this will make the ‘tragedy’ yet to come all the more poignant. Really. It’s one of the first things they teach you in all the Screenwriting Correspondence Courses. This pabulum reaches its wince-inducing nadir when Frank teaches Holly how to spell “Mississippi” with ‘no i’s.” Ahh. Good times.
Actually, I was being optimistic about that ‘nadir’ part. McClaren sends Frank off, so that he can sit down with Holly and share a ‘character’ scene. As fans of Seagal’s oeuvre can attest, his *ahem* characters are always manifestly superlative at every part of their lives. Having thus made Holly her hot breakfast, he can now firmly but compassionately inquire as to why she still has homework to do. Holly confirms that she had snuck off the night before to search for her pony, still being unaware that it’s back in the barn.
Meanwhile, to showcase his easy, relaxed relationship with Holly, he joshes that Frank’s in the outhouse because he’s so gassy. Nothing like a little light repartee with your eggs in the morning. Then, having established that, they have Holly ask “Why do horses want to be alone when they die?” You know, so that we can also see how serious and thoughtful he can be with her. (Super-Dad!) Actually, a more pertinent question to ask Seagal might be “Why do you want an audience of millions of people to watch when you’re dying? You know, like right now?”
Anyway, it’s time to get the movie’s rather ridiculous plot off and running – or limping, as the case may be. So we cut to see Chisolm being given a shot by his right hand man, Pogue. (Bwa-wa-wa-wa!) Next a hermetically sealed canister is opened. We can tell it was sealed because they foley in a ‘ssshusssh’ sound as the lid comes off. Floyd removes a sample of a malign-looking green liquid with an eyedropper and consumes it. (Bwa-wa-wa-wa!) He then orders Pogue to give the men the anti-toxin. Meanwhile, a zoom-in reveals the liquid to be “NAM-37”. The label also handily reads “TOXICITY LEVEL: LETHAL”. Just in case, you know, we thought the canister might contain daily vitamin supplements or something. Pogue responds to all this with a whispered “God help us,” though we fail to discern whether as a character fearing for his life or as an actor fearing for his career.
His fiendish scheme in progress, Chisolm walks out with his hands up and is quickly arrested. However, we’re told, the Feds only have a warrant for him, not his men. (What about conspiracy? Or just arresting them as material witnesses? And don’t they have a search warrant for the property?) Needless to say, this rather illogical turn of events is merely to further the, er, well, ‘plot’ isn’t really the right word. You know what I mean.
We cut back to McClaren’s pickup truck. He’s driving Holly into the nearby town of Ennis, Montana. Seeing Frank amongst a crowd at the side of the road, he pulls over and learns about Chisolm surrendering. Surprised by this turn of events, McClaren intuitively posits that something funny is going on. (Super-Detective!) He also notes that he agrees with the ideology of “some of these folks,” i.e., the militia men. This might be surprising to some, but not to the faithful follower of Seagal. Let’s put aside that the filmmakers might have feared alienating the presumably large pro-gun segment of Seagal’s fanbase (such as it now is). More to the point, most if not all of Seagal’s films revolve around evil plots perpetrated by elements of the U.S. Government. So he’s hardly in a position to point at others and yell ‘paranoia.’ In any case, he stipulates that it’s Chisolm he has a problem with. Presumably because he’s the villain and all.
We cut to the Ennis courthouse, where Chisolm is being arraigned. As he’s being lead inside, McClaren drives by. Although they’re a good distance from each other, and despite the crowd, they rather improbably lock eyes. Undoubtedly this was intended to have some sort of dramatic effect, which, inevitably, it doesn’t. McClaren continues on and parks in front of his clinic. Holly takes off for school, while McClaren consults with Clem, a local waiting on his arrival. They walk past a sign noting that McClaren offers “Holistic Therapy” and holds a Ph.D. in addition to his M.D. (Super-Doctor!)
Back to court. The main exhibit is a video that Chisolm himself sent in, obviously to provoke a confrontation. This shows him on his own property, cutting down a shotgun barrel to under the legal eighteen inches. In real life, a smart militia-type might do this to instigate a trial, hoping that a rural jury hostile to this type of law would engage in a little precedent-setting jury nullification. Here, of course, it’s to set into motion a scheme that might have been thought up by a particularly dim-witted villain in a really, really lame James Bond movie. Anyway, after a little speechifying, Chisolm is bound over by Judge Tomkins. The miscreant reacts by spitting in the judge’s face.
