Under Siege (1992)
Of all the movies Steven Seagal has ever made, Under Siege is the one “real” movie critics are most likely to describe as a “good” movie. It’s competently made, and its Seagal’s only film with an acclaimed director (Andrew Davis, The Fugitive), an in-demand writer (J.F. Lawton, Pretty Woman) and distinguished cast of co-stars. Under Siege is also the only Steven Seagal movie to have a Rotten Tomatoes rating of “fresh,” and it was even nominated for two Oscars. Both nominations were for sound, but still, if Seagal didn’t try to weasel his way into a ticket to the ceremony he’s probably regretting it now, as that was definitely his last, best shot at ever getting to be in the same room as Meryl Streep.
The side-effect of all this “quality,” however, is that it dilutes Seagal’s eccentricity and endearing weirdness. Director Andrew Davis (who also made Seagal’s second best-reviewed movie, Above the Law) is good at what he does, and he’s made something broad, accessible, exciting and intentionally funny.
It is perhaps a sad, subtle irony that the least Steven Seagaliest of all Steven Seagal movies is also the most successful. Each of Seagal’s movies so far have ended up in the perfectly respectable $40-50 million range, but Under Siege grossed $83 million, which, in 1992, was enough to make it a genuine blockbuster. It probably seemed at the time he was on his way to a long, prestigious career. Tragically, however, Under Siege was not only his first, but also his last blockbuster (Under Siege 2 came the closest, but even that made just barely half the original).
$83 million, like I said, is impressive, but the fact that it stands as his biggest movie ever, by a wide margin, leaves Steven Seagal on a lower tier of action stars. $80 million is a number that Chuck Norris could only dream of, but for someone like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, it would be just okay. To put Under Siege’s success in perspective, it was the 13th biggest movie of 1992, but made less than Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Cliffhanger (1993) and even Kindergarten Cop (1990). It also made less than half of Terminator 2 (1991) or Andrew Davis’ next movie, The Fugitive (1993).
Money-wise, Under Siege’s proudest accomplishment should probably be that it out-grossed Die Hard (1988), the action movie by which it’s clearly inspired. The DVD cover, in an admirably pretension-free bit of marketing, even describes it as “Die Hard on a battleship.” You could probably come up with a relatively detailed plot description that would describe both movies with equal accuracy. Let me try: Terrorists disrupt a party and capture its patrons in a confined space, but among the hostages is a professionally-trained, wise-cracking tough guy the terrorists hadn’t counted on. And now, with an unexpected ally, he’s going to put the bad guys under siege, and make them die hard.
In Under Siege, the confined space is a US naval battleship, the terrorists are renegade military/CIA operatives (Tommy Lee Jone, Gary Busey, Colm Meany), the good guy is a sassy chef with a secret past (Steven Seagal), and the unexpected ally is Miss July 1989. Tommy Lee Jones is great, but he doesn’t quite measure up to the incomparable Alan Rickman in Die Hard. But, a battleship is a much cooler setting than an office building, and in the unexpected ally department, a sometimes-topless gun-toting Playboy model improves vastly on the dad from Family Matters.
The villainous plan is to offload some of the battleship’s nukes and sell them to the highest bidder and then also nuke Hawaii with the leftovers, for some reason (it’s a bit unclear). Tommy Lee Jones gets an appropriately rock-star introduction by literally playing a rock star. The ship is hosting a surprise party for the captain and brings in a Tommy Lee Jones-fronted blues-rock fusion band. This introduction establishes Tommy Lee Jones’ sex-bomb charisma and gives the movie an excuse to have a villain clad in a studded leather jacket, tie-dye shirt and bandanna. Andrew Davis was apparently quite enamored with Jones, and cast him in next year’s The Fugitive, which was the role that catapulted him into star status. We can therefore thank Under Siege for the TLJ ubiquity we all enjoy today.
Elsewhere is Commander Krill, second in command of the battleship. He struts around acting like a total douchebag, has a sinister-sounding name, and is played by Gary Busey... all of which means it’s not much of a surprise when he turns out to be a bad guy.
You don’t put a guy like Gary Busey in a movie unless you’re going to unleash his barely-containable batshit wild-side. So, sure enough, before long Busey is on a cross-dressing, square-dancing shooting spree.
Rounding out the triumvirate of villainy is the great character actor Colm Meaney, aka Chief O’Brien from Star Treks both Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. To be honest, I can’t remember how he gets there. I don’t think he was part of the crew, nor do I remember him being in TLJ’s rockin’ blues band. Cinematically, however, he serves an important balancing role, mediating the raw sexual charisma of TLJ and coked-up madness of Gary Busey with a bit more nuanced and low-key brutishness.
This is the first of Steven Seagal’s movie in which he shows any generosity with screen-time. I’ve been used to seeing his face in almost every frame of every movie, yet here, he’s off-screen a substantial amount of time and the bad guys get near-equal exposure. Seagal doesn’t even appear until nearly 20 minutes it, and when he does, he gets a decidedly un-Seagal introduction. His character, Casey Ryback, is the captain’s personal chef, and he’s first seen wearing a jaunty chef’s hat and making some pies.
