Dredged up from the murky depths of 1995 and exposed to the sunlight of 2011, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory can’t help but look bedraggled to the point of being repellent. “Dear God!” cry the horrified spectators crowded onto the deck of the HMS Present Day, as they gaze upon US2’s barnacled fetishes for pagers and fax machines, and sidestep the slime dripping from its oxidised view of US$1 billion as a lot of money. “Throw it back! It reeks!” Some of those looking on appear to be laughing, even as they gag.
And do you know where that mix of revulsion and amusement comes from? Our own sure knowledge that, one day, another group of intrepid filmic explorers will inadvertently haul Avatar up over the side and wonder why its special effects are so poorly executed. The point is that time marches on, straight across our smug, modern faces and off into a glorious future that we will not live long enough to see, and where the pinnacles of our youth’s achievements will be crushed to make paving stones. That, and the fact that US2 makes a big deal out of Seagal using a prototype Palm Pilot (not released until 1997!), and it now looks as whizzy as an Etch-A-Sketch.
Fortunately for contemporary audiences, however, there are constant markers of a film’s merits that can help us see beyond the quaint technologies, ridiculous fashions and inflation rates of bygone ages. These constants, out of reach of Time’s long scythe, help the beholders to decide whether they have reeled in priceless treasure or a mouldy old boot. Constants like artistic merit, for example, or visionary direction and mega-watt star power (for reference, see Fairbanks Snr, Douglas). So what is the crew of the HMS Present Day to make of its catch?
Near death, US2 writhes sluggishly in the net and the financier of the expedition prods it gently with a broom handle. Something lumpen and slick slides from between the beast’s fleshy folds and flops lifeless at his feet. It seems organic, but may not be. Picking it up in a rubber gloved hand, the HMS Present Day’s naturalist takes it below decks for dissection. Within a few moments she returns triumphant from her makeshift lab, reporting that she has found the remnants of Steven Seagal’s career. “But that’s horrible,” murmurs the first mate. “How could the people of the 1990s have suffered such an abomination to live?”
An awed silence descends over the company – for them, Seagal’s career is a myth. Here at last is concrete proof that the myth was at least partly founded in reality. This provides the first clue to US2’s worth: if Steven Seagal was real, then Tom Cruise is not the first time the world has provided unimaginable amounts of money for making terrible films to a megalomaniacal, talentless hack with aspirations to being a spiritual leader. It is a sobering moment, but not as sobering as when they realise that the plot of US2 was greenlit.
[To recap: a former Navy Seal-turned-cook is on board a cross-country train when it’s hijacked by terrorists. And then something something satellite navigation, something something targeting the earth’s tectonic plates from space to create earthquakes something something Middle Eastern leaders willing to pay $1 billion (cue Dr Evil’s “pinkie to the corner of the mouth” move) something something teenage Katherine Heigl wearing high-waisted jeans and listening to a walkman something something token black guy something something implausible action sequences, things going BOOM, “The hostages are OK”, massive fireball/helicopter, military types in a command centre whooping and cheering, Seagal and Heigl at Arlington Cemetery THE END.]
Their disgust waning with their growing incredulity, the crew make other astonishing discoveries as they delve deeper into the foetid belly of the beast. Seagal co-wrote and performed the dreadful theme song. For US$20, actress Brenda Bakke will sell you an autographed still of the moment her character is thrown from the moving train. Even at 16 years of age, Katherine Heigl was utterly annoying. Even choppy editing can’t make Seagal’s martial arts moves look more impressive than someone at a picnic trying to shoo away three wasps at once. At one point in the not-so distant past, it was totally acceptable for a bankable film actor to sport a ponytail in every goddamn film he was in. Everett McGill, as the ultimate bad ass, is the only cast member who seems convincing because he was Big Ed Hurley in Twin Peaks and after working with David Lynch everything else is a cakewalk, baby.
Exhausted, the salty dogs of the HMS Present Day examine the results of their endeavours. Strewn across the deck are lumps of flesh, hunks of hair, outmoded means of telecommunications and inept miniature express train “special effects” that would look more at home in an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine Kicks Your Butt.
There are also too many stilted line readings to count, and lines of dialogue created only to big up Seagal. Lines like “He’s the best there is”, and “I’m not afraid of anything, but I’m afraid of him”. It’s these that inspire the most disgust among the crew, and they are first to be kicked overboard.
“We’ve learnt nothing from wading through the entrails of this piece of shit!” wails the navigator. “This has all been a complete waste of time!”
“Yes,” agrees the cabin boy, “but at least it’s over and done with. And because Seagal’s career has now well and truly sunk beneath the waves, we’ll never have to deal with its like again.”
When the last unrecognisable pieces of the unloved and incomprehensible box office bomb that was US2 are finally returned to their watery grave, the crew of the good ship HMS Present Day set sail; sadder, no wiser, and never to look back.