Imagine an action-hero Colin Powell oozing sex appeal and you get the feel of Denzel Washington in humble-patriot mode, a new style All (African) American boy as likely to sacrifice himself for "our way of life" as he is to make a leading lady's knickers moist. In The Siege, Denzel is reunited with his director from Glory and Courage Under Fire, Edward Zwick, the pair turning their earnest attentions to the thorny problem of Middle Eastern terrorism. The movie opens doc-style with footage of the bombed Marine base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, but quickly moves to the fictional American kidnapping of a terrorist leader and retaliatory bombings all over Manhattan. Skyscrapers fall, politicians compromise "basic freedoms," martial law is declared, and innocent Arab Americans are imprisoned and abused. Definitely a job for SuperDenzel.
Special agent in charge of the FBI's local antiterrorist desk, Denzel is quickly on the case, but since The Siege is an intramural debate masquerading as an action movie, his main obstacles are homegrown. Annette Bening seems to be playing on both sides as an oversexed CIA operative, while a giggle-producing Bruce Willis dresses up in Special Forces gear, clenches his jaw, and proclaims: "I am the law!"
The Siege works surprisingly well as an action movie, but its portrayals of Muslims, Arabs, and Arab Americans are a bit of a mess despite stabs at balance and nuance. Typically, race is the film's Achilles' heel, but in the person of SuperDenzel it's also a perverse strength. A walking racial get-out-of-jail-free card, Denzel allows this "liberal" film to indulge in unvarnished flag worship without shame. I don't think Siege is a racist film, but like most American movies, it does create a handy Other in order to define an Us. The only difference is that this time the nigger isn't black.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.