R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Die Hard on a Boat

Back when I wrote my column on Die Hard around Christmas 2005, I not only talked about how awesome the movie was, but how it spawned almost a subgenre of imitators. Honestly, it’s tough to say why the trend didn’t start earlier. The formula of a bad ass stuck in a building or vehicle secretly foiling a terrorist’s plan is so simple, but somehow the storyline keeps working.

A host of Action stars have had their shot at it, such as Kurt Russell in Executive Decision (Die Hard on a Plane), Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 (More Die Hard on a Plane, Harrison Ford in Air Force One (President Die Hard on a Plane), Sylvester Stallone in cliff hanger (Die Hard on a Mountain), Jet Li in Meltdown (Die Hard as a Chinese remake) and really even Keanu Reeves in Speed (Die Hard on a Bus). Oddly enough, the most exemplary example of this type of movie comes from a man that has not necessarily been known for starring in exemplary movies. With Under Siege Steven Seagal had the most successful film of his career, both at the box office and, oddly enough, with critics too.

When it premiered in late 1992, Steven Seagal seemed almost on the cusp of real stardom. The pony-tailed martial artist had at least Akido’d his way to cult status at that point by kicking the crap out of scumbags in solid Action flicks suck as Hard to Kill and Out for Justice, but had never really found a vehicle that would put him among the ranks of Willis and Schwarzenegger. With Under Siege he nearly reached that status, earning the one film that could legitimately be called a “good” movie, much like Chuck Norris had with Delta Force.

Under Siege Starring Steven Seagal, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, and Erika Eleniak. Directed by Andrew Davis

Steven Seagal IS Casey Ryback, a U.S. Naval Officer aboard the U.S.S. Missouri as it is decommissioned after its last mission. Now normally, you would expect a Steven Seagal character to be a bad ass Executive Officer or maybe even the Captain of the ship, but instead he’s apparently just the ship’s cook. A cook you say? How can this be? This is Steven Seagal. He’s supposed to be the captain of a special task force of ass kickers like he was in Out for Justice and Above the Law! Nope, he’s just a cook here. Instead of busting skulls, he’s busy making delicious soups for the ship’s Captain.

But before you think this will be the most bad ass cinematic adaptation of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations ever, the U.S.S. Missouri is infiltrated by terrorists, with its ship’s crew help hostage, and it’s nuclear payload in the hands of madmen. The only hope for the Missouri, and the potential targets of these terrorist ends up being Ryback. Now if you’ve ever even seen the trailer for this film or watched any Seagal film at all, you know that not only is he not just the cook on this boat, it turns out he’s an ungodly vicious killing machine. In the prototypical Seagal Reveal, where the villain finally learns our heroes true past, Ryback ends up the most deadly Navy Seal ever, who just happened to get busted down to a cook for insubordination.

Now unlike Chuck Norris’ role in Delta Force, in which I prefer his role in Lone Wolf McQuade, Casey Ryback is the ultimate Steven Seagal character. Even free of his pony-tail, Seagal’s character is everything we need from one of his cinematic alter egos. First, he has utter contempt for his superior officers, this goes especially for Ensign Taylor (24’s Glenn Morshower) and Commander Krill (the completely insane Gary Busey). We’re given awesome confrontations with these characters, including scenes in which Seagal (gasp) shows some real comic timing and wit. By putting him in a cook’s hat at the beginning of the flick, Seagal even gives us a rare moment when we’re allowed to really laugh at him as well, adding a certain charm to this character.

Now we’ve talked just how bad ass Ryback is, but it’s not as awesome as watching Seagal do his thing. Ryback makes bombs using microwaves, takes out bad guys with kitchen knives and looks awesome as he’s blowing away bad guys in shootouts. We’re also given the requisite bone breaking by Seagal, and while the scenes may not be the epic beat downs like the one in the pool hall in Out for Justice, Under Siege has its share of brutal slayings at the hands of our hero. My favorite is in a scene where a bunch of thugs are in what appears to be a machine shop, where they are building a rail that will haul out the nuclear missile on board the ship. The scene is quick, but bloody, as Ryback uses fists, knives, and in one case a table saw to make quick work of these scummy underlings.

