Friday, January 17, 2014

Cinemarked: Michael Biehn and Navy SEALs

Lone Survivor obliterated the box office competition last week with an astounding weekend haul of $37 million.  Days later, the story of stranded Navy SEALs picked up two Academy Award Nominations.  From the Death of Bin Laden to it's cinematized adaptation Zero Dark Thirty to best selling books, Navy SEALs have become firmly entrenched in the public consciousness over the last few years.  With roots tracing back to World War II, SEALs were officially formed in 1962 to fill a need for fighting unconventional warfare utilizing men trained in hand to hand combat, demolitions, parachuting and underwater deployment.  Their ability to operate at sea, air and land gave birth to the term SEAL.  The price of joining is astronomical as the physical and mental demands root out some 80% of hopefuls.

In recent years, their real life heroism has been celebrated, some would argue too much and too publicly while giving the United States something to be proud of: we know how to kick ass.  While Act of Valor, Survivor, Zero and Captain Phillips have shown us realistic portrayals lately, there was one actor who embodied the cinematic badassness of these mythical warriors before everything went docudrama:  Michael Biehn.

Biehn has played a Navy SEAL no less than 3 times, each in a very different way in very different situations.  The Biehn would put his good looks and athletic prowess to excellent use for his breakthrough role in 1984's The Terminator as a love struck, time traveling soldier.  The signature role would also forever typecast him as the sensitive action hero to many and in his own words always led to him being a current/former cop, soldier or secret agent.  Although he's played some great roles in non-action fare, it's those performances where he's running around with a gun in his hand and barking out orders that will always be my favorite. 

Let's look at Biehn's Navy SEALs filmography:

The Abyss, 1989, Lt. Hiram Coffey
The third of four collaborations with one James Cameron sees Biehn playing leader of a small detachment of SEALs sent down to assist an oil rig crew to investigate a crashed nuclear submarine.  Right away, Coffey begins experiencing deep pressure sickness syndrome and fights to control the motely roughneck crew while determining whether or not Russians are waiting around the corner to attack.  Things get even weirder when Non-Terrestrial-Intelligent creatures show up.  Sick and cut off from his chain of command with a nuclear warhead at his finger tips, Coffey decides to send the otherworldly invaders a surprise care package in the shape of a multi-megaton bomb.

Co-Stars:  Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Traits:  Mustache, jittery behavior, slices arm to stop it from shaking
Fate:  Dies in a submersible implosion after elbowing the tape deck playing shitty tunes
SEAL-ness:  Scary and ominous, as much fun as a tax audit

Navy Seals, 1990, Lt. James Curran
Biehn's follow up role as the crazed SEAL leader in The Abyss would be as another SEAL Lieutenant, this time named Curran, in Orion's action fest, Navy Seals, written by former SEAL Chuck Pfarrer.  Biehn was at the top of executive Mike Medavoy's list for leading men and found himself starring opposite Academy Award winning bad boy Charlie Sheen.  Director Lewis Teague was fresh off the success of The Jewel of the Nile, follow up to Romancing The Stone.  Here, Biehn is pure big hearted good guy, the cool, calm leader of the outfit dealing with stolen shoulder mounted Stinger missiles, middle eastern terrorists and hotshot Chuck Sheen.  With the help of a connected journalist,  Curran and his team trot the globe dispatching bad guys with silenced MP-5's and AK-47's while quipping wise and playing golf.
Co-Stars:  Sheen, Bill Paxton, Rick Rossovich, Dennis Haysbert and Joanne Whalley (Kilmer)
Traits:  Coiffed blonde hair, drunk clarity, firm yet vulnerable leadership
Fate:  Gets shot in the abdomen and thigh while blowing up a building full of missiles thus forcing wild card Sheen to Chuck up and take command
SEAL-ness:  Doesn't have time to dick around because he's too busy punching terrorist
tickets and partying at the beach, his boat house and golf course

The Rock, 1996, Commander Anderson
Biehn's final portrayal of a Navy SEAL (to date) was in Michael Bay's slam bang, summer action thrill ride The Rock, where he's been promoted to Commander.  After a decorated Marine Force Recon General goes rogue and takes over Alcatraz Island armed with missiles aimed at San Francisco, Biehn is called in to lead the responsive action.  Recruiting the only known convict who survived escape as well as a chemical weapons specialist, Biehn's SEALs infiltrate the prison fortress before coming face to face with the disgruntled Marines turned mercenaries.  A total curve ball for audiences, Biehn's heroic face and body of work is used to throw the audience for a loop 2/3 of the way through the movie.  All of Biehn's scenes are speeches:  in front of the authorities planning an attack, letting the convict and chemist know what their roles are and what they're up against, giving his troops for a pre-invasion pep talk and finally mano a mano with the pissed off Marine General.
Co-Stars:  Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris
Traits:  Hard, cold, always in black
Fate:  Gets killed in a shower room massacre when the Marines ambush the SEALs from high ground
SEAL-ness:  Surrounded by real life Frogmen, Biehn is as taciturn as can be and his death ratchets up the stakes as our lab rat and senior citizen convict are left to deal with the Marines and missiles

Of course this is Hollywood we're talking about so creative license has to be taken and it's all overblown bullshit, right? Actually, a group of former SEALs from the original 1962 group enjoyed 1990's Navy Seals with it's tough guy attitudes and adrenaline pumping action. While Biehn's performance in The Rock helped land him the job of narrating a film that runs (or ran) at The National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Florida.  Along with the gig, Biehn was named an Honorary Frogman for Life by Rear Admiral E.T. Olsen.  While Michael Biehn might not be a true American hero like all of the Navy SEALs we hear about, he sure as hell looks good playing one in movies.

One of the great shouting matches of our time:

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