In a segue no doubt meant to be ‘comical,’ we cut from the loogie on Judge Tomkin’s face to a spurt of clear lotion hitting some skin. The shot pulls back to reveal that McClaren’s prepping Clem for what appears to be an ultrasound scan. The test reveals that his right kidney is out of order. Clem notes that the docs in Boseman tell him he needs dialyses, which he can’t afford. (Damn big-city doctors!) However, McClaren bypasses that silly Western ‘medicine’ with his wise application of holistic treatment. A “special diet and vitamin regime” will fix ol’ Clem right up. Of course, being a Salt-of-the-Earth type, ol’ Clem ain’t about to take no charity. Wise Doc McClaren, however, has foreseen this eventuality. He tells woodworker Clem that he can fix up the clinic’s file cabinets in exchange for the treatment. (Super-Humanitarian!)
McClaren next gets a prank phone. The caller pretends that he wants to marry his horse, but that he needs to get a blood test first. At least I’m assuming it’s a prank — this is Montana, after all. McClaren plays along (Super-Regular-Guy!) for a few seconds before losing his patience. Actually, if he’s prescribing vitamins to someone who needs dialyses, he’s probably quite adept at ‘losing his patients.’ (I’m so damn funny.) The caller turns out to be Richard Bach. Bach once worked with McClaren on top-secret germ stuff for the government. Although working strictly on counteragents, McClaren found that the Gov’ment was using his research for nefarious purposes. His vast integrity compromised, Our Hero quit and moved to Montana.
Again, in most of his movies Seagal plays just such a fellow. Earlier in his career Seagal would reportedly hint to interviewers that such roles reflected his own shadowy past, wherein he worked with government spOOks until he himself quit. This stopped when these dark mutterings turned him into a laughing stock, but he continues to play this same character in most of his movies.
Back to our film. Bach is now heading up a Contagion Containment team. Of course, he wants McClaren on board. Our Hero self-righteously responds by noting that “I think that’s the stuff that I was preachin’ to you all those years ago.” (Super-Prognosticator!) He then quickly ferrets out that Bach’s BRT — Biological Response Team — is in fact sponsored by the CIA. (!) This seems pretty stupid, even as an example of Seagal’s usual anti-government paranoia. First, let’s ignore the fact that such a team would most likely fall under the auspices of the Center for Disease Control. Second, even if this team were runs by spOOks, wouldn’t it be the FBI or NSA? The CIA by it’s charter is not allowed to run domestic operations. Even given that they sometimes break this rule, could they really send BRTs around and institute martial law without someone noticing?
In any case, McClaren’s wised up, and not planning to work for the Great Satan again. This isn’t the answer Bach was looking for. “Look here, Wes,” he sputters. “You’re the best damn immunologist we have in this country!” (Super-Immunologist!) McClaren, though, will not compromise his ideals. In a huff, Bach hangs up the phone. Then the camera pans over and we see an Ominous Military Guyâ„¢ standing nearby. A forbidding musical cue alerts us that this is bad, but we already knew that, because, you know…a Military Guy! Brrr. (Uh, is he supposed to be a CIA Military Guy? How does that work?)
Bach asks this no doubt evil fellow how they’re to get McClaren on the team if Bach isn’t even allowed to be straight with him. (Uh, oh…a Government Cover-Upâ„¢! How fresh!) Naturally, being more concerned with his Evil Government Agendaâ„¢ than with the commonweal, OMG tells Bach to go on to the next guy on the list. “There is no next man on the list,” Bach retorts. Yep, that’s right. McClaren is so good that if he’s not available there’s no one even close enough to move on to. Hey, you know, it’s really quite a coincidence then that he lives in the same small town as Floyd Chisolm, a man planning to release a deadly biological agent. Boy, what’re the odds? At least ten to one against, I’d say.
Cut to the courthouse. Chisolm’s being escorted to his heavily guarded cell. Bwa-wa-wa-wa! Meanwhile, Judge Tomkins is in his chambers, showing the first signs of contagion. (That’s why Floyd spit on him – get it?) Then it’s back to McClaren’s office. He’s tending to Molly, a frail but feisty old woman. Inevitably, she doesn’t have enough money, and so pays McClaren with, that’s right, a homemade pie. She also tries to give him an expensive hunting knife that belonged to her deceased husband. Of course, our Good Doctor wouldn’t think of accepting it. She protests his generosity. “You came to my house! No one ever came to my house when I was sick!” (Super-Philanthropist!) McClaren again refuses the knife. Heck, he’s probably embarrassed to take the pie, but wants to avoid hurting her feelings.
Watch for this next bit, ’cause it’s kind of subtle. McClaren leaves his office in a medium shot, and they foley in the sound of the clinic’s front gate closing. Then Holly appears in the shot two seconds later. (I timed it.) The gate sound was to indicate her entering the yard. The problem is that the gate is quite a distance back from where she appears in those two seconds. In fact, when McClaren meets her and they walk back to the gate, it takes them over ten seconds to reach it. Movie Magic!
