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Under Siege (1992)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Steven Seagal, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Erika Eleniak, Colm Meaney, Patrick O'Neal

Written By: J.F. Lawton Directed By: Andrew Davis

The Short Version

Steven Seagal goes mainstream.

Under Siege is a poster child for by-the-numbers action done right.

Come for the gunplay; stay for the cake.

Enjoy wacky villain performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey.

Even people who normally don’t like Steven Seagal movies tend to like Under Siege; call this flick a safe bet.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


All-American comfort food dripping with cheese.  There are no surprises; you know exactly how it is going to taste every time.  But that’s okay, because you know it’s going to taste good.

Pairs Well With...


Gosh, why would I ever have chosen to pair an Anchor beer with a movie about a ship that eventually docks in San Francisco?  Oh, right; both the beer and the movie rock!

“Get my pies out of the oven!”

When Steven Seagal was ready to present himself to the movie going public for the first time, he trusted director Andrew Davis to make it work.  The result was Above the Law, a movie that changed the face of modern action, and which was the beginning of a series of flicks that later genre fans would come to think of as Steven Seagal’s Golden Age.  These films were unique to Seagal, with his signature so indelibly inked upon each one that it was and is impossible to realistically imagine anyone else in the starring roles.

And then came Under Siege.

Like the four movies that came before, Under Siege is an excellent action flick, and Seagal does a great job in the starring role.  However, what Under Siege does not have is that indelible Steven Seagal signature.  Sure, he has his moments, but really, you could just as easily drop an early-90s Mel Gibson into the hero’s role without a problem.  This is because unlike Seagal’s first four films, Under Siege is, at its heart, decidedly mainstream.

Without question, to the world at large, Under Siege is the most popular movie in Steven Seagal’s headline catalog by far.  Indeed, even people who normally don’t like Steven Seagal tend to enjoy Under Siege.  To his core of initial fans, however, while it certainly is good, it’s also the movie the spoiled the formula, after which things would never quite be the same.*  Enjoy it while it lasts, my friends…

Our story definitively begins on December 7, 1991.  President George Bush, Sr. (played by stock footage of himself) holds a ceremony on the deck of the storied battleship USS Missouri to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, after which a skeleton crew (along with a few retired veterans along for the victory ride) is to take the ship and make way for San Francisco, where the Missouri is set to be decommissioned, and the last of her weapons offloaded.  These weapons include, among other things, eight “special” Tomahawk missiles with nuclear warheads attached.

I bet you see where this is going, don’t you?

Of course a group of terrorists led by a whacked-out ex-CIA agent (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) takes over the ship and starts to work at stealing the nuclear weapons.  America’s only hope?  A lowly cook named Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal, Hard to Kill) and Miss July 1989, Jordan Tate (Erika Eleniak, the real Miss July 1989)…

It’s said that D-Day honcho and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower loved to paint by numbers.  I’m pretty sure he would also have loved Under Siege.  The good guys from America win against impossible odds, and it’s all done very much by the numbers.  If you can’t predict what’s coming from moment to moment, then folks, you just aren’t trying.  (All right; if you weren’t expecting Gary Busey in full drag, I can accept that.)  And you know what?  That’s okay.  Think of Under Siege as action movie comfort food.  It’s the kind of thing that works at any party because you know that everyone can agree on it, and you keep coming back to it because you know it’s delicious and there are no real surprises.

Sure, it’s a hot dog and not a steak, but I love well-made hot dogs.  Who doesn’t?

This is a movie with all of the ingredients gathered in perfect proportions and a simmer that never stops.  Characters are developed just enough to make them real, and that’s it, but never the less, time is taken for it, and in this kind of flick, that’s all the spice you need.  Humor is peppered throughout in true early 1990s fashion, keeping things fun and making sure that the audience doesn’t suffer from overload.  And when the time comes for action… oh yeah; things sizzle very nicely.

Of course, even with the right ingredients in place, the secret to any decent hot dog is having someone who knows how to work the grill.  In this case, it’s Seagal’s old friend Andrew Davis, who shows that just as he was able to manage things fast and loose in Above the Law, so is he able to work straight up formula with Under Siege.    (This is actually the greater challenge, since everyone knows how formula’s supposed to turn out.)  He paces things perfectly, allowing the audience time to savor the fun even as the story never stops.  He also knows how to showcase everything that’s best about Under Siege, and it should go without saying that much of that comes in the form of action.  While most of what happens here is in the form of gunplay (including some extremely heavy duty gunplay; remember, this is a battleship), there are also a surprising number of on-camera kill shots worthy of Jason Voorhees, including a jagged I-beam to the chest, a double tap knife to the armpit, a bandsaw to the shoulder, and a three-in-a-row combo for the final duel that I’ll let you discover for yourself.  These are especially shocking when they happen, because unlike previous Steven Seagal movies, aikido is not front and center here.

