Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The sequel to blatant Die Hard knockoff Olympus Has Fallen hits theaters Friday, so let’s look back on some other Die Hard knockoffs, all of them much better than Olympus Has Fallen.
In 1992, former martial arts instructor Steven Seagal was on track to be another Chuck Norris, spending his career grinding out simplistic, violent, modestly budgeted action pictures with interchangeable titles like Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Marked For Death, and Out For Justice. Then Seagal starred in Under Siege, and for one brief moment, he looked like an A-lister. Under Siege was no less formulaic than what had come before. The film’s “one capable rogue against a cadre of armed thugs” plot is, like so many other 1990s movies, an unapologetic Die Hard rip-off. But J.F. Lawton’s script, Andrew Davis’ direction, and—most importantly—the casting are all prime examples of how to bring some panache to the generic, and make leftovers tastier.
Some of what makes Under Siege so consistently entertaining a quarter-century later is inadvertent. There’s a “very much of its time” quality woven into the plot, in ways that even Lawton couldn’t have anticipated. The movie opens with then-President George H.W. Bush presiding over a battleship’s decommissioning (and not cable news clips of the ceremony either, but actual film footage), and then proceeds to tell a story that feels like the last hurrah of the Reagan/Bush era. Set not long after Operation Desert Storm, Under Siege depicts the winding-down of America’s international military presence, and the actions of two angry hawks—an anarchic ex-CIA operative played by Tommy Lee Jones and an arrogant naval officer played by Gary Busey—who decide to take advantage of the new “softness” by hijacking the retiring U.S.S. Missouri and stealing its Tomahawk missiles.
Jones and Busey compete with each other to see who can gobble up the most scenery, which contrasts well with Seagal, who does his usual steely shtick. As a rebellious former Navy SEAL turned “pain-in-the-ass cook,” Seagal’s Casey Ryback doesn’t say a whole lot, and instead slips stealthily though the ship, sabotaging bad guys and freeing other sailors. Davis and Lawton find a tone that acknowledges the ridiculousness of making a super-capable chef into the hero, while still indulging in all the amped-up, jargon-heavy standoffs that the genre demands. Under Siege is sincere, but not overly serious.
Davis followed Under Siege with The Fugitive—again with Jones in a colorful supporting role, which won him an Oscar. After that, he settled into a fairly undistinguished career, helming forgettable action-adventure pictures like Chain Reaction, Collateral Damage, and The Guardian. Seagal, meanwhile, took advantage of his new clout to direct and star in the laughably self-important eco-thriller On Deadly Ground, which effectively marked the beginning of the end of his stint as a major Hollywood player. With Bush losing the presidency to Bill Clinton a month after Under Siege came out, American culture as a whole in the 1990s headed off in a different direction. All of that makes this movie today seem almost elegiac. Every time Jones and Seagal crack smiles as their characters match wits, they look like two veteran athletes, enjoying one last game.
Availability: Under Siege is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.