Monday, March 21, 2011

I Love Michael Biehn and You Should Too

Hello, all.

So yesterday, as many of you probably do, I decided to hunker down and make some delicious French salmon en papillote (which turned out splendidly, thanks for asking) and, just to keep the nice cultured ambiance alive while I cooked, watched The Terminator. About halfway through the film my roommate appeared and inquired what I was watching, to which I answered, "Terminator" (and we high-fived, because it's the kind of movie where you sort of have to high-five after saying its name). I then added, "Yeah, I like this one better than Terminator 2--'cause Michael Biehn's in this one."

To which he replied, "Who's Michael Biehn?"

Well, folks, I would be lying if I said this wasn't the first time I'd received this reaction and as always it had me stumped. Though he's starred in some of the biggest movies of all time, for some reason Michael Biehn has always managed to fly under the radar for many viewers (a lot of my friends will realize who he is after I've rattled off a couple of films that he's starred in--namely the ones directed by James Cameron). And yet personally I always find that when he's in a movie he elevates it to another degree, and always gives a more subtle, intelligent performance than almost anyone else in the role could. He's got the standard film star appearance--blond, blue eyed, ruggedly handsome, but there's always an undercurrent of more going on beneath the surface; a sharpness and an intellect that belie his looks.

So in celebration of my longstanding love of Michael Biehn, I offer forth the following three roles, which I consider to be his best:

3. Lt. Hiram Coffey, The Abyss

Okay, so maybe The Abyss wasn't the greatest movie ever made. I loved it until the lumpy, preachy third act. That scene where Ed Harris plummets down...and down...and down...I swear to God, my fists were clenched so hard my knuckles were turning white. It built up a fantastic amount of pressure (pun intended), then threw it away on a bunch of moralizing Play-Doh colored aliens. But I digress.

What's worse than being stuck really deep underwater where some extremely strange occurrences are happening in/around your overwhelmingly claustrophobic sub? Having batshit crazy Navy SEAL Michael Biehn running around going batshit crazy in your already batshiteddly crazy sub, that's what! The first warning sign we should recognize here is the mustache: the primary indicator of evil Michael Biehn is the 'stache (see also: Johnny Ringo, Tombstone). But we all must admit how well Biehn sports a 'stache. That's not some wimpy hair growth there, people. Those follicles mean business.

Right off the bat you can tell that Biehn's Coffey is a couple aces short of a full deck, but his growing paranoia and the confined areas of the sub, as well as his access to a fairly extensive store of deadly machinery (not to mention his training as a SEAL) rack up most of the tension in the first half of the film. It's very disconcerting to see someone who looks like Michael Biehn going all twitchy and broodingly paranoic in scene after scene until finally we realize those eyes are completely bugging out and everyone else had better beware because some nuclear shit is about to go down. There's not a lot that could threaten Ed Harris, but in their brutal, violent showdown you start to actually wonder whether Ed will come out on top. Plus, Coffey (spoiler alert) gets one of the best deaths in the film: imploding to death in a pressurized plummeting pod! What an alliterative way to go.

2. Kyle Reese, The Terminator

And just where would the The Terminator franchise be without Kyle Reese? Nowhere, that's where! It wouldn't even have a y chromosome! It's Linda Hamilton who often gets remembered as the most badass parent of John Connor (due in part to her incredible physical transformation for Terminator 2), but Biehn's portrayal of Sarah Connor's lonely protector in the first film gives the film an emotional resonance that elevated it above mere cheesy B sci-fi shoot-'em-up. Consider the two opposing sides: on one hand we have Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, all beef and muscle, never feeling pain, always marching onward. On the other hand we have Biehn's Kyle Reese, comparatively small, painfully skinny (not a lot of vegetables or protein in the post-apocalyptic future, apparently), easily bruised but positively dogged in his determination to keep Sarah Connor alive. Look at the way the two sides are introduced--the Terminator appears in a crash of lighting, curled in a sprinter's crouch, absolutely unfazed. When Reese appears a scene or two later, he is unceremoniously dumped on the cement naked and vulnerable, struggling to his feet and wincing through the visible pain (not to mention the time-traveling induced jet lag, which can really be a killer). What he lacks in outright physical strength against the machine he makes up for in cunning; he is the fox to the Terminator's brutal hunter. And dammit, if Sarah had just listened to him and not called her mother at the motel things might have turned out differently...

But watch the way Kyle interacts with Sarah; forcibly when he has to, tenderly and encouragingly when it's needed. Biehn frequently gets typecast as some sort of official member of the law enforcement, and like I said it's the look that gets him those roles--the sort of blond all-American do-gooder look, but it's the man beneath that elevates it up another notch in action films like these. Reese is really a tragic romantic figure, first and foremost a soldier with his duty to keep in mind, but at the same time he's a man who is deeply in love with a woman he's never even met, whose picture he keeps tenderly folded up beneath his armor. Part of it is James Cameron's ability (unlike some blockbuster directors, cough Michael Bay cough cough) to write characters that delve deeper than their surface would imply, but much of it is Biehn's ability to convincingly portray a balls-out action hero that segues seamlessly into a sensitive, intelligent, quiet romantic lead. And if you think about the fact that it's his son who sort of plays matchmaker between the two (by giving his father Sarah's picture), it's really rather cute. Sort of like an Olsen twins movie. With homicidal death machines.

