Ah, the good old days of Steven Seagal movies. The guy Hollywood called when it couldn't afford Arnold Schwarzenegger but wasn't ready to go bargain basement and hire Jean-Claude Van Damme, Seagal carved out a nice little niche for himself in the late '80s and early '90s, churning out derivative if embarrassingly entertaining yarns like 'Above the Law,' 'Hard to Kill,' 'Out for Justice' and the pinnacle of his commercial and critical success, 'Under Siege.' If Seagal never quite delivered the force and dare I say, charm, of Schwarzenegger at his best, I suppose he deserves kudos for not becoming a complete joke a la Dolph Lundgren, nor trying to go all serious like Sylvester Stallone in his later years. Seagal seems to have always known what side of his bread to butter, and did nothing more than deliver competent (if ludicrous) action yarns to his small but dedicated fanbase.
'Under Siege' remains Seagal's only true box office smash, grossing a tidy $83 million at the box office back in 1992 (which would easily top out at over $100 million in today's dollars). Seagal stars as Casey Ryback, a cook aboard the Battleship Missouri, which is about to be decommissioned. After a visit by the president, a group of mercenaries disguised as a rock band (no joke!) takes over the ship, led by the duplicitous Commander Krill (Gary Busey) and errant CIA operative William Stanix (Tommy Lee Jones), in hopes of stealing warheads. Of course Krill and Stanix fail to realize that Seagal's Ryback is more he seems, and before you can say, "Die Hard on a Battleship", our hero swings into action, fighting a one-man war against the terrorists.
Yes, 'Under Siege' is totally derivative. In fact, had Bruce Willis starred in it, they could have called it "Die Hard: Under Siege" and been no worse for wear. But what elevates the adventure this time for Seagal is that he's surrounded by A-list talent. Director Andrew Davis, who also helmed 'The Fugitive,' plays Seagal's limited strengths as an actor and certainly knows how to stage action. Jones and Busey also make great villains, proving that in a no-brainer film like this, it is as much about the bad guys as the good ones. Davis also knows his intended audience well, piling on the gratuitous violence, and of course supplying us with the obligatory "hot chick who's only in the movie to take her clothes off." This time it's Erika Eleniak, aka "the little girl from 'E.T.,'" whose part is so forgettable I can't remember a single word her character said.
Watching 'Under Siege' again today and at least a decade since I've last seen it, I'm surprised at how innocent it all seems. Seagal -- and apparently audiences -- really believed in all these hokey cliches and conventions. I don't know if it was the aftershocks of the Reagan era still being felt or what, but perhaps America embraced movies like 'Under Siege' and 'Die Hard' because they were essentially vigilante underdog tales, fairy tales that convinced us it was still possible that individual good could triumph over organized evil. Perhaps, in today's post-9/11 era where the nightly news hammers home our setbacks in Iraq, we've lost that innocence. That makes 'Under Siege' an artifact of incredible nostalgia, a reflection of a simpler, seemingly easier time when guys on white horses could still ride onto battleships, crack jokes, and wipe out a zillion bad buys with a wink and a smile. How quaint.
'Under Siege' is the latest catalog title from Warner to hit HD DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously, and both come to high-def in 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfers. And as has become commonplace with these Warner apples-to-apples next-gen titles, it is just about impossible to tell any difference between the two. That said, 'Under Siege' does not appear to have gotten particularly grand attention from Warner, with a master that looks a bit dirty, grainy, dated, and lacking in depth. Though I remember being impressed with 'Under Siege' when it hit DVD a while back, it just doesn't hold up all that well today.
Though there are no major problems with the source material, such as huge blemishes, dropouts and the like, there are bits of dirt and it is quite grainy at times. This is particularly noticeable in darker scenes, which sometimes are so veiled by grain that fine details are lost. Video noise also rears its ugly head as well, with splotches of various sizes breaking up the picture in large areas of similar color and texture (note that this is a problem not just affecting the HD DVD, but also the Blu-ray version).
Other aspects of the transfer fare marginally better. Blacks are pretty solid throughout, but never reach the deepest levels, while contrast is fairly consistent throughout. The transfer doesn't appear too hot and whites don't suffer from blooming, and colors are fairly well saturated for a film about fifteen years old now. Sharpness, however, is rather lacking. The image often looks soft, although brighter scenes and exteriors are much more solid. Detail, too, is hardly the greatest I've seen. The transfer has maybe a couple of moments that are truly three-dimensional, but the majority of 'Under Siege' looks flat. Granted, I've seen worse on HD DVD, but also much better.
'Under Siege' gets the 640kbps Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround treatment on HD DVD, and the results are about on par with the video transfer. I'm sure 'Under Siege' sounded great back in 1992, but today the film's sound design veers towards the outdated.
Having said that, 'Under Siege' does boast some fine moments of cool surround action. I liked the nice use of discrete effects to convey the oppressive atmosphere of the battleship, and any major use of a weapon (gunfire, explosions, etc.) usually features some sort of activity in the rears. (The best bit is the submarine versus the SEAL chopper sequence, which still packs a nice wallop.) Pans between channels, however, feel a bit clunky and obvious by today's standards -- this is hardly a seamless mix. Frequency response is also solid but not exceptional. I could hear some harshness and even crackling in the high-end, mostly during loud moments, such as explosions. Some of the ADR is a bit noticeable, and 'Under Siege' certainly doesn't have that shiny, almost too-perfect sheen of today's modern, computer-tweaked soundtracks. The .1 LFE is also powerful, if lacking the deepest low-bass kick of the best mixes.
Warner has ported over all the extras on the standard-def DVD to this HD DVD release, which means we get... a theatrical trailer! And that's all we get. Woo-hoo!
'Under Siege' is certainly Steven Seagal's best film, though arguably that is not saying much. Calling it "'Die Hard' on a Boat" is just about right, but still, it is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this HD DVD release is an example of a growing trend among some of the high-def supporting studios, which is just to whip out their old HD masters, slap them on a disc and offer little in the way of added value or upgraded quality. 'Under Siege' suffers from a dated transfer and soundtrack, so even if you love Steven Seagal, the best I can recommend is giving this one a rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.