November 15, 2002 4:05am EST
Sascha Petrosevitch (Steven Seagal) is an undercover FBI agent posing as an international car thief. When Sascha and his partner in crime Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) get busted by the Feds Sascha agrees to serve time at the newly refurbished Alcatraz in order to keep his cover. The prison happens to house a criminal by the name of Lester (Bruce Weitz) who robbed an armored vehicle of some $200 million worth of gold that has never been recovered. A group of mercenaries calling themselves "the 49ers" decide it would be a good idea to break into the prison and somehow force Lester to divulge the booty's whereabouts. When their plan backfires they begin taking hostages--including Justice June McPherson (Linda Thorson). To save the day Sascha must rally the inmates against the commando force. Half Past Dead is a stock actioner complete with lame story flashy stunts and lots of folks pointing guns at one another. It is also a typical Seagal pic so if you have ever watched any--including the Under Siege movies--you've seen this one too.
Once again Seagal (Exit Wounds) is the archetypal defender but instead of portraying a brooding silent hero he simply comes across as bored. Or maybe this is just Seagal's rendition of what happens to a man after he flatlines for 22 minutes. Seagal's partner in crime Nick is played by rapper-turned-actor Ja Rule (The Fast and the Furious). The two actors barely have any chemistry and the "brotherly" relationship they talk about incessantly never comes through on screen. Morris Chestnut (Like Mike) plays Donny aka 49er One the leader of the mercenaries. It was a refreshing change to see Chestnut--who has played nice-guy roles in a throng of romantic comedies such as The Brothers Two Can Play That Game and The Best Man--portraying a sociopath with absolutely no redeeming qualities. He does it charmingly well. As Chestnut's fellow commando 49er Six Nia Peeples manages to create a character that despite her tiny stature is convincingly intimidating. Tony Plana is exceptional as the bad-ass prison warden El Fuego; it's too bad his character has such a small role in the film.
With this movie actor/screenwriter Don Michael Paul who appeared in a bevy of little-known films in the late '80s and early 90's makes his directorial debut. It's obvious that Paul put more focus and energy into the film's visuals than into the story. Half Past Dead's new Alcatraz setting is ultra slick complete with state-of-the-art execution chambers yet still retains the dark and gritty feel that a prison should. But while Paul has chosen all the "right" ingredients to build an action flick he hasn't put enough thought into the story's logistics. In one scene for example Seagal parachutes out of a helicopter that's only about 200 feet above sea level. It's hard to buy into a stunt that is so far from plausible. Furthermore the proliferation of buddy action movies has simply grown tiresome. Like its many predecessors Half Past Dead tries to draw laughs and create chemistry by pairing two opposite characters and while that worked for Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour it fails miserably between Seagal and Ja Rule. Viewers will only cringe when Nick tries to teach Sascha the Ebonics version of all right ("aight").
As with any good Musketeer movie there's the dashing D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers) who comes to Paris to become one of the sworn protectors of the French crown. Once there he meets up with the relic Musketeers lead by the motley three: Aramis (Nick Moran) Porthos (Steven Speirs) and Athos (Jan Gregor Kremp) and discovers they are being forced to disband by the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea). Where the movie takes some big liberties with Dumas' tale is in creating an ulterior motive for D'Artagnan--to find and kill Richelieu's head henchmen Febre (Tim Roth) who murdered D'Artagnan's parents long ago. Sorry folks that's not in the book but it does give us a proper villain with a nasty scar. While Richelieu only wants to discredit the King it's the evil Febre who plans to kill the Queen of France (Catherine Deneuve) to start war with England. But not if D'Artagnan and his band of Musketeers can stop him first by golly.
As in the other movies this Musketeer's success lies squarely on the charismatic shoulders of the D'Artagnan character. Although newcomer Chambers (The Wedding Planner) does a worthy job he certainly won't be remembered as being the best D'Artagnan ever. Luckily he uses his brawn more than his brain in the film. As well the love scenes between D'Artagnan and Francesca played by the bland Mena Suvari truly lacked any chemistry whatsoever. Aren't Musketeer films suppose to be all about the lust as well as the action? The three older and wiser Musketeers (played by virtual unknowns) are usually a fun addition to any Musketeer movie. But here they weren't able to add the necessary color due to some serious lack of screen time. Roth has perfected the bad guy image to a tee but even he overdoes it in this film. But Deneuve is simply a beautiful actress if completely underused as the Queen of France.
Starting with some pretty awful opening titles the film doesn't really pick up from there. Apparently the filmmakers really did care much about story structure or even following Dumas' classic tale. They concentrated on the action instead hiring hot Hong Kong stunt choreographer Xin Xin Xiong to stage some fairly impressive sword fight scenes--but there were not enough of them. And what happens in between will make you look at your watch quite often. It wasn't clear exactly what the movie wanted to be. On the one hand we had the story of D'Artagnan which is very loosely based on the Dumas' character who wants to avenge his parents' death. On the other was the truer Dumas' story about political corruption and loyalty and neither story meshed. Musketeers are a subject from which too many movies have been made and even staging a sword fight while swinging around on ladders can't make up for a lackluster story.