Under Siege 2: Dark Territory

(Geoff Murphy, USA, 1995)


Train movies are hard to beat. Think of the cat-and-mouse games between cops and criminals in either version of The Narrow Margin (1952 and 1990) or the perverse erotic games in Alain Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express (1966). Remember the teary platform encounters in many a Hollywood romance, or the comic mayhem in The Marx Brothers' Go West (1940).

The first two Die Hard movies (1988 & 1990) used a high-rise building and an airport as action locales, and many subsequent films have used the same, basic dynamics in shopping malls, aeroplanes or – as in the case with the first Under Siege (1992) – a ship. This sequel, directed with proficiency by New Zealander Geoff Murphy, benefits from a more classical approach. Like in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the train in this film is crawled on, jumped over and infiltrated from every possible angle.

Steven Seagal tends not to be the preferred action hero of most film critics, and on this point I concur with the orthodoxy. Seagal has all the acting expressivity of a plank of wood. This plot places him aboard a train carrying the latest in satellite weapons technology, and a mean team of crack terrorists. He has a good generic character name, at least: Casey Ryback.

Why does this film even bother with its token nod towards feminism? Early on, Casey's teenage niece Sarah (Katherine Heigl) tries out a few neat martial-arts moves on a porter who annoys her. One fully expects that, in the heat of the fray, Sarah will metamorphose into a dazzling heroine. No such luck – instead we get endless, ogling shots of her and another doll-like woman waiting submissively for salvation at Casey's hand.

Under Siege 2 is far more at ease with its male villains. There are two starkly different bad guys. Everett McGill plays a sadistic strong-arm man whose evil composure rarely falters. Eric Bogosian – yes, the performance artist who starred in Oliver Stone's Talk Radio (1988) – gives us a new spin on the mad-criminal-genius type. He's an information-superhighway wizard, controlling the world from his laptop. We saw many more of his type in subsequent action movies.

This film and Batman Forever (1995) make for a fascinating comparative case study in the ways and means of screen violence. Batman Forever is full of high-energy thrills and spills, but it is a virtually bloodless film. Under Siege 2, on the other hand, is positively sadistic in the gory treatment it metes out to the baddies – especially, one must note, a black, female assassin. Both films, however, display the not entirely happy influence of Hong Kong action cinema on new American movies.

As in the great films of John Woo or Tsui Hark, spectacular set-pieces become an almighty blur of falling bodies, ricocheting bullets and large, colliding objects. It is all very visceral and kinetic. But can anyone tell what is really happening half the time?

MORE Seagal: Executive Decision, The Glimmer Man

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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