The possibility that the makers of The Siege deliberately set out to make a bad film from a good idea is preposterous, yet it's hard to come to any other conclusion. Why else would they take a plot that promises to confront such weighty and worthy topics as racism and civil liberty and then produce a trite story mapped out in crayon with a kindergarten world-view of goodies and baddies? But were we ever going to get anything but a quick-fix solution to the problem of international terrorism from the country that produced Independence Day?
The Siege starts promisingly enough, with an opening act that sets everything up slowly but satisfyingly in a style some-where between a Tom Clancy thriller and a detective movie. It opens with US special forces dragging an Ayatollah Khomenei lookalike out of a bullet-riddled car and into a squalid cell, where General Devereaux (Willis) smugs and crows over him. Next up, FBI agents Hubbard (Washington) and Haddad (Shalhoub) dash through the downtown New York traffic to scratch their heads over a fake bus bomb that's been planted "as a warning". But a warning to what? CIA agent Kraft knows, but she has no intention of showing her hand to the flailing FBI investigators.
A real bomb forces Hubbard and Kraft to strike up an uneasy working relationship, but any entertainment soon leaks away as the terrorists are tracked down. Act Two lurches between dull character advancement and terrorist attacks, finding a scant 60 seconds of simulated news coverage to discuss the key theme of distinguishing between "them" (Arab-Americans) and "us" (Asian-Americans, Anglo-Americans, African-Americans, etc).
As the final act opens, Devereaux floods Brooklyn with thousands of troops and interns all the city's Arab males - including the son of Palastinian-born FBI agent Haddad. Here things fall apart completely, with Devereaux launching into full-blown atrocity mode, helicopter gunships rocketing buildings in response to gunfire and Hubbard sneaking about the besieged city.
This could have only worked if the movie had been critical of the American leadership for allowing tanks on the streets, while pointing its finger at the American people for resorting to hysterical Arab-bashing. Instead, it takes every soft option. The politics are entirely coded by skin colour and the lines of loyalty are drawn so that even Arkansas popcorn-chewers can understand.
So the American constitution on which the nation is built is ignored in the crisis and/or trampled on by arrogant groups of white officers and politicians: it leaves the good guys as black agent Hubbard and Arab-American agent Haddad, a man who stands by his country, despite his own son being wrongly interred. Meanwhile, the Arabs are portrayed as either helpless victims or die-hard terrorists.
While The Siege is sparse on interest or thrills, there is at least an amusing sting in the tale for any non-American movie-goer: the sugary "God bless America" speeches are guaranteed to have you guffawing helplessly at their overbearing sentiment and unintentional naffness.
Any movie offering a clean-cut solution to terrorism is going to seem bogus. However, The Siege pads the stodgy road to its dull conclusion with dreary action and unconvincing plot twists that all but drown out fine acting from a strong cast.