Remember when I said that this one went mainstream and that someone else could have played the hero?

For the standard action fan, there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with the combat components of Under Siege.  Davis showcases everything extremely well, and even the guys who can’t really fight look good enough pretending.  (You have to really be paying close attention to spot Tommy Lee Jones’ stunt double.)  But for those who spent the past few years getting used to the bone-crunching aikido awesomeness of Steven Seagal, something’s missing.  It takes a while to notice, but about halfway through, you realize that while Seagal does do some hand fighting (after all, he’s the one who made sure that every action movie had to include it), it’s not what you remember from before, and at no time during the entire film do any bones audibly snap.  The only sword in the movie is used to lock a freezer door and that’s it.  Does it make our metaphorical hot dog any less delicious?  Not detrimentally so, and again certainly not at all for those who’ve never experienced Seagal’s cinematic grill before; but never the less, the mustard’s gone, and it was some rather unforgettable mustard.

Even so, there’s plenty more to keep us occupied.  Like that damn fine cake, for example.  The fact that Erika Eleniak is the filling for it (providing what surely must be the most popular freeze frame moment in the entire Steven Seagal catalog) admittedly has a lot to do with it.

Does that mean she’s Anne Bancroft in this flick?  Of course not; but those weren’t the Golden Globes she was hired for.  And you know what?  That’s fine.  Indeed, Eleniak essentially gets to play herself here (given, of course, the notion of being thrust into the circumstance of finding herself in the midst of a terrorist takeover of a battleship): Miss July ’89 asked to jump out of a cake.  Really, the audience should be walking into this with no expectations at all, but as it turns out, Eleniak rises to the occasion and then some.  After starting out as the damsel in distress, she picks up some genuine steel (without taking it too far and suddenly turning into Ellen Ripley, which would have rung false), making the audience believe that yes, she has adapted heroically to the situation at hand, so that there’s really no disbelief that needs to be suspended here.   If there are any surprises at all to be had in this movie, they come in the form of a much better performance from Erika Eleniak than anyone had any cause to expect.

Less surprising – but quite satisfying, in a different way, of course – are the outstanding performances of our two villains: Tommy Lee Jones (who, though having been in the business for many years before, really came out as a star with this movie) and the king of the gonzo nutbars himself, Gary Busey (Predator 2).  Jones is given plenty of time to exercise his gift of rapid fire, matter-of-fact exposition, and he plays the villain with a humorous edge that makes him only more dangerous instead of less.  (He actually gets scarier when he starts talking about Looney Tunes characters.)  Perfectly complimenting the controlled craziness of Jones’ performance is the patented insanity of Gary Busey, who always looks ready to explode and unload upon anyone and everyone around him.  Just hearing Busey deliver the line “Do I look like I need a psychological evaluation?” is enough to send one off the couch snickering even without noting that he’s wearing lipstick and lunch lady falsies at the time.  Realistically, a successfully crazy villain is not an easy thing to pull off, but the cast of Under Siege manages to do it not just once, but twice.  But then again, would you have bet against a talent pool like this?

And when it all comes together… yum.  We walk away smiling, because the hot dog was delicious, just like it was supposed to be.  After a few days, we’ll forget why it was so tasty, but that always happens, doesn’t it?  And that, in the end, is both the good and the bad of Under Siege.  It’s perfectly satisfying; it does everything right.  If you like action, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it, and that it’s also totally safe for others who normally have to be grudgingly talked into joining their significant others for an action flick.  I also guarantee that after two weeks, it’ll be hard to remember much beyond the cake.  And that’s fine; there’s a place for that.  Indeed, it’s the place where action movies live in the hearts of most of the general movie watching public.  But for some who remember what came before, it leaves room to wonder what might be coming, and for those people, I’ll repeat my advice from earlier: just enjoy it while it lasts.

Bottom line, Under Siege is an action flick that pretty much anyone can enjoy, even if they don’t normally like Steven Seagal, and for his fans, it’s the back end of the five pack that is The Golden Age of Steven Seagal.  Either way, it’s essential viewing.  Now get me some of that cake.

Music history tangent: I can’t help but think of the 1980s band Berlin, which had a devoted core following but had never quite left the clubs for the mainstream until they scored a huge hit in 1986 when “Take My Breath Away” made it to the Top Gun soundtrack.  Sure, Terri Nunn’s voice was still there, and it was great, but it wasn’t the sound that Berlin had been known for before, either.    The band broke up soon after, and later incarnations were never quite the same.  But anyway. [Back up.]

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012

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