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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Just when it seemed safe to go to the summer cinema, Steven Seagal is back, this time in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, a megabudget sequel that's literally on rails from beginning to end. Narratively speaking, though, it never pulls out of the station. Unlike in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series -- whose trappings the Under Siege franchise cynically combines -- there isn't a spark of wit or human interest in sight.
The first Under Siege was about a humble Navy cook named Casey Ryback (Seagal), who, unbeknownst to the terrorist who'd taken over his admiral's battleship, was a supercompetent, viciously violent ex-SEAL. It was basically a glitzy B-movie rip-off -- Die Hard on a boat. But the gifted Andrew Davis -- who went on to direct The Fugitive -- made it feel fresh. His action scenes were a model of brutal economy. Best of all, he let cavorting supervillains Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey set the picture's tone, and their antics pushed the picture into the realm of action slapstick. It was all in fun.
Fun is definitely in short supply in Under Siege 2, which pits Ryback, who's riding a luxury train between Denver and Los Angeles with his niece, against a team of mercenaries led by a crazed military techie (Eric Bogosian) and a stone-faced soldier of fortune (Everett McGill). They've seized control of an orbital death ray, set up the train as their undetectable moving headquarters and are planning to blackmail the Pentagon to the tune of a billion dollars.
As expected, the picture is one long paid advertisement for Steven Seagal, Professional Badass. There isn't a single frame containing this actor that doesn't feel custom-tooled to convince us that he's the strongest, smartest, fastest, toughest hombre on the planet Earth.
There are plenty of things to despise about Seagal: the laughable lies he tells to journalists about his supposed top-secret work for the CIA; his smug arrogance; his single, implacable, Buddha-like facial expression, which amounts to utter vacuousness passed off as Zen supercool; and his complete lack of anything resembling acting ability or personality. But the least savory part of the package is his obvious insecurity. This guy is so terrified of not being taken seriously as an action icon that he won't allow anybody pitted against him on-screen to lay a finger on him. And as if that weren't enough to establish his studliness, each new Seagal project must contain at least one scene in which a knowledgeable bad guy goes on and on and on about how dangerous he is.
Since Seagal probably isn't smart enough to have figured this out on his own, I'll go ahead and break the news: the first Under Siege was a success in spite of him. It used Seagal as a running joke -- a beefy, scowling sight gag. Director Davis kept him off-screen for nearly two-thirds of the movie's running time, and contrasted his humorless supercompetence with the delightful pettiness of the bad guys. Like James Bond baddies, Jones and Busey reveled in their monstrousness; they got a tremendous, sick charge from getting away with implausible atrocities.
That's why the idea of Seagal routinely thwarting their every move was so amusing. These two very human villains were a pair of Wile E. Coyotes being humiliated by a lard-assed, karate-chopping Road Runner. This time around, unfortunately, the joke isn't on Seagal anymore: it's on us. The film spends an inordinate amount of screen time building up our hero as the ultimate fighting machine -- a cross between Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee, Oliver North and TV's McGyver. "Do you have any idea who we're dealing with here?" asks the apprehensive McGill, a sandblasted warrior who looks like he could probably bend Seagal over his knee and paddle his gelatinous butt in real life. This is the kind of movie where the hero gets on the radio at the end and announces to his superiors that he just saved the day, and a roomful of people bursts into sustained applause. If you won't cheer Seagal, he'll cheer himself.
The film's much-publicized, state-of-the-art digital compositing technology is only intermittently successful. Sometimes special-effects supervisor Richard Yuricich seamlessly merges sets and miniatures and moving backgrounds so that you can't tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins, but other times the results look like the filmmakers borrowed a used rear-projector from the producers of The Love Boat.
Even cheesier is director Geoff Murphy's attempt to hype his star through photographic and editing tricks. He shoots the fight scenes very close up, using a telephoto lens to blur Seagal's movements and make them look more mysterious. And unless my eye deceived me, it looks like he also snipped out frames of film every now and then to artificially speed up key punches, kicks and flips. That's a trick I haven't seen employed since The Lone Ranger.
It's all for naught, though, because no matter what life-threatening situations Ryback gets himself into, he always looks utterly disinterested. And Seagal, who keeps getting slower and fatter and more pompous with each new movie, is too unconvincing as a silent-but-deadly death dealer to distract us through sheer violence.
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