Kevin: After years of being typecast in stereotypical hillbilly parts, Billy Bob Thornton finally had to write himself a role worthy of his talents in “One False Move,” a small indie film co-starring the late Bill Paxton that Gene Siskel picked as the best film of 1992. Four years later Thornton again surprised audiences with his versatility in front of and behind the camera as the writer, director, and star of the critically acclaimed “Sling Blade.” In between both those achievements, Thornton played a mercenary having an existential crisis regarding his manhood in today’s “No Small Parts” entry, the Steven Seagal-directed eco-thriller “On Deadly Ground”:
It’s hard to definitively choose what “On Deadly Ground” is most notorious for, although high on the list would be killing the forward momentum of Seagal’s career trajectory from B-movie martial artist to genuine mainstream action star following the breakout success of “Under Siege.” As I said in our birthday tribute to him earlier this year, those of us who eagerly lined up to see “On Deadly Ground” opening night had a sickening feeling that Seagal’s increasingly noticeable, uh, “eccentricities” had finally gotten out of hand when this standard movie bar fight turns into a weepy therapy session:
Side note: I had always found Seagal’s heavy hand with the ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) incredibly distracting during this scene, as we constantly hear people say things like “Fuck him up Forrest!” or “Leave him alone you dickhead!” without ever seeing the person supposedly saying it. I never noticed before though that as Seagal is sitting down at the bar, a random woman says, “Thank you for the scars asshole,” and I have no idea what this anonymous off-screen person is referring to.
(I also always laugh my ass off at the opening lyrics to the country song that plays at the start of this scene, which almost sounds it could come from a “South Park” parody of a red-state, blue-collar anthem: “I’m a hard working man!”/”I wear a steel hard hat!”)
Of course “On Deadly Ground” is also famous for the fact that Seagal chose to end his magnum opus with a five-minute speech about the efforts of Big Oil to stop alternative fuel sources, which the star was widely mocked for at the time, yet if Leonardo DiCaprio delivered that same exact lecture at the United Nations today he would immediately be awarded a Noble Peace Prize (before then ferrying five Victoria’s Secret supermodels to his exclusive island on his carbon-spewing private jet).
But one thing “On Deadly Ground” is surprisingly not well known for is the appearance of Sir William Robert Thornton (better known in America as Billy Bob Thornton) as one of the mercenaries brought in by evil oil executive Michael Caine to take Seagal down. Weirdly, even though he was at least at the point in his career where he received fifth billing in the credits, Thornton actually gets less screentime than many of his fellow mercs, and until the very end he is usually only visible in the background of a few shots:
Now you may wonder why an accomplished screenwriter and up-and-coming character actor would take such a thankless part in a subpar Steven Seagal action pic. Well it turns out that Billy Bob needed money, as he was expecting his first child with his fourth wife. He apparently also did “Armageddon” to pay for his divorce from said fourth wife in order to finally settle down and begin a stable relationship with Angelina Jolie, proving that Billy Bob’s choices in his professional life are just as good as in his personal life.
But back to his role as “Homer Carlton” (although I don’t think his name ever comes up) in “On Deadly Ground.” Now in most action movies, mercenaries working for the villain are there to be easily dispatched by Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher or whoever they are unlucky enough to encounter. Once they have been taken care of we never think about them again, and we certainly never wonder about who they are as human beings deep down inside.
But that was before Homer Carlton proved that even an easily expendable lower-tier henchman in a Seagal flick can have a fascinating and richly layered emotional core. As one of the last mercenaries left standing between Seagal and his objective, Homer may project an air of confidence on the outside, but he is also comfortable enough to share his worries with his teammate that even killing a worthy opponent such as Seagal with his gunstock out will make him “feel like a pussy”:
“When I kill this son of a bitch I want to feel good about myself, I want to feel solid.” Billy Bob is barely on screen for two minutes in “On Deadly Ground,” but that one speech gives us a little glimpse of a man who has the same hopes and fears as us everyday non-lethal civilians. Unfortunately just when you start wanting to see an entire “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”-style version of “On Deadly Ground” told entirely from the viewpoint of Billy Bob and his mercenary buddy, the pair eventually succumb to the same fate as every other Seagal villain who thinks they have the upper hand against the star, who has just sent up a batch of C-4 explosives in an elevator to greet them:
As you can see, things don’t go well for either of our new favorite mercenaries:
Either way, I have to believe that this small moment – which completely stands out in tone from the rest of this humorless movie – was totally improvised by Thornton, but to his credit as a director, Seagal left it in even though it has nothing to do with the story. Billy Bob obviously went on to do bigger and better things, but let’s note that if nothing else, his appearance in “On Deadly Ground” may make him the only actor in history who has been directed by the Coen brothers, Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi, Mike Nichols, Harold Ramis, Michael Bay, AND Steven Seagal.
Post Script: As we pointed out in both our Seagal birthday tribute and “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” Round Table, one thing you do have to give “On Deadly Ground” props for is the fact that it contains easily the greatest “Here’s how awesome the hero is speech” of all time, delivered by R. Lee Ermey. While most of these things usually boil down to a couple of guys in suits describing the hero’s military record and how many medals he has, Ermey goes above and beyond in painting a vivid picture of a guy you don’t want to fuck with, while also forcing us to picture Steven Seagal in bikini underwear:
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