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Entertaining Even For Non-Seagal Fans
on December 15, 2008
So many action stars from the 80s & 90s have been the butt of countless jokes. Jean-Claude Van Damme's newest feature is a parody of his life. Chuck Norris's popularity is mainly due to thousands of oddball compliments. And Steven Seagal - the star of these two features - hasn't had a theatrical release since 2003.
Let me be clear: Steven Seagal is not one my favorite actors in any category. But he does have a few good movies to his name, with these UNDER SIEGE films arguably his best.
*****UNDER SIEGE (1992)*****
The movie that put Seagal on the map was ABOVE THE LAW (1988), a well-constructed crime flick directed by Andrew Davis. The director & star reunited for UNDER SIEGE, a movie which holds incredibly well for many reasons. Seagal stars as Casey Ryback, the head cook aboard a Navy battleship about to be decommissioned. After a scuffle with his psychotic Commander Krill (Gary Busey), Ryback is detained in one of his freezers. While the crew are having a party on their final voyage, the USS Missouri is taken over by mercenaries covering as caterers & singers. The leader of the hostage-takers is Strannix, played with maniacal conviction by Tommy Lee Jones. While it's never quite clear what Strannix & Krill intend to do with the battleship, the fact that it still holds nuclear Tomahawk missiles is enough to scare anybody.
Of course, the movie proceeds with Ryback as a one-man army, taking out the hostage-takers one at a time. Soon, he runs into a stripper named Jordan, who actually becomes a believable sidekick. She's not equipped or trained to help Ryback, but we can actually believe that she would go from carrying Ryback's supply bags to eventually firing an automatic weapon. Rather than one-liners, the script lets Jordan just be a practical tag-along.
What's remarkable about this setup, however, is how patient Davis is with the material. In the hands of a lesser director, UNDER SIEGE would've been a formulaic blockbuster. Davis starts slowly, and lets us feel the crew starting to get lax with the routines. There's no ominous music when the villains board the Missouri; in fact, Tommy Lee Jones makes for a convincing bandleader & blues singer. The fight sequences aren't elaborate or overly stylish; they're simple & effective. And Davis allows the actors from all locations (the villains in the control room, the panicked military brass in their command center, & Ryback/Jordan throughout the Missouri) to get their stories in. The Missouri hostages don't get much development, but who cares, right?
On a production level, UNDER SIEGE scores big time. It's Sound Mixing & Sound Effects Editing were nominated for Oscars, and they're well-deserved. The explosions are particularly impressive for 1992, and even little touches like echoes from a ship deck or the cuts from a knifefight are effective. The film opens with actual footage of George Bush giving a speech with the Missouri in the background (I'm sure this was archival news footage). The musical score is interesting, because the stealth scenes w/ Ryback hunting the bad guys have a jungle-ish tone. If you've ever played the videogame METAL GEAR SOLID 2, I think UNDER SIEGE might've been the Tanker score's inspiration.
UNDER SIEGE is still an exceptional action picture. Andrew Davis & Tommy Lee Jones reteamed the next year for THE FUGITIVE, another impressive thriller. If you remembered the focused storytelling from that Chicago classic, then you can look forward to UNDER SIEGE. Definitely check this movie out!
*****UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY (1995)*****
---According to IMDB, the only reason Seagal agreed to star in this sequel was because Warner Bros. allowed him to direct ON DEADLY GROUND, a hypocritically-environmentalist dreck that was a favorite at the Razzies that year. Thankfully, UNDER SIEGE 2 wasn't nearly as bad.
Like the first UNDER SIEGE movie, DARK TERRITORY is a simple action flick that's made better because of its cast of actors & its violence. There are a lot of familiar faces to hardcore movie buffs in this one. I'll keep the intro to the plot short, because the plausibility is quickly thrown out the window. Casey Ryback is travelling with his niece (a young Katherine Heigl) on a train from Denver to Los Angeles, after her parents were killed in an accident. On this same train, Travis Dane (some rejected techno-wizard played by Eric Bogosian from LAW & ORDER: CI) holds the government for ransom using a weapons satellite. And.....that's about all you need to know.
The action sequences are simpler this time, and not nearly as good as the first movie's. The bad guys take over the train. Seagal takes them out. The train stops for a gunfight and mountain climbing, then carries on again. A female sniper manages pinpoint accuracy atop a moving train. Seagal covers from gunfire using VERY thin carriage doors. He manages to drive a pickup, jump out, and hop back onto the train. You see where I'm going with this?
Another key problem with the movie is Morris Chestnut's performance as the porter. He's constantly making wisecracks, is constantly afraid AND cocky, and rarely becomes useful to Casey Ryback. He's a huge step down from the stripper Jordan in the first UNDER SIEGE.
The reason UNDER SIEGE 2 is bearable is because the story is ridiculous from the outset, and sticks to its tone. The very first scene -- where the CIA launch the weapons satellite -- is filled with that kind of expository dialogue that tells us what's going on, but doesn't sound like a genuine conversation between people. I like Eric Bogosian, but his performance as the villain is way too self-indulgent. Everett McGill plays Penn, Dane's number-one thug. He's actually pretty solid in this movie, and even elicits some creepiness when holding Ryback's niece hostage.
It's never boring, and you can have a good time as long as you leave your brain at the door. There's a neat knifefight where Casey Ryback and Penn --- whose team somehow knows Ryback's SEAL profile? --- duke it out, and Seagal just mercilessly wipes the floor with this leather-donning Cro-Magnon.
Oh, and don't even ask me how Steven Seagal somehow outruns the derailing train after it crashes into another train.
UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY was probably Seagal's last notable flick. I'm sure most will pass it up, but if you decide to give the man's catalog a chance, then this is one of the better ones.
I highly recommend this Double Pack. The original UNDER SIEGE is a very underrated action movie, and deserves to be remembered along other 90s hits like TERMINATOR 2 or THE MATRIX. The sequel isn't necessary viewing, but it barely affects the price, and includes some Seagal theatrical trailers. So, why not treat yourself to a bonus?
Steven Seagal's career is a joke among jokes. But even with his ever-growing belly, his elongated leather jackets, and his scraggly sideburns...I'll always enjoy the UNDER SIEGE movies.
UNDER SIEGE -----------------------> 8.5 / 10 _ or _ ***1/2 out of 4
UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY -----> 6.0 / 10 _ or _ **1/2 out of 4