While driving back to the ranch, McClaren gets a call. He’s needed for an emergency down at the town hospital. (Apparently someone is in dire need of Holistic Therapy.) Holly is disappointed, wanting to get home and begin searching for the pony, which she still believes is missing. He replies that he’ll have Frank come to the hospital and pick her up. Arriving, he stashes her in the staff lounge while he checks on the situation. In the emergency room he finds the quite ill Judge Tomkins. When McClaren turns to the man who brought Tomkins in, that fellow also collapses.
The attending physician is flummoxed, and asks McClaren what’s going on. “We’re in a world of sh*t,” he replies. Being thirty minutes into this film, I heartily concur. “Plastic beakers,” he then enigmatically continues. Asked what this means, he explains. “With Level 5 biohazards, you don’t use glass ’cause it’ll cut your monkeys and you’ll be dead.” OK, everyone clear on that? Apparently relishing this piece of jargon, he picks up a phone and calls Bach. Without introducing himself (he can’t waste time, get it?) he simply says “Plastic beakers.” He tells Bach to send in his team, “moon suits” and all, then hangs up. Maybe telling Bach where he was might have helped, though.
Bach, in turn, orders a “BL-4 containment” (perhaps a fancy way of asking for a BLT, hold the tomato) and a “twenty-mile perimeter” set around Ennis. Uh, how many guys does it take to establish a twenty-mile perimeter, anyway? Soon a line of military vehicles is shown roaring down the road. These are filmed in such a way as to suggest, if ineptly, that there are many more vehicles involved here than the filmmakers actually had on hand. The Officer in Charge, Colonel Harvey, is shown overseeing a barbwire roadblock.
In town, Frank has arrived at the hospital to get Holly. However, upon entering he finds the place jam packed with sick looking people. (He could have had a similar experience had the film made it to theaters. Except for the ‘jam packed’ part.) He checks in with McClaren, who tells him to sit tight. Meanwhile, military helicopters are landing in the center of town and disgorging soldiers armed with M16s and wearing gas masks. One has a bullhorn. “Attention, residents!” he announces. “Please do not be alarmed.” As you might have guessed, this statement comes off less than successfully, given the circumstances. The soldiers then broadcasts a cover story about bovine pneumonia. Yeah, that should fool ’em. This helicopter footage is accompanied by really bad ‘operatic’ music, no doubt intending to recall Apocalypse Now. And to the extent that I find myself muttering, “The horror…the horror…” well, mission accomplished.
Also arriving via ‘copter are Bach and his medical team, all in their white containment suits. Apparently the soldiers don’t need them. Gas masks, containment suits…same thing. The medics and the soldiers enter the hospital, still with that guy blaring for folks to “stay calm.” Yeah, mysterious illness…heavily armed troops occupying the town…guys in containment suits…hmm, no need to be concerned here. The BRT starts readying the antitoxins they brought. Meanwhile, McClaren is berating Bach, reminding him (and us) how he was one of those visionaries who was against the whole germ warfare thing. As his fans know, if there’s anything Seagal likes more than effortlessly annihilating his foes, it’s laying on Important Messages with a trowel. “It’s what’s gonna take out the human race,” he warns. That’s funny — it was industrial pollution that was going to take out the human race in On Deadly Ground. And toxic waste in Fire Down Below. And…
Oddly, even though Bach expositories that people could start dying in “one or two days,” Judge Tomkins has already expired. Ah, the Pathos! McClaren demands the truth. Bach finally reveals that “a technician snuck out with a culture and disappeared.” He was caught soon after having sold it in Billings, MT, but killed himself before the interrogation team arrived. Apparently, a suicide watch isn’t standard procedure in these circumstances. Well, live and learn, I guess.
“Sounds a little convenient to me,” McClaren sneers, implying that the guy was in fact eliminated. OK, how would that work? Is he saying that the government killed the guy? Before finding out who bought the chemical agents?! Conversely, McClaren can’t mean that the buyers somehow arranged a fake suicide after the guy was taken into custody. Right? OK, I’m just confused, now. Besides, Chisolm doesn’t have a ‘culture,’ he’s got a canister of the stuff, officially labeled and everything. And he’s got a supply of the antitoxin to boot. So…what?
We learn that five people are dead, making Bach’s prediction that the fatalities will begin in a day or two a tad questionable. This provides McClaren with the opportunity for even more speechifying, just to make sure we get the whole “Germ Warfare — Bad” thing. Also, we wouldn’t want to miss the fact that Seagal, er, I mean McClaren, is a lot smarter and more moral and just generally better than anyone else.
