Top 10 Most Badass Movie Navy SEALs

by Warren Cantrell on January 13, 2015

in Top 10s

This week sees the wide release of director Clint Eastwood’s newest film, American Sniper, which concerns itself with the story of real-life U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Hollywood has showcased the Navy’s premiere Special Forces squad in dozens of films throughout the years, yet a few portrayals have stood out as particularly memorable. Today’s list is a celebration of the movies that took the time to feature Navy SEALS in a badass fashion, and ranked them based on the unique flavor and lasting impression these characters made.

The more time the movie in question spent with the SEAL, the better; what’s more, a character’s ranking increased with their resourcefulness, intelligence, on-screen accomplishments, and their reliability in a pinch. To make the cut, the featured SEAL(S) had to have been played by an actor in a commercially released film, so real-life portrayals were not allowed (as that wouldn’t have been fair to actors who simply played a part). This meant that Act of Valor was disqualified, for while it did a fine job portraying real-life Special Forces tactics, the picture was aided in no small part by the actual Navy SEALS who performed in the featured roles. In real life, these “frog men” are the absolute cream of the crop: the crème de la crème of the United States’ Special Forces community, so they deserved nothing but the very best when evaluating their movie brethren today. It was for this reason that our #10 choice fell in at such a lowly spot, as the movie featured the Navy’s elite class of bad-asses so quickly that audiences only got to enjoy their presence for a few fleeting moments…

10. SEAL Team 6 from The Interview (2014)

This one just barely qualified for today’s ranking, but it managed to sneak in. Why? Fuck North Korea, that’s why. The day a bunch of totalitarian assholes gets over on the U.S. and its artistic community is the day this particular author takes to the hills to fight the good fight, Red Dawn-style (the 1984 version). It was never going to come close to that, however, for despite Sony’s initial panic, the company did the right thing and made The Interview available to audiences. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month and a half, you know that the movie is about a celebrity journalist, Dave Skylark (James Franco), and his producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), travelling to North Korea to conduct an interview with Kim Jong-un. Since the interview promised a rare opportunity to get near the North Korean leader, the C.I.A. convinced Dave and Aaron to assassinate Kim during their visit; hilarity ensued.

Most of the jokes were rooted in Dave’s imbecility, and the man’s lack of appreciation for how dangerous Kim really was. For example, he told the C.I.A. analyst that briefed him that he could just stroll in, murder Kim, take a few hits in his bullet-proof vest, escape down a secret tunnel, and then emerge into the friendly arms of some Navy SEALS, who could whisk him away to safety. The Langley analyst shit all over this idea as impractical and moronic, yet as events developed later on, this is pretty much how it all played out. Dave did indeed take a round in a concealed vest, only to then make his way down a secret tunnel where, after he exited, SEAL Team 6 was waiting to escort him to the extraction point. The Navy’s elite squad was dressed in North Korean garb to conceal their true identities, yet when they emerged from the forest, they announced themselves as Americans, and were ready to rock. They got Dave and Aaron (and the puppy) out safe and sound, which capped off a successful mission to eliminate an evil dictator. For SEALS, in a movie or otherwise, that’s a damn fine day.

9. Sniper SEALS from Captain Phillips (2013)

It didn’t take more than a handful of hours for the world to learn about the unparalleled bad-assery that was on display, Navy SEAL-style, during the Maersk Alabama hostage crisis of 2009. Captain Phillips recounted the real-life events that surrounded the hijacking of the Alabama, and the decisions the boat’s skipper made to keep the ship and crew in one piece. The Alabama and her captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), were set upon by an armed band of Somali pirates when the container ship passed through the Gulf of Aden, a confrontation that led to a tense standoff between Phillips and the pirate leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Phillips and his crew had prepared for just such a situation, and through a series of cunning half-truths, full-deceptions, and a little misdirection, Phillips and his crew put themselves in a position where they were able to turn the tables on their would-be kidnappers.

