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
Okay, Under Siege is the top grossing movie of 1992. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up and it holds a 77% score on the Tomatometer. But make no mistake, Under Siege is a cheesy movie. It just happens to be a higher quality one thanks to The Fugitive director Andrew Davis and a gaggle of fun actors. It also happens to be the most high profile example of a knock-off film genre we haven’t discussed before: the Die Hard rip-off.
That film, directed by disgraced filmmaker John McTiernan and starring Bruce Willis, refocused action pictures after a decade of would-be Star Wars and Conan rips. Sure, it takes its cues from the earlier cop movie trend — its plot is based on a sequel novel to a book which was itself adapted into the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective — but by making Willis the unprepared, yet witty John McClane, it gave the actioner an everyman protagonist without any particular special skills to accomplish his task. The film’s various qualities also made it the perfect way to pitch your own project in under ten seconds: “it’s Die Hard on a boat” or “it’s Die Hard in a theme park.”
We may talk about that latter pitch someday, but I can’t decide if that film is cheesy or just plain bad.
The former pitch, however, would become writer J.F. Lawton’s “Dreadnaught,” a spec script he sold to Warner Bros. Pictures. The studio was keen to get recently minted action star Steven Seagal to star in the picture. Re-teaming with his Above the Law director, the pair massaged Lawton’s script into something meant more for Seagal than anyone else. Which, as we’ll see, helped the cheese mature.
The plot concerns Chief Petty Officer Casey Ryback (Seagal), the personal chef of the U.S.S. Missouri‘s commanding officer, Captain Adams (Patrick O’Neal). But as it turns out, Ryback knows about a lot more than bouillabaisse. Prior to a failed operation in Panama, he was a Navy Seal with expertise in hand-to-hand combat, explosives, weapons, and other useful skills. When that operation went south, he blamed his commanding officer for using bad CIA intel. Ryback was stripped of his rank, but Adams took him on as a cook so he could finish his twenty years of service and get full retirement benefits.
We’re going to break from our usual plot summary format here because these details about Ryback matter. As a cook, he seemingly has the same sort of everyman appeal of John McClane, but because Seagal is a raging narcissist, he requires his scripts to make that everyman into one with exceptional skills and a CIA background. Y’know, because every joe off the street has worked for The Company. This requirement changes the perception of the film thanks to age and the things we now know about Seagal in his personal life. It also breaks a key detail of the Die Hard format. The Die Hard series itself would do this when the star’s ego got the better of him. Sadly, it never led to a true cheesy Die Hard.
Back in the plot, the Missouri is on its final cruise to San Francisco, where it will be decommissioned and stripped of its eight nuclear Tomahawk missiles. And that makes it a nice, ripe target for ex-CIA specialist Bill Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones). Trained to co-opt officers on enemy Naval vessels, he manages to convince the Missouri‘s executive officer, Commander Krill (Gary Busey), to help him commandeer the ship, relieve it of its nuclear armament, and sell the missiles to the highest bidder. The operation involves a surprise retirement party for the captain and a chopper from Honolulu containing a band, Playboy Playmate Jordan Tate (Erika Eleniak), and caterers. The party sure seems fun for the crew assembled on the mess deck, but it soon turns into a hostage situation with the majority of the crew placed in the forecastle. The band and the caterers? They’re all members of Strannix’s special ops team. Tate is drugged and left to sleep off the op in a stripper cake.
The plan seemingly goes off without of hitch (even the captain’s death is part of the plan), but Krill forgets about one thing: he locked Ryback in a meat locker just before the chopper arrived. Ryback makes his way out, kills a lot of fools, and manages to completely unravel Strannix’s plan before knifing him and putting him through a radar console.
Now if this sounds like a way-too involved plot for a movie where Seagal hurts people, that’s part of the charm. It also reveals the scripts origins as a Die Hard knock off. It’s meant to be more high-minded and serious than it is. Scenes in a Naval command center far from the action suggest a tense spy thriller. Then we cut back to Seagal bobbing in the water so he can put a few explosives onto a submarine Strannix stole from North Korea. The film should maintain the seriousness of Die Hard, but Davis seems happy to let the movie contain a manic, almost silly energy more akin to a Hong Kong actioner of the era or an Andy Sidaris film.
And that’s actually a good thing. Part of the film’s success in the wake of Die Hard is that difference in energy. That film has its funny moments, sure, but they work in service of the more serious action set pieces and the overall dilemma. In Under Siege, the dilemma is de-fanged from the jump because of Seagal’s screen persona. Its funny moments, more often than not, come from the staging of the action scenes, the often baffling cuts to Seagal’s deathblows, and Davis allowing his actors to disregard any sort of tonal consistency for their characters. It would almost seem unintentional (a key component of cinematic cheese) if not for the fact that Davis directed one of the best thrillers of all time as his follow-up to this. He’s a good damned director, so he must want Jones to act like a lunatic throughout the film.
Which brings us to the performances. Tommy Lee Jones offers what might be his best and worst performance ever. It feels like he had to take this job for some reason, but decided to have maximum fun with it. He and Busey constantly crack each other up and it feels more unexpected and improvised than it should. Their choices, though, at least make the villains a lot of fun to watch. They’re so unhinged and over-the-top that they make perfect foils for Seagal’s more “sedate” style.
I suppose one thing you can say for Seagal is that he is still trying here. I mean, he’s not really trying to create a character with Ryback, but he is trying to make his persona feel consistent once the action begins. Nonetheless, his persona is one of the reasons the film has such a fun, cheesy quality to it. Ryback might be invincible, but it’s still fun to watch him take down Strannix’s goons.
The rest of the cast do their best with limited screentime. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Colm Meaney appears as Strannix’s assistant and it is a thrill to watch him keep up with Jones’s mania. Eleniak, meanwhile, has little more to do than take her top off in one scene and follow Seagal around. The poorly built role should be no surprise — even if Seagal claims he asked the part to be rewritten to make her less of a “bimbo” — but Eleniak at least tries to make her more of a human being. I hope she got hazard pay for having to kiss Seagal near the film’s conclusion.
The film also features short appearances by Bernie Casey, Raymond Cruz and Troy Evans. You might not know their names, but you’ll recognize them from plenty of other films and TV shows. Sadly, they do little else but support Seagal and cheerfully accept his orders.
But really, that’s what people wanted out of a Seagal picture at the time. They wanted this highly accomplished, but seemingly humble man of action to action the hell out of any and all nearby bad guys until they explode in a fireball of catharsis. And Under Siege definitely pulls that off. But unlike Die Hard, the deficiencies become more apparent with the passage of time and the manic energy starts to feel, well, cheesy. Growing up with Under Siege, you may not have perceived that, but give it another go and I think you’ll see it has matured into a fine wheel of cheese.
Under Siege is available for rent on the usual streaming services.