Half Past Dead (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Ja is partnered with Steven Seagal, the fading action/martial arts star who not only refuses to go away.

Half Past Dead

Director: Don Michael Paul
Cast: Steven Seagal, Morris Chestnut, Ja Rule, Nia Peeples, Kurupt, Bruce Weitz
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2003-03-04

"My character, Nick Frazier, he's a cool criminal, you know. He's a subtle type of guy." As Ja Rule describes his role in Half Past Dead (in the DVD's "making of" documentary), you get the feeling he knows something you don't. "He's the type of guy you like, because he's a good person, even though he's doing bad things or whatever."

Ja Rule knows this character pretty well, because he's played it a few times in the movies. In fact, the Murder, Inc. MC, currently on 50 Cent's beeyatch radar, is well suited to the role. 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 the can't-stay-out-of-his-own-way Bobby Brown) are consistently successful, not only profitable, but also shrewd mixes of r&b, hiphop, 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. Director 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 many Steven Seagal movies.

Paul appears slightly better prepared. As he notes on the DVD's commentary track, "Steven Seagal is a huge action icon, and people expect a certain thing from his movies." The director planned to take up his 10-year-old script (not that it shows!) and infuse it with an energizing combination of the "hiphop movement, which is so big in our country today" and action movies, "because hiphop really has become a fusion of styles." Indeed. As Paul remarks repeatedly, the actors and crew were "a lot of fun to work with." And their combined efforts are surely good-looking, in production design (by Albrecht Konrad), CGI (which, Paul notes, actually provides much of the background for the action, mostly seamlessly), and the "staccato" (to match the soundtrack's hiphop beats) editing. The film is, as he calls it "dark and moody and stylistic," if not exactly as innovative as he imagines. "Hopefully," he says, "it's a little bit funner than the average action movie." Okay, a little bit.

Paul also observes "a footnote that happened while we were there" in Berlin (where they did most of their shooting): "September 11th happened, which is obviously a worldwide trauma, a really difficult thing for everybody to go through, and then at the same time that happened, we were in the middle of trying to make the movie, so I really felt like the movie should try to have a sense of humor to it." It does try.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.