Saturday, February 22, 2014

Instant Action: Under Siege (1992)

I wore this videotape out as a young'un!

Written By: J.F. Lawton
Directed By: Andrew Davis

Steven Seagal is an interesting bird, especially in Under Siege as Casey Ryback. He's an anti-hero, but not in the traditional sense of the word. He's not anti-establishment, but he loves to cause trouble for those in and out of the establishment. Ryback is a trained killer, but he'd rather cook than kill. His fighting style leaves a lot to be desired as far as visual appeal is concerned. He appears to have no interest whatsoever in women, until the final moment of the film that is. He's not really heroic, he's more workmanlike than anything else. Ryback is a man doing his job, a job he believes only he is capable of doing. Then of course there is his seeming invulnerability, a trait that easily separates this character from most other characters Mr. Seagal has played.

I'll be honest right off the bat, I wore out a VHS copy of Under Siege as a kid. I can't tell you how many times I watched the movie as a whole, or the birthday cake scene in particular, but I know that one day I went to watch the tape and it had completely unspooled. Revisiting the film it's hard to put into words exactly what it is about Under Siege that I find so appealing. I recognize that it is a film with glaring flaws, but the entire package that is the movie overcomes all of those flaws. I'm sure there is a tinge of nostalgia to my continued love of Under Siege, but I do truly believe there's a pretty great action movie taking place.

Under Siege came out at a time when the obvious comparison for any action movie was to Die Hard. Mr. Seagal's film was labeled Die Hard on a boat. I can see the reason for that label, but I don't find that it completely fits. The invulnerability and aloofness of Ryback's character is the main reason the Die Hard comparison falls flat for me. John McClane is the everyman, a guy we believe we could share a beer with, and who we believe could die at any moment. Casey Ryback is a killing machine, one who we can't relate to on any sort of buddy level. The film tries to set him up as somewhat of a normal guy early on, but as soon as the killing starts it becomes clear that Ryback is as far removed from normal as a hero can get. His lack of vulnerability is at first a problem, but as the film progresses it becomes more of a film about how Ryback will win the day than whether or not he will win the day. Under Siege takes the opposite approach of Die Hard, it presents a hero who is extremely skilled, never in any real danger, and who mows down the enemy with relative ease while never quite seeming human.

The action in Under Siege is hard to quantify, it's awkward and nowhere near the type of action I usually prefer, yet it works. The knife fight between Ryback and Stranix is anticlimactic and doesn't really play well as a visually dynamic exercise in action filmmaking. There's no real tension to the scene, and there's never any doubt that Ryback will prevail. All of this should add up to a poorly constructed scene that lets the viewer down. That's not the case however as Andrew Davis goes so much with the fact that his main character is invulnerable that the scene is able to establish a different action dynamic. It's more important to watch Ryback prevail than it is for us to fear whether or not he will come out of the encounter alive. That scene informs much of what has come before and allows the clunky and almost visually unappealing action of the rest of the film to be seen in a better and far more kind light.

The world of Under Siege is also populated by a host of colorful supporting characters. We don't learn much of anything about said characters, but that doesn't stop Stranix or Krill from being very interesting to watch. We don't learn anything about the character of Colm Meaney's Doumer, but I'll be damned if I didn't find the lack of definition given to his character immensely interesting. In a way that describes Under Siege as a whole. It's not a completely formed film in a traditional action filmmaking sense. Yet, what happens during the film is interesting and manages to be an engaging experience in spite of the flaws contained within the film. Steven Seagal is not among my favorite action stars, but Under Siege is a great example of how he can deliver a borderline great action film because of his eccentric persona. Maybe my thoughts are clouded by foggy VHS dreams, but I still find Under Siege to be an eminently watchable action film.



Bill Thompson

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