Steven Seagal has always been a bit of an enigma. From his claim of being the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, to his numerous sexual harassment allegations, his band Thunderbox, and his clairvoyant vigilante police work, the man is more interesting than everyone you know in your life combined. In the age of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Seagal stood above the crowd with his vast martial arts knowledge in the form of the Japanese practice of Aikido. Aikido, in a nutshell, is a more defensive martial art that utilizes the momentum of your opponent to incapacitate them instead of using your own brute strength. Suffice to say, it’s pretty fucking cool.
It was my dad who introduced me to the wonderful world of Seagal and all the violent entertainment he was so apt to provide. I’ve seen every one of Seagal’s films, including the shitty straight-to-DVD ones, and I’ve loved every minute of them. My first experience with the pony tailed bad ass was in the film Under Siege. Under Siege is a wonderfully hilarious, exciting action romp in which a former Navy SEAL turned cook, Casey Ryback (Seagal), is the only person who can stop a gang of terrorists when they seize control of a US Navy battleship.
Seagal’s most successful film both critically and financially to date, Under Siege was even nominated for two Academy Awards and spawned a successful sequel in 1995 called Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. With all of this greatness contained in one movie, I thought it only proper to showcase and explain some of my favorite scenes.
Gary Busey Dressed In Drag
In a genius ploy to take over the battleship, Gary Busey decides to dress in drag and pretend to be the Captain’s date for his birthday party. We’re treated to a fantastic introduction of Commander Krill’s lady parts by the celebration’s band leader, William Stranix (Tommy Lee Jones). An 80s leftover straddling somewhere between a punk rocker and an ex-hippie, Stranix is one of the most fantastic characters in the film.
After Krill’s jazzy little dance number and some shmoozing with the crowd, he departs and makes his way to the Captain’s quarters to pick him up for the party. Little does the Captain know, however, that Krill is hiding a gun in his wig. Just like that, Krill blasts a hole in the Captain’s unsuspecting chest and we cut to Stranix asking the most senior officer in the room to identify himself so he can be plugged in his forehead as well. The terrorists have taken over.
Knife In The Throat
Toward the beginning of the film, Krill visited Ryback in the kitchen and had a brief confrontation. Obviously possessing a mutual hatred, Krill had gotten the ball rolling by hocking a giant snotty lugie into the soup that Ryback had been working on in the kitchen all day. After socking him square in the jaw, Ryback had landed himself in some hot water and Krill ordered to him to be confined to the industrial freezer and kept under guard by a young Navy grunt.
After the terrorists announce themselves and take over the ship, a few of the bad guy cronies come down to put Ryback out of his misery, mercilessly making swiss cheese out of the young soldier with their machine guns. They walk into the freezer and Ryback hits them with a surprise attack from above, slapping the shit out of them and locking them both inside. Ryback kills the lights as the cronies shoot their way through the freezer door and come after him. Creeping around corners and getting poised to strike in true Seagal fashion, Ryback pulls a throwing knife out of a wooden target board on the wall and throws it directly into the jugular vein of one of the bad guys.
As a kid, this was probably my favorite scene in the entire movie. It’s short-lived, dark, and hard to make out, but the idea of being bad ass enough to throw a knife directly into someone’s throat from across the room always appealed to me.
Birthday Cake Surprise
As Ryback makes his way through the battleship, he walks by a triple-layered fake birthday cake and shoves it aside, not realizing that there’s a wonderful surprise waiting inside. Under Siege’s own scorching hot damsel in distress, Jordan Tate, pops out to some generic stripper music—naked. Played by Baywatch’s own blonde beauty, Erika Eleniak, Tate is a typically misogynist caricature and doe in the woods and has no idea what kind of evil has transpired thus far. There’s a funny bit of dialogue where Ryback questions her and she asks if he’s some kind of special forces guy. When he assures her he’s “Just a lowly little cook,” her response is “Oh my god. We’re gonna die.” Ryback doesn’t have time for titties with terrorists on the loose, though, so their eventual romance has to be put on hold for now.
Like any young boy, I am enamored by women’s breasts. Scenes like this were cause for celebration in the age before the internet and with limited access to my dad’s ancient Playboy collection. I coveted this scene. Like the strip club scene in Carlito’s Way, I memorized the time code on the VHS tape and I’d find any excuse to watch it when I was without adult supervision. I wonder if my parents ever realized that all of their tapes with brief frontal nudity were always queued up to that exact spot. Oh, to be young again.
For some reason, aside from being a master of Aikido, Ryback is also a MacGyver-like demolitions expert. In both Under Siege movies, Ryback finds a way to make a bomb out of kitchen implements.
What essentially just looks like a coffee mug with canned green beans and some silverware stuffed into a microwave explodes in a fiery fury with the help of Ryback’s skillful hands.
This scene is also hilariously ironic because Krill is so convinced that Ryback is nothing more than a cook. He killed 2 trained, armed men and threw a knife directly into someone’s throat, but Krill still believes he’s just “good with cooking knives” and considers him a “military reject.” Right as this asinine assumption is uttered, the microwave dings on and all hell breaks loose. Perhaps your lackey with large pieces of shrapnel embedded in his face will teach you not to underestimate Ryback in any situation, you proud fuck.
The Epic Death of William Stranix
At the climax of the film, Krill’s plans are foiled by Ryback when he turns the battleship’s own guns on Krill’s submarine, killing him and everyone inside and destroying the Tomahawk missiles contained within. Stranix, who suffered a major concussion after being too close to the battleship’s guns with no ear protection as they were fired at the sub, decides to launch two nuclear-tipped Tomahawk missiles from the battleship itself toward Honolulu, bringing his dreams of a violent strike against the US government to fruition.
Unfortunately for Stranix, he encounters Ryback in the control room. Ryback tries to talk down Stranix by telling him they’re both puppets of the same cruel master, but it doesn’t sink in. When words fail to solve an argument, it’s time to move onto the next best solution: a good, old-fashioned KNIFE FIGHT.
Eventually, Ryback overcomes Stranix in the most entertaining way possible. First, he jams a thumb in his eye, drawing blood and vitreous fluid, then stabs him directly in the crown of his skull and shoves his head through a console screen. After uttering an awesome one-liner, “Keep the faith, Stranix,” Ryback takes the self-destruct launch codes for the Tomahawks and destroys them before the Navy is forced to blast the ship into smithereens with an air strike. All is well on the open seas.
The best part about this scene is the latex dummy head they made for Stranix. I can only imagine how many painstaking hours went into recreating the worry line and wrinkle-covered head of Tommy Lee Jones for just this one, few second scene. It makes me stand by my assertion that even the cheesiest DIY effect is far more immersive and entertaining than CGI.
As if it weren’t already apparent, a thumb in the eye, a knife in the head, and a face full of glass and electricity is a really fucking cool way to die. We salute you, William Stranix.
After viewing Under Siege for what feels like the hundredth time, I’m reminded of why I love 80s and 90s action movies so much more than the films of today: the machismo.
Action flicks of the current generation are far too tongue-in-cheek. They keep the same level of ridiculousness as the films of yesteryear, but they don’t take themselves seriously at all. There’s nothing satisfying about a hero killing hundreds of people in gory and ridiculous ways if it’s made out to be a joke.
These 80s and 90s action flicks were high-budget, seriously labor-intensive works of fiction. The director and writer and crew obviously took the films very seriously despite their inherent cheese. They probably thought they were making fucking Casablanca.
I respect that kind of dutiful dedication to the craft and I wish it would find its way back into the mainstream. Until then, there’s always repeated viewings of gems like this one to satiate even the most desensitized action film fan.