We begin the start of a new feature running every two weeks and looking at a guilty pleasure movie, one of those films derided by critique and user alike with seemingly no redeemable qualities, and yet, for whatever reason holding a place close to our hearts for entirely subjective reasons. No genre or film is off bounds, providing it’s of a legal quality of course, if it is a guilty pleasure to one of us or indeed one of you then we’ll happily watch it and look for the best in a bad situation. With a series of movies running into the Autumn, if painfully scripted films and wooden acting are your penchant, you are in for a treat. As ever, especially for this topic we would welcome your feedback to allow us to broaden our horizons and discover your guilty pleasures. For now, grab the popcorn and decide whether you’ll consume it through consideration or throw it at your screen for our appalling taste in movies.
“It is so bad and illogical that even devoted loyalists should find their faith tested”
Marjorie Baumgarten – Austin Chronicle
The movies, and indeed acting of Steven Seagal have always been of a dubious nature and quality, one of the action stars of the late 1980’s that drew some traction and appreciation for a number of his early films such as Under Siege and Executive Decision before succumbing to the allure of straight to disc action films with no real other notable successes besides a role in the Machete film almost two decades after his most well known role as the chef Casey Ryback in Under Siege. From the beginning I will concede I was never really a huge fan of the first film, both visually and tonally I found it a very, very dark film to enjoy, the light effects and settings at night, with Seagal operating in the shadows for large parts of beneath the water as a trained SEAL operator just meant visually, you had little to follow before the odd moments in the light. The cast were more well known, with Tommy Lee Jones stealing his scenes as the films central villain as well as a memorable turn from Gary Busey, perhaps meaning Seagal wasn’t carrying the weight of the title on his shoulders in terms of its success. Given the obvious connotations to Die Hard, the film becoming a long line of ‘Die Hard set on a…’ trope movies, it was a solid action film with an interesting setting, a strong premise and two opposing forces in Seagal and Jones setting up for the films eventual confrontation and knife fight. With an estimate box office draw of over $150 million there was grounds and scope for a potential, and three years later we were treated to the return of Casey Ryback in Under Siege 2.
Three years have passed since the ill fated final journey of the USS Missouri and our intrepid hero now works as a part time chef, part time spec ops operator, we have to view this through the lense of the time, dismiss all notions of a demanding Gordon Ramsey Hell’s Kitchen environment. With the death of his brother off screen in a plane crash, our hero books passage aboard an overland train with his niece to visit the graveside and form a bond with his remaining relative. Of course, this is an Under Siege film and no sooner has the train departed than it is over taken by terrorists intent on the destruction of Washington D.C and most of the Eastern Seaboard, funded by terrorists determined to see the end of American Imperialism, we presume, the motivations are never to clear besides a vengeful ex husband, ladies take note what happens when you have a bitter separation with a millionaire. Of course, Ryback, incensed with their actions takes matters into his own hands and delivers his brand of justice to a largely white terrorist group before surviving a knife fight and exploding train the films closing scenes.
Let’s break down the faults of this film, for there are many, this is a guilty pleasure not an academy nominated film. The dialogue is weak, especially weak and if we take this interview with Morris Chestnut, co-star in Under Siege 2 as the porter Bobby Zachs, with good faith there is perhaps an understandable reason behind this. Seagal, seemingly unbounded or restrained took great pleasure in providing his input into the script process, to the extent pages were continually changed and amended at a whim the script itself largely disbanded besides the occasion he wasn’t on set.
“I’m going over the pages for like 30 minutes, there’s a knock on my trailer. “Yeah, Geoff Murphy, the director, wants to see you in his trailer.” So I go see him. I say hey, how you doing, this, that and the other. I say, “Listen, man. I just got these pages. I’m just trying to process everything.” He says, “You know what, don’t worry about those pages right now.” I’m like, okay. “Just don’t worry about the pages right now. We’re going to go see Steven in a minute.” About an hour after that, I go to the set and that’s when I meet Steven.”
Watching the movie objectively there are threads and strands that make little or no sense, small jokes without a punchline or set up, indeed perhaps the only actors that have a resemblance of a well scripted narrative are the legacy actors such as Dale Dye and Andy Romano returning from the first film. The film therefore succeeds or fails on the strength of Seagal being able to script believable and engaging narrative on a whim, at some points it works, largely it doesn’t. The production values are competent at best, the train setting is an interesting premise but certainly there are shortcuts made, noticeable the reuse of an exploding facility from another film with a really bad cut, a questionable explosive model above the train and unexplained injuries due to cuts in the film. We also have to address the, questionable actions and direction of the actors towards the films cast, specifically Katherine Heigl and even the portrayal of Morris as Bobby Zachs. This is the difficulty of viewing films and pieces of fiction through our lens of morality today, on numerous occasion Heigl is kissed and touched by her captures, supposedly some form of character trait in the villain but you do question how much discretion she had in dismissing or objecting to these actions. You’d hope that she would be safe with her uncle and the movies protagonist, judging from subsequent interviews after the films release you do question perhaps the direction of Seagal towards this actor. If you believe the statements regarding his script changes and directions you do wonder whether this an intentional trait.
