Under Siege (1992) Review
Under Siege was directed by Andrew Davis (The Final Terror, A Perfect Murder), written by J. F. Lawton (Pretty Woman, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.), and stars Steven Seagal (Hard to Kill, Maximum Conviction), Tommy Lee Jones (Wander, The Homesman), Gary Busey (A Star is Born, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), Erika Eleniak (Stealth Fighter, Chasers), Colm Meaney (Confession, Soldiers of Fortune), and Patrick O’Neal (The Stepford Wives, From the Terrace). It follows a Navy cook and a model as they fight to take back control of a battleship from a group of mutinying military men.
The Plot: In the early 90s, right after Die Hard reshaped the action genre not once but twice, other studios went off to the races to make their own blockbusters that fit the basic template. Under Siege, despite being possibly the first financial success utilizing the formula, doesn’t have a plot anywhere near as interesting, well-crafted, or seamless as its influencers.
Onboard the USS Missouri, it’s Captain Adams’ (O’Neal) birthday, and his second-in-command, Krill (Busey), intends to throw him a party to celebrate. The ship’s culinary specialist, Ryback (Seagal) shares the sentiment but gets into trouble with Krill, resulting in him being locked in a freezer while ex-CIA operatives Strannix (Jones), Daumer (Meaney), and a legion of goons board the ship posing as rockstars, with “Bunny of the Month” Jordan (Eleniak) in tow.
Just how Strannix was able to get onboard without being found out in one way or another is unknown and nonsensically glossed over. The crazed men kill Adams and take over the ship, capturing most of the crew except for the resident cook, leaving Ryback, Jordan, and eventually some of the seamen to retake the Missouri before the mercs can sell the armaments.
Shaving down the details is fine if it begets a brisker movie, however, Lawton didn’t bother to fill in the countless logistical plot holes despite said plot with any explanations or even military tech-related hand waiving. Instead, there’s a subplot surrounding Naval commanders communicating with higher-ups, but beyond giving more time with the villains in conversation, nothing materializes from the inclusion until the very end. It resembles more of a second draft due to the sheer quantity of errors beyond the ones mentioned above that could be pointed out by even the least demanding audience member.
The Characters: A retread of an established formula doesn’t mean the characters need to follow suit. The script for Under Siege has some fun with its villains, but, possibly due to interference by the notoriously meddling leading man, lacks a remarkable hero to serve as the comeuppance.
Since Under Siege cast Seagal in a leading role after his established stardom, one of the most vital elements of the Die Hard formula can be crossed off the list even before watching the movie. Ryback seems to be a “lowly, lowly cook,” which would’ve made the takeback much more exciting but – of course – he’s an ex-SEAL; effectively taking the stress off the back foot.
Unlike McClane, Ryback is a blank slate aside from his past exploits in Vietnam, Panama, and the Middle East. No mention is given to his family life, he isn’t given (by Seagal or the script) a personality and is less inventive than McClane; though this is by design since Davis acknowledged that Seagal couldn’t (and still can’t) act and that the villains are far more interesting than the hero.
Strannix and Krill are easily the best parts of Under Siege as both of them are unhinged and vengeful toward the U.S. government for trying to assassinate them. Why this backstory came to be is anyone’s guess, essentially making the performances the only reason the duo is entertaining in the slightest. It’s their sheer insanity that makes them fun to watch and far less predictable than other villains in movies with the same scenario. Scenes including Strannix mimicking the classic Road-Runner cartoon character and Krill dressing up in drag for the birthday party serve as the highlight of the feature.
Jordan isn’t much better than Ryback. Eleniak is beautiful and has the acting talent to match her other pair of “talents”, but Jordan just whines for the whole movie, only in the final act becoming useful for any reason aside from eye candy once Ryback decides to give her some basic gun training. As far as action movie companions go, she’s no Powell.
Although Davis leans more towards the villains, they’re still frustrating in their convoluted and spotty decision-making, and the hero is as bland as the man who portrays him.
The Action: After bursting onto the action scene in the prior decade with three sturdy slices of urban set action, Davis proved he could make the scuffles of the city with pizzazz. With a more contained environment, he can do something similar, but not the same.
The initial takeover is excellently paced and the eventual reveal of Strannix and Krill is violent without venturing into overkill territory. Davis does a great job of creating a pleasant atmosphere on the ship, allowing a live band to play their set and bringing together a significant portion of the shipmates to enjoy the sights and sounds. The key to the sequence is its length; it goes on just a little longer than one would expect, lulling the audience into a sense of security, and making the sudden transition remarkably effective.
Aikido is (allegedly) Seagal’s strength, making the choice to shift the action scenes from melee to machine gun a baffling one. Familiarity does foster contempt so the change is understandable on a surface level; but with the way that Davis plays these scenes, almost all of which are admittedly limited by cramped corridors and hallways and the assurance that Ryback won’t be harmed since the man playing him only allowed around a dozen hits in his entire career, interchangeable and unremarkably competent barring a few select bits of gore.
Our hero’s invulnerability makes the climax fall flat too – not that it would’ve been particularly great regardless since the knife fight is staggeringly weak in its choreography. Both men square off by flailing knives vaguely in each other’s direction with the occasional insert shot of a small cut for a couple of minutes before the inevitable conclusion plays out. Davis’s propensity for gritty action just didn’t translate to something this watered down.
The Technics: Under Siege effectively manages its scale, careful not to overwhelm the audience with too many goings on in its expansive setting, though it’s unable to come out as a memorable feature – possibly as a result of this.
Of major note here is the sound design and foley work. Everything sounds bombastic, visceral, and impactful, with the ending fight and all the gunfire most deserving of praise. Accompanied by terrific practical effects and explosions, and a great level of use from the cutting edge (at the time) intro-vision technique to avoid using green/blue screens, Under Siege, is without a doubt the most polished Seagal vehicle.
The camerawork is largely flat throughout the feature, in stark contrast to the spectacle of what’s being captured on-screen. When explosions and gunfire aren’t on display, the establishing shots are the cinematographic peak of the movie. Since the director couldn’t find a way to bring the wide shots to the screen, everything looks the same.
This is hardly Seagal’s best outing, though among his few watchable ones. Lawton didn’t manage to make a unique rendition of the stencil though, resulting in average action, a plot with wide holes, and a subpar-at-best hero. Jones, Busey, Eleniak, and Davis keep this boat afloat, not the rest of the crew.