Two films arrived at my home the other day, and I splayed them out on my bedspread in order to get a sense of contrast. One was an intense drama with Oscar pedigree and a crossword of bootlicking review quotes all over the jacket cover. The other was a straight-to-DVD compost heap that might as well have come in an aluminum can with the word “movie” on it. I looked hard at my pair of choices, trying to decide which to pop in first. I knew which one I would have to write about; the mysterious Eternals that bestow my assignments upon me commanded that I review the shitty one. But I am the master of my own house, and I can watch anything I want to start off. So the decision came down to which I would actually prefer: The award-winning, soul-enriching epic, or the crappy action sequel that would undoubtedly smooth my brain. My heart skipped with glee when Half Past Dead 2 slowly docked into the player.
Straight-to-DVD is its own genre, really, comprised of the purely capitalist efforts of greedy execs who are willing to squeeze every drop of dignity from a good idea. If something works, then their logic dictates that it will work again and again, until it suddenly doesn’t. They are not real movie fans, and truly cannot understand the notion that they are “raping” the art of film, much like 18th century plantation owners could not grasp that slavery was wrong. But through their evil, some good can emerge. A few pretty fine works have been orchestrated in the straight-to-video world, including Surviving the Game and Wishmaster. However, nothing worthwhile has ever come from the other notorious crime of the industry: Useless sequeling. It is this scorched-earth practice that really labels the genre. Sequels get made to movies that admittedly sucked in the first place, and before you know it you have Air Bud shooting pool and the Olsen Twins traveling to Indochina to become reluctant concubines.
The original Half Past Dead was an obvious butt-scraping that took place in Alcatraz prison and starred Steven Seagal and Ja Rule (the rapper). It was horrible, made only a buffalo nickel at the box office, and ruined a lot of people’s lives. Well, someone with money decided that it didn’t, and chose to green-light the sequel, Half Past Dead 2. Of course, Seagal and Ja have much better things to do these days, as do the rest of the cast, and the people who allowed filming in or around Alcatraz. No sweat, it can still be done. It’ll just take a little ingenuity, some luck, and a few people who aren’t dead to replace the cast. Plot and script aren’t really concerns, because any idiot can come up with those.
“Twitch” (rapper Kurupt) is an inmate at New Alcatraz, a prison painstakingly brought to life by a sparse outdoor set and some stock aerial shots of the real landmark. He and the other convicts are being berated by the Warden, El Fuego (Tony Plana, the only holdout from the first film), who warns them that if they screw up, they will end up at a worse prison, a place called Creighton, which he describes as a place where, “society took a shit, and built a 40-foot wall around it.” For seemingly no reason, Twitch starts a fight with a fellow inmate, gets the tar kicked out of him, and is transferred. When he arrives at Creighton Penitentiary, the new Warden (Jack Conley) has a fresh intimidating-warden speech waiting for him. It's the second in ten minutes.
Twitch’s whole persona is basically Eddie Murphy from Trading Places. He’s the can’t-shut-up black guy who is scrawny but goes on about how tough he is. Obviously, this act angers bigger guys, who he then skitters away from and taunts from a distance. Even though he annoys everybody, he is still recruited by a black gang that is primed to go to war with a rival Hispanic gang. The whole prison is divided into these two gangs, except for one quiet, huge guy named Burk (Goldberg, the ex-wrestler). Nobody messes with Burk, because his deltoids are the size of honeydew melons. But both sides are wary of him as the conflict draws near.
Twitch’s girlfriend Cherise (Angel Conwell) comes to visit one day, as does Burk’s daughter (Alona Tal). Twitch bothers Burk for a while in the waiting area, and Burk angrily rebuffs his attempt to be friendly by using the voice he will use throughout the film, which sounds like an impression of a talking jungle cat. Coupled with the motormouthed hip-hop simpleton Twitch, a kind-of 48 Hours thing starts happening. This scene is a prelude to future events, since the two will be spending a lot of wacky time together.
