Steven Seagal’s particular brand of action cinema was responsible for minting a good amount of action fans out of kids who grew up in video stores during the '90s. Seagal wasn't some hulking superhuman, able to physically intimidate fools with his very presence, a la Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nor did he perform freakish acrobatics like Jean-Claude Van Damme. Even in his prime, Seagal was always kind of funny looking -- a little chubby, with that black ponytail bouncing behind him whenever he’d kick up into a funny, effeminate dash. Instead, Seagal was quick with his hands, able to disarm men with a snap of the wrist (that usually resulted in a bad guy getting his broke). He wasn’t quite an everyman, but he certainly thought he could blend in at your corner dive, donning a number of funny accents, depending on which ethnicity he adopted for each motion picture.
There was also this bizarre mix of disreputable danger, along with the ambitious yearning for legitimacy that permeated every frame of Seagal’s earliest pictures. Above the Law (’88) found this breaker of numerous bones transforming himself into former Special Ops mastermind Nico Costani, who became a Chicago cop in the wake of his ‘Nam service and uncovered CIA tomfoolery in the Windy City. Exploitation royalty Pam Grier and Henry Silva respectively played Nico’s partner and chief adversary, and Seagal (who also produced and co-wrote the story for Above the Law) reportedly had a hand in every fight sequence and chose each weapon that was used on screen. He staged a battle with his own Aikido students to prove to executives at Warner Bros. that he was fit to fight on screen, and taught everyone on set how to hold their guns and blades in a “professional” manner. Seagal was a control freak before he was a star, lending the man of violence an air of pompous sincerity as well as a legendary rep for being “difficult”.
Hard to Kill (’90) was an odd melodrama masquerading as an action picture (mostly due to WB demanding the movie be cut down to ninety minutes) with then-wife Kelly LeBrock and director Bruce Malmuth (Nighthawks [‘81]). Marked For Death (’90) is arguably the scummiest early Seagal work, pitting the zen martial arts master against a psychotic Jamaican drug posse. Directed by Dwight Little (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers [‘88]), Marked is the closest Seagal came to making an out and out horror movie, as the bloodthirsty dealers practice a syncretic religion (Obeah) that’s similar to Vodou and Santeria, while Little (whom Seagal recommended because he was a huge fan of his slasher) slathers the movie’s numerous conflicts in thick crimson. Out for Justice (’91) was directed by exploitation workman John Flynn (The Outfit [‘73], Rolling Thunder [‘77]), as Seagal’s Brooklyn bad boy takes on a savage mafia strongman (the relentlessly wacky William Forsythe). These movies were all relatively low budget affairs, leaning hard on their genre trappings to become quick sells for fans for bullet, bone and blood fiestas.
Under Siege (’92) was a departure for Seagal, as it seemed like he was making something resembling a retreat from the pure genre ghetto. Re-teaming with Andrew Davis (who’d co-written and helmed Above the Law), this post-Gulf War/Bush Era riff on Die Hard (’88) cost more than all three of his previous films combined, and possessed a polish that placed it a notch above the star's standard street level action. Instead of combating thugs looking to push drugs and violence in an urban territory, Seagal became the John McClane stand-in, while still retaining the “undercover badass” persona that made the rest of his movies such a blast. In Under Siege, instead of being a cop who used to be Special Forces, he’s a cook with a dangerous military background, running the kitchen on the USS Missouri, an American battleship best remembered as the site of surrender for the Japanese Empire, concluding the Second World War. Only now the ship's about to be hijacked by a band of New American Freedom Fighters – ex-radicals led by a flamboyant Black Ops maniac (a truly unhinged Tommy Lee Jones) looking to settle a score with the country who tried to have him permanently decommissioned.
