Picks and Pans Review: The Siege

updated 11/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening, Tony Shalhoub

The Siege is an action thriller that starts off with a bang (literally—a bomb goes off) but ends up as a civics-class debate. The big issue? Does combating domestic terrorism justify suspending, or even violating, basic constitutional rights? The guys at ideological loggerheads are an FBI agent (Washington) who defends the Constitution and an Army general (Willis) who believes in using whatever means necessary to bring down the bad guys. Given all the solemn yapping, it might have made more sense to have pitted Ted Koppel against William F. Buckley Jr.

Give The Siege points for trying to add content and intelligence to the standard action thriller. Then deduct a few for ham-fisted execution. Director-writer Edward Zwick (Courage Under Fire) and his co-screenwriters Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes attempt to cram so much high-minded dialogue into the movie's latter scenes that Siege collapses under the weight of its own rhetoric.

At the movie's start, Washington's FBI agent is in charge of finding Arab terrorists who have blown up a crowded bus in New York City. (The movie bends over backward to avoid excessive Arab-bashing; Washington's sympathetic No. 2 is an Arab-American, intensely played by Shalhoub.) When the terrorists strike additional targets in Gotham, Willis and his troops march into town, declaring martial law in Brooklyn—the terrorists are believed to be hiding there—and indiscriminately rounding up young Arab-American males as possible suspects.

Of the movie's star triumvirate, Washington has the best-written role and comes across as a passionate and savvy lawman. Bening, playing a covert CIA operator who-seems more plot device than creditable character, settles for a kind of Sharon Stone imitation—short on hair and long on attitude. Willis, who appears in a single scene at the start of the movie and doesn't show up again until halfway through, does little more than display ramrod-straight posture and Ollie North-like self-confidence. (R)

Bottom Line: No need to lie in wait for this Siege

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