We cut over to the courthouse. Guards are stationed all around, including on the roof. Outside, Chisolm’s henchguy Pogue shows up. He identifies himself to be an attorney, pretending that he’s only here because he’s been appointed as Chisolm’s counsel. This doesn’t make sense at all. We earlier saw him at Chisolm’s place when it was surrounded by the Feds. You know, the ones who had been besieging the place for two months? Are we to believe that Chisolm’s men were spirited in and out of the place without the authorities marking them? Also, Chisolm and his crew seem quite well known to the town folk. Even if, under these circumstances, Pogue were allowed to represent Chisolm, the idea he could so without their connection being known seems rather unlikely.
Notwithstanding, Pogue is ushered in to meet with his client. Chisolm quickly reveals that he’s feeling ill, despite having taken the antitoxin. Pogue is unsurprised, as he and the other men are ailing also. He informs Chisolm that the antitoxin slows down the virus, but doesn’t stop it. I’m not sure how he would know this, as Chisolm only ingested the virus that morning, but anyway… Here we get to another, to say the least, implausible bit. Hearing about the BRT, Chisolm orders Pogue to procure him their antitoxin, pronto. Pogue argues that this is impossible, as they’ve brought an “army” with them. Chisolm replies that his followers are willing to die for him if necessary, and orders Pogue to get going.
OK, here’s my main (current) objection. Are we to believe that the only way for Chisolm to get a shot of the BRT antitoxin is to storm in there and take some of it? Uh, forgive my naivetÃˆ, but can’t we assume that doctors will be sent at some point to inoculate both the prisoners and the guards at the courthouse? And rather than staging a commando raid, wouldn’t it be both faster and simpler just to have Pogue, in his capacity as Chisolm’s attorney, go over and request that someone come to the courthouse ASAP? Of course, then we’d never see how cowardly Chisolm really is, ready to sacrifice the lives of his followers to save his own. No sir, White Hat/Black Hat is still the order of things in the Steven Seagal universe. In any case, Pogue is also ordered to bust the big cheese out of jail. He leaves to get the ball rolling.
Back outside the hospital, we see a long line of townsfolk waiting for their shots. They’re all sporting sores and, like us in the audience, acting tired and listless. Inside the hospital we get some lame business involving Frank and Molly. I think they’re implying a romance between the two coots, but if so, it must have been mostly lost on the editing room floor. And thank goodness! Then we cut back to a load of hay bales on a flatbed truck driving past the courthouse. A rife barrel protrudes from the bales and the guards are instantly wiped out. Remarkably (read: utterly unbelievably), every shot fired is a kill shot, four for four. This would be implausible in any case, much less from someone firing through a teeny slot between hay bales. Meanwhile, a pipe bomb takes out the interior guards, and Chisolm is quickly sprung.
As if this all weren’t moronic enough, the Militia Guys are next seen at the hospital. Here they quickly wipe out the entire contingent of Army troops, something they accomplish without losing more than a man or two. Of course, it helps when each Army guy pretends that he hasn’t heard all the gunfire and is thus ‘surprised’ in turn by the militia. I’ve got a newsflash for you, folks. There ain’t no squad of ‘militia’ people anywhere who are proficient enough to knock out a like number of professionally trained soldiers, much less whilst suffering negligible losses. The whole idea is ludicrous. That this is the film’s big ‘action’ scene says much about the picture’s overall quality.
Bach confronts Chisolm, who reacts by cutting open Bach’s contamination suit and exposing him to the virus. Meanwhile, Molly surreptitiously passes McClaren the hunting knife that they introduced earlier. (Screenplay 101.) Then Pogue gives Chisolm the bad news: The BRT antitoxin proves to be the same as what they already have. Apparently, the virus has mutated (already?), rendering the antitoxin ineffective. Cut to Pogue examining the computer readout with the results from the various blood tests. That he can interpret the arcane looking readout is unintentionally funny. So he’s the Second-in-Command in the country’s best trained Militia; and a world-class sniper (he’s the one who shot the guards outside the courthouse); and an attorney and a medical technician. Hell, he’s almost as multi-talented as McClaren himself.
He learns some exciting news. It turns out that there’s someone who’s been exposed to the bug, but whose system is successfully fighting it off. Once they have this person, they can “isolate the antibody” and cure themselves. Although, as Pogue notes, this will require “a lot of blood.” A quick check of the printout confirms that this person is…three guesses…McClaren’s daughter, Holly. Boy, what’re the odds, huh? At least ten to one, I’d say. Chisolm puts the word out to find the girl. Frankly, were I in his boots, I’d have emphasized that they shouldn’t harm her, which Chisolm fails to do.
