Under Siege

Under Siege. Alcor Films 1992

Before watching the movie:

Though the log line is essentially “Die Hard on a battleship”, the Navy setting somehow gets me thinking more of Jack Ryan. Thanks to the movies, I think of Jack Ryan as a civilian CIA bureaucrat, but a moment’s research turned up that he’s ex-Marine. So maybe Seagal’s character here is closer to Jack Ryan than I thought, but I was more interested on my initial discovery that Seagal is serving as a cook than when I found out he’s an ex-SEAL. It takes away from the appeal of an underdog for me the more prepared that underdog is for the challenge they face in the movie.

The fact that the terrorists are led by a disgruntled CIA operative intrigues me. Most 90s bad guys are generic terrorists, but they’re usually Eastern European, maybe with a specific ex-Soviet flavor. The head terrorist being rogue CIA opens up a possibility of critiquing American policies rather than just wrapping the good guys in the Stars and Stripes and painting the bad guys as whatever the top enemy of the US government is at the time. Though since this probably required extensive cooperation with the US Department of Defense in order to be able to use the battleship setting, I doubt it would be all that forward thinking.

After watching the movie:

The battleship USS Missouri, after a tour of duty including being the site of the Japanese surrender in WWII, leaves Pearl Harbor on its way to be decommissioned in California, where it will be divested of all its armaments including several Tomahawk nuclear missiles. The XO, Cdr. Krill, has prepared a birthday party for the captain and orders all to attend, despite the galley staff led by head cook CPO Casey Ryback, a favorite of the captain, having a lot of work to do to prepare the meal, and when Ryback refuses Krill’s direct order to head to the mess hall, Krill has him locked in the meat refrigerator as the brig would require the captain’s authorization. While Ryback is locked in the refrigerator, the hired band and caterers suddenly reveal themselves to be a gang of terrorists led by ex-CIA operative Bill Strannix. They quickly take control of the ship, locking most of the crew in the forecastle and killing many others including the captain. When Ryback convinces the private that Krill assigned to guard him to call the bridge, Strannix sends men to kill both of them, but Ryback escapes. Now loose, Ryback encounters the forgotten cake girl Jordan “MissJuly89” Tate, who took too many seasickness meds and fell asleep, and now refuses to be left alone, but also objects to killing anyone. As the Missouri makes for a rendezvous with a stolen Korean submarine Strannix was supposed to have sunk for the CIA before said CIA attempted to terminate him as an uncontrollable asset, Krill and Strannix find Ryback’s file locked in the captain’s records, learning that Ryback isn’t just a cook, he was a SEAL busted down to CPO for assaulting his commanding officer after being the only survivor of an operation that failed due to bad intel.

Tommy Lee Jones does both straight-laced and manic roles, so it’s hard to anticipate what kind of character he’s going to be in any given work. In this one, he’s literally Looney Tunes. The more unhinged he gets, the more he throws out references to cartoon characters. While he’s ex-CIA, it’s pretty clear that the CIA always treated him as a volatile asset they thought was useful. He makes some kind of talk about sympathizing with the countercultural revolution and anarchy in the 1960s and wishing he could’ve been there to help it succeed, but it’s hard to reconcile his identification with them with his plans to just steal and sell weapons. He comes off as the movie trying to position “Hippies” as the nation’s great enemy, which only serves to make that message as out of date as he explicitly is. The CIA is also played cynically, and in the final confrontation, Ryback comments that the government they serve is an “ungrateful lunatic” that it’s pointless to resist, but the dribbles of anti-state sentiment don’t get as much focus as Strannix’s rockstar terrorist personality. At least he’s got more characterization than Krill, whose evil motivations are basically just “sadistic power tripper who loves forcing the crew to watch him cross dress”.

While Ryback may be a former SEAL with expert training in exactly what he needs to retake the ship, he’s got some allies that more closely align with the “underdogs who aren’t cut out for this” narrative. Ryback’s closest assistant is an actress and exotic dancer who eventually rises to the occasion. They free a handful of sailors including a gunner’s mate who is advanced in years and in pounds who proves key to turning the tide. Thanks to Ryback’s elite skills I never felt much tension, but I appreciated that the team he brings along with him isn’t necessarily the people one would choose for the scenario.

Altogether I wouldn’t consider this as philosophically “sophisticated” a movie as the director seems to think it is, but it’s fun, exciting, and an unusual combination of positions if not the most desirable. Die Hard or Air Force One are probably deservedly more popular, but this is a pretty solid recommendation for people looking for something similar.

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