There were a few hitches along the way, however: chief among them the double-cross Muse pulled after Phillips negotiated something of a truce. Although Muse had agreed to leave the Alabama if Phillips and his crew allowed it, the Somali went back on his word at the last moment, and took Phillips along as a hostage. This left Phillips all alone with the four pirates in the Alabama’s motorized life raft, which meant an elite U.S. military operation at sea was called for. The bread and butter of the SEAL community, a squad was dispatched to handle the situation’s finer points, which is exactly what they did. At the crucial moment, three SEAL snipers took three independent shots from the tail of a U.S. Navy Destroyer, and all three rounds found a home. The precision and skill required to pull off so demanding a shot spoke volumes about the deadly and reliable nature of the SEALS, and saved the life of the film’s hero. For this, the three sniper SEALS got a nod at #9.

8. Colin Farrell from S.W.A.T. (2003)

Oh, what a gloriously absurd and mantastic movie this was! S.W.A.T. began with a bank robbery, and the disgrace that fell upon two L.A.P.D. S.W.A.T. team members following their somewhat-botched rescue attempt. Although Officer Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner) stood by his actions, his partner, Jim Street (Colin Farrell), was repentant. Consequently, while Gamble found himself drummed out the force, after a few months Street had worked his way back up to a point where he could try out for another S.W.A.T. team, an opportunity he didn’t squander. S.W.A.T. proceeded down this narrative path for a while, and tracked Street’s efforts to join and later bind together a new special weapons and tactics squad, all while the movie laid the groundwork for its B-plot about a renegade French drug-lord/terrorist on a social visit to L.A.

Jim Street always remained front-and-center, however, as the movie set him up as a resilient bad-ass with a shadowy Navy SEAL background. A scene early on that featured the cops dicking around on a firing range established Street as a magnificent marksman, and the guy’s tactical ingenuity was put on display a number of times (the jumbo jet test and the Polish hostage situation, for example). Street was fearless, cunning, totally capable in all things, yet honorable and honest. And while he shied away from talking about his previous work with the SEALS, S.W.A.T. established beyond any reasonable doubt that the man had indeed served with that elite unit. So, for representing the best ideals of a SEAL in a civilian setting, Farrell slid in at #8, just behind this next operator, who actually got some screen-time as an active member of the Navy’s most elite unit …

7.) Demi Moore from G.I. Jane (1997)

Oh, come on: it wasn’t that bad. Sure, you might shit-talk G.I. Jane when all your friends are around, tossing around some late-1990s movie shop-talk, yet when TBS shows it on lazy Sunday afternoons, it’s a tough one to pass up. For starters, it was one of the only films that gave audiences an extended look at the notoriously brutal SEAL training, for it followed a fictional woman’s attempt to become the first ever female Navy SEAL. This meant that viewers got a taste of the exhaustive day-and-night training sessions that have driven a vast majority of real-life SEAL candidates out of the program. The female Naval officer, Lt. Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore), who signed up for the SEAL program suffered alongside the other prospective candidates, yet chaffed under the affirmative action-bias of her training. While her C/O, Command Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen), was plenty tough on her, certain accommodations were made so as to make her training easier (presumably because she was a woman, and needed the help to balance things out).

Lt. O’Neil wanted to earn her way into the SEALS without any special considerations, both for her own sake, but also because she felt that she’d never be fully accepted into the Special Forces community if people thought she had used training wheels to get there. To this end, O’Neil saw to it that all special considerations for her training were eliminated, and she eventually passed the course and earned the respect of her fellow SEALS. This she did via her tough-as-nails demeanor, salty attitude, and courage under fire (she saved Urgayle from some Libyan baddies near the end). G.I. Jane may have been a bit over-the-top in terms of in-your-face dialogue, hammy acting, and pretentious intent, yet as a character, Lt. O’Neil demonstrated the tough resilience and master-of-all-things-warfare SEAL character audiences have come to expect from these movie cut-outs. For something a bit more traditional and classic in this regard, we ought to take a moment to talk about …