This villainy afoot, McClaren steps over to berate Chisolm. You can’t have too much self-important orating in a Seagal movie, I guess. Chisolm, figuring to force McClaren to reveal Holly’s whereabouts, shoots down one of the doctors. McClaren reacts by grabbing Pogue and holding the hunting knife to his neck. Hostage in hand, he heads for the lounge, quickly reclaiming his daughter in a desultory burst of *yawn* action. This ends with Pogue knocked unconscious, one GMG (Generic Militia Guy) smashing into a candy machine (!) and another through a wall (!!).
But the ‘excitement’ isn’t over. Wrapping Holly in a blanket, Our Hero leaps through a candy glass window to freedom. Against all odds, this isn’t presented in slow-motion. At first, this seems strange. Then we discern how obvious it is that Seagal’s been replaced with a stuntman. (Holly, meanwhile, has become a mannequin, a fact not successfully obscured by the blanket). Seeing all this, it becomes obvious that they didn’t dare present the gag in slow-motion, lest it all become even more laughably apparent. The scene ends with Frank driving up to facilitate their escape.
They head back to McClaren’s place, and a moment of ‘wit’ occurs as they pass a “You Are Leaving Ennis” billboard. This features a man reeling in a huge fish and bears the line “Hope You Caught Something!” Pretty ironic, huh? Because folks were catching something. Only it wasn’t a fish, it was a deadly virus. Which isn’t really something you’d hope people would catch. Hence the irony, get it?
Next is a bit reminiscent of the comical Inept Nazi segments of The Blues Brothers. Adding to this impression, no doubt, is the bad faux-Wagner music used as background during the Militia scenes. Chisolm orders his men, including one whose car bears an enormous bald eagle painted on the hood, to go and get the girl. I swear, I kept waiting for Henry Gibson to make an appearance and end up outside of Wrigley Field. Again, Chisolm proves not only cowardly, but inexplicably stupid. “If you gotta shoot her,” he notes, “plug the hole. We need her blood.” I think I’d instead emphasize the whole don’t-shoot-her-at-all thing. McClaren, though, is fair game. (Or something — whatever “knock his dick in the dirt” means, anyway.)
Arriving at the ranch, Our Heroes split up. Holly is sent to saddle some horses. Frank grabs a honking big .50 military rifle (every home should have one) and prepares for company. Meanwhile, in a scene that I think is supposed to be ‘neat,’ McClaren heads for his high-tech computer set-up and manufactures himself a Top Secret clearance badge. In doing so he chooses from a number of authorizing agencies (CDC, CIA, NIH), finally going with DAPRA. (Super-Forger!) Presumably this is all highly illegal, but he’s the hero, so it’s OK.
As this is happening, Holly hears a suspicious sound in the barn. Oh, the suspense! But, ha, ha, it’s only her pony, now fully recovered. McClaren comes in to confirm that Holly’s gotten the horses ready. Frank, meanwhile, is hiding near the ranch’s access road, setting up an ambush. Soon a couple jeep-loads of GMGs appears. Frank lets fly with a lit bundle of dynamite, which lands with the kind of accuracy seldom seen outside of an A-Team episode. It explodes as the lead vehicle drives over, resulting in a chain smash-up. Frank approaches and shoots down the few survivors, who pop up like in a Whack-a-Mole game.
He fails, however, to just put an extra bullet into everyone who appears dead. And really, why wouldn’t you at this point? So when he begins a little victory dance, we know he’s going to get it. Sure enough, a GMG stops playing possum and plugs him. (Gee, the sidekick got killed. What a twist.) Unlike the window scene, this is shot in slow-motion, since it doesn’t take a stuntman to wear a squib under his shirt. McClaren rides up just in time to witness this ‘tragedy’ and blow away the bad guy.
McClaren and Holly, with Frank’s body on the third horse (mournful music indicates that the ‘dead Frank’ thing is sad and everything) are soon riding into the mountains. Later, they’ve camped out for the night. Holly snuggles next to McClaren and they milk her youthful innocence for some moronic ‘pathos’ about death. Holly misses Frank, her late mom, etc., and so does McClaren. McClaren consoles her that “[Frank]’s up in Heaven right now, lookin’ down and laughin’ at us cause he knows everything’s gonna be all right.” Either that, or he’s just relieved to be out of this screwball picture. When Holly notes that thinking about Frank makes her sad, I think McClaren’s expression is meant to represent concern for his daughter. However, Seagal has an extremely limited range of facial expressions, and his grimace more seems to indicate annoyance at his daughter’s constant yakking.
