Or: Why I’m gay for the greatest actor of action cinema.
Michael Biehn is not only a great actor but a master of understatement whose acting style can be likened to Alec Guinness. Give that statement some thought before disregarding an action star. Biehn made the films he appeared in all the richer for his presence. Today he is still working, but relegated to crappy films (with the exception of Planet Terror), hardly the equal of his epochal triumphs.
The argument for Biehn’s greatness is in his natural style and relative restraint, which in hyperkinetic action films functions as a grounding influence, or a calm amidst the storm. His two greatest achievements are two of the greatest films of all time: Aliens and The Terminator. If you say Citizen Kane and Vertigo are greater, bear in mind you have seen Aliens about twenty times, and fell asleep during Citizen Kane. Twice.
Aliens is the follow-up to a horror film in which the monster antagonist numbers in the hundreds, and fights a group of marines armed with flamethrowers, nuclear weapons, and automatic cannons so fucking big they are attached to the soldiers wielding them. There is also a flying attack plane, a high-speed tank and a walking, badass robot. Conforming to one of ’80s cinemas finest conventions, the entire squad of marines are shit-talking, gun-totin’, and so brimmed with testosterone that the women soldiers each have three testicles. The Sarge awakens from hibernation and immediately lights a cigar, for fuck’s sake. This is all so ridiculous that the addition of Roddy Piper or a ninja armed with a gun firing laser-firing chainsaws would hardly seem out of place. Yet Aliens remains oddly touching for reasons that are difficult to explain – it just never seems this goofily over the top while watching it. The reason for this is not Ripley, who has morphed from a soccer mom in homely underwear in the first film into an ass-kicking protagonist who saves an entire company of marines. After being stuck in an escape pod with a seven-foot tall, other-worldly killing machine at the end of the first film, the only reasonable plot development would have been to have her take a job with better hours, health insurance and a crèche.
Anyway, I digress. What grounds Aliens and makes it something that grips you despite its farcical underpinnings is the presence of Corporal Hicks. He asks reasonable questions, never raises his voice unless shots are being fired, and sleeps during the planet drop sequence. Does this mean he has such an enormous cock that he drops ice cubes in the pants of fear? No, he is just doing his job, and getting some sleep when possible. When it comes time to wipe out the alien-infested facility, he merely repeats a phrase – “We take off, nuke the site from orbit. Only way to be sure.” When it’s time to execute Paul Reiser (I know, technically it’s always time to execute Paul Reiser), again his voice remains almost conversational – “Alright, we waste him. No offense.”
Action films can easily drown in the histrionic dialogue and near-constant shouting that tends to have a numbing effect. In the middle of the chaos, Biehn’s stoicism stops any danger of overkill. This allows us to relate to his character and become engrossed in the action, rather than the distancing effect a loud-mouthed superman would have on everything.
In The Terminator, his presence injects an even more ridiculous story with uncommon pathos. Killer robots travelling back in time to kill the mother of a resistance fighter who leads the human revolt against them in their present day sounds so stupid on paper it’s amazing that James Cameron ever secured the funding for the shoot. This is a story in which one could not possibly have an emotional investment. And yet, it all comes together, with the pitch-perfect casting of Schwarzenegger and some skillful direction. The moral center of the film, however, is the human soldier from the future, Kyle Reese, played by Biehn, who takes some horrible dialogue and turns it into gold.
“Terminators don’t feel pain. I do.”
Reese is obsessed with Sarah Connor, and nothing less than the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Action film heroes are usually invincible, and view their mission with a cavalier attitude since they already seem to know the good guys win. Biehn plays his character with a near-impossible urgency that only military experience prevents from becoming outright hysteria. Every exchange he has with an alien people from the past has the perfect tone.
Psychiatrist: “So why didn’t they send back a bomb or…”
Reese: “Only organic matter can go through.”
Psychiatrist: “But why -”
Reese: “I didn’t BUILD the fucking thing…”
Biehn imbues these deathless paragraphs with a single-minded drive, breathing life into normally boring exposition. Born in an underground cave, who knows only how to fight, survive, and suffer in silence. His only solace remains the photo that he carries for Sarah Connor, and the obsession for her that he confuses as love. This gives his character a combination of a reinforced concrete exterior and a childlike naiveté that makes such an unreal character all too real to the audience. The above conversation continues:
Psychiatrist: “So why -”
Reese: “Why am I talking to you – who’s in charge here?”
Psychiatrist: “I -”
Reese: “SHUT UP! That thing will find her, and when it does it will rip her fucking heart out!”
Exposition is subverted by passion, in turn overwhelmed by dread, because we know a bloodbath is approaching. As in Aliens, he remains a calming force upon what is otherwise a brutal and hopeless film. He is well aware that he is doomed, and perhaps the human race is doomed, but that is no reason to lose your cool. Fear and despair are of little use to his character, who finds that at least meeting the legend that filled him with obsession is worth the inevitable price.
Even lesser films like The Abyss or Navy Seals acquire a gravitas they do not deserve by the presence of Michael Biehn. He is an action hero with which people can identify. If his acting skill is not quite the method genius of Brando, it certainly compares to the natural feel of Alec Guinness’s performances. If you think this is a ridiculous statement, remember that Guinness is not known for his dexterity of playing eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, or his brilliant Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, but for his portrayal of a space samurai clad in his jammies and armed with a laser sword, Obi-wan Kenobi.
Compare ‘Old Ben’ sadly recounting the extermination of the Jedi with Reese trying to encourage Sarah Connor with the assurance that she is a legend, his love, and worthy of any sacrifice and consider this case closed.