6. Bruce Willis from Tears of the Sun (2003)

Pretty goddamned heavy-handed in its message, especially considering the time of its release (2003 was the year the U.S. decided to invade Iraq as part of its war on terror), Tears of the Sun nevertheless did right by its SEAL characters. The film’s central conflict centered around a Nigerian village that was in danger of being razed by a group of murderous rebel soldiers. Lt. Waters (Bruce Willis) and his SEAL squad was sent in to extract an American doctor before she found herself caught up in the violence, yet when Waters and his boys arrived, the saw-bones refused to leave without her patients. This presented Waters with a dilemma, as he was only cleared to escort the doctor and a few clergy out of the hot zone, not the better part of a small village. And although Waters made a play at duping the doctor early on, when he realized that all the people they’d left behind would be butchered, he decided to take a stand.

To this end, Waters and his SEAL squad walked the patients to the Cameroon border, a cumbersome task made even more difficult by the pursuing rebels. Waters handled the crisis like a boss, however, and used stealth, cunning, precision, and good ol’ fashioned American grit to get the job done. On the way out of the hot zone, Waters managed to protect the patients, save a village, and fight off dozens of aggressors in a final stand that would have made George S. Patton crap his pants with pride. Sure, Waters and his men got a little help from a few F/A-18A Hornets, who dropped enough freedom-loving ordinance on the rebel pricks to level five city blocks, yet knowing how to ask for an assist (and the ability to effectively manage its rewards) is all a part of what makes a SEAL so damn magnificent. These guys do anything to get the job done, and more often than not (in the movies, anyway), that’s exactly what they do. Say, speaking of doing damn fine work in the name of Uncle Sam and apple pie, let’s chat for a few moments about…

5. SEAL Team 6 from Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Yet another group mention, but one that could not fairly be avoided, for the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden was a decidedly team effort. The first two-thirds of Zero Dark Thirty concerned itself with the intelligence and evidence gathering that led up to the mission to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist, yet that still left a good chunk of time for the “canaries” and their craft. When speaking to SEAL Team 6, C.I.A. analyst and Bin Laden expert Maya (Jessica Chastain) put a fine point on it, “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries.” Maya had the best canaries in the world on the case, however, for even among SEALS, some of the toughest, smartest, most skilled soldiers alive, SEAL Team 6 represents a higher level of bad-assery.

Zero Dark Thirty took special care to portray these SEALS as more than just elite soldiers, but also as rational, analytical, level-headed men. They didn’t just barge into an op. because it was a rush, they asked questions and, most importantly, made sure that their squad was protected and covered at all times. As one of the SEALS, Justin (Chris Pratt), demonstrated during his debriefing at Area 51, the guys wanted to know exactly how they would get in, get out, and precisely what they would find when there. These fellas were premier soldiers, to be sure, for their skilled infiltration of Bin Laden’s compound during the film’s third act was both frightening and jaw-dropping in its precision and efficiency. Yet what set this group apart was their humanity, their fallibility. Sure, these guys operated at the very peak of their potential as human beings, yet they also played horseshoe, listened to Tony Robbins, and got nervous in a shaky helicopter. If the movie had been a bit more Hollywood, and given its audience a central SEAL character to follow amongst the group, it might have moved up a little higher in the ranking, yet its insistence on featuring a group, and not an individual, ultimately earned it a heap more respect.

4. Mark Wahlberg from Lone Survivor (2013)

Yet another true story about SEALS kicking ass in the 21st century, the ordeal of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) was as brutal as it was inspirational. Lone Survivor, based on Luttrell’s book of the same name, recounted some of the events of Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission undertaken by the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. The film’s primary focus was on a group of four SEALS who were on a reconnaissance/surveillance mission in the country’s Hindu Kush region, and the unfortunate situation those soldiers found themselves in after their cover had been blown. Luttrell and his comrades decided to release a small family of goat herders when the locals stumbled upon the squad, a humanitarian decision that resulted in the scrambling of the regional Taliban collective. Luttrell and the other three operators fought valiantly, yet the overwhelming opposition wore them down after a valiant exchange.

