Filmwerk’s “Action Movie Retrospectives” series has been an eye-opener for me. I’ve always thought I was a fan of the genre, but last month I was asked to write about two Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and it occurred to me that I had never seen one of his films before. In fact, the only thing I’ve ever seen him in is that episode of Friends where he dates Rachel. I remember thinking that he had a strangely expressionless face for an actor. I explained it away by concluding that playing yourself must be very difficult and perhaps he froze. Then I saw his films and realized that I was completely wrong – that’s just his acting ‘style’.
Now it seems that the gap in my knowledge was not a one-off. Of the 39 films Steven Seagal has been in, I’ve seen exactly zero. I was actually quite pleased to get a chance to review Under Siege because it’s one of the few Seagal movies that doesn’t have a negative reputation. No-one sniggered when I told them I was to review it (as they did when I reviewed van Damme in Street Fighter), so although I can’t say that my expectations were sky high, I was cautiously optimistic that I might have an enjoyable couple of hours ahead of me. And indeed, I was pleasantly surprised.
Under Siege is set on a soon-to-be-decommissioned US navy battleship on the evening of the captain’s birthday. The executive officer, Commander Krill (a brilliantly camp Gary Busey) is organising a knees-up for the captain and insists on flying in the entertainment and food himself. This doesn’t sit too well with our hero, “The Cook” Casey Ryback (Seagal) who feels that Krill is usurping his position as the only man who cooks for the captain. After 30 seconds of sniping and dick measuring, it’s clear to everyone there is no love lost between these two men. Despite being seriously outranked, Ryback’s got a bit of an overblown sense of his own importance and doesn’t respond well to the command structure, which of course makes him ideally suited to a career in the military….ummm. Busey spits in the bouillabaisse and locks Ryback in his own freezer. All very silly.
Soon enough the food and “entertainment” arrive in the form of band leader Tommy Lee Jones and former playmate Erica Eleniak (sporting an impressive uni-brow). Now, I realise that it was already pretty apparent what the plot of this film was going to be, but the moment Tommy Lee Jones popped into shot, everything became so obvious. Jones, a band leader? He’s wearing a bandana for goodness sake! How dumb does the casting agent think we are? Clearly Jones is a terrorist and is going to take over the ship, I mean d’uh! Although Jones has played a cop as often as he’s played a villain, whenever I see him, I immediately expect him to be a baddie. And I mean “baddie” in the campest sense, just think about his Two-Face in Batman Forever. As terrorist leader Bill Strannix, Jones reaches almost the same giddy heights. And when Strannix meets up with Busey’s Krill it’s an explosion of OTT theatricality that actually makes their scenes a lot of fun to watch.
I should also probably touch on Erica Eleniak’s Jordan Tate, “Miss July ‘89”. I can’t tell you about her proficiency as an actor, but I can tell you she’s got a cracking pair of norks. I know this because of the extended striptease she performs to an empty officer’s mess after the ship has been seized. The scene gets away with a gratuitous display of flesh because Jordan doesn’t realise that there is no-one in the room as she performs. Clearly this is her first time popping naked out of a cake, because even I know that (a) you keep your eyes open when you’re performing a striptease and (b) if the boys aren’t cheering when you take your top off, something is very wrong.
I would like to tell you that once the action starts she plays an integral role in taking back the ship, but really she doesn’t.. Seagal is a one-man army and frankly she just gets in his way. Her only purpose in this movie is to get her boobs out and then make out with Seagal at the end; although at no point during the film does Seagal suggest that he’s interested in her at all. I’m not saying that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, it’s just a clichéd role. If this film is supposed to be Die Hard on water, was it really necessary to even have her there?
Regardless, Under Seige is a lot of fun. Strannix and inside man Krill take over the ship, killing the captain and imprisoning the rest of the crew in the forecastle. They may be camp but our dastardly double act are also brutal. Any crew member who resists gets shot, as does the man standing next to him. It transpires that Strannix is a disgruntled former Special Forces operative who has gone rogue. He’s set himself up as an arms dealer and plans to sell the battleship’s nuclear tipped Tomahawk missiles to the highest bidder. It takes a while for this to come out, as Jones enjoys chewing the scenery and pretending to be nuts. He shouts about “the revolution” to the folks back at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, Seagal is still stuck in his own freezer, but it’s clear that this boy is more than a simple cook. Unlike his marine guard, he recognizes the difference between a gun being fired and a party popper and manages to fight his way out of the freezer when Krill sends a couple of lackeys down to take him out. It’s a pretty good escape, considering Seagal is handcuffed throughout. I was hoping that he would stay cuffed for the whole of the movie (mimicking the Die Hard “no shoes” theme), but naturally a man of such talent and resources can’t be stymied by a simple pair of handcuffs. Not only does he take out his two would-be assassins in a quiet and realistic way, he easily removes the cuffs and then uses his extensive knowledge of cooking ingredients (I’m thinking it was vinegar and bicarbonate of soda) to turn the microwave into a bomb. And BOOM! With that, we’re off and into the action.
And the action is actually quite good. It’s a well balanced mix of gun battles, explosions and good old hand-to-hand as Seagal tries to take back the ship with the “help” of Miss July ’89 and a rag-tag bunch of dishwashers, laundry guys and retired servicemen. At times it felt a bit like I was watching an extended advert for the US Navy. There are lingering shots of the ship and numerous demonstrations of the level of training the Navy provide. There is also an extended scene where Seagal and his crew take control of the big guns sinking the stolen submarine Strannix is using to transport the nukes, and drowning Krill. It was actually very interesting to see how the team worked together to gain control of the weapons, loads them, aim and fire them with accuracy, it almost made me want to enlist. It’s also impressive to see the damage these guns can do, especially when you know that these are the real guns of the USS Alabama. The US Navy has some serious firepower at its disposal.
As the film progresses, we learn through a series of scenes in the Pentagon that Ryback is more than just a cook who is handy with a paring knife; he’s a highly trained former Navy SEAL who has been busted down to cook for the remainder of his service for punching out a commanding officer. The funny thing is that I actually believe that of Seagal, he looks like the sort of guy who really could have been a SEAL. He’s thoroughly realistic in the role and even his strangely immobile face doesn’t detract from this. I can buy that he’s a man so focused and trained that he doesn’t show emotion.
The climactic battle between Ryback and Strannix takes place after Strannix launches one of the Tomahawks towards Honolulu. The Pentagon estimates that over a million people will die if the bomb reaches its target and they task Ryback with stopping it. If he fails, unbeknownst to him, the powers-that-be are already plotting to make him a patsy for the disaster (how ungrateful!). When Ryback finally confronts Strannix it turns into a knife fight, which was not what I had expected. It’s very fast and furious and very well-choreographed. You can actually see each move and who is making it, which adds a sense of peril to the scene and shows that each actor is a good stunt fighter. Naturally our hero gets the upper hand with an eye gouge, stab through the head, smash-head-into-monitor combo (it’s a classic) – and not a roundhouse kick in sight!
Once Strannix is defeated it’s only a matter of time until Ryback and his team enter the necessary codes to disable the Tomahawk – after we get a nice shot from atop the missile as it flies through the air. The crew is released to much jubilation, and Ryback gets a kiss from the stripper. It’s all very predictable stuff, but an enjoyable watch with some really fun performances and a spot of female nudity. What more could one want from an action movie?