The new Steven Seagal picture, Die Hard IX: This Time It’s a Train — I mean, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory — wasn’t screened for the press, and a lot of reviewers tend to get huffy when they aren’t given the opportunity to see a movie in advance; they assume it must be a dog. But Under Siege 2 turns out to be a solidly enjoyable formula thriller. By now, the rituals of this genre — terrorist kidnappings, exploding vehicles — are as formalized as kabuki, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to see them executed with finesse. Square and predictable as it is, Under Siege 2 has pace, slivers of wit, and a crisp unity of action that I found far more pleasurable than the jerry-rigged preposterousness of Die Hard With a Vengeance. The villains, too, do more than speak in smoothly cultivated accents. They appear to be working constantly — for our benefit — to come up with new ways to be vile.
As the government renegade Travis Dane, who invents a top secret satellite weapon, fakes his own death, and then hijacks the Grand Continental train through the Rockies in order to gain control of the weapon, the New York monologuist Eric Bogosian sports an aureole of dark curls and a gawky leer that give him the look of an adenoidal yuppie court jester. Bogosian has always gotten off on playing reptilian scumbags, and here he uses his oily monotone to give Travis the cheery techno-psycho taunting undercurrents of insecurity. Speaking to U.S. military officials via a video monitor, he delivers the singsong boast: ”I was smarter than all of you before I worked there. I was smarter than all of you while I worked there. I’m still smarter than all of you.” He’s like an eighth-grade genius creep preening over his perfect math test (as he fantasizes about blowing up the school).
In a movie where the hero is required to be as big a hard-ass as the villain, Steven Seagal is, by now, almost ironic in his softness. Everything about him — flat face and double chin, big dark suits and matching shoe-polish hair — suggests that he’s a kind of armchair enforcer, better at threatening violence than he is at actually committing it. When he has to hang from cliffs or scurry over the top of a speeding train, he can seem borderline silly in a way that a walking trunk of sinew like Sylvester Stallone doesn’t. Seagal’s charisma, though, is in his clouded stare, and in the eerie calm rapidity of his fight moves. As Casey Ryback (who is, after all, a cook), he whips up a homemade bomb as if it were a new meringue and, in the movie’s most exciting scene, defends himself against a butcher-knife-wielding baddie using nothing but his bare hands, which he whirs aroundlike propellers. Never once does Seagal’s face betray a hint of exertion-or anything else. He’s the dark Buddha of action heroes, the Man with the Velvet Scowl. B