On Deadly Ground – Score Review

Basil Poledouris lends his unique sounds to a deluxe version of a Steven Seagal actioner...

The Steven Seagal films of the 1990’s are a type no longer made by major studios. Second tier action films concerned less with spectacle than with raw hand-to-hand combat, his relatively short run as a theatrical leading man is probably due to the negative reaction to On Deadly Ground, his directorial debut. Lackluster as a filmmaker, charisma-less as an actor, and insistent on pushing a preachy environmentalist message, the film bombed with audiences who would fail to return to his next film, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. For both movies, arguably the only redeeming feature was the music by acclaimed composer Basil Poledouris.

The composer approached On Deadly Ground as he would any 90’s action film, providing competently emotional music for full orchestra. In the picture, the score lends the film an air of respectability that tries to make up for Seagal’s shortcomings, but as a standalone album, Poledouris’s work unfortunately fails to leave much of an impression.

The “Main Title” piece opens with synthetic panpipes and exotic percussion, slowly building up to the first performance of the film’s main theme. Introduced on brass and the panpipes, it is a rising series of three notes that conveys gravity and the self-seriousness with which the movie approaches its environmental message. While it works on those terms, it also lacks a crucial part of any action theme: excitement. Not helping matters is its very slow progressions, making it hard to adapt the theme without making it unrecognizable.

This problem is heard in the second and third tracks, which score an oil rig catching fire in Alaska. While they are certainly effective at conveying the drama of the moment, attempts to interpolate an abbreviated version of the main theme do not really register, leaving them to sound like brass meanderings over tense strings. This renders what should have been major musical moments into anonymity.

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When not attempting to use his theme, Poledouris brings in the synthetic panpipes and synth percussion to give the score a little more personality. Setting aside the appropriateness of these sounds for a film set in Alaska, this approach does provide some of the more enjoyable moments on the album. The new age vibe of “Chief Meets Forrest” is exceedingly pleasant, while its underscoring of the main theme in “Forrest Found” provides one of the score’s main highlights.

Otherwise, much of the score consists of standard underscore. Percussion and synths are used as pace-setters over which strings drone to build anticipation. Brass occasionally comes in to ratchet it up, especially during the finale pieces. Once the album reaches that point, the album becomes much more engaging. The majestic airing of the main theme in “Horse Chase” is an essential track from the composer, and the all-out action writing from then until the end credits will provide the bulk of what listeners will pick up this expanded presentation to hear.

The original score album released in 1994 contained 30 minutes of Poledouris’s work, including most of the necessary cues. This new deluxe edition by Varese Sarabande Records expands the offerings to 79 minutes, finally premiering some of the most exciting musical moments. The action writing in the latter half of “Gunfight at Hugh’s” and the greatly expanded music from the finale are some of the highlights of the work, and it is fantastic to finally have them available.

That being said, the general anonymous personality of the score as a whole and the bland first half of the album keep this release from greatness. While Poledouris collectors will no doubt be excited to finally have these extra tracks, casual fans would be better served by exploring Varese Sarabande’s recent expansion of Under Siege 2, a stronger score that is more consistently engaging. Still, the label should be commended for their efforts in releasing more music from Poledouris, and one hopes their efforts will not stop with just these two Seagal collaborations.

On Deadly Ground: The Deluxe Edition is now available from Varese Sarabande.

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