Grade: D

Sascha Petrosevitch (Steven Seagal), an undercover FBI agent, flatlines about fifteen minutes into “Half Past Dead”–hence the title–yet survives. Unfortunately, the movie has already beaten him to the punch, and unlike old Sascha, it never recovers, despite a plethora of action scenes, a pounding hip-hop soundtrack, lots of fisticuffs and a boatload of snazzy camera moves. It’s a cinematic corpse that never springs to life.

Still, the return-from-the-dead premise has a certain appropriateness if one links it to Seagal’s career which, in spite of the relative adequacy of 2001’s “Exit Wounds,” hasn’t risen from the ashes. In this latest vehicle he takes refuge, as it were, in his greatest former triumph: the script by Don Michael Paul (who wrote the dreadful “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”) could as easily have been called “Under Siege 3: In Alcatraz.” The idiotic narrative is set at the supposedly reopened island prison, where Sascha has been sent along with his erstwhile street buddy Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) in hopes that he can pump the kid for information that will put away big boss Sonny Eckvall (Richard Bremmer). As it happens, Supreme Court Justice Jane McPherson (Linda Thorson) also shows up there, to witness the execution of a cadaverous fellow named Lester (Bruce Weitz), who’s never revealed the location of the $200 million in gold he stole years before (killing a few unfortunate bystanders in the process). Before the born-again Lester can be zapped, however, the facility is invaded by a bunch of commando-like thugs led by a renegade Bureau of Prisons agent named Donny (Morris Chestnut). Their goal: to force Lester to tell them where the loot is stashed. It’s up to Sascha, with the help of Nick and other inmates, to save McPherson from Donny’s clutches and defeat his evil scheme. Plenty of fights, a passel of explosions and lots of gunfire follow–along with virtually every dialogue cliche one can imagine–before things are wrapped up in the least plausible fashion possible.

In his first feature helming assignment, Paul directs this ridiculous stuff with a surfeit of tricks–like briefly fast-forwarding action moments and adding a raspy buzz on the soundtrack, rather like a vinyl scratch on a hip-hop record–that would be more at home on music videos or commercials than in a full-length movie. All the razzmatazz can’t hide the fact, however, that this is distinctly a B-level flick: the setting is cramped and poorly lit, the overall production threadbare, and the number of participants kept to an absolute minimum throughout. Seagal looks overweight and sluggish, even when he’s supposedly bounding about; with his large repertoire of funny faces, meanwhile, Ja Rule comes across like a bargain-basement version of Martin Lawrence. Chestnut articulates every syllable of his ludicrous speeches with perfect diction and models a high-priced trenchcoat with aplomb–which is about the extent of his performance–but he’s still preferable to Peeples, who mugs her way through the standard femme fatale part; Plana and Weitz get by through assiduous underplaying. Christian, unhappily, comes on too strong (what will work on the small screen is often too large in a multiplex auditorium), and Thorson never seems remotely convincing. In lesser parts Kurupt and Taliferro get some easy laughs in caricatured roles.

To lessen the pain, it’s probably best to appreciate “Half Past Dead” as being mostly about headgear. Petrosevitch wears a carefully-tied bandana throughout–a tuft of cloth hanging behind like Seagal’s patented ponytail–and however overwrought the action he’s involved in, it stays in place as firmly as the white hats used to on cowboy heroes of old. But in this department Seagal is surely topped by Ja Rule. Not only does Nick’s stocking cap never get mussed whatever the circumstance, but after he engages in an elaborate tussle with Donny’s ass-kicking lieutenant Peeples, he emerges from the fray not only with his cap undisturbed, but with a cigarette still carefully tucked behind his ear. Now that’s cool, though utterly absurd. As for the movie, it’s just as absurd but decidedly uncool.