Where we've been: Steven Seagal hit the scene in 1988 with Above the Law, a surprise hit that made him an instant star and even a bit of a critical darling. He was a lean, mean fighting machine who kicked ass, took names, and earned $20 million at the box office. Two years later he came back with Hard to Kill, another hit that, while receiving almost none of the critical praise of Above the Law, was able to double it's box office returns. Seagal was a star and Hollywood knew it, so that same year they rushed out Marked for Death, which again made huge numbers at the box office, nearly doubling Hard to Kill's earnings. But then, in 1991, Seagal's fourth film, Out for Justice, hit theaters. While it was arguably the best film Seagal had yet been in, it failed to live up to the legacy of it's predecessors and only took in about the same as Hard to Kill, IE: a drop-off from Marked.
Why did this happen? Well, it certainly didn't help that Marked for Death had been a terrible film that surely drove some fans off, but it also didn't help that Seagal had been growing less and less impressive with each passing film. Simply put: he was pudgier. His waistline was moving noticeably outward and no amount of “hip” baggy clothing that his characters might wear was hiding that fact. No longer was he the lean, mean machine of Above the Law. Instead, he was starting to look like your friend's dad who used to work out. He hadn't yet hit the levels of puffiness that mark his most recent efforts (or the hilarious Will Sasso impersonation from MADTV), but he definitely wasn't as intimidating anymore. How a professional martial artist and big time health nut let himself go is beyond me, but it was happening. Can you imagine taking a fat action hero seriously? Of course not, unless you're Roger Ebert and you think Kevin James is a viable candidate for the next James Bond (yes).
Regardless of the cause, Seagal's sudden drop-off in drawing power made Hollywood upset and they weren't going to wait for even one more film to disappoint. When Seagal returned to the big screen in 1992 with Under Siege, he had back up in the form of Above the Law director Andrew Davis, A-list star Tommy Lee Jones and beloved quirky character actor Gary Busey. With Davis at the helm, producers could expect another praise-worthy performance to be pulled out of their star, and with Jones and Busey in the mix they had a safety net in the case that Seagal's drawing power really was gone. If you didn't want to go see a movie with the puffball from Out for Justice, you might still go to see the co-star of JFK, or the star of The Buddy Holly Story and Predator 2. And, at the very least, maybe some of Jones and Busey's talent would rub-off on Seagal and help him rise above the angry squint school of thespianism. Finally, the story itself was more epic than anything Seagal had yet done. Instead of just another cop drama, Under Siege was, for all intents and purposes, Die Hard on a Navy Battleship with Seagal playing the one man army saving the day from terrorism. Put it all together and you sure look to have a recipe for success.
The result? Let's take a look.
The opening credits are unremarkable, playing out over aerial footage of Navy battleship the USS Missouri cruising through the ocean while some generic “epic” orchestra music plays (reminds me of the score to The Last Castle for some reason). Our hero, Casey Ryback, is introduced as the lone man on board not wearing the traditional whites (he's chosen an all-black affair instead). Whereas any mere mortal would be punished for violating protocols so, Casey gets away with it because he's Seagal, which is equivalent to God. This scene is notable for the moment where Seagal turns his head and reveals that he has cut off his trademark ponytail for the first time. That's what I call method acting. Casey visits the captain – the only man bold enough to scold Casey for his manner of dress – and is told that he'll be meeting the President! Commander Krill (Gary Busey) – clearly a bad guy from the shifty sideways glances he gives – says this would be a poor idea and Casey agrees. You see, he has 50 gallons of bouillabaisse to prepare.
Oh yeah, did I mention Casey is a cook? Not an Admiral or a Commander or a Chief. A cook. Whatever.
Just to further cement his prickishness, Krill starts complaining about how Casey shouldn't be tolerated. The Captain, who suddenly seems to at least partially fear Casey, shakily asks Krill to leave the man alone. “You don't know...”. As a narrator on a TV news report explains the Missouri's history (she's set to be part of a Pearl Harbor ceremony or something that's being heavily publicized) we get a glimpse of Steven Seagal in a chef's hat, which is just the tits.
Must...resist...Swedish Chef jokes.
During the approach to Pearl Harbor, the crew of the Missouri prepare a surprise birthday party for the Captain (complete with a birthday cake containing a Playboy bunny!), while that rotten jerk Krill tells a subordinate to pull men off of nuclear warhead watch duty to attend said party. The officer protests this absurdly unsafe decision, but can do nothing to stop it. The evil doesn't stop there, though, as Casey's joyous cooking session in the galley is interrupted by uptight Ensign Taylor, who hands down the news that the birthday dinner is being flown in and Casey and his crew are to shut down the kitchen. Dun dun dun? Casey is appalled because he and the captain hate surprises but, despite having rank and authority over Taylor (?), can not do anything to stop this. Wow, you can just slice the drama with a knife. Not dinner!
