Passenger 57 (it's Die Hard on an airplane!), Speed (it's Die Hard on a bus!), Cliffhanger (it's Die Hard on a mountain!), No Contest (it's Die Hard at a beauty pageant!) and, of course, the movies we're talking about today.
Seagal. Van Damme. Who will die hardest?
Under Siege (1992)
Under Siege is Steven Seagal's "classiest" movie -- the most commercial, with the highest production value and then-A-list talent in front of and behind the camera, including Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones and Academy Award-nominated director Andrew Davis (who directed Seagal's first movie, Above the Law). It's not my favorite of his movies (that would probably be Out for Justice), but it's probably the "best" thing he ever did, and certainly one of the very best of the Die Hard knock offs.
Seagal plays Casey Ryback, a cook aboard the soon-to-be decommissioned U.S.S. Missouri. Actually, he's some sort of super-secret former Navy SEAL who once punched out a superior officer (trouble with AUTHORITY) and is being kept on as the personal cook of the ship's captain. That makes him pretty useful when the Missouri is taken over by disgruntled former CIA agent Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) and Commander Krill (Gary Busey), who are looking to steal the nuclear warheads aboard the ship and sell them on the black market. With nearly the Missouri's entire crew locked away, it's up to Ryback and Jordan "Miss July '89" Tate (Erika Eleniak), a Playboy centerfold brought aboard as entertainment for a fake birthday party (the distraction created so this could all go down), to stop the bad guys and break a bunch of arm bones.
The movie's strengths as a Die Hard imitation are in its setting -- these guys really are cut off from everything -- and in its villains. Gary Busey was the go-to bad guy for much of the late '80s and early '90s (Lethal Weapon, Predator 2, Drop Zone, Surviving the Game), so he's a no-brainer. The casting of Tommy Lee Jones was pretty inspired, though, and he gets the balance of menace-to-over-the-top just right (for an example of when he does NOT get it right, see Batman Forever). He's clearly having a lot of fun in the movie, and his performance helps pick up some of the slack from Seagal, who's about as good here as he is in anything else -- all squint and cockiness. He does get a few good jokes in the early going when he's just hanging out in the kitchen and being a smartass, but, for the most part, Ryback is the kind of character that's too much tell and not enough show. Every other character in the movie keeps dropping all of these hints about how he's "more than a cook" and implying that he's this super highly-trained weapons expert and killing machine, but not enough time is spent seeing that in practice. Seagal gets to bust out the goods a few times, including a climactic knife fight that's lightning fast and FUCKING AWESOME (also super depressing when you see just how quick and agile he once was compared to the Brillo-headed, leather-skinned oaf he's become in his DTV years), but there's almost nothing that could live up to the way the character has been built up. It also sucks that after the kick-ass knife fight (complete with a head stabbing, which should have been the name of Seagal's next movie: "Steven Seagal IS Headstabber..."), the movie's big climax involves Seagal sitting in front of a computer and talking over a radio. Not exactly what we paid for.
The man behind Under Siege is Andrew Davis, who not only directed one of the best Chuck Norris movies (Code of Silence), but who's also the guy responsible for making Above the Law and basically breaking Seagal as a movie star. From here, Davis would direct his biggest success and score Oscar nominations with The Fugitive, which, incidentally, also won Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor -- more than likely one of those "retroactive" Oscars for his work in Under Siege, like when Russell Crowe won for Gladiator when what they really meant to say was The Insider. Unfortunately, the mainstream success of The Fugitive pretty much ruined Andrew Davis, inspiring him to do more than "just" action movies and thrillers and finally pursue his PASSION PROJECT: the Andy-Garcia-as-twins comedy Steal Big, Steal Little. When that movie was the train wreck everyone not named Andrew Davis knew it would be, he retreated back to action, only this time it was the Keanu Reeves physicist movie Chain Reaction. Davis was never the same. Even directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in his final pre-Gov(ernor) performance in Collateral Damage couldn't bring back the magic of the guy who made Above the Law and Under Siege.
Incidentally, the movie was written by J.F. Lawton, who also wrote Pretty Woman, which explains why the Missouri corners like it's on rails.
Under Siege represents what was essentially the peak of Seagal's mainstream stardom, as though his four previous movies had been laying the groundwork and everything that came after could never measure up. Maybe it was the clout he earned here that allowed him to not just star in but direct his next movie, 1994's On Deadly Ground. Between its heavy-handed environmental messages and its near-messianic lionizing of its star, ODG was the beginning of the end for Seagal as a major movie star, making Under Siege arguably his last best hour. It's also significant for being one of the few pony tail-less movies for Seagal, which I still think was the result of some misguided studio conversation deciding it would make him more mainstream and marketable. He grew it back for his next movie, because fuck that noise.
Sudden Death (1995)
In so many ways, society can be split into two camps. There are Beatles people and there are Rolling Stones people. Coke people and Pepsi people. Jurassic Park III people and Lost World people. There aren't right answers necessarily, because the world is a rainbow and Allah loves wonderous variety. It's just a way of organizing the world in terms we can all understand -- of making order out of chaos. Oh, except the first one. There's a right answer for that.
To apply it more directly to what we're talking about here, there are Stallone people and there are Schwarzenegger people; likewise, there are Seagal people and there are Van Damme people. And even though I think Seagal's first couple of movies are probably stronger than just about anything Van Damme ever did, I've always been more of a Van Damme guy. The differences between Under Siege and Sudden Death illustrate why that is.
