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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Under Siege' Delivers Laughs, Thrills

October 09, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Under Siege" (citywide) is a gleaming high-tech thriller that takes its simple hook--"Die Hard" on a battleship--and keeps pouring on blood and glitz, trying to blast you out of your seat. The hero, martial arts star Steven Seagal, is so steely and robust, he looks like he could kill with his eyebrows. And the heavies, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey, are a pair of wild clowns who crack jokes between massacres. (So does Seagal.) Everything about the movie is overscaled, overbrutal, overbroad, full of holes. Yet there's something cheerful and wacky about it; it's a light-hearted blood bath.

As in almost all techno-thrillers, the premise is certifiably absurd. We're on the last mid-Pacific voyage of the U. S. S. Missouri (played by the U. S. S. Alabama, in Mobile harbor), when Busey, as cross-dressing Cmdr. Krill, and Jones, as Strannix, an over-the-edge ex-C.I.A. adventurer masquerading as a rock star, take over the ship, butchering or imprisoning captain and crew and preparing to sell off its Tomahawk missiles to the highest bidder.

Against them is one man: Seagal, as Casey Ryback, an insubordinate cook. While Krill and Strannix carouse and kill, Ryback, a decorated hero busted for assaulting his officer, races around, talking by radio with nervous admirals and generals in the Pentagon's Crisis Action Center, and picking up a ragtag bunch of allies--including Erika Eleniak, the little girl Elliot kisses in "E.T.," now playing Playboy's 1989 Miss July, somehow trapped aboard.

If all that sounds crazy, the usual cockamamie techno-thriller nonsense, director Andrew Davis and writer J. F. Lawton have one huge advantage over novelist Tom Clancy and his clones. They know it's crazy. They make no attempt to hide it or wrap it up in "patriotic" homilies and acres of technological babble. They just crank the lunacy up full-throttle.

Lawton's "Pretty Woman" and "Mistress" are offbeat credits, and "Under Siege" goes for laughs as much as thrills. When Busey shows up in drag during a party scene, his hefty flanks bursting a garter belt, he practically moons the audience. And Jones makes his wacko CIA man into a real turn: strutting around in black leather and eagle studs, flailing away at imaginary Jimi Hendrix riffs, and lamenting that he spent so much time at Annapolis and Langley that he missed the '60s. "You're a real maniac!" Jones' Strannix laughs approvingly when Busey's Krill announces he's going to drown the whole crew to smoke out Ryback; it's obvious they're two of a kill-crazy kind.

Against this outrageous pair, Seagal plays his humor lower-key, like an insult comedian with a black belt. Seagal's first three movies were shallow, mediocre one-against-a-bunch thrillers, but he came into his own in "Out For Justice," where he had a very funny scene of in-your-face barroom machismo. Now Davis, who has the distinction of making the best Chuck Norris vehicle ("Code of Silence"), has made perhaps the best Seagal vehicle too, an odd accomplishment for someone who started out on "Medium Cool."

Beautifully lit and shot by Frank Tidy ("Code of Silence" and Ridley Scott's "The Duellists"), "Under Siege" is a sort of brutal, jocular money-machine. But, beyond the pointlessly overgruesome payoff fights and murders, it may have made a commercial miscalculation. Early on, George Bush shows up on the Missouri, and, despite the relative conservatism of action movie crowds, this triggered a fusillade of boos and hisses that almost shook the theater at the advance screening.

But, of course, you shouldn't believe everything, or anything, you see in techno-thrillers. "Under Siege" (MPAA rated R for language and violence), with its "Das Boot" acrobatics and rib-nudging mayhem, is only a movie.

'Under Siege'

Steven Seagal: Casey Ryback

Tommy Lee Jones: William Strannix

Gary Busey: Commander Krill

Erika Eleniak: Jordan Tate

A Warner Brothers presentation of an Arnon Milchan production, in Association with Regency Enterprises, Le Studio Canal + and Alcor Films. Director Andrew Davis. Screenplay by J.F. Lawton. Producers Arnon Milchan, Steven Seagal, Steven Reuther. Executive producers Gary Goldstein, Lawton. Cinematographer Frank Tidy. Editors Robert A. Ferretti, Dennis Virkler, Don Brochu, Dov Hoenig. Costumes Richard Bruno. Music Gary Chang. Production design Bill Kenney. Art director Bill Hiney. Set designer Al Manzer. Set decorator Rick Gentz. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (Violence, language, partial nudity).

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