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Should I Watch..? Half Past Dead
What's the big deal?
Half Past Dead is an action thriller film released in 2002 and was written and directed by Don Michael Paul in what was his directorial debut. Co-producer Steven Seagal leads a cast who also features rappers Ja Rule and Kurupt, Morris Chestnut and Nia Peeples. The film concerns an attempt by heavily-armed criminals to break into the newly-opened New Alcatraz prison in San Francisco in order to uncover the location of stolen loot while an undercover FBI agent is trying to stop them. Released to a harsh response from critics, the film was a box office bomb grossing less than $20 million. It would be Seagal's last theatrical release until Machete (1) in 2010. Weirdly, Half Past Dead would spawn a sequel in 2007 but neither Seagal or Ja Rule returned to their roles.
What's it about?
In San Francisco, car thief Sasha Petrosevitch works alongside fellow criminal Nick Frazier under the guidance of local crime boss Sonny Eckvall. But they are soon cornered by the FBI's Special Agent Ellen "E.Z." Williams and amidst the shoot-out, Sasha is shot. After spending eight months in recovery, Sasha and Nick find themselves incarcerated in the newly reopened Alcatraz and its state-of-the-art execution chamber under the watchful eye of warden Juan Ruiz Escarzaga.
With the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Frank Hubbard and Supreme Court Judge June McPherson in attendance, Lester McKenna is escorted to the chamber for his execution. Responsible for stealing $200 million worth of gold bricks and hiding them in an undisclosed location, McKenna is the first prisoner to be sent to Alcatraz's fancy death chamber. But a number of criminals known only as the 49's initiate a stay of execution by infiltrating the prison and holding hostages until McKenna reveals the location of the loot. With the FBI planning a rescue from the city, it soon falls to Sasha and Nick to stop the 49's and rescue the hostages...
Warden Juan Ruiz "El Fuego" Escarzaga
Don Michael Paul
Don Michael Paul
Release Date (UK)
2nd May, 2003
Action, Crime, Thriller
Razzie Award Nomination
Worst Actor (Seagal)
What's to like?
Frankly, not much. Seagal, who looks almost comically overweight in this picture, ignores his martial arts background and instead picks up a variety of firearms in his battle with the bad guys. But actually, this isn't a bad thing - the movie might take its sweet time in getting started but once it does, it provides a near-constant stream of pyrotechnics and noisy sound effects - perfect for action lovers who aren't fussy about quality. And let's be honest here, anyone watching one of Seagal's movies knows exactly what to expect in terms of quality.
Away from the Pony-Tailed One, the film displays more life a bit further down the cast list. Peeples makes a decent femme fatale while Plana isn't given enough to do as the warden. But the likes of Ja Rule, Chestnut and Seagal can't hold the film together as well as they should. The film, despite looking fairly simplistic on the surface, actually feels much more complex as it feels as though every character has secrets and backstory that are hinted at but never revealed. Take Seagal's car thief who is apparently Russian - he gives one attempt at an accent early on and then after that, he's simply a fatter version of John McClane from Die Hard (2).
- Although set in Alcatraz, the film's interior scenes were shot in an abandoned Stasi prison in Berlin, Germany.
- Some of the aerial shots used in the film were cut from another action film based on Alcatraz, The Rock (3). The shots of the skydivers was also taken from another film, Navy Seals (4).
- According to stunt double Wolfgang Lindner and director Paul, Seagal proved a disruptive force on set. He travelled everywhere with a Buddhist adviser whose comments on Seagal's karma would result in the star refusing to shoot for that day.
What's not to like?
Interestingly, you suspect that Die Hard might have been the producer's main influence after all seeing as Half Past Dead is essentially Die Hard in a prison. But Seagal is no Bruce Willis, displaying as much heroic charm as a soggy dishcloth. The baddies are also staggeringly incompetent, failing to shoot almost anyone further away than arm's reach. I can think of few films that fire off so many rounds of ammunition without hitting anything but scenery - possibly GoldenEye (5) or The Matrix (6) but that's it.
Once the baddies have initiated their ridiculous plan and the plot-holes have been glossed over, the film's steady stream of action sequences are both uninspired and boring - even a helicopter crash fails to liven things up. The heavily censored and highly irritable hip-hop soundtrack not only makes the film seem about as hip as Vanilla Ice's second album but also underlines the film's true weakness - the PG rating. A film of this nature should be full of gore, violence, swearing and needlessly sexualised female characters - Half Past Dead has none of these things. It's a film that goes through the motions without leaving a lasting impression on anyone.
Should I watch it?
I wouldn't bother - the film isn't bad as such but it completely fails to take off in the way you'd like it to. It's like an six-year-old trying to play the violin - despite demonstrating ear-splitting screeches and as much talent as a discarded toenail, you can't fully hate it because at least they're trying. Half Past Dead is as disposable an action film as I can imagine, devoid of excitement, tension and likeable leads.
Great For: having on in the background, the Seagal faithful, readers of dodgy screenplays
Not So Great For: action lovers, recommending to others
What else should I watch?
Seeing as Half Past Dead is simply yet another variation on its theme, Die Hard is the logical place to start. But don't forget the equally exhilarating Speed (7) which takes a story just as ludicrous but relocates it to a bus. Throw in Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper as the panto villain of the piece and it becomes a truly brilliant action movie. Keanu pops up again in The Matrix which has been the template for action movies ever since with its patented Bullet-Time effects, exaggerated action pieces and a ridiculous amount of guns.
Meanwhile, the Seagal faithful already know which are his better movies. Under Siege (8) might take the Die Hard formula and put it onto a US Naval vessel but it remains Seagal's best picture so far. And while Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (9) suggested that perhaps Seagal's career might be a short one, it's still bonkers enough to justify at least one viewing.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox