Thursday, June 7, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Under Siege (1992)

One of the movies I'd wanted to see when I was a kid but wasn't allowed to was the original Under Siege, starring noted martial artist Steven Seagal. Like most movies I wasn't allowed to see I ended up losing interest in it, but thanks to the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and Amazon Instant Video, I had the chance to see it again.

Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

The U.S.S. Missouri, the venerable battleship that accepted the surrender of Imperial Japan in 1945 and was upgraded to fight in the Gulf War, has finally been retired. It's making one last cruise from Hawaii to San Francisco to be decommissioned. Aboard the ship is cook Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal), personally chosen by Captain Adams (Patrick O'Neal) but disliked by the cranky executive officer Commander Krill (Gary Busey).

Krill throws a surprise birthday party for Adams, led by apparent musician William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), but it turns out it's all a scheme to seize control of the ship and sell its Tomahawk missiles (including several tipped with nuclear weapons) to the highest bidder. With most of the crew killed or welded up in the ship's forecastle, it's up to Ryback and some unlikely allies to save the day.

The Good

*The movie is entertaining and moves along at a pretty brisk clip. It's never boring, which is the major reason one sees these movies. :) In TVTropes terms, there are several Crowning Moments of Awesome, including one involving the Missouri's main guns.

*Tommy Lee Jones does a good job as the brilliant but deranged Strannix. It reminds me a lot of his later performance of the manic Two-Face in Batman Forever. And as befitting someone with military command experience (he references attending the War College, which colonels and lieutenant colonels apply to enter) he avoids, as TVTropes puts it, the infamous Villain Ball. Instead of sending out individual goons to be killed, they're to patrol in groups, not pursue Ryback into unsecured areas, check in regularly, etc.

*There's the theme throughout the movie of political-hack superiors throwing fighting-men under the bus. Although one would like to think our military is immune to CYA and other such bullshit, that's not the case. Although I'm violating the Servo Rule about invoking good movies in one's crappy movie (okay "mediocre" is more accurate), the novel Once An Eagle (later adapted into a miniseries) features a slimy politically-savvy staff officer Courtney Massengale and the battle-tested Sam Damon who has to fix or take the fall for his screw-ups.

*The opening scene in which the executive officer is the hard-ass and the captain more mellow reflects something I remember reading about how a well-run Navy ship operates. The captain is supposed to be the "good cop" and the XO the "bad cop." The XO is also more involved in the day-to-day hands-on stuff than the captain is. Commander Krill getting on Ryback's case about his uniform reflects that.

*I'm pretty sure that's really President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush in the movie.

*The terrorists' scheme to get aboard the ship actually makes a lot of sense. After all, Cher filmed the music video for "If I Could Turn Back Time" on the USS Missouri when it was docked in California.

*There's a really creative henchman death involving an I-beam.

*A first-time killer (who starts out the film as a pacifist no less) reacts with all the emotional trauma one would expect when they have to kill a terrorist.

The Bad

*The amount of skill required to hijack a U.S. Navy battleship is the kind of thing Soviet special forces or some other high-end military force would have. The terrorists seem like a bunch of mercenaries initially recruited for a CIA black-ops scheme or even a multinational criminal gang (there's a Eurotrash-looking guy, a Japanese guy, what sound like some Italians, a British guy, etc) led by what seems like a disgruntled U.S. Special Forces officer rather than a coherent unit. The recruiting effort needed to collect the people with all the necessary skill-sets from different nations, armies, etc. would raise all kinds of red flags, especially given the villain's immediate back-story, and then there's getting so many different people to actually work together.

It would make more sense if the perpetrators were some Soviet military or KGB die-hards who know they're on the way out (if this is in the fall or winter of 1991 the coup against Gorbachev has already failed and the USSR is clearly doomed) and are looking to secure their retirement if not take revenge on the Yankee capitalists. They'd be a coherent unit trained and working together for years with espirit de corps rather than a bunch of mercs who might balk at something so extreme and dangerous as taking on the U.S. Navy and simply take the money or some other goodies and run at first sign of trouble or before they even go through the mission. Mercenaries have historically not been very reliable soldiers..

Of course, given how dangerous a company or even a platoon of Spetsnaz would be, it'd be a much different and probably much shorter movie if the baddie rank-and-file were professional soldiers and not thug and merc types.

*Steven Seagal is a capable fighter, but he's not a very good actor. His delivery isn't very strong most of the time. Since he's the lead actor, this kind of presents a problem. :(

*Ryback gives a gun to a character who's an incoherent and frightened mess and expects them to be able to use it intelligently after having a couple of the gun's functions explained to them. One would think a trained soldier would know better. Of course he promptly uses this person as an ammo mule, so maybe he only intended them to actually use the weapon as a last resort.

*Do any of the terrorists have grenades? If they had grenades to use themselves, or if Ryback managed to snag a couple off the terrorists he kills, a lot of those gunfight scenes would be very difficult. Given how Strannix is a black-ops type, I would imagine his people would be carrying a bit more than small arms just in case.

*At one point Ryback basically abandons a bunch of his allies to go gallivanting around with only one other character, never mind that the terrorists still have at least half their numbers.

*A major plot point involves Tomahawk missiles having self-destruct codes the captain of the ship can trigger. I'm pretty sure those don't actually exist in real life--if an enemy got hold of them, they could use them to prevent a ship from effectively using its weapons. It'd be better if they were still relying on targeting data from the Missouri's radars or satellite inputs and could be redirected using the ship's fire control, but even that would be a problem.

*There's a love-interest plot involving Ryback, but there's no foreshadowing of it or any depth to the relationship. Some kind of weird trauma-bonding perhaps? It'd be more interesting if they avoided it completely, since a lot of action films have a token romantic plot and this would be different.

The Verdict

Fun, but more than a little bit nonsensical. See it once. 7.5 out of 10.

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