Ja Rule works a paradox. Nicely. Once heralded/dismissed as a second coming of Pac’s more agreeable side, Ja has showed over the years that he has his own skills. Specifically, he can look thugged out and adorable, usually simultaneously and usually shirtless. And while his own rap rhythms are distinctive, when the 26-year-old Ja turns his raspy vocals onto R&B hooks, he’s pretty much irresistible. Even more specifically, he plays very well with others: Ja Rule’s musical collaborations with a range of artists (from Mary, J. Lo, and Lil Mo to Charli Baltimore, Vita, and Ashanti, and most recently, the can’t-stay-out-of-his-own-way Bobby Brown) are consistently successful, not only profitable, but also shrewd mixes of R&B, hip-hop, and pop.
Whether or not Ja’s genius for being in the right place at the right time will carry over to his embryonic film career remains to be seen. So far, he’s chosen material erratically: as the sidekick in Turn It Up, he blew the awkward Pras off the screen; in The Fast and the Furious, he took a backseat to the booming Vin Diesel. And yet, despite the fact that Ja only had about four minutes of screen time in that big-scary-hit of a movie, he was prominently featured in the trailers, meaning that someone in the PR department spotted his tremendous charisma and meant to exploit it.
In Half Past Dead, Ja is partnered with Steven Seagal, the fading action/martial arts star who not only refuses to go away, but has recommenced his career by coming up with his very own marketing framework: the Steven-Seagal-with-rap-costar mini-genre, which includes the profitable Exit Wounds, with DMX, and the straight-to-video Ticker, with Nas. Here, Seagal and company multiply what has worked before, pairing him with not one, but two ragingly appealing hiphop artists: Ja and Kurupt. The former plays another version of his tough-but-vulnerable character, a natty-dressing car thief named Nick; the latter plays a skinny comedic third tier scene-stealer named Twitch. (He’s so effective that his closing-credits exchange with girlfriend Mo’Nique has found its way into commercials, suggesting that even though this scene — his longest — doesn’t show up in the film proper, Kurupt is on his way as a movie star.)
Both Ja Rule and Kurupt (“My favorite scenes were the shootings,” he says) prop up Seagal, no mean feat. The easiest way to imagine them all in the same place, apparently, is in a prison, and so, Half Past Dead is mostly set in a re-opened, Oz-ified Alcatraz. Just why it’s been re-opened is vague, but it has something to do with politicians and vicious capitalism, a potentially interesting theme to follow through, though the film doesn’t. A brief introductory sequence sets up the typically hysterical Seagal-film title, here concerning the near death of his character, Sascha (thus indicating that he is of “Russian” extraction). A deeply undercover FBI agent, Sascha is shot up by feds who are actually shooting at Nick, during a bust gone bad; Sascha then becomes legendary because he almost dies and comes back. (That said, the title doesn’t make sense: as he’s really halfway to death, rather than halfway past it, but… whatever.)
This impressive resurrected-guy legend corresponds, metaphorically of course, to Seagal’s own career, deemed quite dead not long ago, and resurrected when he made the DMX movie. And in the context of Half Past Dead, the legend makes Sascha, reassigned after hospital to go undercover as a New Alcatraz inmate, so he can make contact again with Nick. There are reasons for this, involving Nick’s boss (Richard Bremmer), but you won’t care because another plot kicks in once everyone’s at New Alcatraz.
And that plot features a restless prison official, Donny (Morris Chestnut), who breaks into the prison with a SWAT-like team, wearing cool black coats that swirl spectacularly in the wind. And there’s lots of wind: their descent by parachutes is dramatically back-dropped by a stormy night, so stormy that their escape chopper crashes into the prison, so it hangs through the ceiling through the rest of the movie. Donny’s most efficient bit of equipment is the magnificent Down Ass Bitch (Nia Peeples), whose overkilled eye shadow prompts an observant inmate to call her out: “Hey mama, got that blue stuff working, huh?” She’s got bondage gear, a huge gun, and a great haircut: she and Ja need to be making a music video.
At any rate, Donny’s goal is to force a dead-man-walking, Lester (Bruce Weitz), to give up the location of $200 million in gold, before he’s executed (again, the logic seems strained: what is in it for this guy to give up anything, as he’s going to die either way?). Problem is, by the time Donny arrives, Lester has already bonded with Sascha, a.k.a. Mr. Zen Guy, on whom he’s been leaning to give up the secret of what to expect after death (owing to Sascha’s revivification and all). Thus, Lester is even less inclined than he might have been to cooperate with Donny & Co., which, naturally, infuriates them.
But no amount of foot-stomping or weapons-brandishing will convince Lester to speak; even Donny’s decision to grab up a Supreme Court Justice (Linda Thorson), come to witness the execution doesn’t do the trick. And, you might ask, what is a Supreme Court Justice doing at an execution? Answer: nothing rational. She sentenced Lester to death years ago, and now that New Alcatraz has a fabulously high-tech death scheme (digital backdrops of your choosing [urban, desert], a sleek electric chair that comes up out the floor), she’s come to oversee the killing chamber’s inauguration. She’s such a wussy girl, though, so easily rattled when Donny narrates her lonely, career-driven life, that the real question is why Sascha expends any energy to save her.
And that does take some energy, as the 51-year-old Seagal is looking very hard-pressed to get his action scenes done. Gone are the heady days when he was filmed full-body, so as to underline his notable technique: here opponents tend to run into his palms or fists, and then fly back as if broken on their own accord. Granted, his last smart, politically savvy film was his first, Above the Law, but some of the subsequent films have been creative in getting around his gradual aging and pudging (the kitchen utensils fight scene with William Forsythe in Out For Justice, the jokes in Under Siege: “You’re not a cook!”)
In Half Past Dead, Seagal’s most elaborate fight scene approximates a slow motion, po-mo-industrial version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s bamboo trees scene: Sascha and Donny swing about on huge chains, in some grim basement, kicking wildly as they swish by one another high above the concrete floor. But if this scene is creative, in a derivative, desperate kind of way, the film’s fastest martial-artsy scene belongs to Ja and Down Ass Bitch: they kick and punch and wallop away for a few minutes, choreographed by Xin Xin Xiong, and Nick gets whupped. As Ja says in the press notes, “You don’t get to see too many scenes in movies where the guy fights a chick, so I think it’ll be cool for the ladies to see the girl getting a little upper hand on the guy for once.” A little. It also makes Nick even more sympathetic (that soft side, again), not to mention ready for serious payback.
Aside from the chick vs. Ja scene, Half Past Dead struggles to maintain even an average action profile. Don Michael Paul does his best to juice up his debut feature with effects: time-lapsing zap-pans, lightning and rain pouring down everywhere, and all varieties of shooting: two-fisted, from mid-air, faux-video-gaming (the New Alcatraz includes a basement weapons cache to which the inmates who take up Sascha’s cause have access; and you know they do so with gusto). But the film is up against the defining weakness of the mini-genre: Seagal has too much screen time and when he’s on it, he takes up too much space.
It’s not like he doesn’t know he’s past his moment, even in on the joke when Nick tries to improve Sascha’s style: “It’s not ‘All right,’ it’s ‘Ai-ight!’ Put a little thug in it.” Sascha can’t manage it, and smiles weakly at his own silliness. “You’re whiter than I thought,” sighs Nick. Apparently, he hasn’t seen too many Steven Seagal movies.