It may be that after his last film, the dreadful "On Dangerous Ground," Steven Segal had nowhere to go but up. Still, his "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" isn't half bad.
But it isn't more than half good either. It's pretty much the basic Segal thing saved from the star's vanity and tuned professionally to young male audience tastes: a big, stupid plot, lots of mean-spirited violence, some dim repartee, a fair amount of synthetic excitement. For $7, you could get a lot less.
This time, it's "Die Hard on a Train." Formally a sequel to the battleship variant that bore the original title and was so financially successful for the big, doofus-looking martial arts stud, it's more like another movie made from the same script, with the word "battleship" scratched out and the word "train" written in.
Only one difference, really: in the first "Under Siege," Tommy Lee Jones had enough charisma and intelligence to play both the physical bad guy and the intellectual bad guy; in this version, they have to break the villain into two characters, a mercenary played by Everett McGill and a cracked satellite scientist played by Eric Bogosian. As a strategy it's about half successful.
McGill is just fine. Taut of face and creepy of demeanor, he exudes the kind of narrow intelligence of the professional special operations type. He has presence, and moves with cat-like grace through the aisles. You can believe in men following him.
Bogosian was a bad move. Evidently chosen for his glibness and his ability to convey intellectual pomposity as well as a psychotic's single-mindedness, he always seems too theatrical and artificial. You sense his snooty self-importance, his conviction that he's just slumming, he's much better than the material and he's only committing to this piece of commercial mediocrity for the money to produce another sublimely important one-man show written by, directed by and starring himself.
He's the genius behind a plot to take over a train, set up advanced radio and computer equipment and take command of a newly launched secret surveillance satellite that is actually an orbiting particle-beam weapon. The movie never bothers to explain this technology but I guess everybody but me knows that with such a device, Bogosian can send a God-like bolt of energy into the earth, devastating hundreds of square miles. The train is necessary to keep security forces from triangulating on his precise location, as he sets out to destroy various targets for Middle East sources at a cost of a billion dollars a shot.
What he doesn't know is that ex-SEAL Casey Ryback (Segal) is aboard, having recovered from his adventures on the battleship and now attending to some domestic business: He's shunting his disgruntled niece (the sullen Katherine Heigl) back to Los Angeles from Denver for a family ceremony of some sort. When Bogosian, McGill and about 25 heavily armed mercenaries take over the train, only the slippery SEAL escapes their operation and begins to wage war to save the hostages and prevent Bogosian from blowing up his main target -- the Pentagon.
TTC There's enough sophisticated movie craft on display to keep it just barely believable, or at least to keep you willing to put aside your disbelief in order to get the cheap thrills out of it. The claustrophobic interior of a train has been exploited before ("Narrow Margin"), but New Zealand director Geoff Murphy still gets good stuff out of what is essentially a horizontal, moving skyscraper.
Segal makes a few wan stabs at "acting," as when he tries to be sweet to his niece in the early going, but soon he settles down to the ugly head-cracking, finger-snapping, neck-breaking and elbow gouging that are his stock in trade. Of course, there's a gratuitous black subhero played by Morris Chestnut, who's there more to widen the demographics than to advance the story.
It so happens that such things, generally captivating as they are, aren't really to my taste: I prefer more reality-based thrillers and I'd much rather see Segal in a less fantastic battle against one or two really dangerous antagonists than against an army of anonymous mercenaries with the world's fate hanging in the balance. I'd like to feel that something real is at risk. He's so physically domineering that there's never any sense of danger. You're paying to watch him beat the stuffing out of people.
And the movie has a real streak of sadism; it loves to listen to that little snap as the twisting bone gives up the ghost. That warning issued, the truth is the guy audience will probably eat it up, as did the guy in me.
'UNDER SIEGE 2'
Starring Steven Segal, Eric Bogosian and Everett McGill
Directed by Geoff Murphy
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (Extreme violence)