The next day they arrive at the secluded mountain cabin of McClaren’s father-in-law, who proves to be a (you guessed it) Wise Old Indianâ„¢. Anne, presumably the younger sister of McClaren’s deceased wife, is also in attendance. In another clichÃˆ right out of a Billy Jack movie, Anne proves to have conquered the White Man’s science. However, she’s taken a sabbatical from college to glean from her Father all the wisdom one can’t learn from “any university botanist.” A fitting funeral is held for Frank, as Indian-type music, complete with tom-tom drums (!), plays on the soundtrack. Just in case we fail to ‘get’ it, some of your basic Indian Chanting (!!) is soon added. The sequence ends with McClaren resting a spirit bag or some other cornball article on the grave.
After the funeral, McClaren gets to work looking for a cure. He notes that Anne and her father, like Holly, seem immune to the virus. Anne suggests that maybe it’s “a Native American thing.” Yeah, that sounds rigorously scientific. (How come nobody seems to notice that McClaren also seems immune? Is he supposed to be an Indian, too? Nothing has been said to indicate that.) Having found what he can here, McClaren’s off to try to get into a top secret military base hidden in the mountains. Anne comes along to help.
Anne and McClaren head off while Holly gets a lesson in nature from her grandfather, who, in case I failed to mention it, is a Wise Old Indianâ„¢. One thing she learns is that “a horse can be vain, like a pretty girl.” Good thing he’s a member of a Discreet Insular Minority, or he might be accused of sexism. Then they examine various flowers, including the “red medicine,” as well as a purple one, which is their “secret.” (Plot point!)
McClaren and Anne end up outside a little structure that leads down to a secret underground military base. Watched by security cameras, they are warned off the property via a speaker system. McClaren pulls out his phony DARPA ID and attempts to gain entrance. Needless to say, after some extremely mild ‘arguing,’ he does. A sign downstairs indicates that this is a Biohazard Defense Research Facility. (Man, this area has everything – the country’s Best Damned Immunologist, an Insane Megalomaniac Militia Leader and a Top Secret Germ Warfare Lab!) Meanwhile, a soldier is being berated by Lt. Johnson, who, oddly, seems to be the commanding officer for this facility, for allowing unauthorized personnel into a top secret military base, which is apparently a no-no of some sort.
McClaren and Anne enter the area and are ordered to present their IDs for inspection. (Anne doesn’t have one, but apparently McClaren didn’t think this would be a problem.) Here we can see that the assembled handful of soldiers are all suffering from the virus. Lt. Johnson, in an almost realistic bits, falls back on General Orders and prepares to arrest the two. Following which, naturally, reality flies out the window. First, McClaren grabs a soldier’s sidearm and holds it on Lt. Johnson. He then orders the soldiers to lower their weapons, which they all do. (This would not happen.) Finally, he does that thing where he just hands the gun back to Johnson. This always works to establish trust in movies, so of course Johnson decides to let McClaren take over.
OK, let’s see if I can get some of the highpoints here. First, the entire staff of this top secret underground facility consists of, apparently, seven soldiers. (Either that or the rest were wiped out by bees.) Second, you might be wondering how they contracted the virus, since obviously a base of this sort should be protected from biological agents (in the same way one might say the film is protected from logical agents). Well, it turns out that they got infected during ‘topside’ drills. Although, if this is a base whose very existence is top secret, I wouldn’t think they’d have soldiers running around outside of it. McClaren asks if they had a gas mask failure. Johnson replies that they weren’t wearing them, because he “thought this whole disease thing was bullsh*t.” This, from the commanding officer on a Biological Hazard Research Facility. Am I the only one having a problem with this?
Luckily, McClaren has worked here in the past, before he got too noble to work with The Government. Even more fortuitously, no one has since changed the key codes to his old lab. Yeah, that’s likely. Meanwhile, a soldier reports that one of the men has died. Time to get a move on, I guess. Next up, the obligatory “looking for the cure” montage. This is interspersed with the remaining soldiers getting sicker and dying. They also, of course, assemble one of those metal-scaffolding-and-glass-tubing affairs without which no lab is complete. To be fair, they do their best to make this ‘science’ stuff exciting. Still, I don’t think The Andromeda Strain need worry.
In an ill-conceived bit, they let Seagal attempt to ‘act,’ here attempting to portray frustration as the soldiers die despite his best efforts. Predictably, this is ultimately represented by his smashing stuff, as this is easier than actually conveying emotion. Meanwhile, we check back in on Chisolm and his bunch. They’ve managed to alarm some of the more dubiously intellected members of society by claiming on their website that it was the Government who released the agent. Meanwhile, the Government holds off on a raid, apparently fearing that Chisolm will release more of the virus (however that would work).