With its soaring helicopter shots over the Pacific Ocean, approaching the floating war vessel that hosts almost all of the film’s action, Under Siege instantly feels much bigger than any previous Seagal movie. But once we’re on board the boat, getting to know the crew and chef Casey Ryback (Seagal), it becomes clear that we’re still dealing with a cut to the bone rendition of action filmmaking (how else can one explain a movie that introduces a character played by Bernie Casey, only to never feature him again?). The plot mechanics kick in from the very first scene, as Ryback reports to his Captain (Patrick O’Neal) and is instantly side-eyed by XO Commander Krill (Gary Busey). Anyone who’s seen a single motion picture where terrorists invade anywhere knows that Krill is in on whatever nefarious schemes are about to be hatched, because he’s desperately trying to get Ryback and the rest of the galley men to attend the surprise birthday party they’re putting together (which includes Miss July ’88 [Erika Eleniak] getting flown in to jump out of a cake). Whatever’s going down is happening at the gala, and we’re just as suspicious of these huffy authority figures as this deadly, bodacious bouillabaisse artist. Being a good solider, Ryback reports to his station and continues to cook his food, not one to be deterred by any order that doesn’t come directly from his Captain. Yet he's quickly locked in a meat freezer following a confrontation with Krill and his men, rendering him helpless as the coup is executed.
It should be stated that the action in Under Siege really isn't that great ("servicable" is the word that first springs to mind). After Ryback breaks out of his beef-lined prison, each moment of hand-to-hand combat is filled with quick cuts to stunt doubles' paws. The shoot outs are rather bloodless and, outside of a skull crush, one impaling, and a butcher's knife through the dome during the movie's climactic fight, there's really not a whole lot of brutality to write home about. Though the movies had gotten bigger, Seagal had ostensibly gotten lazier. For a movie that acts as a better showcase for the fighter's lethal skills, Flynn's Out For Justice is peerless; full of high, wide angles where its clear Seagal is the one kicking ass and taking limbs in those Brooklyn bodegas.
What makes up for this lack of eye-catching carnage are the characters, as Jones' CIA wild man is a barking, stressed cartoon, desperately negotiating with the Pentagon and threatening to unload the ship's nuclear arsenal at Honolulu. He's Hans Gruber, only instead of a tailored suit, he's in stone washed jeans, a tye-died tee, and a bedazzled leather jacket that would make Rainer Fassbinder blush. His hired thugs are basically Nakatomi Lite stereotypes, except for Busey, who really sinks his teeth into being a heavy, cross dressing as a diversion and continuously flashing his oversized chompers. So, while the fisticuffs leave a bit to be desired, its worth it to watch these colorful character actors go completely HAM.
There's also a post-Gulf War subtext regarding the demilitarization of the United States' Armed Forces that's intriguing, if possibly wholly inadvertent. Jones' terrorist is donning the iconography of Flower Power and using it in service of a rather nefarious terrorist scheme: to amass a private nuclear army in the military's stead. To what end (beyond simple revenge) is unclear, but the fact that Jones -- former Harvard roommate of incoming environmentalist Vice President Al Gore and regular player in Oliver Stone's universe -- is the one performing this part adds a meta-textual element that's never less than fascinating. It's as if Under Siege is commenting on the disarmament of our military following Operation Desert Storm; a rogue infiltrating monster wearing the sheepskin of peace. Strange stuff for a Seagal picture.
Though Under Siege is often viewed as Seagal's first "real movie", it might also be the last time he made one that was truly any good. With the film's acceptance and box office success came a reinforcement of its star's control freak nature, and an elevation of his vain sense of self (just read John Leguizamo's comments about being attacked on the set of Executive Decision ['96] for a great example of this). Seagal would spend the next half of the '90s churning out movies that were barely watchable, before committing himself to gimmicks (such as teaming with various rappers) during the early aughts. By '03, Seagal became a stalwart of the DTV market, his star tarnished and unrecognizable beyond the shelves of your local Blockbuster. Sure, there are jewels scattered amidst that low budget wasteland, but they're all nothing more than reminders that his brand could be refit for blockbuster cinema, once upon a time.