Seagal really does look his best here, probably helped by the confidence of being in the hands of a good director, as Andrew Davis does some of his most excellent work at orchestrating mayhem in this movie. While few would argue this is Davis’ finest movie since The Fugitive is on his resume, a movie that earn several Academy Award Nominations and also garnered Davis a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Director, Under Siege is another solid effort from the man that brought us A Perfect Murder, Above the Law, Code of Silence and Collateral Damage.

Davis just seems to be able to make what should be a ridiculous situation seem a little more plausible, not quite stretching your suspension of disbelief to its limits. By putting Seagal in sequences where he is able to take down heavies, but not in totally ridiculous fashion, it lends more credibility to the entire film. As well, Davis knows when to pump up the pace of the action, not bogging it down with speeches or comedic segments. Just like he did for Norris, Schwarzenegger, and most importantly Harrison Ford, Davis wants heroes we can kind of identify with, not just give us an unstoppable force that overwhelms the bad guys.

Where Davis does know to cut loose with his films is in his villains, and here we get two of the craziest he has ever put on screen. Restraint isn’t in on the menu of the day when two of the screen’s top psycho’s are in rare form. First up is Gary Busey as Commander Krill, who pulls in perhaps his most villainous role after his turn as Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon. All subtlety is pretty much left in the dust, as Busey batsh!t crazy through most of the film, allowing him to rave, spit, and dress like a woman while killing innocent Navy personnel.

Even better though is Tommy Lee Jones, who it’s possible plays crazy better than anyone else. Not counting Batman Forever, which should be forgotten by as many people as possible, Jones is excellent at going from 120 mph to absolute zero, giving him an inner menace that most raving villains aren’t anywhere near able to achieve. Here, as the terrorist group leader, William Stranix, Jones is able to convincingly pull off both evil genius and frenzied madman, walking enough of a fine line to make both seem very plausible.

The villainous duo seems to be having a ton of fun while causing all this destruction. There must be something very liberating about getting to play over the top, and then having another actor constantly trying to up the ante. Busey and Jones play off each other very well and together make a formidable team to try and take down Seagal’s hero. I especially like the scene where it’s revealed that Krill has orchestrated this siege and Busey character is still in drag, but looks like he feels perfectly natural in the situation. They even get one of their most priceless moments

Commander Krill: Do I look like I need a psychological evaluation?
William Strannix: Not at all.

Even Erika Eleniak’s Jordan Tate, an exotic dancer that gets stuck on the ship and ends up Ryback’s comedy sidekick, isn’t too bad here. She isn’t given enough screen time to really ruin the movie, and the time she is on screen she’s quite alluring so everything works out. Also, it’s funny that when she’s introduced they talk about her being Playboy’s Miss July ’89, which was actually the time when she was Playmate of the month.

Another surprising aspect of just how quality Under Siege, is its budget. These days a $35 million Action movie would almost seem laughable, but Davis gives this film a look that is twice that budget. Utilizing the U.S.S. Alabama, which was actually a ship that had already been decommissioned and was being used as a museum, Davis was able to stage all his explosion action at a low cost. Take this compared the $50 million disaster that is On Deadly Ground and it’s even more ridiculous. With more and more blockbusters closing in on costing $300 million dollars to make, it’s refreshing to see a quality Action picture on this kind of budget.

It’s not often you hear that a Steven Seagal movie is the best at anything, but Under Siege seems to be the exception. The crown jewel of Seagal’s career is a terrific example of the Die Hard formula and a fun action movie on its own right. It’s too bad that it was pretty much downhill for the star from this point, and some bad career moves basically ended his shot at being the next big action star as soon as Under Siege began it.

Picture Credits: seagal.mirrorz.com, impawards.com