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by: Michael Dequina

Denzel Washington and director Edward Zwick have had an amazing track record together, working on two of the most powerful war films in recent cinematic history: 1989's aptly named Civil War epic Glory, and 1996's underappreciated Gulf War mystery Courage Under Fire. For The Siege, their third collaboration, Washington and Zwick work with a fictional war-like situation, and the mediocre result is dismayingly unworthy of their combined talents.

The Siege would appear to take an original spin on a basic political thriller. After the efforts of an FBI team led by special agent Anthony Hubbard (Washington), aided by shady CIA operative Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), fail to end a rash of terrorist bombings in New York City, the White House takes drastic action--deploying a squadron of Army troops to enforce martial law in the Big Apple.

This should be the point at which The Siege takes off, but it instead takes a turn for the worse. What had been a rather thoughtful thriller with some effective suspense sequences (notably a scene with a bomb-rigged bus, which is prominently featured in the tell-all trailer) becomes formulaic and, at times, insufferably didactic and sappy. After some investigation, the bombing culprit(s) is determined to be Arab, so the troops round up the entire Arab-American population and hole them up in a stadium. This not only leads to some scenes of races uniting to protest the injustice, but one of the detained is the son of Hubbard's partner Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), setting the stage for tiresome "concerned father" moping and a teary father-son reunion (oops, did I spoil something for anyone there?).

At the center of The Siege's problematic final act is Bruce Willis and his character General William Devereaux, who leads the Army in New York. Writers Zwick, Lawrence Wright, and Menno Meyjes never figure out what do to with the character. Devereaux is shown in the White House earlier in the film expressing his reluctance to be involved in the enforcement of martial law, yet by film's end he's become a gung-ho, power-mad zealot, getting in touch with the Judge Dredd within and angrily declaring, "I AM THE LAW!" An understandably confused Willis, wearing a ridiculously godawful wig (his hair stylist, Bunny Parker, should be shot), plays Devereaux as only he can--as if he wandered in from the set of his latest action opus. Apparently that bug is contagious, because the overwrought standoff climax (complete with, yes, a preachy speech) the writers cook up is straight out of a standard-issue Hollywood actioner.

On the other hand, Bening and especially Washington deliver reliably strong, passionate performances. However, as stunning on the whole as Roger Deakins's cinematography is, his camera is inexplicably unforgiving on these two powerful screen presences. Washington looks old and more than a little chunky, and the usually luminous Bening looks shockingly haggard. That mix of the largely good with some glaring bad spots pretty much sums up the rest of The Siege.

RATING: *** (out of *****)

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