Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, Tony Shalhoub, Sami Bouajila, Ahmed Ben Larby, Mosleh Mohamed. (1998, R, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 6, 1998
Could someone please turn down Denzel Washington's Righteousness Meter? It's set too high. The king of earnest masculinity is about due for a comedy (The Pelican Brief doesn't count), but this isn't it. Zwick, who worked with Washington on Glory all those years ago, keeps on keeping on as well, and together the two of them have managed to not only make a painfully serious, weighty film, they've also pissed off a large segment of the Arab-American community in the process. The good news, then, is that The Siege is hardly the ticking time bomb of racial slurs some would have you imagine, and the bad news is that it doesn't matter because it's all too damn pedantically serious to take seriously. (Except for Bruce Willis, of course; he's one actor who should always be taken with a grain of salt the size of Lot's wife.) Washington plays FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, who along with CIA spook Elise Kraft (Bening) and General William Devereaux (Willis), is called in to handle an escalating series of domestic terrorist acts that are reducing New York City to so much rubble and body parts. After an unnamed terrorist cell demolishes a city bus, then a city bus with actual people on it, and then the NYC Federal Building, the chain of operations moves from Hubbard's sage FBI agent to Devereaux's camp-happy general. As panic grips the city, the president gives the order to shut down Brooklyn (strangely the Beastie Boys are nowhere to be found), declare martial law, and round up any suspicious-looking Middle-Eastern nationals, placing them in a concertina-wire-enclosed facility deep within the bowels of Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, while everybody's rights are being trampled, Hubbard and Kraft seek out the real agents of terror behind the charade. Zwick and co-scenarists Lawrence Wright and Menno Myers go to great lengths to make sure that everybody knows that what is happening -- martial law, indiscriminate persecution of Arab-Americans -- is utterly in the wrong. The Siege is so blatant in its condemnation of the events in its storyline that you get the feeling there are subliminal “Bad! Wrong!” messages flashing just out of sight on the screen. For all its obviousness, however, and Willis aside, Zwick has crafted a fairly tight actioner here. Remove the dogma and the occasional screed, and what you have is Die Hard all over the place, which, come to think of it, is probably on its way to us in time for Christmas '99. An action film on a soapbox is still an action film, and an action film with Bruce Willis on a soapbox runs the risk of becoming a comedy. So maybe this is the comic vehicle Denzel Washington's been so sorely missing after all.