On the First Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
Tedium on a Train
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
Last year I ripped on Under Siege because, let's face it, that movie is awful. It's a big, blustery, macho film centered around one of the last charismatic, least impressive action stars the 1990s ever shat out. It takes the concept of Die Hard and skates past its lousy writing and underdone story by slapping on a ton of "rah rah America!" patriotism. It couldn't be more crass and capitalistic about his "American soldiers are the true heroes" if it had come out in the wake of 9/11 (instead of 1992). So, of course, it made a crap ton of money.
Steven Segal had a string of relative hits throughout the early 1990s. Every single one was basically the same movie -- Chunk Buttsteak, who embodies some American hero like a cop, or a firefighter, or eight different shades of soldier, ends up taking on terrorists of some kind of another, while sweeping music plays across every half-assed action sequence he performs -- and they all made solid money, well enough anyway for another photocopied film to come out. To it's credit, Under Siege 2 isn't the exact same story as the previous movie, but it's also not at all far off from every other Segal movie ever made. Swap in a train for any other set piece from one of his other movies, and give him a niece to save instead of the bog-standard love interest, and you have this by-the-number sequel.
In Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Segal returns as Lieutenant Casey Ryback, the godly former Navy SEAL who is talked about in hushed tones by just about everyone in the entirety of this movie. Before this movie starts, Ryback's brother, and the brother's wife, died in a plane crash, leaving their daughter, Sarah (Katherine Heigl, in one of her first big roles), an orphan. Casey becomes her sole guardian, and he meets her at a train station for a cross country trip so he can take her home L.A. so they can attend the brother's funeral. Of course, wouldn't you know it, the train the Rybacks are traveling on get hijacked by terrorists because these kinds of heroes are only ever five minutes away from having to thwart yet another terrorist attack.
The bad guy this time is Travis Dane (Eric Bogosian), a psychotic computer programmer who used to work for the government. Thought dead after an apparent suicide, Dane has resurfaced so he can take over a secret Navy satellite that has the power to cause earthquakes and destroy basically anything. But FROM SPACE! To avoid detection they take over the train, taking all the passengers hostage. But, of course, Ryback sees it coming, secrets himself on the train, and, with the help of helpful porter Bobby Zachs (Morris Chestnut), Ryback wages a one-man war against Dane and his army of commandos.
Let's be clear: Steven Segal is easily the worst part of this movie. I understand that, at least at one point, he was a martial arts master. Maybe that's true (although recent videos of him doing martial arts have been tragic at best) but the fact is that whatever skill he has in his chosen field does not translate well to the screen. Either he moves too quickly and the fight is over before it begins, or he takes his time doing this goofy looking "pose" that's more like him waving his hands around like he's not quite sure what to do with them. It might be effective in real combat but it looks ridiculous in an action film.
It doesn't help that, when not doing his goofy action, Segal is little more than an animate slab of meat. He has a supremely limited emotional rage, varying from stoic to slightly constipated and more stoic. We get nothing from him when it comes to whether he likes his niece or not, he doesn't seem to really care about anyone else on the train, and even killing the mercenaries just feels like a rote matter of course for him. This is Segal going through the motions, and it's at the height of his career (and not sad and flabby latter day Segal that no one bothers to watch anymore) so clearly this was how he felt he should act in his movies.
There are great stars in this film, they just aren't in the lead slot. Bogosian's terrorist, Dane, is easily the best part of this film. The actor commits so fully to his wild-eyed psycho that he comes out the other end and becomes the single most charismatic actor in the film. If there were anyone for him to play off of, a solid second heavy in his Eurotrash crew, or a better lead hero to play as his foil, Dane could have gone down as one of the all time great 1990s action villains, held up with the likes of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber. Instead he's saddled with this sad film that no one cares about.
Heigl is also pretty great here. Although she ended up getting a rep in Hollywood for being a bit of a prima donna, there's a reason she was able to get to that level to begin with: she has actual acting talent. Sure, the film squanders her on the standard Die Hard style plot line: estranged family member that hates the hero right up until terrorists show up, and then suddenly she loves him because he's a hero. Still, given what she has, Heigl exudes actual chemistry.
The real issue with Under Siege 2 is that it's so rote and paint-by-numbers that you can see every plot point coming a mile away. Hell, if you laid it over top of the first Die Hard, you could even see each and every plot point line up just about perfectly. It's such a clone of a clone that you can practically see the photocopier streaks on the celluloid. This is the least surprising action film I've ever seen, leaving me with nothing to get invested in (especially because the hero is such a void).
I can also see why this film did so much worse than the previous one (which was itself just a copy of a copy). Where the previous film relied heavily on its Navy setting, getting a lot of "rah rah" enthusiasm to sell its material, this film strips most of that away. Yes, the military still plays a part, but it's no where near as ecstatic about our boys in uniform, and the story doesn't have any of that patriotism the first film managed. While I think this actually makes the film a little better (there no blind faith jingoism here), the lack of a solid, patriotic hook probably hurt the film when it originally ran. Where the first film brought in nearly five times its budget, this sequel only squeaked over its own production costs.
All in all, this film clearly marked the point where people started to grow tired of what Segal had to offer. He had one story in him and he made it over, and over, and over again. That might have worked for people a few times, but eventually everyone realized what was on offer, and without a solid hook (like the joys of celebrating our military might) we had to actually watch Segal. And, wow, boy does that suck.