HALF PAST DEAD

1.5 Stars
Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
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We know this character. Clint Eastwood played him in “Escape from Alcatraz,” Sylvester Stallone played him in “Lock Up,” even Jean-Claude Van Damme took a turn in “Death Warrant.” He’s the prisoner, the new guy, the fresh meat, but this isn’t Charles Manson we’re talking about; these guys are always heroes. As for their crimes, well, if they weren’t framed or railroaded, they had a good reason for doing what they did. For some reason, they always get sent to the worst prisons in America: places like the Mojave desert, Folsom, or the big daddy of them all, Alcatraz.
In “Half Past Dead,” the newest of the prison films, the genre gets a slight, a very slight, twist: Steven Seagal plays Sascha, the Russian bred FBI man who slips into the prison, the “New Alcatraz” as it’s dubbed, to foil a plot: A group of crooks have snuck into the prison to try and convince a condemned criminal mastermind to tell them the whereabouts of his $200 Million stash which he has hidden somewhere. Since he’s on death row, waiting to be executed, the crooks, led by Morris Chestnut, don’t have much to offer except escape.
The “Half Past Dead” title refers to a shootout at the start of the film which momentarily stopped Seagal’s heart “for 22 minutes,” which is the same length as a TV sitcom. It’s surprising then that Seagal’s bosses would send him out for duty so soon after this ordeal…He looks badly out of shape. When a team of commandos swoop in during the prison’s christening, his job becomes all the more difficult, but he’s like a Trojan Horse because he’s posing as an inmate himself. The plot thickens. A female Supreme Court Judge has arrived at the prison for its opening, anxious to view the prison’s state of the art execution chamber as well as the execution of condemned criminal mastermind, Lester(Bruce Weitz).
There are just a few teeny-weeny problems with the plot of this film: If Lester, the criminal mastermind, is so smart and full of hidden millions, why did he get sent here anyways? Why don’t Seagal and his bosses at the FBI use the same techniques that the bandits use for trying to get old Lester to spill the beans about the missing $200 Million? Ah hah, but Lester has nothing to look forward to; he’s going to be executed, so there’s not much incentive for him to talk to anyone unless…well, unless Seagal, still pretending to be a thug, broke him out of the New Alcatraz himself with the cooperation of his superiors. Sound like a plan?
There are more questions: Why is there always a torrential thunderstorm on nights like these? Yes, $200 Million is a lot of money, but for any criminal, doesn’t there reach a point where you say enough is enough? I think back to the Morgan Freeman flood thriller “Hard Rain” where Freeman and his cohorts went through hell and back to try and steal their fortune, to the point where you questioned why a man as smart as Freeman wouldn’t just pack up his bags, curse God and rest up at a Motel 6 somewhere. None of the characters in “Half Past Dead” are that smart, but somebody has to figure out a better way.
So the plot of “Half Past Dead” is just that, but a few weeks ago I saw Undisputed, another prison movie, with another dumb plot that was nevertheless entertaining in a great B-movie type of way. That just leaves the actors in “Half Past Dead” and to be fair, with the exception of Seagal, the star, they give the plot much more than it deserves. Morris Chestnut(Seagal’s co-star in “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) who plays Donny, the top villain, has an oily, sinister presence that is effective; I think he could play crazy villains – the kind of well-dressed baddies who talk slow but purposefully, not wanting to have to repeat themselves before they stick a knife into someone. To be fair as well, the makers of “Half Past Dead” don’t wallow in the gory details of prison life; we don’t spend much time with the sodomites or on the peculiar toilet habits of death row inmates. The film lives up(or down?) to its surprising PG-13 rating.
That leaves Seagal, and he’s a sad sight in this film. I have no problem with the fact that he doesn’t use a Russian accent(Do they ever?), but he looks out of shape and tired. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost fifteen years since Seagal’s first appearance in “Above the Law” where he appeared as a lithe, suave fighter with a difference: He preached peaceful ideals; remember the “before you kill, you must first learn to heal” line from “Hard to Kill?” You never heard those words in the vocabulary of Bronson, Norris or Van Damme. Given the recent revelations about Seagal’s life, it’ll be hard to view him in the same light again. His legend and his sermons, which were so fresh back in the old days, now seem like the phoniest kind of dime store theology. He’s also had way too many cheeseburgers.
It’s ironic that Chestnut shares equal billing with Seagal given that he was his sidekick in their previous film. I have a feeling that writer-director Don Michael Paul, a former action actor himself, might’ve been desperate more than anything else; we never see Seagal from head to toe in “Half Past Dead”; he’s always filmed under heavy lighting and his words are often slurred. “Half Past Dead” would’ve been a bad film without Seagal anyways, but he fails long before any of the other parts do.



Posted on November 13, 2002 in Reviews by
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