Pretty soon, however, he gets two big scenes straight out of the Steven Seagal playbook. Seagal is a color-blind man of the people, and he is soon seen effortlessly fraternizing with his ethnically diverse cooking staff. He makes some jokes about a Southern guy they all seem to know, and presides over an impromptu dance-party with a guy named Cue Ball. Contrary to what you might expect, Cue Ball does not have a shaved head, nor is he white, which means that he in absolutely no way resembles a cue ball.
Next, douchebag-at-arms Cmmdr. Krill (Busey), who has not yet been officially outed as a villain, comes down to the galley to spit in Steven Seagal’s bouillabaisse. Seagal pushes him and someone shouts “he’s assaulting an officer!” Seagal lets loose a pretty good one-liner — “no, this is assaulting an officer” — and punches him in the face. Then a bunch of navy goons try to take him out but he non-lethally drops them all to the ground. This is our first indication that, hey, maybe this guy is more than just a chef.
We clue in that he’s more than a chef, but everyone else takes a bit longer. You’d think watching a guy in a chef’s hat take down half a dozen armed military officers would act as a warning to Gary Busey, but he doesn’t seem to pay any mind. He later proceeds to shoot and/or drown a large portion of the ship’s crew, yet for some reason he decides against just popping Seagal and instead locks him in the brig. Later he wises up and sends some commandos down to finish the job, but by now, Seagal’s managed to escape from his cuffs and hide in a vent.
And thus begins the familiar cat-and-mouse showdown between Steven Seagal and the bad guys and their faceless army of generic commandos. As you might guess, Seagal pops up unexpectedly at opportune moments to hinder or out-right screw up their bad-guy plans, while they curse him and try a variety of tricks to flush him out. Like Above the Law, the content is routine, but the execution is skillful. Davis and Lawton have made a pretty tight action movie with constant forward momentum and no slow, draggy moments. The flashes of humor work as well, thanks to Seagal’s always-deft comic timing and TLJ’s enjoyable scenery chewing. They also make great use of the movie’s setting. The battleship feels vast but confined, with both wide open spaces and cramped, maze-like corridors.
The Steven Seagal of Under Siege is very different than the Seagal we’ve seen before. He mostly eschews the martial arts and sticks to machine guns and grenades. He’s also got a MacGuyver streak, and makes a lot of explosives out of unexpected tools. He douses a helicopter in paint thinner then blows it up, and he puts a cocktail of kerosene and kitchen supplies into the microwave and times it to explode just as TLJ and friends are walking by. Most impressively, he manufactures a device powerful enough to disable a submarine out of only electrical tape, tupperware and a condom. Why he had a condom on him (and whether it was a magnum) is not addressed.
Pictured above is Erika Eleniak — I haven’t really mentioned her yet, but she plays a critical role. In the movie she’s referred to as “Miss July 1989” and in a bit of gritty realism, Eleniak is, actually, the woman who appeared in Playboy magazine in July of 1989. She’s brought in to appear at the party, but when all hell breaks loose, no one tells her and she jumps topless out of a cake, only to see Steven Seagal standing alone in a room with a gun and bunch of dead bodies.
The surprise nudity made this movie a personal favorite for a lot of men who came of age in those wistful, pre-Internet days of the early ‘90s. We went in knowing it was going to be awesome, but in a movie set on an at-sea battleship with seemingly no female characters, naked boobs are the last thing you expect to see, but then, BAM, there they are! Outta nowhere. Anyway, Elaniak then transitions into Steven Seagal’s unlikely sidekick.
She looks somewhat ridiculous in her commando get-up (where she got fatigues that would fit her petite frame is not explained), but her banter is enjoyable. At one point she says, “I have two rules: I don’t date musicians, and I don’t kill people.” This raises an interesting question. The first rule, presumably, she made for herself after a bad experience or two. But what prompted her to explicitly make a mental note to not kill anyone? Does she have “reminder: do not commit murder” written in her daytimer? Eventually she does kill someone (Colm Meaney, to be specific), and Seagal jokingly says “next thing I know, you’re gonna be dating musicians!” The fact that she laughs so light-heartedly at this joke (after murdering a man, mind you) combined with this “rule” of hers, suggests that she views the act of homicide as sort of a guilty pleasure.
Well-crafted as it may be, Davis’ skill is not always enough to overcome the persistently formulaic script. There’s the inevitable moment when they find “the file” on the good guy and incredulously list out his long list of accreditations (Seagal turns out to be a navy SEAL with a shit-ton of medals). And when TLJ and Seagal finally meet up, for the second time in a row a villain wastes the opportunity to just shoot the good guy. TLJ turns into a Talking Killer and explains his sinister plan, all the while getting closer and closer until Seagal can kick the gun out of his hand.
After this, we get a few more fleeting glimpses of the Seagal of old. First off, he gives a very Seagalian speech about the evils of militarist government. Then he has one of his few martial arts moments and handily wins a knife fight with TLJ. Both the speech and the fight feel trunacted, however, indicating that Davis kept Seagal pretty tightly reigned in. Davis strips Seagal of his wild-card indulgent weirdo side, which demonstrates great foresight on his part, as it’s that side of Seagal which eventually turned him into the box-office poison laughing stock he is today.
