In the banter of Hollywood, it was easy to dismiss Steven Seagal's current hit "Under Siege" even before it opened. Cynics called it " 'Die Hard' on a boat."
The allusion was to the action hits starring Bruce Willis that have been notable for their spectacular effects and explosions on land. But in "Under Siege," the action is transferred to a Navy battleship carrying nuclear weapons that comes under attack by a group of American terrorists.
The results have been explosive at the box office since the film opened 11 days ago. The Warner Bros.-distributed picture already has amassed $30.3 million in ticket sales and appears to be benefiting from strong word-of-mouth.
For Seagal, "Under Siege" seems destined to become his biggest hit in five years of making lucrative action movies. At the rate it is selling tickets, the film is poised to surpass his biggest-grossing hit, "Hard to Kill," which did $47.4 million in its initial theatrical run in 1990.
During the weekend, the former ponytailed actor (he cut his ponytail off to play a Navy cook in "Under Siege" but is growing it back) was hiking and fishing on the Northern California coast. "I take the Zen philosophy about the success of the movie," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm very grateful. I don't wallow in joy."
In one of the more unusual movie success stories, the lean, 6-foot-4 actor came to the attention of Hollywood as a martial arts instructor. He got his biggest boost from one of his pupils, Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency.
Seagal said he had turned down making "Under Siege" numerous times and kept giving Warner Bros. and producer Arnon Milchan other scripts "and they kept turning them down. Finally, I said: 'So I get it. You guys want to make "Under Siege." ' "
Seagal said his resistance to the film initially had to do with the role of a character "who is at first a bimbo jumping out of a cake and gets paired up with me." But he said that in revisions of the script, which is credited to J. F. Lawton, the role played by Erika Eleniak became a character "who gradually reveals her intelligence."
Seagal credited "human moments" and humor in the script as the reasons for its popularity, and he called it "an adventure, not an action movie."
He said human-oriented scripts are the direction he wants to take his career, with films that will not be regarded as "schlock action." His next film, "A Man of Honor," is a more serious drama about the Mafia, which he wrote, will star in and will direct for 20th Century Fox.
"Under Siege" director Andrew Davis says the appeal of the film is in its sense of humor, which he said Seagal's previous movies haven't had. He also credited the film's two villains, played by Tommy Lee Jones (whom he had previously directed in the film "The Package") and Gary Busey.
"Most people are surprised that the film is as sophisticated as it is," Davis said. "It appeals to people who have a point of view about nuclear weapons, and the story thrusts you into an incredible situation that is not far-fetched."
The success of "Under Siege" has brought more smiles to the nation's theater exhibitors and the film industry, which have experienced a much better-than-usual autumn in terms of grosses. Such films as "The Last of the Mohicans" ($43 million to date), "The Mighty Ducks" ($21.6 million) and "Sneakers" ($41.6 million) have helped push the box-office pace ahead of the same period a year ago, according to John Krier of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks theatrical grosses. The successes has been enough to offset such recent box-office disappointments as the star-powered "Hero" and the Columbus drama "1492: Conquest of Paradise."
"When a movie does this kind of business in two weeks, you know it's reaching all segments of the audience in all regions," Krier said.
Catching up with the film over the weekend, reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their TV show acknowledged that more than 6 million people had already seen it by the time their "two thumbs up" critiques hit the air. But the pair said those 6 million must be happy moviegoers. "It's one of the best times you're going to have at a movie this year," Siskel said.
That kind of endorsement, plus a lack of major new competition, is likely to keep "Under Siege" at the top this weekend. Its biggest challenge will come from "Night and the City," which stars Robert De Niro. It opened in one New York City theater last weekend and grossed a substantial $43,000; it opens Friday in wide release.
Three major releases opened during the past weekend, but none hit big. The horror-genre "Candyman" sold a so-so $5.4 million in tickets, while the thriller "Consenting Adults" registered a modest $5 million. "The Public Eye," starring Joe Pesci, did a slim $1.1 million.