Back in the lab. Of the seven soldiers, only Lt. Johnson is left. McClaren and Anne are stumped as to why he’s still alive. Then McClaren notices some flower petals on the Lt., and asks Anne what he’s been drinking. She replies that it’s wild flower tea, Grandpa’s recipe. And suddenly they realize that the answer was before them the whole time. (McClaren’s been shown drinking the tea throughout the movie, explaining his health – which, again, no one has ever commented on.) To help us understand what’s happening, the Indian chanting comes back onto the soundtrack. Johnson is given a concentrated shot of the stuff and soon back on his feet.
Now that the cure’s been found (and a rather convenient one, at that), McClaren and Anne head back to Grandpa’s. Holly is told to saddle up so that she and her father can get back to town with the good news. In a classic IITS moment, they stop by their ranch. There they are surprised and captured by Chisolm’s men. Are we supposed to be surprised that the Militia Guys, who believe getting their hands on Holly is key to their survival, have been staking the place out? Needless to say, this makes McClaren look pretty damn stupid. Still, they needed to set up McClaren’s confrontation with Chisolm, so maybe its best that they took the most direct route. I mean, you know, rather than dragging the movie out any longer.
Chisolm, relocated back in his house, greets McClaren as he’s brought in. He then waves his men away so that McClaren can kill him, er, I mean, converse with him privately. You see, for all his bluster, Chisolm obviously seeks McClaren’s approval — and who wouldn’t, the guy’s a regular superman. Chisolm tries to act like a “gentleman farmer,” as he identifies himself. He goes as far as to offer his guest a glass of fine Merlot. Meanwhile, Holly is dragged down into the basement.
The scene proceeds at pace, mostly as yet another vehicle to allow McClaren to vent his righteous indignation and overall superiority. Most hilarious is the contention that Chisolm’s actions represent some kind of power grab. Again, this is to separate the conspiracy theories regularly on display in Seagal’s work from Chisolm’s. McClaren is even shown agreeing with many of Chisolm’s bizarre assertions about the government’s evil actions. Yet, if the message of On Deadly Ground was anything, it was that violent action against those in power is utterly justified. Therefore, we are provided with this scene, meant to establish that, unlike Seagal’s heroes, these guys are in it for the power. And the idea is that it is now established, because McClaren states his belief that it’s so and Seagal’s heroes are always utterly correct about everything. One wonders if Seagal was ever even aware of how close this film comes to fudging the pristine good guy/bad guy format of all his movies.
Meanwhile, if the movie is meant to alert us to the danger posed by radical militias, it fails utterly. I mean, come on, militias are composed of paranoid loners who want to hide up in the hills with their MREs and assault rifles. The idea that these guys present some kind of threat to society at large is laughable. Despite this, they’ve become the most prominent villain Hollywood has right now. It seems like every fourth movie and every other episode of your average cop show uses them as such. But this isn’t because of anything they’ve ever done, because nobody in a militia has ever really done anything. Yeah, there’s Timothy McVeigh, may he rot, but he wasn’t a member of a militia, he was a militia wannabe. (Think about how pathetic that is.) Let’s be frank, they get a lot of play in movies and TV because:
- They’re white males. Hollywood liberals can thus demonize them and not worry about having to explain themselves at cocktail parties.
- Militia members are hardly the kind of people likely to organize and complain about how they are portrayed in the media.
- Even if they do complain, the Press isn’t likely to pay them much attention, because
- Militia guys like guns, which both Hollywood and the average member of the Press can’t stand either.
Anyway, having made his rather dubious point, McClaren can now kill the villain. This he does by snapping the stem of his crystal wine glass with his thumb and shoving the shard into Chisolm’s head. By the time others have entered the room, McClaren has drawn Chisolm’s sidearm from its holster and can effortlessly dispatch them. Then it’s down to the basement to grab Holly. I guess his merely beating on Pogue after he surrenders, rather than killing him, is meant to portray heroic forbearance. Anyway, you can tell that the budget wouldn’t support a more epic sequence by the fact that just over a minute after killing Chisolm, Holly and McClaren are safely heading back into Ennis.
McClaren contacts the authorities to tell them that he’s got the cure. Next, in a scene that I’m sure is meant to carry a ’60ish sense of irony, we see uniformed soldiers, gas masks and all, picking the flowers needed for the cure. Then, in perhaps the most ineffective dispersal process I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen The Swarm), the petals are distributed to the townsfolk by being dropped off of helicopters. And I’m not talking bags of petals, no, I mean loose, falling to earth like confetti. Presumably, this was meant to present a powerful image, as salvation fell from the sky. Instead, it just seem really, really stupid.
