Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
This is something of an addendum to last week’s entry on Under Siege. After last week’s review went live, several readers suggested Under Siege 2: Dark Territory is the real cheesy movie. And make no mistake, it is a laughably bad film. But I’ve decided to highlight it alongside Under Siege as its illustrates how both good and bad movies can be cheesy. In these cases, both are flawed action pictures trading on the success of Die Hard, but one is clearly is more the enjoyable sort of cheesy we tend to focus on around here while the other is … well, let’s just quote the great film critic Crow T. Robot and say Under Siege 2 has “certain flaws.”
The plot sees Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) finally retired from the Navy and making his way as a restaurateur in Denver, Colorado. The cognoscenti in town like his cooking and, like Rocky Balboa, presumably enjoy the stories Ryback tells when he’s in the front-of-house. But that really doesn’t matter as Ryback is on his way to meet his niece Sarah (Katherine Heigel) at the train station. The two are headed to Los Angeles, where Ryback’s brother is being laid to rest. He died in a plane crash and Ryback felt it would be better to take the train.
Okay, more needless backstory: Ryback and his brother stopped speaking five years prior to his death. It also meant whatever relationship Sarah had with Ryback also evaporated. The film tries to make this a thing, but quickly dispels it because people come to Under Siege movies to see Seagal hurt terrorists.
This time around, the terror group is led by Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian), a disgruntled ex-government contractor who devised the control software for a super-secret orbital particle beam cannon. Dane’s plan: use the train Ryback’s on to obscure his hijacking of the satellite and sell the opportunity to destroy Washington D.C. (and most of the Eastern Seaboard) to any rogue state or organization willing to give him $1,000,000,000. Aiding him in this goal is Marcus Penn (Everett McGill), a mercenary with a hand picked team of specialists. They quickly take control of the train and Dane proves he’s serious by using the beam cannon to set off an earthquake in China. Ryback, of course, evades detection and beings working out ways to foil the terrorists — and rescue a captured Sarah — with the help of a porter named Bobby Zachs (Morris Chestnut).
And if it feels like the wind is out of the Under Siege sails, that’s part of the charm. Under Siege 2 is devoid of the manic energy which propeled the first film. This may be down to the lack of Andrew Davis at the helm or it may be the interference of producer Steven Seagal. Now elevated to a key position of control, Seagal reportedly made script changes on the fly and directed Chestnut in many of their scenes together. Director Geoff Murphy — a New Zealander who came to the States to make movies like Young Guns II and Freejack before returning to home to shoot second unit on The Lord of the Rings — said the experience of making Under Siege 2 was “dreary” with arguments hampering the mood on set.
It is definitely something you can see on screen with Seagal shot almost entirely in close-up and rarely sharing the frame with anyone. It give you the impression he shot his scenes in a quick two weeks and forced Murphy to film the rest with his stunt double. And as we’re assuming the arguments revolved around Seagal’s vision for the film, it is clear to see this took its toll on the rest of the production. But even if Seagal’s ego was not running rampant, the film has an undeniably lesser feel to it.
For one thing, Eric Bogosian is a far less interesting villain than Tommy Lee Jones. That’s not to say his performance isn’t captivating. It is — just for all the wrong reasons. Unlike the frantic mania Jones brought to Under Siege, Bogosian seems vaguely aware he’s supposed to be crazy. At all times, you can tell he’s thinking about something he actually wants to be doing instead of playing a hacker villain in a cut-rate Die Hard rip-off. It’s magically bad.
Seagal’s vision also robs the movie of what it should be; which is either a movie about Ryback and Sarah bonding by getting out of scrapes together or a movie about Ryback teaching Bobby how to be a stone cold killer. I’d take either one. I’d take a version where Sarah becomes a stone cold killer instead of working through her grief. But because Ryback must be the only heroic presence in the film, Sarah and Bobby are more props than anything else. Watching Chestnut and Heigl go through the motions makes Erika Eleniak’s character in the first film seem more rendered and developed. Most of Heigl’s lines amount to “it’s okay, my uncle will save me” while Chestnut is often made to look like a clown.
The only actor to really survive this well is McGill as Penn. A precise merc with a talent for hostage situations, he begins to become unglued the moment he learns Ryback is on the train. And by the time he and Ryback have their knife fight, he is unhinged. It may be a more controlled mania than Jones, but it almost works. He feels like a worthy opponent for Seagal at the very least.
Murphy claims he found the film’s energy in the editing room. I’m inclined to disagree with him. The quick cuts and juxtapositions give it a forced sort of tension that feels more baffling than thrilling. Like the first film, Under Siege 2 likes to cut to a government office far from the action where returning characters Admiral Bates (Andy Romano) — now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Captain Garza (Dale Dye), and CIA Director Tom Breaker (Nick Mancuso) monitor the situation and stand around helpless. But this time around, their inclusion really feels like a pointless cut-away; particularly as it nears the end and their attempts to destroy beam cannon have failed. Nonetheless, they become part of the film’s habit to quickly cut between rising moments of tension in an attempt to make every feel more immediate. This is the “energy” Murphy claimed to have found and it just looks like jumbled mess more often than not.
Nonetheless, the sense of apathy and defeat permeating Under Siege 2: Dark Territory gives it a nice, cheesy rind. It may not be as fun as the first film — which manages to be both cheesy and highly entertaining in a legitimate sense — but it still offers something for people who might want to goof on its action film cliches or Seagal’s ego overtaking the production. Is it cheesier than the first Under Siege? Oh, heavens no. That film has a conviction behind it people can appreciate for both its legit merits and cheesiness. But both films make for an interesting double feature and a lesson in how star power can turn a good thing into something kinda stinky.
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory is available for rent on the usual digital platforms.