A group of mercenaries take over the battleship USS Missouri, led by the volatile ex-CIA operative William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones). With the crew locked in the ships’ forecastle and the captain executed, the only hope of preventing the mercenaries from stealing the ship’s complement of nuclear warheads is the cook: former Navy SEAL Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal).
Under Siege, a 1992 action film directed by Andrew Davis, marks the career high point for martial artist turned actor Steven Seagal. It remains his most commercially successful film and is almost certainly the most effective on a creative level as well. It is about as straight-forward and mainstream as an American action movie can get, but it has a target audience and it hits them front-and-centre with a minimum of weirdness and fuss.
Seagal is not a good actor. He never was, he never became one, and he certainly isn’t one here. What he does have, however, is an attitude. His screen presence in these early career films is often fantastic. He has a dark look in his eye, and an intimidating stillness. In essence, the less he talks the more effective he is. He certainly has the action chops: prior to going into Hollywood he was the first non-Japanese instructor at a Japanese aikido dojo, and he ably demonstrates his fighting skills in Under Siege. When the film requires him to throw off the odd humorous aside, or get romantic with co-star Erika Eleniak, he begins to struggle. When kept on the straight and narrow path of shooting, stabbing and breaking the necks of villainous mercenaries, Seagal is a properly entertaining lead actor.
What makes Under Siege work so well is the talent that surrounds him. Director Andrew Davis – who helmed Seagal’s breakout feature Above the Law – is a capable hand at directing suspense and action. Under Siege immediately preceded his masterpiece The Fugitive, and you can see the developing talent at work. It is not quite at an apex, but it is definitely on a career incline. The other supporting factor of most benefit is Seagal’s castmates. Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones play the film’s villains like a spectacular game of over-acting one-upmanship. For Busey it is largely par for the course, since he’s enjoyed a career dominated by showy, shouty kinds of roles. For Jones it feels remarkably out of place. Pretty much the only other time he’s played a character so flamboyantly and with such exaggeration it was when he was played Two-Face in a Batman movie. In fact Under Siege largely works in ways that resemble a Batman film: the quiet, moody hero fighting the bright, colourful attention-grabbing villains.
Of course the film is far from perfect: its one female actor, Erika Eleniak, appears to only be required for a needless topless scene and to accentuate Ryback’s more manly and protective qualities. In the world of Under Siege women don’t appear to serve in the navy at all.
As a straight-forward action vehicle, with some gunfire, knife fights and explosions, this film remains about as good as Seagal ever got.