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‘Under Siege’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 09, 1992

For "Under Siege," Steven Seagal has undergone a radical change: Gone is the pert little ponytail in evidence since his 1988 debut in "Above the Law." In the new film, Seagal portrays a sailor man who appears to be a meek chef but turns out to be a heroic Popeye, so off came the ponytail. A few pounds should have followed.

An entertaining splasher film, "Under Siege" pits Casey Ryback (Seagal) against psycho terrorists Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) and Krill (Gary Busey). Their battleground is a battleship, the USS Missouri, about to be decommissioned after a visit from President Bush (real news footage). Bush barely gets off the grand tub before terrorists overwhelm the skeleton crew under the guise of a surprise birthday party for its soon-to-be-late captain (Patrick O'Neal).

The bad guys operate with a clockwork efficiency familiar to fans of the "Die Hard" movies, with which "Under Siege" shares many elements. But the terrorists somehow overlook Ryback, a major mistake when it turns out he's a much-decorated SEAL with tours of Vietnam, Panama and the Middle East on his resume (seems there was a moral contretemps on the last stop and Ryback's quietly finishing his 20-year tour in the galley).

Forced into action, Ryback soon reverts to form, beginning with a cook-off for several bad guys, before moving on to further dispatches with the help of a motley crew of survivors including Miss July 1989 (Erika Eleniak), who jumps out of a birthday cake (causing a major case of naval gazing). The only other female role in the film belongs to Busey, who has a good time camping it up in drag in a diversionary move early in the takeover.

As with most action films, viewers guessing the ending won't disappoint themselves, though the setting is certainly different from the usual urban decay of Seagal dramas. Everything is played out on the Missouri, which is actually the cleverly reconstructed USS Alabama. Would that such cleverness had been applied to the script, which has holes big enough to drive a submarine through.

For instance, the terrorists turn out to be the gang that shouldn't shoot straight, a good thing since they're working with Tomahawk missiles, several of them nuclear-tipped. In general (or is that admiral?), they also seem incredibly clumsy, blind and stupid, and if there weren't so many of them, "Under Siege" would be over a lot sooner than it is. It's to director Andrew Davis's credit that he's got his ship together.

Seagal is his usual cool, efficient self, Busey his familiar neurotically edgy self. It's Jones who walks away with the best lines and the most vivid performance as an unrepentant '60s radical and renegade CIA killer whose cannons have been loose on the deck for a long time. Jones's demise after a kung fu knife fight that's the modern equivalent of the classic sword fight provides a rush, but much of "Under Siege" feels like off-coasting in familiar waters.

"Under Siege" contains violence, explicit language and nudity.

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