“My favorite was at the last day of shooting, and again, I had just turned 16 on this movie. And he said, ‘You know Katie, I got girlfriends your age.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ And he said, ‘They don’t seem to mind.’ And I said, ‘Mom!’
Morris Chestnut character doesn’t fare much better with some shocking script dialogue and stereotyping prevalent throughout the film, hitting immediately on a passenger as she boards the train, drinking on duty, generally acting in the worst way in the situation, again we view this film today with our modern sensibilities its very easy to draw the worst conclusions but from subsequent interviews there doesn’t seem to be any resentment held by either of his co-stars towards Seagal leaving you with the impression perhaps it is your own judgement on the matter. Regardless, the dialogue at times could best be described today as spicy today with moments that do make you cringe, and with a film whose original script was largely changed and amended by Seagal based on his drive and character without any clear defining statements its quite easy to take these worst moments and traits and leave them entirely at his door.
The soundtrack for this film is an amazing piece of music, full of pomp and pageantry entirely unfitting for a movie of its scope and nature. Composed by Basil Poledouris, it is one of my personal favourite movie soundtracks of all time, such a great and memorable action theme that resonates throughout the entire score. Its hard to describe an equivalency in today’s world besides suggesting a budget movie such as Sharknado with a score by Hans Zimmer, the movie and theme really is that good. As with a great deal of soundtracks from that period, a complete score is extremely difficult to obtain today, only selected highlights available at most digital stores, forget trying to find this in a retail store, it was far to small a release to justify a large print. Thankfully, in the shadows of the internet a full cut does exist and is great to find when you do, with all the various musical beats and themes, whenever a live orchestral score comes up in concert in London I do look wistfully to see if Under Siege 2 is one of the included films, long after the worst traits of the film have vanished into obscurity this sound track deserves to live on. Last year when we looked at the various works of film composers I came down to the score of this and Starship Troopers, certainly there is some crossover between the two and a consistent approach across the soundtracks, with similar beats and tones also found in Robocop for instance. But for consistency as an entire soundtrack it would have to be the score to Under Siege 2.
The action is as consistent as before and one of the strengths of Seagal who to his credit does know how to drive these scenes forward. One of the reasons I came to appreciate this film as a guilty pleasure was the habit of TV stations in the UK of showing the uncut version of the film including the more brutal and violent moments that were cut during the original release in our home market. The release of this film was never amended and as such you found yourself in the absurd position where you could view the film uncut on TV but not actually be able to own the movie, unless of course you happened to venture onto Amazon or Ebay and purchase the European uncut version. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were discussing a graphically violent scene, no, just a change in perception and values and I guess a laziness or unwillingness to recertify and release the film. Some of the specific cuts such as the extended eye scene as shown above, some of the fight scenes and action sequences with small but noticeable cuts when you watch the standard DVD release in the UK market. Of interest, is the ease and availability within the European market, supposedly a harmonised bastion of values but seemingly one area willing to release an entire product, another showing a bizarre prudish mentality to implied violence.
As an action film, taken in its entirety it’s a competent release, I’ll accept the villains are never truly developed or given a chance to shine, this is a Seagal film after all and each scene very much feels at times like a set up to his next action sequence. However there are a few nice touches and moments, the cast is diverse enough they never feel like a conglomerate of villainous white guys with the female sniper only perishing at the end due to a worked and earned hand to hand move taught earlier in the film. If you are fortunate to enjoy and own the uncut commercial release the action and fight scenes are great to see, the added bonus a fantastic score from Basil Poledouris that really does deserve to be heard on a wider scale and see or hear wider renown. That score amplifies the impact of the action and drives it to another level and perhaps is why I view this as a guilty pleasure as opposed to a needless sequel. There are questionable moments and choices, viewed through the prism of today’s morality and virtues perhaps questions may be asked or shed light on one day as to the actions of the main star given certain contentious imagery released after the event does perhaps hint or elude to a predication and desire for younger actresses. Certain Heigl to date hasn’t expressed a moral outrage or contention to his actions so you are left to accept the events at face value. Taken on its own merits, it never outstays its welcome or attempt to force a narrative that is unrequired, following an established format first seen in Die Hard, succinctly it can be summarised as a group of terrorists take over a train and your everyday hero fights them off. There are dubious qualities to the production but also a great deal to praise stylistically with the soundtrack a treat, the fight scenes well staged and a movie never outstaying its welcome.Rough in parts, my guilty pleasure presented for your judgement.
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