In the captain's quarters, Krill is rather red-faced when the Captain finds out about the surprise party when he hears of Krill authorizing a helicopter landing (something he isn't supposed to be able to do). But once the misunderstanding is cleared up, Captain agrees to play along with the surprise act. He also orders that all watches go on as usual during the party, which Krill pretends to agree to even though we know he's already canceled the warhead watch. What a jerk. And get this: after leaving the Captain's quarters, Krill heads down to the galley, boots everyone but Casey out, and then spits in the bouillabaisse! What a dastardly man! And I mean like Dick Dastardly, as in a cartoon villain. Casey cleans his clock and is swiftly arrested. However, since only the Captain can authorize usage of the brig, Krill has Casey locked up in the meat locker instead. Krill tells his guards – all of them new to the ship – that Casey is an Anti-American, officer-hating psycho who must be kept locked up at all costs.
On deck, a helicopter full of entertainers (including a very-obviously incognito baddie Tommy Lee Jones) lands. And while Tommy Lee Jones is the real important part of this scene, I cannot help but mention the presence of Colm Meaney from Star Trek: The Next Generation. For some reason it always weirds me out to see him doing anything not related to the transporter room. Anyway, down below in the galley, Casey tries to talk his way out of the meat locker because heaven forbid his pies should burn (an actual argument he makes for his freedom), while elsewhere Playboy bunny Erica Eleniak (!) dresses for her confectionery role in the celebration. I find it strange that she needs to change, though, considering she showed up in a boobalicious tank top and the tightest pants on Earth. She's ready to go if you ask me. Unless she's just going to go all-out nude, in which case I'm shutting up. Out in the mess hall, Tommy Lee Jones is fronting a blues band (!!!!) to entertain the boys and holy Jesus is that great. It gets even better when he introduces “Miss July”, which turns out to be Krill in drag!!!!!!
Things take a turn for the dramatic (finally) when Tommy asks the highest ranking officer in the room to step forward – and then promptly shoots the man in the head! The waiters all pull Uzis on the officers and the coup is on~! And Krill and Colm Meaney take out the Captain, too! Shit, meet the fan. While all this is going down, Casey is still trying to talk his way out of the meat locker but fails, even when the guard hears the gunfire and is too much of a maroon to believe it's really gunfire. As our takeover montage carries on, we learn Krill's reasons for taking part in this: the Captain gave him a bad review and recommended psychological evaluation. Krill treats this as laughable, even though he's in drag and looks like a psycho. Oh the hilarity. Way to disrupt the drama, guys. Finally, Casey convinces the guard to call in to the bridge, which reminds Krill that they forgot to seal that area off, meaning Casey and the guard have full access to the ship even though everyone else has been sealed off in the forecastle. Wow, what a dramatically convenient weakness in their plan.
Krill tries to fix his mistake by sending thugs down to execute Casey and the guard, and while they succeed on the latter count they, of course, fail on the former as Casey dispatches of them and finally gets out so he can do something. And that something is combining common household ingredients to make a Brillo pad and whiskey cocktail which he throws in the microwave. Why? Dunno.
On the bridge, another weakness arises in the terrorist plot as the military has sent out an F-18 to find the missing helicopter which the terrorists forgot to send back. You idiots. Thinking they can fix the problem, they blow the plane out of the sky with the ship's artillery. Well now the military will send an entire fleet to indiscriminately bomb you, you fools! Oh wait, it's actually worse than that: it seems they're sending in Hulk Hogan, going by the sudden appearance of Jimi Hendrix's “Voodoo Child” on the soundtrack. Whatcha gonna do, Gary Busey? Whatcha gonna do when the 24 inch pythons run wild on you!?
Wow, I just wrote a way better movie than the one I'm watching.
The military establishes radio contact with the terrorists to find out why they're doing this. Tommy Lee Jones (or Bill, now) says he's bitter about the military apparently trying to assassinate him to protect some classified info after his latest assignment got canceled. “They tried to cancel me, too!”. After a big, long rant about how bad he misses the sixties (oh fuck that decade) Bill cuts off the radio and launches a Tomahawk into the military satellite HQ to prevent any further tracking of the ship. Except it won't since Pearl Harbor can track the ship, too. Wah wah waaaaaahhhhhhhh. I don't know if Bill and Krill are supposed to be random psychopaths or random morons at this point.
Casey (remember him?) wanders into the mess hall and kicks over the cake. Erica Eleniak pops out and starts dancing as if unaware of the hail of bullets and the passage of several hours. What the fuck? There's a lot of crying and whining as she realizes the situation and yadda yadda yadda SHUDDUP!. Back at military HQ, where the plot is hiding out, there is much discussion of how Bill's private terrorist army is government-funded so they could use him for top-secret missions such as, for example, sinking Korean atomic subs. But no sooner than Bill's Commander assures the Admiral that the sub was sunk do we see said sub coming along to meet up with the battleship as part of the coup! That Bill is real hit and miss; sometimes he totally epic fails and sometimes he's just so darn crafty. And you'd have to be Goddamn crafty to hide a KOREAN ATOMIC SUBMARINE for six months! How in the fuck...?
