I hear some people quibbling, Why "Under Siege"? Why use valuable HD-DVD disc space on a 1992 Steven Seagal action flick? Well, for one thing, it's Steven Seagal's best film. Not good enough, I see. OK, how about the movie looks and sounds pretty good in high definition? Still not good enough, eh? Hmmm, how about the fact that since we already got the silly comedies "Caddy Shack" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" on HD-DVD, why not a silly action thriller to balance things out?
Say what you will about "Under Siege," it holds its place among the better silly action thrillers of the past couple of decades. Made just a few years after Bruce Willis's "Die Hard," which pretty much set the standard for future action thrillers, "Under Siege" is short on logic or believability but high on adrenaline. If you're into movies where the superhero kicks ass every step of the way, this one fills its promise and then some. What's more, it does so with good humor and a whole lot of old-fashioned, R-rated bloodshed, a combination most males, at least, seem to find hard to resist.
Seagal made "Under Siege" before his films started going straight to video and while we could still see his belt line. Be that as it may, the man remains popular, thanks to films like this one. Come to think of it, "Under Siege" is not unlike most other Seagal movies, except that its script by J.F. Lawton, who, surprisingly, also wrote "Pretty Woman," and its direction by Andrew Davis, who would shortly take a step up with "The Fugitive," are more inventive and more fast-paced than most other Seagal adventures. In this one, in case you've never seen it, Seagal plays a Navy cook who saves not only a battleship from destruction but the state of Hawaii. All in a day's work.
Seagal is Chief Petty Officer Casey Ryback, a former Navy SEAL, now serving duty aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, the famous warship on whose deck the Japanese signed their surrender at the end of World War II. Now, the Navy is decommissioning the old ship, and it's on one of its final voyages. But a group of baddies has other ideas for it.
A large, totally nutso group of miscreant terrorists led by a rogue CIA agent, Bad Bill Stannix (Tommy Lee Jones), a disgruntled Naval officer, Commander Krill (Gary Busey), and a henchman named Daumer (Colm Meaney) take over the ship en route in order to steal nuclear missiles aboard and sell them to the highest bidder. Now, taking over a battleship is not an easy task. These guys have to be very devious and their gang very well armed. We learn these and other details early on, in the first fifteen minutes, in fact, so I'm not giving anything away.
They use the cover of the ship's Captain's birthday party to get a few dozen or so of their men aboard the vessel disguised as musicians, along with a ditzy, blonde "Playboy" model, Jordan Tate (Erika Eleniak, who was apparently a real "Playmate of the Month" for July, 1989). Fortunately for our side, Ryback is locked in a frozen-food locker at the time (don't ask), so the hijackers overlook him. Too bad for the hijackers.
Seagal gets down to business about thirty minutes into the story when he removes his cook's uniform. From then on, it's him against them. And the "them" number over thirty men. Now, just how this many men, including the ship's Executive Officer, could slip on board the ship without arousing suspicion, and do so armed to the gills, is one of those things best left unquestioned.
All of the action takes place aboard the ship in the vessel's maze of corridors. In this regard, it mimics both "Die Hard" and "Alien." There are lots of nooks and crannies for Ryback to hide in. Unlike Willis's character, though, Ryback is invincible. He might as well be Superman, which tends to lessen the tension quite a bit.
Jordan, the Playmate, is an airhead who insists upon tagging along with Ryback. She's never touched a gun before and never known violence, but within minutes of being with the Chief, she turns into Elektra. The film reveals her real reasons for being in the picture when (1) she steps out of a birthday cake in her birthday suit, and when (2) the audience figures out that unless Ryback has somebody to tell his plans to, we wouldn't know what the heck was going on.
A couple of lines made me laugh. Reading a report on his conduct as an officer aboard the ship, Busey's character asks, "Do I look like I need a psychological evaluation?" He's dressed in a clown suit for the party, and he has just shot the captain. Later, when the good guys and the bad guys are shooting it out, Jordan gets a cell-phone call from Washington: "This is Admiral Bates. I'm trying to get ahold of Chief Ryback. Is he about?" Jordan responds, "He's in a gunfight right now I'm going to have to take a message."
Seagal kicks, punches, knifes, throttles, shoots, blows up, and band saws to death most every heavy in sight and Jones and Busey play their parts so over-the-top they could reach the moon. "Under Siege" doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's got excitement galore.
The movie's original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio fills out a 1.78:1 widescreen TV quite well, and its 1080 lines of resolution do the rest. Of course, no amount of high definition is going to make a picture look better than its master print, which in this case seems only so-so. However, the image shows up very bright and reasonably clear, with a good deal of sharp detail. Grain is a minor issue in a few scenes, like longer outdoor shots and shadowy indoor shots, and faces can appear a bit too dark at times. Otherwise, transfer noise is at a minimum, and the video come off nicely for a film with few really spectacular visual effects.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio conveys a wide stereo spread across the front channels, and it places a small but select amount of information into the surrounds. Music thunders from all the speakers, and ambient noises occasionally seep in, too. There is no doubt the sound is too forward and edgy for its own good, but we may have to attribute that more to the typical movie sound of the '80s and '90s than to any defect in the audio format. What the DD+ does well is to communicate a quick transient response and a huge sonic impact. For example, the inevitable helicopter flyby, a standard requirement of any action movie, makes an impressive appearance, and the ship\\'s big guns going off will have you reaching for the volume control.
This disc must set a record in terms of extras for a Warner Bros. HD-DVD release. It has practically none. Basically, you get a widescreen theatrical trailer and little more. There are twenty-nine scene selections, but no chapter insert and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As usual, WB do provide an indicator of elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case. Nothing more. I doubt that the whole affair took up more space than half of one the HD-DVD's disc layers.
If you're looking for common sense, wit, or sophistication, you've come to the wrong place. "Under Siege" is all about rousing action, mixed with a healthy dose of clever one-liners. The hero is unflappable, the villains are nefarious, and the battleship setting couldn't be more appropriate for combat. "Under Siege" is a good, dumb, mindless thriller, done up in equally good HD-DVD picture and sound. I'm not sure the wife or girlfriend would approve, but for the man of the house, it's above-average beer-and-pretzels material.