Under Siege was, and probably still is, the career high point for Steven Seagal. The film was directed by Andrew Davis who also gave us the ponytailed one's debut Nico (aka Above the Law) and would later direct the Oscar nominated The Fugitive and boy, did he nail the perfect vehicle for its star. Under Siege was Seagal's biggest box office taking catapulting him to the status of major Hollywood action hero alongside the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, both of who's careers, at the time, were looking decidedly shaky.
Under Siege sees Seagal play Casey Ryback a former Navy SEAL who has been busted down to ship's cook for insubordination. While his vessel, the USS Missouri, is out at sea a group of terrorists use the captain's birthday party as cover to take the crew hostage and unload the ship's entire compliment of nuclear weapons. However, they don't realise they've missed Ryback and once he discovers what's happening he teams up with a small group of survivors (including the stripper that was ordered for the party) and starts to sabotage the terrorists plan.
First things out of the way, yes this film is a complete rip off of Die Hard - with only a few alterations such as the setting and the fact that Ryback has a few other people helping him rather than saving the day on his own. Despite the fact its a retread of an action classic it still all works and rarely feels tired. Seagal has genuinely never done better acting than in this film. He actually shows a sense of humour at the beginning and seems pretty naturalistic with the dialogue.
It should also be noted that he's probably in the best shape he's ever been in too. It's a shame seeing him in all these direct to DVD films recently where he's obviously put on a lot of weight but then again, the guy is 60 this year, we should probably cut him some slack. What Seagal did well in this film is give himself a recognisable gimmick to separate him from other action heroes – the hand-to-hand knife fight. I can't really think of any action film that had such a long and carefully choreographed knife fight before seeing this film and it really gives the film some flavour.
You can't just credit Seagal though, as well as his great performance the supporting cast all pull their weight too. Gary Busey is great as the slightly unhinged Commander Krill, gamely cross-dressing his way through many scenes with a goofy grin on his face. If anything though his performance is overshadowed by Tommy Lee Jones' scenery chewing turn as the terrorist leader Strannix, a guy who launches missiles while reciting nursery rhymes. It would be so easy for Davis to try and repeat the Die Hard formula and have a very level-headed villain like Hans Gruber. Hats off to him for pushing Jones in the opposite direction.
Elena Eleniak makes for a great bit of eye candy. Her character is a little annoying but she makes for a good sidekick .You think back to Die Hard, how many times was Bruce Willis just talking to himself. Seagal just doesn't look like the kind of guy who would do that. Plus the fact he's got to team up with a stripper adds a nice quirky, humorous element that keeps the film from ever getting too serious and self-important.
One last thing to say about the film is that this is the first of Seagal's flicks where they have a “terrorists-find-out-who-Seagal's-character-really-is-and-start-talking-about-how-tough-he is-and-that-maybe-they-should-abort-their-plan” bit. It gets used in almost every subsequent Seagal film after this. Again, it's a nice gimmick that separates him from other action heroes. Gruber in Die Hard was never really scared of McClane, more just infuriated by him. As much as it stretches credibility, it's a lot of fun watching the superhuman Seagal lay waste to the terrorists well orchestrated plan. McClane was definitely the underdog hero of Die Hard but in Seagal's movies the roles are switched and it's actually the bad guys who are the underdogs.
All in all, Under Siege is still a great movie that's perhaps been overplayed on TV to the point where it doesn't feel special any more. But it is. Go and grab a cheap copy on DVD and give it another watch.
If I'm honest the reason I'm writing up the Under Siege movies this week is because I gave Geoff Murphy such a hard time on Fortress 2 last week and wanted to review one of his good ones (yeah, I know I probably should have done The Quiet Earth instead of this). For me Under Siege 2 surpasses the original in every way (with the exception of swapping a topless Erika Eleniak for Morris Chestnut's porter). I know that's a controversial viewpoint for some but stick with me and I'll try and explain.
Okay, so we pick up with Casey Ryback some time later and he's picking up his niece Sarah (Katherine Heigl! Really?) to take a cross country train to visit his brother's grave. Unbeknownst to them evil ex-weapons designer Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian) and his team of mercenaries are planning to hijack the train and use it as a mobile base of operations while they use the military's laser satellite to threaten and extort money from the US Government. Foolproof plan, except for one thing. They took Ryback's niece hostage. Prepare for a lot of people getting knifed and slapped in the face over the next two hours.
What I love about Under Siege 2 is that the makers take themselves even less seriously than the previous installment. There's a whole bunch of goofy elements in the film, from Seagal driving a 4x4 down a near vertical slope to catch up with the train to Seagal mixing up a bomb from kitchen ingredients in a cocktail shaker. And the cherry on the cake: he also straps a pager to the front of the bomb that reads: “You're F**ked” so when the bad guy catches it, he just has time to read the words before it explodes in his face. It's so corny but so cool at the same time.
Also, I know I'm in the minority but I thought Eric Bogosian was brilliant as Travis Dane. Completely manic and twisted. These computer hacker villains, that were highly popular in the 90s, often came off as boring, underwhelming nerds but Bogosian really revels in the role. Maybe not coming off as very intimidating but definitely short-tempered and sarcastic. Again, there's an excellent supporting cast, in particular Everett McGill as Dane's second-in-command whose hulking frame and skeletal face make him truly intimidating. He also gets a great scene where Sarah pepper sprays him in the face and he treats it like breath fresher. One thing that I always found strange is that Patrick Kilpatrick is one of Dane's other mercenaries but he doesn't get any lines. Why hire such a great character actor and then just have him stand around in the background.
Of course the main star is Seagal and again he's pretty good but he's lost a little bit of the humour the character had in the original. Still he's far more engaged in the film than some of his recent DTV flicks so I can't complain too much. Under Siege 2 was the first film that came out after his disastrous (but highly amusing) directorial debut On Deadly Ground. I can't help but feel a little that he wasn't interested in making any sequels and wouldn't have made this had that earlier film not bombed. As I mentioned, again Seagal gets another sidekick, Morris Chestnut, who plays a porter on the train who manages to avoid being taken hostage. With sidekick characters in these types of movies, they are usually either really annoying or just okay. Luckily Chestnut's fine and doesn't rock the boat. The two would reteam for the lacklustre (but hilariously titled) Half Past Dead in 2002.
What I like about the film is just the fact that the train is constantly moving. As cool as the ship was in the original it just wasn't as exciting a setting as this. There's some great bits of Seagal running along the top of the train and getting knocked underneath where he deftly hangs on despite the train's high speed. And the fact that all the carriages are two storey means there's loads more opportunity for Ryback sneak around and out-think the villains.
The plot also gets nicely split between Ryback on the train, the villains hatching their plan and the General and his men back at the satellite's mission control trying to stop Dane's plan. And this really keeps the film moving at a great pace, there's not a wasted frame of footage.
So for me, Under Siege 2 is just a fraction better than its predecessor and probably the last truly great Seagal film. Sure some of his subsequent stuff have had decent bits here and there but none of them compare to his first seven flicks.