The tension between the two gangs finally comes to a head when a disciple of the Hispanic gang, Cortez (Robert Madrid) shoots the black gang leader and frames Burk. Notice I said “shoot.” That’s right, in this prison film, guns are standard-issue for all prisoners. The ensuing riot forces a lockdown of Creighton and, wouldn’t you know it, Cherise and Burk’s daughter get stuck inside. Apparently, the visiting area is fair game for lockdown, and if you’re there, you can be imprisoned with everybody else. And as luck would have it, Cortez finds the two girls trying to run from the melee, and traps them in a room to keep them as hostages.
This all happens in about twenty minutes, so the rest of the film is Burk and Twitch running afoul of both gangs, as the black gang believes Twitch has betrayed them somehow. They form their alliance through mutual back-getting and more than a few of those grabbing-the-collar “I want some answers, pal” moments. The fight scenes between the inmates are choreographed like a second-grade play, and are occasionally punctuated by Goldberg performing a signature wrestling move. His favorite, which is in the film, is “The Spear.” He also does that thing where a smaller guy hits him, and the punch knocks his head back a little, but he slowly rights himself to show us that it basically had no effect. I bet he’s pissed, though!
The audio in the film also seems second-grade at times, meaning no sound-mixing Oscars for this one. But despite that, classic action movie lines like: “Get me the governor” and “She’s the only thing I’ve ever loved” still ooze out. Lines like these are just signposts along a familiar road, as the two seek out their loved ones and go through scores of guards and bad guys to do it. If you like to be surprised, order a Clown-o-gram right before watching this film, then leave your door slightly open. It’d be the only way.
And yet, I sort-of like this film. I mean, yeah, it’s bad. It’s really bad. It downright blows. But when I looked at that DVD cover, it looked back at me and said: “Yeah, pal. That’s right. You rented me, and I’m going to give you exactly what you asked for. Do we have a problem here?” I respect that. With the Oscar film, who knows what I’ll be getting? Chances are it’s going to be stuffy, self-congratulatory, and disappointing. In many ways that’s worse than a film that just wants to swing your balls around for an hour and a half and leave you right where you started. Next time you’re at the video store, and you’re passing by the straight-to-DVD section to grab another Capote or Babel, just look back and think to yourself, “Why do I need ‘culture’ when I can have this?”
The DVD for Half Past Dead 2 is totally bare. I knew that it wouldn’t be loaded with expensive features and so on, but there is nothing here. No director’s commentary, no deleted scenes, nothing. Even the subtitles section is nearly empty, with only an option for English captioning. I can almost hear the producer yelling: “The French can eat me.”
The only thing that is available under the “Special Features” banner is a group of previews for a few studio films and some interesting straight-to-video buddies. I could give my assessment of the trailers for these movies, like how Stomp the Yard looks insanely stupid, or how the creature in Attack of the Gryphon looks scary as all get-out, but it’d be a waste of time. Strangely, amongst this mix of crap and utter crap is a preview for Seinfeld: Season 8, which features the classic episode where Kramer learns to street-dance, and Elaine and George are mauled by a Gryphon.
My initial reaction to this review assignment should be an example to all people of the nature of prejudice. I am by no means a cinema snob; I own and cherish my copy of Death to Smoochy. But when given the option to write about Half Past Dead 2, I salivated at the thought of ripping it apart in print. I’m sure my superiors felt I would be comfortable in this role, sicking me on an obviously bad film and thinking they would laugh heartily watching me shred its metaphorical intestines in my powerful jaws. But I cannot do that. I may well think that the man who wrote the script (note: I didn’t say “writer”) has the skill of a rock farmer, and the director is probably Oliver Stone’s former mailman, but the final product they created is something to be admired: a film made coherently that completely avoids pretension. Half Past Dead 2 has some lessons to teach even the most accomplished of movies and it is a pretty good ride at times, despite its horribleness. It even has one amazingly badass line in it. A group of inmates corners Burk in the kitchen, and their leader tells him flatly: “We’re going to cut you up, turn you into Chinese food, and feed you to the skinheads… Old school style.” Yes.