Should I Watch..? 'Under Siege'
What's the big deal?
Under Siege is an action movie released in 1992 and written by J.F. Lawton. It is the first film to feature Steven Seagal as the character Casey Ryback, a one-time US Navy SEAL, and is broadly considered to be the best film of Seagal's career - both critically and financially with global earnings in excess of $156 million. It is also the only Seagal film to have secured nominations at the Academy Awards although it failed to win. Despite the clearly derivative screenplay and the renowned acting limitations of its leading man, Under Siege is still a good deal of fun thanks to its non-stop action and charismatic baddies played by Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey.
What's it about?
After being decommissioned, the USS Missouri is making her final voyage at the command of Captain Adams. To celebrate the Captain's birthday, chef Casey Ryback is preparing for a surprise party but to his consternation, Commander Krill is having entertainment flown in by helicopter. After provoking a brawl with Ryback, Krill imprisons Ryback in a freezer and sends everyone else off to enjoy the party. Knowing that Ryback can't be thrown into the brig without the Captain's knowledge, Krill leaves behind Private Nash to keep Ryback secured.
But the party is merely a cover as the 'entertainment' is actually a band of mercenaries led by ex-CIA agent William Strannix who quickly take over the ship and imprison the crew. Meanwhile, Krill betrays the Captain by killing him and assists Strannix in his real mission - to offload the Missouri's nuclear payload and sell them to the highest bidder. Ryback soon realises that something is wrong and escapes after Krill sends a couple of his men to take him out. Together with hapless Playmate Jordan Tate, who was waiting at the party in a giant cake, it falls to Ryback to take back the ship before the US Government decides to sink the Missouri in order to prevent Strannix's plan.
Tommy Lee Jones
William "Bill" Strannix
Daumer, Strannix's main henchman
Release Date (UK)
26th February 1993
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing
What's to like?
Surprisingly, given that it's a Steven Seagal movie, there's quite a bit to enjoy. Firstly, the two chief baddies in the form of Busey and Jones who are quietly trying to over-act their way into the Hollywood Psychos Hall of Fame. The movie's simple premise - nobody is pretending that this is anything other than Die Hard on a ship - allows the film to move seamlessly from one action-packed sequence to the next and keeps the movie trundling along nicely.
As bad an actor as he is, few can deny that Seagal was at the peak of his powers here when it comes to the physical stuff. He still convinces as a rough-and-tumble action man, dodging bullets and leaping from explosions with the requisite skill and calmness. Most of his fans acknowledge that Under Siege is his best film and by some margin although considering the rest of his back catalogue, this damns the film with faint praise. I'd also like to add that the film looks the business as well. Few scenes feel like they were shooting on a set - it all looks real and authentic which is credit to the film makers and not something I praise that often.
- Jordan Tate, played by Erika Eleniak, was written as the Playboy Playmate for July 1989. The actual Playboy Playmate for July 1989 was Erika Eleniak.
- Nine cast members of this film returned a year later for Andrew Davis's follow-up, the big-screen adaptation of classic TV series The Fugitive including Tommy Lee Jones who would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
- Speaking of The Fugitive, Harrison Ford was debating whether to appear in that movie when he saw Andrew Davis's work on Under Siege. He then immediately agreed to appear as Dr Kimble in The Fugitive.
What's not to like?
It seems that for all his success up to that point, Seagal never thought it necessary to invest in acting lessons. He is remarkably one-dimensional and insists on speaking with a menacing whisper throughout the picture. Maybe this is what his fans like but when I watch an action man, I want the leading man to have an actual personality and not simply be a cardboard cut-out.
You also struggle to escape the feeling that because the film feels so similar to Die Hard that you've seen a lot of this sort of stuff before. Granted, few action movies are considered truly innovative but Under Siege doesn't feel brave enough to tinker with the formula too much with the exception of adding Miss Eleniak to provide the film with much needed eye candy. There's also little in the way of surprise or tension but again, show me an action film with a genuine sense of danger.
Should I watch it?
I would. It's one of those films that despite heavy repetition on TV and the fact that you've probably seen it before, you wouldn't mind sitting down to watch again. It also proves my theory that if studios had allowed Seagal to have a bigger budget, he might have made some decent action films down the years. As such, this remains his career highlight - it's brainless and ultra-macho fun that does well to disguise the shortcomings in the screenplay.
Great For: action fans, lads nights in, the Seagal faithful
Not So Great For: intellectuals, philosophers, Gary Busey's career
What other films should I watch?
The Nineties were a golden age for actions movies with a ridiculous gimmick - Speed springs instantly to mind or if you wanted to go completely loco, try Con Air which coincidentally also featured Colm Meaney or if you're desperate for more Seagal then check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. It's not as good as this film but still miles better than most of Seagal's output. Personally, I'd rather stick with the original Die Hard trilogy which was just as action packed but with a more charismatic lead performance from Bruce Willis. Alternatively, if you wanted something a bit more modern then try Taken which has Liam Neeson kicking all kinds of ass all over Europe. I'm sure they deserved it.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox