In his fifth outing into the genre that made him a star, Steven Seagal reteams with Andrew Davis, the helmer responsible for his film debut. Warners has the right stuff with Under Siege, a slick, old-fashioned formulaic entertainment. Seagal's longtime fans and genre's buffs should enjoy the taut actioner, set entirely on board a battleship, resulting in sustained business at the box-office. High production values, especially photography and sound, overflow in such abundance that Warners is guaranteed a major hit in a season that lacks competition from similar fare.
Seagal is cast as Casey Ryback, a cook on the USS Missouri, the Navy's largest and most powerful battleship, now reaching the end of a long line of service that began in WWII and concluded with the Gulf War. But en route to decommission, what was meant to be a quite and calm journey, turns out to be volatile and dangerous when two corrupt psychopaths, both top military experts, hijack the ship and steal its nuclear arsenal.
Scripter J.F. Lawton, who penned the successful romantic comedy Pretty Woman, cleverly structures his suspenseful actioner around the three lead characters, all played by accomplished actors. Seagal's rebellious cook is actually a decorated Navy Seal, a combat operative who has seen action in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Panama. But Seagal's true identity is known only to his benevolent commander (Patrick O'Neal) of 20 years, who has arranged a kitchen job for him to complete his tour of duty.
Seagal is contrasted with the lethal and hot-tempered William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), a former covert CIA operative, and Commander Krill (Gary Busey), a frustrated officer. Motivated by revenge, both men feel they have “good reasons” to execute their diabolic plot. A fourth character, an attractive actress (Erika Eleniak) hired to perform at the farewell party, is thrown into the all-male adventure; she later functions as Seagal's resourceful mate and quasi-romantic interest.
The broader political context of Under Siege is so superfluous and external to the core action that it becomes something of a set decoration. Indeed, what's missing from the film is an alert intelligence, a sense of contemporary immediacy that would charge the story with greater excitement.
The fun of such predictable item consists of watching exhilarating action set-pieces which the film has plenty of. Moreover, in between battles, blasts, and explosions, scripter Lawton has shrewdly placed funny one-liners, delivered by Seagal in his customary cool, tongue-in-cheek style. Smart dialogue, brisk pacing, and enjoyable acting ultimately save the film from banality.
Scoring another height after his excellent, Oscar-nominated role in JFK, Tommy Lee Jones forcefully portrays a deranged villain; he looks great in a black leather jacket and sun glasses. In a smaller, though no less flashy, part, Gary Busey also renders an excessive performance, though one that enlivens the otherwise simplistic narrative.
Under Siege stays completely within the conventions of the action genre, lacking any thematic turns or twists. And unfortunately, the anticipated climax, a man-to man fight between Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones, is not only long in coming but also too brief and disappointingly staged.
Davis's quick, by-the-numbers style, and Frank Holgate's inventive lensing of the battleship's interior and exterior scenes add to the plot's necessary suspense. Bill Kenney's production design is so deftly done it sweeps viewers right into the battleship's inner, claustrophobic world. Special kudos should also go to editor Robert A. Ferretti and his crew, for enhancing the thrills with imaginative cutting, and to Gary Chang's bouncy score.