The movie’s conclusion features a little romance between Steven Seagal and Miss July as well as Seagal’s best line of the movie:
This, you see, is a callback to earlier in the movie. Then, Seagal asked Cue Ball (who, still, is neither bald nor white) to show off some of his dance moves. Now it is Cue Ball who requests of Seagal a demonstration of moves.
I mentioned that this was Steven Seagal’s least Steven Seagaliest movie, and it’s the first one that doesn’t feel like it was written specifically for him (several of his past films were actually written both by and for Seagal). All of Seagal’s previous movies had strange, Seagalcentric developments that would have seemed (even more) bizarre had another actor been portraying them, but Under Siege’s protagonist could just as easily have been played by Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford or pretty much any actor that can convincingly bake pies and shoot guns on screen.
Case in point is the lack of martial arts, which is theoretically what made Steven Seagal a star in the first place. And, also, you know that thing he always does, where he head-waggingly shit-talks and provkes bad guys until they run at him and then he flips them on their back and breaks their arms? He doesn’t do that once. He has no family to be threatened and then protected, he doesn’t superfluously describe his childhood or heritage, and he has no hypocritical speeches about the power of non-violence. For most people, Under Siege is an exciting, high-calibre action movie, but for Steven Seagal enthusiasts, it could best be described as “disappointingly good.”
- Weapons: wide assortment of guns (including two Uzis at once), kerosene and kitchen supplies heated in a microwave until they explode, band-saw, grenades, paint thinner, combat knife (used both to throw and stab), home-made bomb, smoke from over-cooked pies.
- What They Say About Seagal:
- “He’s no cook!” (multiple variations on that one)
- “You’re incredible, Ryback. It’s a shame you’re not working for us.”
- TLJ: “Why didn’t you hire [Ryback]? I don’t know what his price would have been, but it would have been worth it.”
- “I admire you, I want you to know that.”
- Seagal comebacks:
- “He’s assaulting an officer!”
“No, THIS is assaulting an officer!”
[punches an officer in the face]
- “You’re not a cook.”
“Yeah, well... I also cook.”
- “I’m only gonna be on this ship for two more weeks.”
“Too bad... that means I won’t get to see you go through puberty.”
- “He’s assaulting an officer!”
- Critical Bile: As I said, it was actually pretty well-reviewed. It was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and Gene Siskel even put it on his list of the 10 best movies of 1992. Those snobs at The New Yorker, however, called it “slapdash” and “limply cartoonish.”
- Steven Seagal Hair Status: In a very noteworthy development, and testament to Seagal’s commitment to his craft, he removed his trademark ponytail to more convincingly portray a naval officer. The only other movie so far in which Seagal has no ponytail is Above the Law, suggesting that Andrew Davis has a zero-tolerance ponytail policy in effect in his movies.
- Steven Seagal Weight Watch: Steven Seagal has packed on a few more pounds. Roger Ebert naively suggests that he gained the weight in method-acting preperation for his role as a chef. The Washington Post, on the other hand, in a callous remark that no doubt contributed to the unrealistic body image issues that plague Americans, says that he should’ve lost a few pounds before filming.
- Sign that this movie was made in 1992: when selling the nukes, TLJ is heard to be dealing with French terrorists, and he says that his backup buyer is named Mohammed. If this movie was made in 2011, he’d have ten interested buyers and they’d all be named Mohammed.
- This movie lost the Best Sound Effects Oscar to Last of the Mohicians, because Daniel Day-Lewis’ presence in a movie ensures award recognition.
- Under Siege was also nominated for an MTV Movie Award for “Best Action Movie.” The MTV Movie awards cost themselves a lot of credibility by giving the award to Lethal Weapon 3 and having the audacity to NOT EVEN NOMINATE Steven Seagal in the “Most Desirable Male” category.
- J.F. Lawton had just written the mega-hit Pretty Woman, and managed to sell his Under Siege script for a million dollars.
- The original screenplay was called Dreadnought, by the way, and it contained no reference to Miss July 1989. It also, not surprisingly, didn’t have Steven Seagal’s speech to TLJ at the end of the movie.
- This fact is a bit peripheral, although it is very fun: Colm Meaney has appeared in more episodes of Star Trek than any other actor (as he appear on two series — Next Generation and Deep Sapce Nine).
- The movie was set on the USS Missouri, which is a real ship, although it was filmed on the USS Alabama.
- A total of 9 actors (including TLJ) appeared in both Under Siege and Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive the next year.
- Harrison Ford allegedly watched Under Siege while deciding whether or not to appear in The Fugitive, and was so impressed, he decided to sign on.
- After the Best Picture-nominated, 200 million dollar success of The Fugitive, Andrew Davis’ career fell off fast and hard. Since then, he’s directed only 6 movies, none of which you’ve probably seen, and a few of which sound only vaguely familiar: Steal Big Steal Little, Chain Reaction, A Perfect Murder, Collateral Damage, Holes, The Guardian.