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Dawn Dabell examines Under Siege (1992) starring Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones, for this week’s instalment of The Axis Of Action.

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Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) in his kitchen

Steven Seagal is one of those actors who people view like Marmite… you either love him or hate him. In some cases, his name associated with a film acts as a warning for non-fans to stay away: what they are about to view will not be ground-breaking, will not be realistic, and will not stray far from formula. But for others, Seagal’s name above the title promises fun and enjoyment ahead. People in this camp know they are in for some fantastic action sequences, witty one-liners and a fair bit of skilled knife-throwing! Under Siege (1992) is, for me, the best of Seagal’s action movies.
Ex-SEAL Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) now works as a cook aboard the American battleship Missouri. After an altercation with Commander Krill (Gary Busey), Ryback is locked in the freezer to cool off. Later that evening, a gang of mercenaries led by William Stranix (Tommy Lee Jones) seize control of the ship. They come aboard posing as a rock band, supposedly putting on a surprise gig for the Captain (whose birthday it is). Apart from Jordan Tate (Erica Eleniak) – whose job is to pop out of a giant birthday cake and… erm… ‘surprise’ the Captain – the other members of the boarding party are actually bad guys with sinister ulterior motives of their own.

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Krill (Gary Busey) ordering Private Nash to guard Ryback.

As all hell breaks loose and the ship (and its on-board arsenal of weapons) falls into enemy hands, the only person who can save the day is head-chef Ryback.
Seagal is… well… Seagal in this movie! Anyone who has watched any of his previous films will know exactly what to expect from his performance here. It’s not misleading to say that he comes across basically the same in practically every role he plays. His characters are usually softly-spoken but quite lethal… whatever you do, don’t be fooled by the mild-mannered-ness! Once this guy gets a bee in his bonnet, whoever is responsible for upsetting him will end up on the receiving end of his wrath! Seagal delivers a number of witty lines throughout Under Siege, including “You’re in the Navy, remember? It’s not a job, it’s an adventure!” whilst persuading a member of the crew to help him take down the bad guys.
Tommy-Lee Jones is superb as the head of the team of terrorists. He flips from crackpot one minute to menacing and commandeering the next. He shows why he’s such a well-regarded actor by fans and critics alike. Gary Busey is magnificently intimidating as Krill, a member of the crew in cahoots with the bad guys. One of his best scenes sees himdressing up as a woman and dancing around for the ‘pleasure’ of the crew members. This has to be seen to be believed but it does encourage some laugh-out-loud moments and puts you off-guard for what happens next. The critics praised both Busey and Jones for their portrayals of the villains; Roger Ebert declared “The villains are superb, vile and deliriously insane”.

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Krill (Gary Busey) just found out his superior thought he had issues. Nothing to do with the dress, of course…

Almost all the cast members are wonderful… but unfortunately the inclusion of Erika Eleniak as Jordan Tate, “Miss July 1989” – a woman brought on board the vessel to shake her breasts for the crew – isn’t a high point of the film. Eleniak was famous at the time for playing Shauni in the hit US show Baywatch and was obviously considered a familiar face, leading lady material even. She also appeared in the magazine Playboy so obviously had the attributes to appeal to a male audience. Seagal has admitted in the past that it was his idea to include a stripper in the film, mainly to lessen the tension and provide some humour. Her performance is somewhat annoying and, whenever she is on-screen, it’s a challenge to sit through. Viewers who are interested in such things will be pleased to hear we are rewarded with a few shots of her breasts during at one point in the movie.

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Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) battles the terrorists as any decent chef would… with a knife!

Director Andrew Davis reunites with Seagal having previously worked with him on Above The Law (1988) aka Nico, which was Seagal’s feature film debut. Both Davis and Seagal were credited as the writers on that production. In Under Siege, Davis does a fine job of crafting a decent action film with plenty of amusing moments to make the film a pleasure to sit through.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the film received a number of award nominations; at the Academy Awards is was nominated for two Oscars: ‘Best Sound’ and ‘Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing’. Under Siege also received a further nomination at the MTV Movie Awards for Best Action Sequence. As well as these nominations, the film also won a number of awards at other ceremonies. At the BMI Film & TV Awards, it took home the BMI Film Music Award and the film also walked away with two Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing – Sound Effects and Best Sound Editing – Sound Effects And Foley in a Feature Film. Not a bad haul for a standard action film starring Steven Seagal!

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Theatrical poster for Under Siege (1992)

In 1995 a sequel was released, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, which sees Ryback being awarded custody of his niece. The pair embark on a train journey but, unfortunately for the two, it is taken over by terrorists and Ryback is once again called upon to save the day. The sequel, although not as enjoyable as the original, still delivers bags of action along the way. We shall mention no more of the sequel here as it’s day will come in a future Axis Of Action article!
Under Siege may not be the best action film out there, it may not even make the top twenty… but it is a hugely entertaining Seagal entry. A friend of mine stated the other day “this is Seagal’s Citizen Kane”; take from that what you will. Well worth a watch to see what Seagal’s films can be like when he gets it right.


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