1. Corporal Dwayne Hicks, Aliens

This is the one that really did it for me. First of all, I just have to say that I love Aliens. I love Aliens more than most things. You'd have an extremely difficult time trying to convince me that a) this isn't one of the best movies ever made or b) that this isn't the single greatest action movie ever made. I had probably one of the best first impressions of this film that anyone could ever have--I watched it for the first time on the night after I got my wisdom teeth out and I was jacked up to the eyeballs on codeine and I swear that this was one of the most awesome movie experiences you could possibly imagine (mostly because I could wave and shout at the screen and drool all I wanted and the rest of my family just sort of chalked it up to the medication and let it slide. Later attempts at this sort of behavior did not go over as well.) Luckily, I soon discovered that the film was just as incredible without being in a drugged stupor.

So here, once again, you have Biehn + a classic James Cameron action movie. I begin to detect a trend. (*Note: when I talk about this film, I'll be referring to the director's special edition, which I prefer to the theatrical release, not least of all because it contains a good deal of content relating to Michael Biehn's character that was cut in the original). All through it, there are wonderful moments that would be absent in another director's film--Cameron is patient enough to wait and build the suspense and let the terror grow and grow until he finally lets it rip and sustains the climactic adrenalin rush for an exhilarating, exhausting forty minutes. This skill is extended to Cameron's deft handing of the characters, from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (the seminal example of the intelligent, tough, yet undeniably feminine action hero) to Biehn's Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who slowly emerges from the sea of Marines as Ripley's ally and shy, tentative love interest.

The first time I watched Aliens I was mostly involved in the essential plot, worrying about Ripley and Newt, cheering them on as they blasted away from the diseased planet, yelling and pumping my fist and enthusiastically drooling at the screen (codeine) at the "Get away from her, you bitch!" line. But then I watched it again, and another time, and I started to focus instead on Hicks. At the beginning it's hard to pick him out. He's in the same Marine uniform as the others and he's blond like Bill Paxton, who admittedly gets some of the film's best lines (say "Game over, man, game over!" in your best Paxton whine at any film kid gathering and immediately you shall be welcomed into the fold with open arms). But watch his performance and you'll see the little grace notes he adds that shine throughout the whole movie--if you're paying close enough attention to catch them.

At dinner, he stares at Ripley while the others are dismissing her; she catches his gaze and blushes (and it takes one hell of a man to make Ellen Ripley blush). In the debriefing seminar he sits in the back of the group, but when Vasquez says "I only wanna know one thing, man...where they are," you can see him mouth the words along with her--for those that see it we immediately know that this is a group who has been living and fighting together for a long while and he, like the others, has his place within the pack. As they drop down to the infested planet LV-426, Paxton whoops and yells, "We're on an express elevator to Hell--going DOWN!" (another greatest line, and one that my younger sister repeated to me as we teetered at the summit of Texas's tallest rollercoaster--I half-screamed, half-laughed all the way down). Ellen closes her eyes as they plummet to the surface, gritting her teeth, clearly wishing that it was all over. And Hicks? In a brilliant cutaway, we see that he's fallen fast asleep, mouth slightly open as the ship hurtles down to the planet. Who doesn't love a guy like that? It takes an inventive mind to use falling asleep as a way to illustrate the bad-assity of a character, but Cameron and Biehn succeed brilliantly--not to mention the scene is played out for a great laugh. Once they land, they're called out to assemble. "Somebody wake up Hicks," the Sergeant orders disgustedly. Apparently, this is a frequent occurrence.

And all through the film you catch Hicks stealing glances at Ripley and is consistently the only one who listens to her or backs her up on anything. He's tender and patient with little Newt, and when most of the other soldiers have been killed and it's brought up that he now has seniority over the operation, he accepts the responsibility with a reluctant "Yeah..." He's both respectful of Ripley ("I can take care of myself," she tells him flirtatiously. "Yeah, I noticed," he mutters, hiding a grin) and equal to her--his idea of courtship is showing her how to use a pump-action plasma rifle and on more than one occasion proves that he can more than handle himself in a fight. The only thing that takes this man down is when he gets squirted with alien acid blood that eats through his armor. This is, it must be noted, after he literally shoves his rifle down the throat of the alien as it claws its way into the elevator with him and Ripley, grunts "Eat this," and blasts its head off. This from the same guy who gently chides, "Don't touch that honey, it's dangerous," when he catches Newt playing with one of the soldiers' weapons. He is the ultimate thinking woman's space Marine.

So there you have the thoughtful, stoic, badass glory that is Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks. Action heroes like this are few and far between nowadays--men who are willing to work alongside their female allies as equals instead of trying to best them or get them into bed, who do instead of boast, who can be quiet and almost sweet, yet utterly fearless in battle. Maybe it's because those nuances are decidedly subtle for an action film, perhaps because audiences are primed for shows of bravado to tell them who they should be rooting for that Biehn's work in this film has gone under the radar. But watch the film again and see how he slowly separates himself from the pack of Marines to stand side by side with Ripley all the way to the end. And see how, in the last shots of the film, you have this wonderful image of a futuristic nuclear family emerging from the horror and bloodshed of their experiences on the planet: a man, a woman, a child...and their chewed-up, half obliterated android.

Honorable mention: The Sheriff, Thanksgiving Trailer

Little needs to be said about this except that Biehn's ten seconds (starting around 2:04) are among the best in this entire trailer. NSFW. 

And that, dear reader, is why I love Michael Biehn and why you should too.

For further watching, check out Tombstone, The Rock, Grindhouse (Planet Terror), The Magnificent Seven (TV series). Spread the love.