While Bill et al go down to the galley to check on those thugs they sent, Casey briefs the Playboy girl because she's his new partner. It's Steven Seagal and some chick with nice tits against an army of madmen in...UNDER SIEGE. Now that would have been good marketing. Finally, we see what that Brillo cocktail was all about as the microwave explodes as Bill and Krill argue. How did Casey know how long it would take for them to go to the galley? Well, as it turns out when Bill and Krill access his file, Casey is an ex-SEAL who's a demigod of all trades. The man is Christ. Super Mecha Death Christ.
Contacting the Admiral with some hi-tech super duper phone, Casey imparts the information that Bill and Krill are planning to offload and sell the Tomahawk missiles for untold amounts of money. That's your revenge for your near-death and your psychological issues? You make some money? Woo hoo. I guess they're banking on money being able to buy happiness. And then, in his most daring stunt yet, Casey blows up the helicopter using nothing more than paint thinner and an improvised detonator. Would two gallons of ignited paint thinner really do that? An angered Bill and Krill set off the sprinkler system to flood the forecastle because they think Casey will drown trying to save the men inside, but then again they welded the doors shut, so how would he get in? And wouldn't the weight of all that water concentrated in that one area throw the ship's buoyancy all out of whack? The Titanic was dragged down by similar flooding. It's confirmed: they're random morons.
Casey and the Bunny (now there's a sitcom) stumble upon a room of trapped men (not the one that's flooding) and since there is a convenient pile of welding equipment right there, Casey cuts right through the door to unleash some help. Miraculously, this room also contains the circuit breaker for the bridge, so Casey can shut down the radars and weapons systems. Only morons would lock officers in the fucking circuit room, although the trapped men were idiots for not thinking of doing this themselves. Anyway, after Bill and Krill play footage of the drowning men on the ship's CCTV system, Casey and his ragtag crew arm up and set out for the epic showdown. With some improvised bombs and a lot of bullets, our heroes manage to save the crew by taking control of and shutting down the water system. From there, they keep plugging away at random thugs as they head for the bridge, were Bill and Krill realize they have lost control of the weapons just as a team of SEALs is flying in. Lucky for them Bill's submarine comes up just in time to send men on top to launch shoulder-mounted rockets to take the chopper down. This prompts the Admiral to do what he should have done a long time ago: order full-on carpet bombing of the battleship.
Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, Casey dismantles a shell to use it's parts for some improvised explosives, such as the bomb he plants on the sub deck during a little scuba diving to distract the crew while he sneaks on board. Not enough of a distraction, as Colm Meaney spots him, but no worries: the Bunny shoots that Irish bastard dead. Meeting up with the rest of the team, Casey heads for the artillery room where they can control the ship's guns and blow the submarine to Davey Jones' Locker. And that they do, and Krill goes down with it. Bill responds by launching nukes at Honolulu. While military command freaks out, Casey makes it to the bridge where he was his final showdown with Bill, a knife fight that ends with Casey burying his blade in the top of Bill's skull and then ramming him through a radar screen for good measure. Ow.
An F-18 shoots down one of Bill's missiles while it's up to Casey to use some computer doohickey to manually override the controls of the other, which he does just seconds before the missile would have hit the island. Casey and the whole crew celebrate on deck as the ship floats into harbor. And then, the somber closing moment as we move ahead to the Captain's funeral, where Casey finally dons his uniform.
This movie kinda sucks. It's definitely a mess, the plot diving headlong into nonsense on more than one occasion. The acting is fairly strong; even Gary Busey's typical “act like a raving loon” schtick works pretty well here, and more importantly, Seagal does a fine job and for once doesn't try some ridiculous accent he can barely feign. The action is more generic than other Seagal movies. The hand-to-hand combat is replaced with explosions and gun fights, and while those things are kinda neat the first few times you see them, they've become tired cliches by now and really don't make this movie any more exciting. And that's what Under Siege lacks the most: excitement. The plot is, like I said, Die Hard on a boat (they even used that exact line in the advertising!) and, well, if you've seen Die Hard watching Under Siege is like seeing the same movie over again only boring because you went in expecting something different. That's what made Seagal movies successful in the first place: they were different. They had realistic, bone-crunching martial arts instead of the same old gun fights and they had really wonky partner characters instead of the obligatory fellow cop. Unfortunately, Under Siege ditches the fighting and pushes the unlikely partner scenario to an absurd level with the use of a Playboy bunny as Casey's back-up. Way to kill the concept, guys.
But my complaints really don't matter because Under Siege was a massive hit, taking in $156,563,139 worldwide. That's the biggest hit Seagal has ever had, even to this day. Hell, the critics even liked it, All was forgiven for Out for Justice's failure and suddenly Seagal was the shit bigger than ever. And ironically, this lead directly to his biggest disaster. With his renewed fame and box office super power, Seagal finally had the leverage to do what he and every other actor has ever wanted to: direct, without anyone checking his power. The result was a film so self-indulgent, so ineptly made, so far up it's own ass and so pathetically preachy that it sent Seagal's superstar career on the downward spiral to direct-to-video hell.
So join me on Earth Day, April 22, when we venture into Steven Seagal's biggest dream and worst nightmare as I review the notorious and nefarious environmental thriller On Deadly Ground.