During the opening minutes of Half Past Dead, we're introduced to Steven Seagal as a character who claims to be a Russian mobster. (Mercifully, we're spared any attempt at an appropriate accent.) Then we're told the other people on screen actually believe he's a Russian mobster.
And then the movie gets really preposterous.
It’s practically impossible to get through this frankly fantastical 2002 by-the-numbers B-flick with just a suspension of disbelief. Rather, you have to wrestle disbelief to the ground, and then apply a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. And yet, if you do somehow manage to restrain your skepticism – or, perhaps better, you just throw up your hands and go with the flow – you can have a down-and-dirty, rock-the-house good time with it. Seriously. Well, OK, not so seriously. But really and truly.
Indeed, it’s particularly pertinent this weekend, as Sylvester Stallone unleashes The Expendables, an ‘80s-style high-testosterone action-adventure that some critics and movie buffs believe would have been even better had Sly somehow managed to fit Seagal (and, for that matter, Jean-Claude Van Damme) into the mix alongside Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren and the rest of the Over the Hill Gang. Fortuitously, H-Town’s KTBU/Channel 55 has scheduled not just one but two weekend airings of Half Past Dead – 10 pm Saturday and 5 pm Sunday – to illustrate just how much Seagal could have contributed to the carnage in Sly’s extravaganza. Take my advice: Pop some popcorn, crack open a beer – and savor the cheese.
Seagal plays Sasha Petrosevitch, a burly hardass who worms his way into an international carjacking ring by earning the trust of bantamweight Nick Frazier (rapper-actor Ja Rule), a pistol-packing thief with an itchy trigger finger. Unfortunately, Nick decides to draw his guns when the FBI raids the crime ring's chop shop. Even more unfortunately, Sasha takes a few bullets during the melee, and very nearly gets embraced by the light – hence, the title – before recovering sufficiently to finish his undercover work.
That's right: Sasha's really a deep-cover agent, assigned to use Nick as his stepping stone to the heavyweights who run the carjacking operation. (Naturally, it's not just a mater of law-and-order business; it's a personal crusade of vengeance for our hero.) Sasha is so determined to stick close to Nick that, when the latter is shipped off to a newly refurbished Alcatraz prison – played, in a bold stroke of casting, by a soundstage in Germany – Sasha gets himself sentenced to the same institution, for a reunion with his new best friend.
Which, of course, means that – in the grand tradition of Under Siege, Seagal's very best movie, and Die Hard, the masterwork that spawned Under Siege and dozens of other imitators – our hero is the right man in the wrong place at the right time when all hell breaks loose.
Sasha arrives at Alcatraz just in time for the execution of Lester (Bruce Weitz), a criminal mastermind who's determined to go to his grave without revealing where he hid $200 million in stolen gold bullion. But before Lester can meet his maker – which he's serenely prepared to do, having experienced a religious conversion that, surprisingly, the movie doesn't exploit for cheap laughs – Alcatraz is assaulted by a commando team led by Donny (Morris Chestnut), a disgruntled State Prison Bureau employee who wants a crack at “convincing” Lester to spill the beans about the bullion. (Damn those pesky bureaucrats.) And just when you think things can't get any more contrived, a Supreme Court justice (Linda Thorson) shows up. She's on hand to witness the execution, which means she's conveniently available for use as a hostage when…
Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You're going to need some more chloroform!
No doubt about it: Half Past Dead is three-quarters past absurd. But the fight scenes (choreographed by Hong Kong master Xin Xin Xiong) are more than passably impressive, and the cat-and-rat games played by Sasha and the prison invaders make for totally predictable but reasonably exciting mayhem. Don Michael Paul, working from his own screenplay, directs like someone who has studied the entire oeuvre of John Woo, and actually leaned a few things about pacing and editing. In fact, the movie bogs down only during a few painfully sincere scenes that are meant to provide, ahem, character development.
With the help of some quick cutting and crafty camera angles, the middle-aging Seagal appears here to be just as fleet-footed and two-fisted as ever. (But perhaps this explains why, eight years later, Sly didn’t draft him for The Expendables – maybe it requires too much post-production effort to disguise any decrepitude these says?) His acting is, as usual, best described as minimalist, though he does have an undeniable screen presence. Throughout long stretches of the movie, though, he's content to recede into the background while more animated co-stars take over.
Much of the movie is pilfered by Ja Rule, who obviously was hired to enhance Seagal's appeal to younger, more racially diverse audiences. Claudia Christian has a few choice moments as a hard-bitten FBI agent who looks great in a bulletproof vest. And Nia Peeples struts through the movie like she's in love with her own bad self as Donny's second-in-command, a leather-clad vixen who obviously took lessons in slo-mo hair tossing and coat swinging from the character Lucy Liu essayed in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.
Which reminds me: Hey, Sly, couldn’t you have hired some badass female action stars for The Expendables? What’s the matter? Were Cynthia Rothrock and Shannon Tweed asking for too much money? Huh?