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Movie Review: The Siege

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Edward Zwick

Written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, Edward Zwick

With Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Tony Shalhoub, Bruce Willis

Can somebody please make a good action movie? It's hard, yes, but not impossible; there was after all, Die Hard and Aliens and In the Line of Fire. It is disappointing enough to see a film that, instead of breathless excitement, is awash in stereotypes (like the overwhelming majority of action films are these days). But it's much more disappointing to see a film like The Siege, which has all the required intelligence, talent, and skill, and is one script rewrite short of being really good. Not that The Siege is a bad movie. As a matter of fact, it's pretty good-and if that sounds like damning with a faint praise, so be it.

It would be very hard to give a spoiler-free plot summary of this movie, since everything that I found enjoyable about it occurs in the first half, and everything that doesn't work is in the second half. Unfortunately, this second half, from the viewpoint of subtext, philosophy, and meaning, is the heart of the film-too bad it fails to live up to expectations. In any case, the central plot twist is quite obvious, not only from the theatrical trailer, but also from the film's poster.

The story follows FBI special agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), who is facing the escalation of terrorist acts in New York City. Along with his second-in-command Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) and antagonistic CIA operative Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), it's a race against time before another explosion occurs.

Sounds cliche, yes, but it's pulled off very well, squeezing inordinate amounts of suspense from such rather stock situations as a bomb on a bus (seen before in Speed) or a bomb in a school (Die Hard with a Vengeance). Camerawork is sharp, editing is precise, visuals are great, and the dialogue zings. It also helps that the performers are at the top of their game: Washington deftly combines his leading-man charisma with his obvious (but usually vastly underused) comic talent, and Bening is every bit his match. Combining a rough, haggard, largely deglamorized appearance with sexual confidence, and subtly communicating to the audience the inner weaknesses of which the character herself is not aware, she gives one of her best performances ever. Shalhoub is, as usual, excellent.

And then the second act begins with a bang. The president (not named, but since Clinton is seen on TV during the opening sequence, I presume it's him) declares martial law in New York City. Enter Bruce Willis as General William Devereaux, who leads soldiers and tanks onto Brooklyn streets and starts detaining all Arabs as suspected bombers.

At this point, I felt I was watching something remarkable; after all, the sheer possibilities of such plots are amazing. It cries out for the examination of the roots of xenophobia and genocide, a debate on constitutional rights, a portrayal of mob psychology, a conflict between the interest of an individual and society, and more. And it is at this moment that The Siege drops the ball. It feels like the filmmakers are simply scared to follow up on the possibilities of the situation, and fail to take it as far as it is possible.

Instead, the story spins its wheels, moving from one lukewarm action sequence to another, piling up plot twists which are both unconvincing and unnecessary. And the interesting stuff is not there:The reaction of citizens is reduced to a monotonous demonstration against the martial law; there is no looting of Arab stores and homes; and never even a flicker of recognition that he's dealing with another historically persecuted minority registers on Washington's face. Bruce Willis is very much shortchanged by the script (his part is quite small), which has him both declaring peaceful intentions and behaving like a bloodthirsty jingoist; the screenplay feels as much confused about him as is the actor. Pity, since here we are dealing with Willis-as-talented-character-actor, as opposed to Willis-as-bland-leading-man. But even he can't make any sense from his character, which functions largely as a plot device.

The Siege ends on a double climax, both halves of which are highly disappointing. The final shootout is a bore, poorly edited and psychologically hollow; and a final confrontation of ideas is grandstanding-simplistic, pat grandstanding, unimaginatively directed as a sequence of boring closeups. I can't help but think how Tarantino or Woo would have directed this sequence, which is essentially a Mexican standoff.

And of course, we have a climactic revelation of a villain, which not only somewhat justifies the recent complaints of anti-discrimination committees about racial stereotyping (although, to be fair, this is the only moment in the film which felt like it was stereotyping), but also utterly fails to work in the framework of the film. By the way, it also features the most laughable mistake of the film-a live circuit falls into water, and nothing happens. All of this is followed by an ending which feels too abrupt, although by that point I cared so little about what was going on that it hardly mattered.

The Siege is such a waste of opportunities that in retrospect it feels worse than it probably is. If judged solely on its own merits, it's quite successful as a suspense thriller. But when I consider what it could have been, I can't help but regret that this film is merely quite good.