Half Past Dead

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HALF PAST DEAD

5/10

USA 2002 (made 2000) : Don Michael PAUL : 104 mins

A watchably thick-ear action thriller, Half Past Dead is Seagal’s follow-up to Exit Wounds (2000), whose strong box-office performance unexpectedly resurrected the star’s career. Appropriately enough, his character here – FBI agent Sasha, operating undercover as a Russian gangster – literally comes back from oblivion: after being felled in a hail of bullets during the opening scene, he’s clinically dead for a (biologically implausible) 23 minutes before startling doctors by jolting back to life, Man Without A Past style. Sasha is then banged up in a new high-tech prison on Alcatraz Island alongside his partner-in-crime Nick (Ja Rule), only for the jail to come under attack by a ruthless gang desperate to get their hands on the gold stolen years before by Lester (Hill Street Blues’ Bruce Weitz), an inmate whose execution is imminent. Lester intends to take the secret of the gold’s location with him to the chair, but while criminal mastermind Donny (Morris Chestnut) has other ideas, he hasn’t factored in the presence of the indomitable ‘Prisoner 1173’, as Sasha is known behind bars.

The set-up – high-tech villains take over enclosed environment, unexpectedly face opposition from government-trained killing-machine – harks back to Seagal’s early-nineties glory days of Under Siege (boat) and Under Siege 2 (train), the latter of which also featured Chestnut in a prominent supporting role. Seagal, who wasn’t exactly a spring chicken even back then, is now clearly getting too old, fat and slow for such kick-ass high-jinks: his relative lack of mobility is ‘explained’ by a deadpan line in the script when he informs a prison guard “My knee – it’s titanium.” But Seagal’s creakiness doesn’t actually matter too much – nor does the fact that the convoluted script is as riddled with absurdities as the prison walls are pocked with the trigger-happy baddies’ bullets.

There’s enough else going on to keep us at least moderately entertained, not least the full-tilt Nia Peeples as a gun-toting, Xenia Onatopp-type villainess known only as ’49er Six’ (Donny is ’49er One’). This self-proclaimed ‘queen bitch of the universe’ sports amusingly OTT blue eyeshadow, and seems to thoroughly enjoy her mano-a-mano encounter with the diminutive Nick. Rap star Ja Rule, meanwhile, may not be God’s gift to movie screen-fighting, but he does possess the cheekiest grin in current cinema (he’s like a black Brendan Sexton III) and does his valiant best to convince us that Sasha/Seagal is indeed ‘aiiiight’. As with Exit Wounds (which paired the star with DMX) this is yet another Hollywood movie which surrounds its white hero with cool black rappers/actors (Kurupt and Mo’nique have minor roles) in a naked, desperate bid to widen the films’ demographic appeal and also boost their stars’ waning street-credibility – though not to the extent that the rappers are actually allowed to use any nasty swear words in their dialogue or on the raucous rap/rock soundtrack.

For Seagal himself, credibility is probably one battle too many: but it would be a shame if megabudget extravaganzas like X-Men and The Matrix movies crowded out breezy, disposable B-pictures like Half Past Dead – even those that are as choppily edited and clunkily directed as this one, whose interiors were shot on the cheap in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. If nothing else, Paul deserves at least some credit for casting Avengers veteran Linda Thorson as the Supreme Court judge who becomes the 49ers star hostage – she (or rather her stunt double) even gets to do some unlikely skydiving in the chaotic climax. Paul also manages to smuggle into his script hints of a Paul Verhoeven-ish, satirical attitude towards prevailing US penal policy: “This is a bad place for bad people,” brags Donny early on in his guise as a political aide, “and if there’s any discomfort behind these walls – well, that’s how it should be.” What Donny’s boss smirkingly refers to as the ‘criminally challenged’ emerge rather heroically – given access to the prison’s arsenal, they use their weapons to get rid of the real bad guys and thus do their patriotic best for Sasha and Uncle Sam.

1st May, 2003
(seen 28th April 2003: Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

by Neil Young