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Looking Back: Under Siege (1992)

I could almost always tell if a movie was going to be a hit, depending on how long the line around the Maui Theater in Kahului was. The long-running, single-screen theater, which closed in 1996, used to house some of the biggest blockbusters of the day. On opening weekend, it was easy to tell that, for example, “Batman,” “Apollo 13” and “Lethal Weapon 3” were going to be big, as the lines wrapped around the theater, often with many patrons sitting through an entire sold out screening just to get to the next showing. Although I sat in a massive line waiting to see Tim Burton’s first Dark Knight adventure and recall standing with scores of Trekkies waiting to see “Star Trek Generations,” I’m not sure I ever saw a line in front of that theater as long as the one for “Under Siege.”

Maui movie buffs have always had a soft spot for action movies and Steven Seagal, in his prime, was one of the biggest names in the genre. The former martial arts instructor, who was discovered by a former student and CAA mega-agent Mike Ovitz, was suddenly thrust into movie stardom after his out-of-nowhere debut, “Above The Law” (1988). Then came “Hard to Kill” and “Marked For Death” (both in 1990), both pretty-good, if somewhat interchangeable (though, it should be noted, the latter has the distinction of featuring killer Jamaicans).

Seagal’s bone-crunching, bullet-riddled vengeance flicks were inexpensive, as they only showcased one special effect: the star. After decades of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson (as well as vintage Bruce Lee), it was refreshing to see the soft-spoken, pony-tailed, black-clad Seagal, who was fast, intimidating and quite menacing, even when he was playing the good guy (or, I should note, especially when he was playing the good guy!).

Director Andrew Davis’ “Under Siege” cost more than any two prior Seagal films combined, was filmed by “The Duellists” cinematographer Frank Tidy and co-starred both Tommy Lee Jones (a year before his Oscar/box office breakthrough in “The Fugitive”) and Gary Busey (back when he was an Oscar-nominated scene stealer in big action movies) as the villains. At that point, Seagal’s chief box office competitor, the up-and-coming Jean-Claude Van-Damme (who would get his own big ticket crossover hit with “Timecop” two years later) could only dream of being in a movie with this much prestige. Seagal went from “Good Guys Wear Black”-level filmmaking to a Bruce Willis-caliber of ultra-slick action movie craftsmanship.

Jones stars as Strannix, a flamboyant madman who, along with the disgraced Commander Krill (Busey), takes over the battleship Missouri with the intention to, for starters, “make Honolulu glow in the dark.” The one thing they didn’t count on: Ryback the cook, played by Seagal with just slightly less arrogance than usual.

From start to finish, “Under Siege” is playing by the “Die Hard” handbook: There’s a naysayer who doubts Ryback can be counted on (standing in for Paul Gleason’s character). There’s also the party that plays as a diversion for a takeover. Ryback even blows up a helicopter then jumps off a ledge as the burning wreck drops past him (nowhere near as cool as the Nakatomi explosion but still impressive).

According to one count, Seagal is only in 41 minutes of this nearly two-hour film. That sounds about right, as most of the running time is broken up between Jones/Busey villain duty, tense Situation Room negotiations, exterior ship footage and lots of explosions.

An unfortunate touch is the inclusion of “Baywatch” actress Erika Eleniak as Jordan, a Playboy model/actress who is hired to dance during the party. The role begins with Eleniak being objectified in every way possible, progresses to her being turned into Seagal’s gun toting sidekick, then, after all she does for him, back to being a boy toy. The needle on my Blatant Sexism Meter breaks when Seagal plants a non-consensual kiss on her at the very end. If adding Eleniak was intended to provide a Bonnie Bedelia equivalent for Seagal, they shouldn’t have bothered.

Despite how purely formulaic this all is, “Under Siege” is still fun, though it wears out its welcome near the end. Truthfully, “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” is actually a better movie and does a better job of reconfiguring the “Die Hard” formula (out goes Eleniak, in comes Katherine Heigl, quite good as Seagal’s daughter). Yet, Jones and Busey (now there’s a great name for a couple of movie cops!) own this movie and Davis (who would leap frog into the big leagues himself a year later with Jones in “The Fugitive”) knows how to stage exciting action.

To date, “Under Siege” is Seagal’s biggest hit, most critically acclaimed and was even a multiple Oscar nominee(!). It’s not my favorite Seagal movie, though, and I’ll give you one reason why: his best have three words in the title. This one should have been called “Out To Sea”. Or “Sink That Ship.” Or, the best one I’ve got,  “Kiss The Cook”.

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