It was inevitable, really. After all, Schwarzenegger and Stallone couldn’t remain at the top of the action ladder forever, could they? Sly was licking his wounds while making shitty comedies after the double whammy of his most recent Rocky and Rambo movies going down for the count and elsewhere, Arnold was contemplating a shit into politics, so the field was wide open for the next action heroes to shuffle forward and claim the mantle of action goodwood for themselves and while spin kicking cocaine hoover Jean Claude Van Damme was taking direction from John Woo and starring as all-American video game characters, his rival, the perpetually whispering pony tail of Steven Seagal was aldo forging a path into bigger budgeted adventures. In hindsight, maybe appearing in a clumsy Die Hard clone set aboard a battleship may have been too much for a dude who up to that point was solely playing squinting police officers – but the result turned out to be probably his most famous film to date.
After decades of faithful service, the US Navy Battleship Missouri is to be decommissioned and spend the rest of its existence as a floating museum piece but as it heads off on its final voyage into retirement, everyone on board is getting ready to celebrate the birthday of the shit’s commanding officer. However, tensions arise between snarling Executive Officer, Commander Krill and laid back ship’s cook Casey Ryback when the former’s plans clash with the Petty Officer’s which results in a nasty right cross that ends up with Rybeck being detained in a meat locker under armed guard.
However, there’s a reason Krill’s being a bigger asshole than usual and that’s because he’s smuggling a team of mercenaries onboard who, while being led by disillusioned and utterly mental ex-CIA operative William Strannix, are planning to hijack the Missouri and steal the 36 tomahawk missiles onboard to sell to the highest bidder. While Strannix and Krill lay waste to the commanding officers, the rest of the skeleton crew is locked in an easily floodable section of the boat and the bad guys get to work.
However, forgotten in the chaos is Ryback who – not only is a chef capable of making a mean soup – but is also (wouldn’t you know it) an ex-Navy SEAL who is also terrifyingly adept at whipping up a terrorist souffle at a moment’s notice. Teaming up with a Playboy Playmate who was drugged before the party started (probably the less you ponder on that the better), Ryback starts to scuttle around the ship, gradually picking off Strannix’s men and generally being a fly in the ointment at every given opportunity. But can one man (and a Playboy Bunny, don’t forget) manage to hold out long enough before a heavily armed rescue party can get to them it or will it be solely down to Ryback and his lightning fast moves that’ll save the day? No, don’t bother answering. This is a Seagal movie and therefore that question was blatantly rhetorical.
It’s amazing that, for a film that does so many things wrong, Under Siege ends up being as relentlessly fun as it is. Whenever it deliberately deviates from the Die Hard blueprint its course starts to waver; could you imagine how different things should have been if John McClane had spent the first third of his debut movie trapped in his wife’s executive bathroom while Hans Gruber did his terrorist thing? Well that’s sort of what happens here as Ryback literally cools his heels in the ship’s meat locker while unsuccessfully demanding that his gormless guard set him free. Also Ryback manages to free a sextet of ship faring buddies to aid him in his mission whom the film doesn’t bother to give actual identities to as it can’t seem to decide how much of a lone wolf it should make of its hero as he goes about his business of being a one man army. Despite the fact that Under Siege was his temporary big ticket to the A-list, the movie strangely holds back on Seagal’s legendary butt-whupping skills, concentrating mostly on gun fights and stunts while looking like he’s delivering the majority of his lines to an empty room. Still, despite the fact that he has virtually no chemistry with any other carbon based lifeforms within 10 miles of the set, when the movie gets going we are finally gifted with some gruesomely satisfying terriost kills as one “do-badder” gets messily impaled with a falling girder while Ryback simply shoves another guy’s shoulder into an industrial saw – shit, he even tears one guy’s throat out with his bare hands at one point, beating Rambo to the punch by over ten years.
Matters aren’t exactly helped by the presence of comely Baywatch star Erika Eleniak who only seems to have been hired to provide some unnecessary nudity that teen boys probably paused to oblivion on their VCR’s. Aside from displaying her (ahem) noticable aspects Eleniak is forced to spend the first half of the movie in a tear-streaked haze and single handedly puts the bubble-headed, gun-toting playboy playmate movenent back five years by telling stuff like “The safest place on this ship is right behind you!” while he’s actually being shot at – still, at least she redeems herself somewhat by saving a wounded Segal by drilling an evil Colm Meany in the spine with well placed machine gun fire.
This brings us to possibly the most important aspect of any Die Hard rip off, the villians and it’s here that Under Seige truly gets its sea legs as we are blessed with the leathery skinned, double act of Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey whobseemed locked into a death pact as to who can out-derange the other with the winner clearly being us. Busey lands some early body blows by dressing up in drag while chugging on a cigar the thickness of a Mars bar and spitting in Seagal’s soup; Jones counters by having his rock and roll, obsessed arch villain dress like a psychotic roadie and have him rant about Saturday morning cartoons while fucking around with a harmonica. Curiously, it’s this display of wild overacting that possibly secured his entire career as director Andrew Davis cast him for his next gig, that of stoney faced US Marshall Samuel Gerard in 1993’s The Fugitive, and there’s really nothing more surreal than watching the barking Oscar winner engaging in a climactic knife fight with a man who inexplicably went on to be a fully commissioned deputy in Louisiana. Thankfully the fight lives up to it as Ryback blocks the villain’s knife strike with his teeth, before gouging out one of Strannix’s eyes, burying his own knife into Strannix’s skull to the hilt and then smashing his perforated noggin through a radar screen.
Some have maintained that this may be Seagal’s finest hour and while it’s admittedly more enjoyable than the majority of his face-breaking output, the one true champion will always be the stupendously brutal Out For Justice for my money. However, for a movie that adds numerous gargantuan explosions, a big name cast and a knowing wit to his blood streaked filmography (the movie uses its location really well), Under Seige remains defiantly top-level bullshit for it’s notoriously squinty star.