Americans' most paranoid dreams about serial terrorism on home turf come true in "The Siege." Edward Zwick, the talented director of the thoughtful "Courage Under Fire" and "Glory," despite all good intentions has turned in a less than suspenseful blow-'em-up thriller masquerading as a cautionary tale about the wages of widespread fear in reaction to such a scenario.
Zwick's film, a laborious exercise in self-importance, imagines viewers will connect with the plausibility of horrific sequels to the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, and gradually be absorbed in a steadily intensifying sense of doom and outrage. No such luck, thanks to consistently off-key performances by the principal actors, a hackneyed showdown between two self-made patriots and a plodding narrative.
News clips of terrorist bombings and their aftermath, and Clinton's presidential-sounding vow to punish "the terrorists who committed this murderous act" open the movie on a gloomy note. This time, the horror has erupted on the streets of Brooklyn, where a paint-bomb false alarm is followed by a real explosion that takes the lives of 25 people on a city bus.
Locked and loaded into his familiar officious and high-intensity mode, Denzel Washington is Hub Hubbard, head of the joint FBI/NYPD task force assigned to track down the murderers. "The first 24 hours are the only 24 hours," Hubbard barks to his underlings, as the camera pulls back to reveal a beehive of criminology activity.
Washington's buttoned-down agent is as uptight and by-the-book a government official as Middle Eastern CIA operative Elise Kraft (Annette Bening, stealing heat from her co-stars) is mellow, lax with the rules and possibly duplicitous. The two, despite initially being territorial, strike a truce and work together, along with Lebanese-born FBI agent Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), to follow leads that point to the Arabian community.
Hubbard's team successfully assassinates a three-man terrorist cell and declares victory. But an explosion at a Broadway theater, a near-miss at an elementary school and the bombing of One Federal Plaza in Washington result in the declaration of a State of Emergency. Thus arrives a robotic Bruce Willis as Gen. William Devereaux, a by-God nationalist willing to do what it takes to preserve his country.
That means tanks and armed soldiers in Brooklyn, the sealing-off of the borough and confinement of all Arab-Americans -- including Haddad's teen-age son -- to internment camps in an action pointedly reminiscent of the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Zwick obviously intends to take a conscientious political stance, decrying abrogation of individual rights at home in the face of threats from abroad, making a point or two about the need for unity during such a time of crisis, and rallying against secret U.S. involvement in overseas coups.
But he inadvertently summons up more than a few stereotypes. Arab studies professor Samir Nazhde, Kraft's lover and an important contact, is a closet religious fundamentalist who declares that "there will never be a last cell." Willis' military hawk is so stoked on his own power that he announces, "I am the law, right here, right now."
Contrivances like those doom "The Siege" to status as simply another overhyped action flick. We expected more.