Rapid Fire), disgruntled former government employee who has taken the Vice-President hostage (because the Vice-President is also at the game) and threatens to blow up the whole arena once the game ends unless he's wired millions of dollars. It's up to Van Damme to foil the criminal plot, delay the game, rescue his kids and even get on the ice and play hockey at one point. Otherwise, SUDDEN DEATH. Because it's a hockey term, but also everyone will die suddenly. From exploding.
First things first: I'm not positive the movie was always called Sudden Death. Within the first couple of minutes, a few different title cards come up that make you wonder how many different possible names they came with for the movie. One just says "Game Day," and you think, "Yeah, someone probably wanted to call the movie Game Day at one point." And then a second later another card comes up that says "Four hours until face-off," and then you know that someone wanted to call the movie Face Off. Good thing they didn't, though, because then it was still available for John Woo to use two years later -- John Woo who, incidentally, was brought to the United States by Van Damme to make Hard Target. So, really, we have Van Damme to thank twice for the movie Face/Off. I know, I know. We're welcome. Besides, I don't think this movie could have ever been called anything except Sudden Death, what with it being the best of all possible titles and everything.
Right off the bat, it's clear that Darren McCord is very different from Casey Ryback. He's much, much more an action hero in the John McClane mode, from his name (they didn't try very hard to conceal the similarities) to the fact that he's first seen as a firefighter and then working at a hockey arena -- a real blue collar guy, just like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. He's got trouble in his personal life, is divorced from his wife and is trying to find ways to spend time with his two kids. He's got something to lose. He spends time thinking and planning and trying to figure out what he's going to do to save the day, because, unlike Ryback, he's not necessarily confident that he can do it. Whereas Seagal's greatest asset as an action hero is a sense of mystery, Van Damme does his best to be relatable. Seagal will snap your arm in three different places for looking at him sideways. Van Damme usually tries to avoid fighting, and only roundhouse kicks/does the splits as a last resort. Seagal fights for revenge, or because bad people fucked with the wrong guy. He fights because he's out for justice, or because he's been marked for death (it's ok; he's hard to kill). Van Damme typically fights for some much nobler cause -- whether it's to protect a nice widow and her kids (Nowhere to Run) or to help a lady cyborg gain safe passage (Cyborg) or to win some money to support his brother's family (Lionheart) or to prevent the death of Sloane Peterson (Timecop). In Sudden Death, he fights to save his kids and because, in the best Die Hard tradition, no one else can or will.
There's a scene in the original Universal Soldier that gets right to the heart of Van Damme's charm as an action hero. He's sitting and eating in a diner, and some asshole starts picking on him, not realizing he's really an undead super soldier. A universal soldier. Van Damme simply looks up at him and says "I just want to eat." In that moment, he's not a universal soldier. He's not looking for a fight. He's just a guy who wants to eat.
That's Darren McCord, too: a guy who just wants to eat. And by "eat," I mean "rebuild a relationship with his kids by regaining their respect and putting a tragedy behind him in the hopes of finding some peace and normalcy in his everyday life." He has a vulnerability and determination that's totally appealing. Seagal's characters live their lives like that Cedric the Entertainer routine: they wish a motherfucker WOULD start some shit. Not Van Damme, and not Darren McCord. He just wants to eat.
But there's another major difference between Sudden Death and Under Siege, too, and that's where the movies fall within the careers of their respective stars. Under Siege finds Seagal at his peak, having established his stardom in a series of smaller, leaner action movies. With Sudden Death, Van Damme had already peaked, and the kind of movies which made him famous were already falling out of fashion. There's only three years difference between the two movies, but it's a big three years; the '80s action spillover had dried up by '95, and just about every previously established action star was already floundering. Van Damme was no exception, attempting to redefine himself by chasing the Die Hard model, a movie that had come out seven years prior.
While I think Under Siege is probably the better movie, Sudden Death is the better Die Hard imitation. Don't get me wrong -- it's still a long ways off from Die Hard, because it's sillier and stupider and not as well made. Some of the violence is kind of mean-spirited. Characters are killed that you don't think will actually be killed. Mostly women. And the movie gets way ridiculous the longer it goes on; by the time Van Damme skates out onto the ice to fill in as goalie for the Penguins, the movie has basically become science fiction. It is, like so many '90s action movies, gloriously stupid. There's a whole fight scene between Van Damme and a bad guy dressed as Iceburgh, the Penguins mascot, that, while never explicitly played for laughs, is very funny and well aware of its own absurdity. You've got to give it up to the Penguins organization for letting a character dressed as their mascot, Iceburgh, threaten a kid and spend so much time trying to kill Van Damme. That would never happen in a movie today.
Director Peter Hyams has made his share of terrible movies (Stay Tuned, A Sound of Thunder), but he's also responsible for several really cool, under-the-radar classics like Busting, Running Scared and The Relic. This was his second time directing Van Damme, after making Timecop (which, in many ways, is Van Damme's Under Siege) one year prior. Like Andrew Davis, he wins points with me because he shoots a lot of his stuff in Chicago. Also like Andrew Davis, he made a late-era Schwarzenegger movie (End of Days) which wasn't very good. He was never nominated for an Oscar, but I'd take him over Davis any day. So that settles it.
Sudden Death represents one of the last good Van Damme movies for almost a decade -- the theatrical ones, at least. After Maximum Risk, which is kind of dull if I remember correctly, he would transition into his absurd, cocaine frenzy period before segueing into the same DTV purgatory as Seagal. It's not my favorite Van Damme movie, but it is one of his most commercial, and it's a better Die Hard movie than Die Hard with a Vengeance or Live Free or Die Hard. He may not get to do any head stabbing, but I like Darren McCord, and I want to root for him. Let him eat.
Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.