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(2002) (Steven Seagal, Ja Rule) (PG-13)

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Action: An undercover FBI agent tries to stop a group of terrorists from taking over the newly reopened Alcatraz prison.
Sascha Petrosevitch (STEVEN SEAGAL) is a car thief who's brought in by criminal Nick Frazier (JA RULE) to work for crime syndicate boss Sonny Eckvall (RICHARD BREMMER). When FBI Special Agent Ellen "E.Z." Williams (CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN) and her team show up to nab Nick, however, things go bad and Sascha ends up shot.

After eight months of recovery following his brief bout of being clinically dead from the shooting, Sascha is incarcerated along with Nick in the newly reopened Alcatraz prison. Run by the charismatic warden, El Fuego (TONY PLANA), the place is known for its new state of the art death chamber where the condemned can choose from five different ways to die.

Lester (BRUCE WEITZ) is the first prisoner scheduled to be executed. An older man, he stole $200 million worth of gold bricks in a heist that resulted in five deaths. Federal Bureau of Prisons head Frank Hubbard (STEPHEN J. CANNELL) and Supreme Court Justice June McPherson (LINDA THORSON) have arrived to watch the execution that's a result of her sentencing him.

Yet, she's not the only one interested in Lester. A small but well-equipped team of terrorists - the "49ers" - have parachuted onto the island and gained control of it. Led by 49er One, a.k.a. Donny Johnson (MORRIS CHESTNUT), Hubbard's assistant, and 49er Six (NIA PEEPLES), the team finds Lester and wants him to give up the location of his hidden stash of gold.

When he won't tell them, Donny shoots a nearby priest and threatens to kill others if the info isn't delivered. His plan is disrupted, however, when Sascha decides to step in and save the day. It seems that he's really an undercover FBI agent who's trying to use Nick to get to Sonny. When he rescues Lester, the 49ers grab Justice McPherson and threaten to kill her, all while Agent Williams and her team prepare their plan from the mainland.

From that point on and with the help of Nick and other inmates such as Twitch (KURUPT) and Little Joe (MICHAEL "BEAR" TALIFERRO), Sascha sets out to rescue the Justice and stymie the criminals' plan.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Some films take a while before they develop or reveal problems that will ultimately undermine them. Others, however, get that out of the way - usually not intentionally, we hope - right from the get-go. "Half Past Dead" definitely falls into that second grouping.

It starts off with a criminal taking his crime syndicate boss - whose empire ranges from "Eastern Europe to the Pacific Rim," or so he says - to meet a Russian car thief by the name of Sascha Petrosevitch. The purpose of the meeting is for the boss to see whether the Russian is what he claims or really an undercover cop or agent.

The problem is, neither the character nor the performer playing him even remotely tries to sound Russian, a point that should be of major concern to any self-respecting criminal mastermind, let alone filmmakers or viewers.

Then again, one should take into account that the actor is question is none other than Steven Seagal ("Fire Down Below," "The Glimmer Man"), one of the most unlikely movie stars in Hollywood history. Whether he couldn't muster the accent is probably a moot point as any other sort of believable acting on his part is pretty much out of the question.

Until the unexpected success of "Exit Wounds" (that made a respectable $50+ million domestically), Seagal's career had been in a nosedive. Obviously realizing that a great deal of that success was due to the presence of co-star and rapper DMX, first-time film writer/director Don Michael Paul has paired the great wooden whispering one with rappers Ja Rule ("The Fast and the Furious," "Turn it Up") and Kurupt ("Dark Blue") for this effort.

The result is pretty much what one would expect. Namely, that's lots of "B" movie action and "drama," not that that's necessarily a good thing. That's because Paul has simply taken the old "Die Hard" scenario and plopped it and its related characters into none other than the newly reopened Alcatraz Prison.

Seagal, who already appeared in the "Die Hard" rip-off, "Under Siege" and its sequel, plays the hero in the right place at the right time who must save the day by defeating a band of stylishly dressed uber-villains and their money-making scheme. Of course, none of it's remotely realistic - even for a film like this - and Seagal's a big part of the problem.

Granted, such films are never intended as Oscar contenders, but they can be fun and even engaging if handled in just the right fashion. Unfortunately, Seagal's limited thespian abilities and flat onscreen personality eliminate much of that possibility. His questionable physical skills also require Paul to use many close-ups and quick edits to make it look like he's a proficient fighter and martial arts expert, but even that's not successful.

Like many first-time directors, Paul also utilizes MTV style staging, shooting and editing as a means of trying to make his film look hip. He also apparently watched "The Matrix" about 100 times too many before or while shooting this effort as it's filled with all sorts of nonsensical shots and behavior. Not surprisingly, the film is all style over substance, common sense or believability. Try to count how many bullets manage to miss Seagal and others, or guess when the obligatory cat and mouse scene will take place in the subterranean boiler room setting.

Aside from Seagal's character, the film is filled with the standard array of stereotypical or clichéd terrorists, prisoners and government officials. Those embodying them don't help matters, although the deficient script is as much or more to blame for them failing to create unique or memorable characters.

Beyond the two aforementioned rappers, Morris Chestnut ("Like Mike," "The Best Man") and Nia Peeples ("Blues Brothers 2000," "Improper Conduct") appear as the leaders of the terrorist group. Chestnut is sufficiently villainous, while Peeples has the Matrix moves down, even if her character is as flat as Seagal's acting. Linda Thorson ("The Other Sister," "Sweet Liberty") and Claudia Christian ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Final Voyage") embody other strong female types, but aren't given much time or opportunity to do much with them.

Meanwhile, Tony Plana ("Lone Star," "Primal Fear") plays the briefly interesting warden, Michael "Bear" Taliferro ("The Replacements," "Life") plays the obligatory large inmate, and Bruce Weitz ("Deep Impact," "Velocity Trap") is the wily older inmate with the hidden gold stash.

While action fans might find some of the fight sequences and related material to their non-discriminative liking, there's nothing here that you haven't seen or that's been done better before. If you're looking for a good action film set on "The Rock," check out the film of that same name rather than this flashy but ultimately forgettable effort. Appropriately titled, "Half Past Dead" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11, 2002 / Posted November 15, 2002

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