Lone Survivor was unique for its honest on-screen duality, for while Luttrell and the SEALS were every bit the vaunted warriors their well-earned reputation might have suggested, they also bled red just like any other person. Sure, the SEALS fought with the ferocity and impact of a dozen men, yet they weren’t super-human or infallible: something that made their amazing accomplishments and actions all the more impressive. As for Luttrell, the guy was everything a movie-goer could hope for in a SEAL, for despite the fact that he was shot all to hell, and busted up damn-near beyond recognition from a few tumbles off a cliff, he was still game to fight, and ready to fuck up anybody who got in his way. Ranking Luttrell at so lowly a spot as #4 might seem insulting, yet one should consider the mantastic (and overtly Hollywood) nature of our top-3 contenders, who could have only existed in the movies…

3. Steven Seagal from Under Siege (1992)

If Jim Street from S.W.A.T. taught us nothing else, it was that a SEAL is a SEAL for life, no matter what anyone thinks. Chief Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) from Under Siege was certainly a pupil of this school, for the man remained “on the clock” no matter what the situation called for. Take, for example, his service aboard the battleship USS Missouri, where the former-SEAL was working as a lowly cook in the galley when a group of terrorists took over the boat. Despite the fact that Ryback had been drummed out of the SEAL community and busted down to cook, the guy was ready to rock and roll the second the shit hit the fan, as evidenced by the trail of corpses the soldier left in his wake wherever he went. Locked inside of an industrial freezer when two hitters came after him, Ryback got loose, killed his would-be attackers, then went Die Hard on the terrorists as a rogue operator working from the inside.

Ryback was everything movie audiences had/have come to expect from a SEAL in film, for he was resourceful (i.e., the microwave bomb), a weapons expert, a communications whiz, impossible to kill, and untouchable in hand-to-hand combat. Perpetually ready for action, Ryback ran headfirst into gunfights, actively pursued knife fights, and saved lives by the thousands like he was baking a goddamned cake. Put on the spot to stop the evil and well-planned machinations of a madman, Ryback took out something like a dozen baddies more or less single handedly in the same amount of time it takes normal folks to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Under Siege (and its woeful sequel) spent a great deal of time with this bad-ass Navy SEAL, a wise move considering the man’s capabilities, hence Ryback’s position here at #3, just behind another frog man with even more panache and flare…

2. Charlie Sheen from Navy SEALS (1990)

Although a real-life SEAL would probably tell you that the reckless, adrenaline junky operator that Charlie Sheen portrayed in 1990’s Navy SEALS is the stone-cold antithesis of what the elite Special Forces unit looks for in a member, the portrayal played up to a macho expectation films of that ilk and era respected. A Navy SEAL seemingly for no other reason than because he was addicted to the rush of the action, Lt. Hawkins (Charlie Sheen) treated his work with the premiere Special Forces squad like it was a coveted spot on the Varsity team. The more dangerous and dodgy a situation, the more at home Hawkins seemed to be, as evidenced by his enthusiasm both in the field and when dormant Stateside. Whether he was engaging hostiles against orders, jumping off bridges out of boredom, or running down a moving tow truck, the guy was at full throttle with a fire in his eyes. Granted, Charlie Sheen’s swaggering Yankee jock soldier and the film’s carefree warmongering earned Navy SEALS the critical distinction of being little more than a terrestrial version of Top Gun, and in this regard, the naysayers were more or less correct.

