There is a moment in the middle of Geoff Murphy’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory in which a group of mercenaries have hijacked a long-haul passenger train, only to find that one of the passengers has taken matters into his hands and is killing them off one by one. By consulting the passenger manifest they work out it is one Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) – at which point they all start panicking and swearing at their boss, because if Casey Ryback is on the train they’re surely all going to die. It’s a great scene because it works in contrast to how these kinds of scenes always go. John McClane was a mysterious nobody getting in terrorists’ faces five times in a row without developing a reputation. Casey Ryback saved one navy destroyer, and his reputation now precedes him like the shadow of death. It’s a wonderfully knowing and funny moment. It is also the only good thing in the entire movie.
Under Siege 2 came to cinemas in 1995, three years after its predecessor gave Seagal his biggest commercial hit ever. It is the mother of all awkwardly developed sequels. After all, if it’s a rare event for someone to stumble into a hijacking then how rare would it be to stumble into one twice? Eschewing the obvious possibilities of having Ryback engage in a legitimate military action, Under Siege 2 has him retired from the navy, running a local restaurant and escorting his teenage niece (Katherine Heigl) cross-country to her father’s – and his brother’s – funeral. What are the odds that the exact train they took would be the site of an armed takeover to transform it into a roving base from which to take over an orbiting death satellite launched by the US military as a weapon of mass destruction?
This is why action sequels rarely work as well as the originals. How likely is it for John McClane to randomly run into a terrorist takeover of an international airport, or for Sam Gerard to chase a second innocent man halfway across the continental USA? To make matters worse Under Siege 2 seems developed in the most perfunctory of ways. Ryback gets saddled with a plucky but rebellious teenage niece. He temporarily gets a sidekick in the form of an comic relief African-American cabin attendant (Morris Chestnut). There’s a whole cast of military types – some original, some returning – to stand on a mission control set looking pensive. Everybody looks rather bored. Seagal in particular looks bored. For most of the film he calmly strolls around rather than runs. Nothing in the film presents a single challenge to him; and if the protagonist doesn’t feel the need to get worked up, why should the audience. The whole film feels so lazy in concept and execution. It’s a laziness typified by the film’s notorious mistake of casting Gary Busey to play the villain, with no one remembering that he had already played the villain – who died – in the original Under Siege. Busey got replaced in short order, but the studio still had to pay him.
Thankfully the villains at least are having a ball. Stepping into Busey’s shoes is Eric Bogosian as the crazed hacker Travis Dane. It is a terribly written part, but Bogosian clearly knows that and chews the scenery for both his and the audience’s benefit. Better performed, and ultimately much more entertaining, is Twin Peaks alum Everett McGill as the lead mercenary Marcus Penn. He’s mean, and cruel, and wonderfully dry – and amusingly if you squint a little he’s a dead ringer for United States Vice-President Mike Pence. He presents himself as a much more effective antagonist to Casey Ryback’s similarly calm demeanour, and the film is at its best when the two are facing off against one another.
Well. At its best except for when those mercenaries freak out about Casey Ryback. That scene gets me every time.