McClaren catches up with Bach, who’s still ministering to the sick. McClaren mentions the flower cure, noting that it’s “Just simple mountain remedies us highfalutin immunologists never would have thought of. Took an old Blackfoot Indian to figure it out.” Now, I’m not sure what they’re getting at here. Grandpa didn’t know that this was a cure, right? Because if he did, then by letting McClaren “hunt” for the cure (see IMMORTAL DIALOG), he’s responsible for every person that died during the days McClaren spent in the lab.
So we end with a little congratulatory parade. Grandpa and Anne enter the scene on horseback. They ride down the main street, accompanied by Holly’s little pony and with flower petals drifting down upon them. Why would they bring the pony to town? Got me. Guess so that the audience can go “awww!” when the little girl comes running up and hugs her pet. (In real life, said audience is much more likely saying either “zzzzzz” or “Hey, is this piece of crap finally over?”) Then we get more shots of the helicopter dropping the petals from seemingly millions of flowers. Finally, we cut to credits, as the music switches to more Indian chanting. Good golly, can’t the White Man (in this case, the ones who made this movie) leave those poor people alone.
Like many of our subjects, this one raises more questions than it answers. For instance:
- What, exactly, is the point of Chisolm’s plan? It’s implied that it’s to grab power, but how would that work? Is the idea that the area will become unliveable to anybody who’s not innoculated, and that Chisolm will reign there after the townsfolk are wiped out? But the supposed antitoxin was stolen was the government, so what would have kept them from innoculating troops and sending them in after him? Plus, with Chisolm generally being portrayed as a coward, it’s hard to believe that this is some kind of death pact thing wherein he drags a lot of people to the grave with him. Anyway, I’ve now seen this film five times or more, and I have no clue as to what Chisolm was supposedly up to.
- Also, are we supposed to be afraid of a villain dumb enough to infect himself with a deadly biological agent, under the assumption that the antitoxin he’s been given will protect him?
- Again, people keep mentioning that Holly is immune to the virus. But so, obviously, are McClaren and Frank, neither of whom ever show any of the evident signs of infection. Yet no one at any time points this out. In retrospect, they were immune because they drank Grandpa’s herbal tea, shown being served up by Holly. Too bad “the best damned immunologist in the country” didn’t notice how everyone in his household was immune, or he might have figured out the link a whole lot quicker and saved many more lives.
- How come McClaren’s always wearing either bulky coats or floppy shirts with the tails hanging out? It’s not in a vain attempt to hide Seagal’s ever more sizable gut, is it? I mean, his scenes are filmed like those of an actress hiding her pregnancy, with her abdomen always strategically hidden behind a table or something.
- It’s a sign of the film’s general laziness that it never bothers to explain why an immunologist would possess McClaren’s showcased hand-to-hand fighting skills. (Admittedly, these have noticeably deteriorated as compared to his earlier movies.) Apparently, they figured that audiences would assume that any Seagal, er, character would have them. So why bother?
- OK, I’m willing to buy that there are some things holistic medicine is good for. But, c’mon. A flower petal that cures a lab-created germ warfare agent? Yeah, sure. One of the miracles of Western Civilization has been the medical techniques and technologies it’s developed. To try to deny this is, at best, silly. Meanwhile, if these herbal remedies are so great, how come European diseases like smallpox cut such a swath through American Indian populations? Frankly, this seems to me a further example of how immature people have grown in direct relation to how much better their lives have become. More and more of us believe in UFOs; angels that only fly around teaching us to love each other but who are content free, religion-wise; and that functional immortality will be ours if we only scarf down enough enchinea. Sure, ‘Western’ medicine is probably a bit too arrogant and smug at times. Still, the proof’s in the pudding. The idea that modern medicine is a swindle of some sort (see IMMORTAL DIALOG) is just as paranoid as any of Seagal’s numerous other fantasies.
McClaren rips the lid off the scam that is modern medicine:
Grateful patient Clem, receiving an affordable holistic treatment: “How come they didn’t tell me about this in Boseman?”
Wise Doc McClaren: “Because in Western medicine, they’re in the business of prolonging illness. I’m in the business of curin’ it.”
Frank comforts the frightened Molly with a bit of his folksy charm:
Molly: “Why is everyone sick?”
Frank: “They say cattle pneumonia…I guess they’re just gettin’ back at us for all them burgers!”
But what about the jeeps, man?!
Generic Militia Guy reports on a slew of casualties: “They got ambushed. They’re all dead. The trucks too. They’re scrapped.”
McClaren seeks the advice of his father-in-law, a Wise Old Indianâ„¢ chap, and learns much wisdom:
McClaren: “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this one.”
Wise Old Indian: “You’re a hunter. Don’t chase knowledge. Just like a deer, it’ll run away from you. You’ve gotta let knowledge come to you. Learn to listen to nature.”