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Under Siege Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007

Image “Under Siege” in Hi-Definition DVD is an example of a movie too common in Blu-Ray and Hi-Def release these days: it’s not particularly well-served by the high-definition process, unless you really get off on pipes, dials, ship corridors and the like. The movie takes place entirely on a battleship; it does not rely strongly on its visual quality, other than that it employs standard studio good cinematography. To showcase these systems, the studios should be releasing films that greatly benefit from high definition—those that have strong, unusual production design, landscapes heavy with trees, night-time cityscapes, unusually detail costumes, etc. “Under Siege” is an action thriller set in confined, unattractive sets; it’s anything but a visual feast, although it is a handsome film in its own terms. But it cannot, by its very nature, serve as a demonstration disc for high definition DVD.

It’s an entertaining if preposterous, best described as "Die Hard on a Battleship;" even co-producer and star Steven Seagal described it that way in interviews at the time film was released. The movie zips along at top speed, not slowed by logic, vastly improved in Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey being cast as the main baddies, two sharp-witted lunatics of very different stripe. Jones in particular is consistently hilarious. For the first time, people who aren't, shall we say, attuned to Seagal's pompous posturing about spiritualism, etc., can get through one of his movies without wincing. Oh, there are a few problems along these lines, of course—Seagal's ego must not allow him to be a mere ordinary if ingenious guy, but writer J.F. Lawton and talented director Andrew Davis do fire off a few jokes at Seagal's expense, a good idea.

A group of terrorists led by former CIA operative Bad Billy Strannix (Jones) and turncoat Commander Krill (Busey) take over nothing less than the battleship Missouri (played by the USS Alabama) just before it is to return to San Francisco for decommissioning. What they're after are the nuclear weapons aboard the ship, but, as in "Die Hard," the villain pulls a fast one: the canny Strannix pretends to Navy & U.S. government officials (via radio link) that he's really some kind of wigged-out environmental freak.

They've somehow—not entirely convincingly—managed to lock up virtually every member of the Missouri's crew and killed those few, such as the captain (Patrick O'Neal), who weren't lockable. But they haven't reckoned with Casey Ryback (Seagal), who is, amazingly, the ship's cook.

Of course, he's also the world's greatest Navy SEAL, heavily decorated, enormously skilled in lethal abilities, persistent, brilliant, centered, focused, a man among men, a leader among leaders, etc. etc. etc. He's retired as a SEAL because of some kind of blunder (which you know had to be someone else's fault), and is serving out the last couple of years of his 20-year enlistment baking pies and stirring up pots of bouillabaisse. But you just know those thirty heavily-armed terrorists don't stand the ghost of a chance.

In "Die Hard," one of the strongest elements was that Bruce Willis was just an ordinary guy, a New York cop, up against a bunch of vicious, armed terrorists. It didn't seem possible that he could wipe them out. But here, Steven Seagal is, after all and of course, S*T*E*V*E*N S*E*A*G*A*L, the next best thing to Superman. He has no human weaknesses, no frailties. At one point, a chunk of flesh is ripped off his back by a grappling hook, and shortly thereafter, he has to have a martial arts fight (with knives) against a skilled opponent—but Seagal doesn't even faintly suggest the fact that an acre of the skin from his back is missing. Because he refuses to display any traces of human weakness, watching his movies consists of marking time until he wipes out all the villains. But at least this time it's fun watching him do it.

There are, as mentioned, enormous logic holes. For example, near the end, Seagal and some other sailors he's managed to free fire off one of the Missouri's giant five-inch cannons—and not one single bad guy tries to stop them. At one point, Casey the Cook and Bad Billy the Renegade suddenly recognize each other—but again, there's not a clue as to when this was, or what they had to do with each other before. There are other times when the movie gives clear evidence of having had big pieces removed.

The script by J.F. Lawton ("Pretty Woman") is very shrewdly written; it spoofs its own absurdities even while cheekily continuing to commit them. The Bad Guys get aboard the Missouri by pretending to be a group of entertainers, waiters, etc., arriving for the Captain's birthday; among them is a terrified Playboy centerfold, Jordan Tate (Erika Eleniak), who shakily tells Casey that she's really an actress—"I did a 'Hunter' episode and a Wet 'n' Wild video”—but Lawton and Davis turn her into an asset by having her gradually become tougher and more willing to fight as the movie goes on. While jailed in a meat locker, Casey expresses as much anxiety over his pies (in the oven) as he does about getting out.

At heart, Busey's nasty Krill is standard: the officer who hates our hero. But the script, and Busey, add bizarre, funny fillips to the role. At the Captain's party, Krill turns up in full, comic drag, balloon boobs and a long blonde wig. He's dressed like this when he kills the captain, in fact. When Bill Strannix finds Krill in the Captain's quarters, Krill is angrily flipping through the Captain's private papers, one of which suggests that Krill needs to see a psychiatrist. "I ask you," Krill, dressed in women's clothes, "do I look like I need a psychiatrist?"

Busey is topped, which wouldn't seem possible, by Tommy Lee Jones as the renegade CIA operative. He's sardonic, impish, full of delight at his own nastiness ("We're four minutes ahead of schedule. Damn, I'm good"), driven by some weird kind of energy that we never quite understand. His dialogue is the most inventive of any of the characters; when he comes upon two of his men taken out by Casey, one with a girder slammed through him, Strannix only mutters, "My goodness.". Jones has great fun with the role, and since he's such a terrific actor, you'll have fun right along with him.

The supporting roles are mostly people standing around with guns, but Colm Meany (from "Star Trek the Next Generation") has some good moments as Jones' vicious, gun-toting second-in- command who, in a funny aside, we learn is Strannix's accountant. Other actors who don't work enough pop up throughout the movie, like Patrick O'Neal, Bernie Casey, Nick Mancuso. The movie was cast by someone who likes vivid, tough character actors.

The picture looks terrific, atmospherically photographed by Frank Tidy; production designer Bill Kenney took full advantage of the narrow corridors, ladders, hatches, gleaming decks and huge size of the Missouri. Most of the interiors of the ship were shot on sound stages at an airport in Alabama, but you'll never be able to tell. It's easily the best-looking of Seagal's films so far, a sleek, burnished entertainment machine. But it looks that good in standard DVD; this movie simply did not need to be shown in high-definition.

It is handicapped by the reason for its existence, Steven Seagal. He has never learned to start stepping back from the persona he's created and eventually became a caricature of himself. He's so stiffly heroic, so predictably competent, that we need to see him taken down a peg—on screen. He’s been taken down many pegs in other ways—most of his recent films go straight to video where his still-out-there fans can find them. The rest of us are not likely to bother.

“Under Siege” was successful enough that it generated a sequel, “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (1996), which was only fair, and a third was planned for this year, but production was shut down. Seagal could still have a theatrical career if he learned to express more emotion (he always looks like he just smelled something bad), to understand how the audience at large, rather than his dwindling coterie of fans, regards him, and turn that to his advantage. But it’s unlikely his reportedly awesome ego would allow him to unbend that much.

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