Yet just like Tom Cruise inspired countless thousands to join the Navy so that they might become fight pilots with hot girlfriends and a Kenny Loggins soundtrack, so too did Charlie Sheen embolden untold numbers of boys to someday try out for one of the armed forces’ toughest jobs. High altitude parachute drops, underwater knife fights, secret raids behind enemy lines, and soldiering with the very best one’s country has to offer: what’s not to love? Sure, the film made no qualms about the brutal attrition rate of the unit, and the horrible cost of war (in any form), yet Sheen made it out at the end of the day, which more or less meant that the cockier and tougher a SEAL, the better his chances of survival. True or not (okay, it’s almost certainly not true), it made for one hell of a movie archetype. What’s more, Navy SEALS also featured another actor who has played a member of that vaunted squad not once, or even twice, but THREE times!

1. Michael Biehn from Navy SEALS (1990), The Abyss (1989), and The Rock (1996)

Hold the goddamned phone a minute. If ever there was a person who was born to play a Navy SEAL in film, it was Michael Biehn. As just mentioned, he played Sheen’s squad leader in Navy SEALS, which was the second time in as many years that he was in a film where he dawned the gold Trident. Indeed, in 1989 he played Lt. Hiram Coffey in The Abyss, a role that saw Biehn explore some of the darker corners of a soldier’s fragile psyche. In that picture, Coffey and his unit were sent down to the bottom of the ocean to oversee the salvage of a nuclear submarine’s cargo. During the op., Coffey developed high-pressure nervous syndrome, which was the equivalent of underwater “cabin fever” (which is the equivalent of “good and fucked up”). Sure, when he tried to murder the innocent rig workers down there with him, or when he went rogue and tried to detonate a nuke, he wasn’t representing the best ideals of the Navy or its SEALS, yet nobody could argue against the man’s drive and capabilities. Sure, he went bat-shit insane, but as a SEAL, this just made him all the more dangerous.

Now, for a more honorable SEAL portrayal, one need only look to Biehn’s work in the aforementioned Navy SEALS, where he was the model of virtue, responsibility, poise, and patriotism. Likewise, his performance in 1996’s The Rock also painted him as a pious, duty-bound soldier with nothing but honor and love of country in his heart. In that film, Biehn played Commander Anderson, the leader of a SEAL squad that was sent into Alcatraz to diffuse a hostage situation. Although they managed to sneak onto the island undetected, Anderson and his men were made when they tried to emerge from the cavernous tunnels below the prison. Surrounded, outnumbered, and hopelessly trapped, Anderson refused to compromise right up to the end, and died with his honor (and his mission’s parameters) intact. Sure, his SEAL character went off the rails in The Abyss, yet Biehn’s refusal to play anything but the toughest, most durable SEAL possible on three separate occasions put him in a class all his own, hence his spot at #1 today.

 

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 daniel P October 23, 2015 at 2:45 am

Thanks gentlemen and ladies who give respect and importance to the special warfare units particularly the SEAL teams and Delta Force. Very seldom I watch movies more than once but with the exception of movies about these special kind of servicemen. I truly and respectfully wish for producers and film makers to continue making movies about these warrior gentlemen based on real life missions.
I thank you in advance.

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2 Kyler Brown May 6, 2016 at 10:59 am

I haven’t seen every one of these movies, but it was still fun to see this list. I particularly liked the squad that was chosen in Lone Survivor. I felt that the other three guys alongside Mark Wahlberg were all phenomenal. Thanks for sharing this post.

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3 ChinoF July 19, 2016 at 1:21 am

I remember Biehn from Command and Conquer Tiberian Sun as McNeil. One of my favorite roles for him so far.

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4 Jackie Lynn Vester August 29, 2016 at 3:31 pm

I can’t think of a better choice for the number 1 slot than the extremely gifted and so underrated Michael Connell Biehn. Superb choice. I love him!!! Not only the most bad ass actor of all time but just a superb actor!!!

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5 Shiv June 7, 2017 at 11:47 am

I admire and # Respects to Navy seals, I have a tatoo too in dedication of Navy seals , Thank you for all those movies.

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