Under Siege

462under_siege_1992_-pic_1In Under Siege, a scrappy, disrespectful, but ingenious working-class guy finds himself isolated in a room while terrorists outside blast everything in sight. With only his wits and some firearms, the man runs around picking off the terrorists and formulating brilliant strategies. We might as well just call this Die Hard on a Boat, but what the hell. The man, a former Navy SEAL turned Navy cook, is Steven Seagal, who tosses a mean kitchen knife and can build a bomb from scratch in about the time it took you to read this sentence. So we don’t worry too much about him. In the original Die Hard, Bruce Willis cut himself up trying to walk barefoot across a floor littered with broken glass. Steven Seagal would just eat the glass. Then he’d probably fart it back out at his enemies.

That’s about all Seagal doesn’t do in Under Siege, yet the film does represent a change of pace for him. His past few movies (Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out for Justice) have been posturing urban nonsense, with Seagal chucking people out windows and disarming burglars in package stores. Here, he spends the whole film in enclosed quarters, with the ocean under his feet, and so he’s forced to use his head as something more than a place to hang his ponytail (which, incidentally, has been snipped for this movie). Delivered from the back alleys and crack-dealer plots of his other films, Seagal seems ready for a smarter breed of action-adventure movie.

Under Siege unfolds aboard the USS Missouri (actually the decommissioned USS Alabama), a battleship on its final tour of the Pacific. With only a skeleton crew manning it, the Missouri presents a nice target for the terrorists, who take over the ship under the pretense of a surprise birthday party for its captain (Patrick O’Neal). The second-in-command (Gary Busey), who’s in cahoots with head terrorist Tommy Lee Jones, shuts Seagal in the meat locker after Seagal decks him (Busey figures that placing Seagal under formal arrest would screw up the plan). So there Seagal sits, getting cold and pissed, until he escapes the meat locker and gives his fans what they paid for. Hi-yaaa!

Not that Seagal has a Bruce Lee death shout. His Aikido dazzles the eye — he breaks limbs with amazingly fluid, looping motions — but his facial expressions suggest a man eating cold cereal. This guy just doesn’t seem … into it. Demolishing his opponents with skull-powdering kicks and lightning-fast chops, Seagal has the blandly attentive pout of a kid playing pinball. (If I could do what he does, I’d look a lot happier about it, wouldn’t you?) He does not have, to be sure, a lot of oomph in his acting. But he does have a solid screen presence (any actor who can break your face holds your attention) and a way of looking mildly amused by the fools who dare to start shit with him. That’s about all he needs.

Seagal, it turns out, is only as good as his director. Under Siege reunites him with Andrew Davis, who directed Seagal’s impressive debut, 1988’s Above the Law (he also directed Chuck Norris’ best movie,Code of Silence). I consider Davis a superior, overlooked craftsman on a par with John McTiernan (Die Hard) and Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games), two other guys who have no identifiable “style” but make exciting, meat-and-potatoes adventures distinguished by spatial and narrative clarity, varied compositions, and beautifully smooth action sequences that flow into each other like the panels of a great comic book. It’s easy to gush over a Scorsese or a De Palma, but guys like Andrew Davis, with his solid, invisible technique, bring respectability back to the action genre. Watching Under Siege, you don’t feel as if maybe you should’ve waited to catch it on video.

As for the Seagster, he forfeits the film to his co-stars. Gary Busey, a dependable character actor who’s built a macho video cult of his own, feels secure enough to play his one big scene in drag; the moment makes almost no sense, but how many movies offer Gary Busey in a trampy dress? And Tommy Lee Jones, playing a psychotic ex-CIA operative in Gene Simmons drag, takes Under Siege to a different atmosphere. He brings a bored yet frightening authority to lines like “If you resist, we will kill you and the man next to you.” You might ask, What’s this Oscar nominee (for JFK) doing in a Steven Seagal movie? Answer: Having a king-hell good time. “He’s a professional,” says Jones, admiring Seagal’s handiwork on a pair of unfortunate terrorists. Under Siege shines brightest when the real pros — Davis, Busey, and Jones — are at work.

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