Seagal tears up a battleship full of terrorists in 'Under Siege'

October 09, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Battleship Potemkin" it's not, but Steven Seagal's "Under Siege" is a neatly milled piece of entertainment &r machinery, though inevitably violent. With Tropical Storm Seagal shooting and punching up a major massacre, it's "The Whackiest Ship in the Navy."

I happen to prefer my bloodletting slightly more realistic, and "Under Siege" never bothers with realism -- or probability or common sense, for that matter. It's a "Die Hard" variant that features the lanky, dour Seagal as a renegade SEAL trapped on a battleship with 30 terrorists whom he must dispatch five and six at a time in order . . . well, in order for the movie to be over.

Even as a premise, "Under Siege" never holds up. The terrorists, headed by a showboating Tommy Lee Jones as a bitter ex-CIA operative and a feral Gary Busey as a turncoat naval officer, have helped themselves to the U.S.S. Missouri to sell its 24 Tomahawk cruise missiles to the highest bidders, nuclear warheads and all. Excuse me? Tomahawks aren't Fourth of July skyrockets set off by fuses. Surely just as important as the missiles would be the complex (and immovable) launch and computer-driven tracking gear that would complete the weapons system.

Obviously, nobody sweated the details in "Under Siege," but despite such obvious (and a litany of less obvious) howlers the movie works, at least in so far as it provides a platform to launch Seagal on a manhunt through the dark and menacing corridors of the Missouri. I think the ship, which is actually the decommissioned battleship Alabama moored sleepily in Mobile Bay, deserves a great deal of the credit for the pleasures of

"Under Siege"; it's a giant jungle gym full of interesting angles and astonishing vistas against which to stage an action movie, and the director Andrew Davis (a gifted hack) gets the most out of it.

In his endeavors, Seagal is assisted by an ex-Playmate-of-the-Month who has been smuggled aboard as part of the cover operation by which the terrorists took over the ship. She is played by Erika Eleniak of "Bay Watch," and the movie can't help but bay while it watches her display why she might have been Miss July 1989 in a brief scene. Her presence is clearly meant to somewhat lighten the ingot-dense heaviness of the Seagal screen persona (he's shed his ponytail but kept his attitude) and some of the byplay is amusing. Her best line: "I have two rules -- I don't kill people and I don't date musicians." Later, when she blows someone away, he says, "Next thing you know, you'll be dating musicians." But it may be too amusing. Seagal himself seems to treat the circumstances as a lark. There's never a driving urgency to his performance; he never achieves the sweaty despair of Bruce Willis in the genre-defining film.

The big news, technically, is that Seagal here de-emphasizes the hand-to-hand combat skills that made him seem so dangerous in his other films. Now and then he'll chop somebody in the larynx or snap a bone like a twig, but the film occupies him instead with two other dark skills: improvising explosives -- he must build 10 bombs during the course of the action, never explaining to us the hows and whys of the process. Not interesting. Second: knife-fighting, the preferred method of close-in nastiness; he's a human Cuisinart, full of shifty, dazzling moves that move the blade from hand to hand in a variety of angles like a baton in a drum major's fingers. This is fresh but again not quite the hoot it should be.

And the movie occasionally flubs the obligations of the genre. Each villain should get a moment where he understands his death is approaching; it never happens, the final moments for both Busey and Jones being far too quickly gotten to and gotten over. I think the movie lessens its grip entirely when it suddenly provides Seagal with a team of sailors, enabling him to fire one of the ship's 16-inch guns, a much less interesting (and completely unbelievable) gambit than the filmmakers suspect. And a final "Dr. Strangelove"-like ploy where Seagal must destroy a Tomahawk headed toward Honolulu seems tacked on to supply an arbitrary goose at the end.

Still, for dirty deeds done dirt cheap on a dark night, there's no better boy in the movies than Seagal, and this one gives him plenty of room to talk the talk and walk the walk.

'Under Siege'

Starring Steven Seagal and Erika Eleniak.

Directed by Andrew Davis.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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