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Take Three: Michael Biehn

Craig from Dark Eye Socket here with Take Three 

The 1980s. Male. Character actor. Sci-fi. Aliens from deep, dark space and the deep blue sea and robots from the future. All under the tutelage of James Cameron. Today: It's Mr. Michael Biehn

Take One: The Terminator (1984)
It’s a good thing the T-800 didn’t find Sarah Connor any sooner than he did. He would’ve consequently deprived us of all that full-throttle Biehn action and indeed made The Terminator a very short movie, nay, franchise. (Found her! The end.) As the main man from future times, resistance fighter Sgt. Kyle Reese is electrically plonked down butt-naked from post-apocalyptic LA, circa 2029, to present-day 1984 to protect poor baffled Linda Hamilton. Biehn delivers a sturdy yet tender supporting turn. The Austrian Oak was obviously the big draw but this film triggered Biehn's signature part: the slightly wracked, occasionally cracked and often knackered hero.

Looking like a conspiracy-expounding tramp and armed with only a raincoat-concealed shotgun and an advantageous prescience, Biehn wastes no time finding his quarry. Hamilton and Biehn exerted sudden panic and impromptu connectivity believably together, making for an endearing sci-fi pairing. Of course this closeness stretched only nearly to the end of the first film, but their legacy reached further. As in Aliens, Biehn is particularly chivalrous with his female co-star. Of course his role dictates as such, but it appears to come from an uncommon aspect of Biehn’s own screen persona: it’s in the way he furtively expresses himself in the film’s calmer moments as much as when, elsewhere, he’s as blisteringly kick-ass as we’ve seen of him over the years. He’s a generous almost-leading man and a physically astute presence.  

Take Two: Aliens
Next to Reese, Corporal Dwayne Hicks in Aliens is the part Biehn will likely be most fondly remembered for. He emerges from the hyper-snoozing throng of grunts aboard the Sulaco to be the chief military man to aid and abet our Ripley. Immediately he’s an amiable presence with his wry, room-pleasing comments

Looks like the new lieutenant's too good to eat with the rest of us grunts.

He's easy to warm to amid the nefariously hard marine banter. And when it comes to Ripley, he shoots downright puppyish looks her way at opportune moments throughout the film: he bats his eyelids at her.

The adoration is even clearer when he reiterates Ripley’s line 

I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit - it's the only way to be sure. 

I’ve often wondered, if circumstances been different would they have dated – but I always doubted it. Ultimately, their relationship was platonic, a hastily scrabbled together sibling-like bond. (He may have got to bed Sarah Connor, but not Ellen Ripley.)

He sees in Ripley someone who takes no bullshit and gets the job done. That obviously keeps Hicks keen, so he boldly steps up to her particularly badass level of expertise whilst quietly impressing her, too. (If the scene where he shows Ripley how to operate a pulse rifle isn’t one long, abashed tough-guy approach to heavy petting then I don’t know what is; gun talk seems to equate foreplay for Hicks.) She reciprocates his enthusiasm but as forward momentum: their connection, their tandem onward battle, was probably the thing that saw not only Hicks but also Ripley herself through to the end of their nightmare. Ripley’s a singular crusader, but she’s not without the indispensible assistance of her adoring, essential wingman.

Take Three: The Abyss (1989)
This time it’s warheads. From far off in deep space to deep below the ocean, Biehn sinks into The Abyss in Cameron’s ground-breaking, FX-spearheading sci-fi. He’s evil this time, as indicated by his sinister twitching moustache. (He couldn’t be a goody two-shoes for three Camerons in a row now, could he?) Lt. Hiram Coffey, a US Navy SEAL, has malignant ideas in mind when he plunges the depths with cranky Ed Harris and his estranged, headstrong wife Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Unbeknownst to all, Coffey wants to get his hands on the Trident nuclear missiles sunk on a downed sub – the others can lark about with those pesky seafaring alien entities. To call Biehn dastardly in The Abyss is putting it lightly - he’s downright vile. But it’s all kept keenly under wraps for just long enough, thanks to the way Biehn works his clammy performance magic.

His performance keeps the right paranoid spasms and sticky movements in check to effectively conveying the claustrophobic mood and work as the oily cog that keeps the plot itself on its ill course. If Cameron's film wasn’t going to have any scary aliens this time around, then a human presence had to pick up the evil baton; Biehn complies in fine style.

Biehn's relationships with the first two franchises didn't last. He was ditched in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (we can see him only in the special edition and director’s cut) and killed off within the opening titles of Alien³ . But in William Gibson’s early, rejected script draft of that film, Hicks shockingly replaced Ripley. But writer-producers, and long-time Alien leaders, Walter Hill and David Giler dispatched him. (Biehn still got paid.) Rumour has it that Biehn is pencilled in for both Terminator 5 and Avatar 2, his James Cameron trilogy may just become a quintet yet.

Three more (non-Cameron) films for the taking: Rampage (1987), Tombstone (1996), Grindhouse/Planet Terror (2007)

Related Links:
Dark Eye Socket: Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Aliens 
The Film Experience: The Terminator Tech•Noir  

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Reader Comments (9)

My favorite of his roles would be in the little seen 1988 film "In a Shallow Grave," an adaptation of one of my favorite books, by James Purdy (and sadly the only Purdy book to ever be filmed). It's not a perfect film. The book is more forthcoming in regard to the gay romance going on, but Biehn is very good in it.

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric Arvin

Eric -- i must check that out. I've always like Biehn but thought it was odd that no other filmmakers really latched on to him after Cameron. Nowadays if you're in a blockbuster or two you end up being in a blockbuster or 20 with limitless franchises offered you.

I loved him in the Abyss back in 1989 but i wonder if that performance might feel a little too large now.

anyway Craig, thanks for featuring him!

July 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I have such a crush on Michael Biehn! Love him in THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, though I have yet to see THE ABYSS. I kinda wish TOMBSTONE could just be about Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday's rivalry.

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

i wonder if that performance might feel a little too large now

He's not the best in show.

I can't believe this write-up doesn't bring up the Lauren Bacall movie from '81 The Fan where he receives a gay BJ and he was super hot back then.

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

It's a hard film to find ("In a Shallow Grave"). I don't think its on DVD, and VHS copies are scarce. Biehn plays a scarred war vet who lives alone on a farm. A young Patrick Dempsey plays the hired hand who Biehn falls in love with. The book is tragically romantic, and the film does its best. I would love to see a new version, though, now that having a gay theme doesn't mean death at the box office. Derek Jarman, I heard, was set to direct "Narrow Rooms", another classic Purdy work, before he died. That would have been something!

July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric Arvin

Eric -- wow. i want to see this now. Haven't even heard of it.

/3rtfull -- Also THE FAN is not on netflix damnit. I didn't realize i was missing two gay'ish Biehn moments -haha

alex -- i always wish Tombstone was a different movie than it is, too.

July 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

contented mind is the greatest blessing a man can enjoy in this world.-Burburry scarves

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBurburry scarves

i think someone should mention his supporting performance in The Rock... that scene between him and Ed Harris is still one of the best.

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterryan

And I cannot believe nobody mentioned his "gayest" film to date: The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, a 1984 tv movie, very Derek Jarmanish (if I may use this adjetive) in which he plays the title role and wears little to nothing in the whole movie. I had a big crush on him in my teens and never understood why he didn't become a bigger star. When I see him in direct to dvd flicks these days I get so sad.

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados
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