I don’t think there would be many people who would argue that Steven Seagal has had an up-and-down career. He started out on fire with such movies as Above the Law, Hard to Kill, and Marked for Death, before eventually appearing in a series of films that went directly to home release. However, I would argue that despite his failings, Steven Seagal brought us a great character in Casey Ryback, the ex-Navy SEAL who spends his time presently as a cook. Both Under Siege movies that he stars in are, in my opinion, superb, but the question remains – which one is actually the best?
Under Siege (1992)
Story: The story for Under Siege is pretty solid. True, there are some cheesy moments, such as the inclusion of the Erika Eleniak character (who seems to morph from a defenseless girl with motion sickness to a badass killing villains in pretty short order), and the crew of the Missouri appears to be pretty useless and spend the majority of the film locked up, but I liked the plot of the two villains, and how they camouflaged what they’re doing behind Tommy Lee Jones’s ranting to the military. I liked how everyone just dismissed the Casey Ryback character as just a cook, and he slowly becomes more and more of a thorn in their side, and I liked how Ryback systematically takes out the villains, just always on the attack. I thought it was a pretty smart film, and while I’m sure a serious critic would probably poke holes in it, I don’t think it tries to be anything more than what it is.
Characters: Let’s start with Seagal. Yes, the man’s face doesn’t move, he doesn’t emote, and he uses the same damn tone of voice for all of his dialogue, that whispery growl of his. For other characters, you could argue it doesn’t work, but for Casey Ryback, it’s perfect – the man is a machine who doesn’t have time to show emotion because he needs to take care of business. Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Strannix, chewing the scenery effectively and ping-ponging between serious maniac and cartoon villain. Gary Busey brings more of the cartoon, but he’s offbeat enough that you’re not sure what he’s going to do next, which keeps things interesting. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of the Erika Eleniak character; I find her needless and don’t believe her character arc at all – but I admit that she’s great to look at.
Action: The action in Under Siege is decent. I found the whole taking of the boat was a lot quicker in the film than I remember, and there isn’t much carnage, other than a series of cuts of people getting shot – it seems the crew gives up the boat faster than they should. The best parts are Seagal running around just doing crazy things, killing guys in the dark, setting microwave bombs, using the knapsack bomb to attack the sub – good stuff. The best two parts, though, are them blowing up the submarine (great explosion) and his attack in the workshop where he finally shows off some of his martial arts moves (including one sick move where he drives a guy’s shoulder into a table saw). Oh yeah, and he drops a piece of girder into a guy, effectively skewering him through the floor – nice.
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)
Story: Conceptually, I found this movie to be better than it’s predecessor. The idea of using a train to control a satellite to blow up stuff and sell it’s use to a foreign power while effectively being cloaked from any attackers is genius. I also like why Ryback is even on the train – it is far-fetched that he would be in another situation like the first film, but adding the niece, who he’s not on good terms with, was a nice wrinkle. Overall, the story is just a little tighter than the first film, and you get a better idea of why everyone is where they are. You don’t have random rooms like the first movie where people just pop up out of nowhere to help Casey Ryback.
Characters: Seagal is back in the Ryback character, which he fits well, so that’s a positive. I really like Eric Bogosian as Dane – he fits the part of nerdy genius who is only brilliant at one thing but sucks at everything else well. I think that Everett McGill’s Penn is a great counter-balance for Bogosian – in the first film, Jones and Busey were a little too alike, where here, you have Dane, who is the brains, and Penn who is the brawn. You can sort of connect the two of them together better, which wasn’t the case with Jones and Busey. I really liked Morris Chestnut as the porter as well – here’s a character who you would think would be annoying, but he is an adequate companion for Ryback and holds his own when he needs to. The only character I didn’t care for is the niece, played by Katherine Heigl. She just appeared to not be there and had resting bitch face in overdrive, making her instantly unlikeable.
Action: This movie had some really great action set pieces. The taking of the train was more believable, as taking a vehicle with civilians with little resistance is easier to understand than taking a battleship packed with sailors. You get to see Ryback fight more in this one, and it’s not in the dark like parts of Under Siege were. You get some great scenes on top of the train. At one point, Ryback is off the train, fighting guys, and then has to do a spectacular chase in a truck to get back on. Guys get set on fire, you have an absolutely incredible train collision, with one of the villains losing his fingers as he falls down into a spectacular explosion. The fight between Seagal and McGill is evenly matched and well-choreographed. This movie, in terms of action, has it all.
While both movies have their merits, my vote is for part two as a better overall movie. The story is tighter, the concept is better, the villains are a better contrast and provide duo challenges to Ryback of brains and brawn. The action is better, they do more with the environment, and Seagal’s skills are more on display in Dark Territory. That being said, both movies are terrific in their own right and a perfect one-two punch on a chilly fall night.