2002, Screen Gems. Directed by Don Michael Paul. Steven Segal, Ja Rule, Morris Chestnut, Nia Peeples, Tony Plana, Bruce Weitz, Claudia Christian.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Constant, often deadly action violence; some rough language and sexual references; a positive depiction of a suicide bombing.
Written for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting.
By Steven D. Greydanus
In Half Past Dead (Screen Gems), aging action star Steven Segal teams up with rapper Ja Rule for a joyless actionfest set in a reopened Alcatraz, which becomes the setting for a protracted siege by high-tech criminal commandos led by a pair of ruthless killers (Morris Chestnut and Nia Peeples).
Segal and Rule play convicts sent to Alcatraz by an FBI agent (Claudia Christian) following a chop-shop raid. For no plot-related reason at all, Segal is caught in crossfire during the raid and flatlines for what we are later told is 22 minutes, though it seems mere seconds at the time.
This device allows writer-director Don Michael Paul, here making his film directorial debut, to muse about God and the afterlife, with a death-row inmate (Bruce Weitz) querying Segal about “the other side” and whether God will forgive him for his crimes.
Yet these musings ultimately go nowhere as the movie turns to its real interest, action sequences involving all the automatic weapons fire, explosions, and bodies falling from catwalks or being thrown through windows that a PG-13 rating will possibly allow.
Between combat sequences, the movie takes a few stabs at moral thoughtfulness. For example, there’s some discussion of excessively harsh prison conditions, and a hypocritical prison official’s statement about the appropriateness of such conditions is evidently not meant to be taken at face value.
At the same time, justice and responsibility are also themes, and the prison warden (Tony Plana) is depicted as a hard but fair man who has real affection for his charges and is grudgingly respected by them. Plana gives each prisoner a King James Bible along with a handbook of rules and regulations, adding, “I suggest you read them both.”
One prisoner who apparently takes this advice is elderly Lester (Weitz), sentenced to death for his involvement in a deadly robbery of a $200 million gold shipment. Calm and resigned, Lester accepts responsibility for his actions and hopes for forgiveness from God, yet even on the eve of his execution continues to resist telling anyone where the stolen gold is hidden.
That’s when Chestnut and Peeples, intent on coercing Lester into revealing the location of the gold, lead a commando assault on the prison, and end up fighting not only Segal, but Ja Rule and their cellblock mates who absurdly risk life and limb against the bad guys in an inspiring display of civic responsibility among convicts.
Segal, as usual, makes no impact in the lead role, and his rising age and weight increasingly render him implausible in the action-figure role. As for Ja Rule and the other convicts, they’re about as dangerous as a schoolyard game of cops and robbers.
As the commando leaders, Chestnut and Peeples are evil knockoffs of Morpheus and Trinity from The Matrix — he with his bald head, swirling black overcoat, and pseudo-philosophical dialogue, she with her short dark hair, skintight leather, and kung-fu moves.
Yet despite expending comparable amounts of ammunition, Half Past Dead has none of The Matrix’s style or skill. Firefights are so laughably staged and ineptly choreographed that the result is numbing rather than gripping. Opponents regularly stand off with countless guns trained on one another, then simply run to the side as bullets begin flying. Glossy and unreal, the film romanticizes violence, recklessness, and macho posturing.
One of the film’s most troubling moments comes at the climax, which involves a doomed man acting as a suicide bomber against the bad guys with the cooperation and support of FBI agents. It’s now over a year past 9/11/01, and Hollywood has had more than enough time to adopt a more responsible approach to depicting terrorist tactics.