What It’s About: A team of Navy SEALs must escape from an Iranian sub and free a captured chemical weapons expert.
Who It’s For: Billy Warlock.
I was drawn to this week’s Queue Review selection by its cast (Gary Busey, Billy Dee Williams, and Billy Warlock; two Billies!) and its title: Steel Sharks. To what could that title refer: perhaps submarines, or bullets, or the unrelenting drive of American Special Forces, or Gary Busey’s teeth? I would have to watch to find out. Little did I realize how topical the film I’d selected was. Yes, Netflix says this movie was made in 1997, but it just as easily could have been made tomorrow.
When Navy SEAL Team 2 is captured during the rescue of an American chemical weapons inspector behind enemy lines, they must escape from a deadly Iranian sub. The end credits of this movie reveal that the film had the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy, so I can only guess our military used this film as inspiration if not as an explicit battle plan when Team 6 eliminated Osama bin Laden. I’m not sure how Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s SEAL movie could be better or more accurate than this film, so my advice, if she’s reading this, is to just quit. Or, release her movie, but just make it two hours of a title card that reads, “Go see Steel Sharks. Love, Kat.” Also, I did not know Iran had subs, but they do. Or, I think they do? They might be poised right now, today, to attack U.S. warships in the Gulf. I read a story about that on a very suspect state-run Russian propaganda website. I’m not sure how accurate that website is, because it also had a 3,000-word story about how Vladimir Putin’s enormous member is also a curative wand that can detect both mineral deposits and dangerous radiation leaks. My point is that Steel Sharks is almost spooky in its topicality.
Unfortunately, Steel Sharks is also spooky in how boring it is, like it’s haunted by the Ghost of Quiet Repetitive Christmas Past. A reporter named Mack Nichol — which is a good name — informs us that a chemical weapons expert named John Van Tasset — another good name — has been kidnapped in Iran. As Van Tasset has presumably memorized the recipe for a really good nuclear bomb, he’s a Van Asset who has to be recovered immediately. Billy Dee Williams readies a SEAL team, but during a training run one of the team members gets acute appendicitis. This moment is treated with intense gravity, like the guy just got shot in his mouth by his 5-year-old son. Also, one of the other team members is able to spot the injury as soon as the guy hits the ground. “Sir, it’s acute appendicitis.” Their training must be really good.
Mr. Dee Williams needs a replacement team member, and fast. The film cuts to Billy Warlock, of Baywatch fame, putting flowers on the grave of his father at Arlington National Cemetery. Warlock is talking to his father’s grave, which remains one of the chillest ways a movie can lay on heavy doses of exposition for no reason. “Hi, Dad. It’s me, Billy, your son. You are dead, because of ‘Nam, but I am now a Navy SEAL. It was tough, and Hell Week almost killed me, but I graduated the top of my class. But I have issues with murdering people and wondering whether I am ready, but I want to make you proud, because you are dead and were also a SEAL. Why am I so short?” An officer interrupts him. Billy is needed as a replacement immediately. “Come with me,” the officer says, and leads him to a teal early-’90s Oldsmobile, which seems like a very strange vehicle with which to recruit someone to a top-secret mission of near global importance. Wasn’t there a jeep they could borrow or something?
The SEAL team heads to Gary Busey’s submarine to prepare for the mission. (I mean, it’s not Gary Busey’s personal submarine. That would be incredible, if that’s what this movie were about. “Men, luckily the actor Gary Busey has agreed to lend us his nuclear submarine, which he keeps in the Arabian Sea.” Instead, Busey plays Commander Bill McKay, and the submarine is property of the Navy. Disappointing.) I was genuinely excited for Busey’s introduction to the movie, and I resented every second of the movie leading up to it without him in it, but he is strangely and disappointingly reserved in this role. The poster for the film is all Busey snarls and teeth, but he calmly whispers his way through the entire movie. He seems nervous about something, like his parole officer is just off camera and a condition of his release is not chewing scenery, and he’s anxious about getting sent back to jail.
The SEAL team, after getting into their wet suits and making lots of grab-ass jokes about “two hours to insertion,” land on the “shores of Iran.” They infiltrate the Iranian base, which looks a lot like a UPS distribution center in the Valley. Even the Iranian National Guard look and act like UPS workers, except they wear red berets. If this chemical weapons expert is so valuable to the Iranians, you think they’d put more than three overweight guards on him, and have somebody outside the warehouse on lookout, and some security cameras.
With Dr. Van Tasset rescued, SEAL Team 2 moves to the extraction point, but they come under heavy fire outside the UPS warehouse. The team leader makes the decision to surrender, and an Iranian sub commander realizes he can put the prisoners on his sub to stop the Americans from attacking it. “Stow them aft,” he says. The commander also kills the SEAL team leader, whose name I forget.
From here begins a long, interminable slog toward their escape from the Iranian sub, intercut with Busey maneuvering his own sub into position. Absolutely nothing of interest happens, though it’s surprising how willing both the American prisoners and the Iranian “sailors” are to shoot guns willy-nilly all over this thing that’s underwater. It seems unwise to me? But please, go ahead. If you close your eyes at any point during this movie, and I did, numerous times, it sounds like a morning DJ made an Army movie soundboard and kept hitting buttons randomly. “We have a man down.” “ETA 15 minutes.” “Get me the latest intel reports.” “Double taps. That’s our boys.” Every time I did open my eyes, one of the SEAL team members was doing that thing where they silently make a fist and then point two fingers to their eyes and where they want somebody to look.
I found my mind wandering, constantly, and I think it’s relevant to this review. One of the team members is Mathew St. Patrick, who played Michael C. Hall’s handsome boyfriend in Six Feet Under. I watched the whole run of that show in a matter of weeks, and it was emotionally exhausting. Everybody on that show was such a selfish dink! But for some reason I always think of one particular scene, when St. Patrick is acting as Michelle Trachtenberg’s bodyguard, and she’s trying to ferret out that he’s gay. She remarks that he eats healthy, and he says that yeah, he tries to avoid fried food. And that’s how she knows! For some reason, that stuck with me, and every time I eat fried food, which is often, I’m like, a gay person apparently wouldn’t do that, and that’s why they all look great. (I am kidding. I realize none of these things are true. But I do think about that scene. Anyway, fitness is not about eliminating anything outright, it’s more about portion control. Like, I got an eggplant Parm sub delivered while I was watching Steel Sharks, and my plan was to save the second half for lunch today. Obviously I didn’t do that, because no one does that, but I definitely could have, because I was full after the first half.)
I go back to paying attention to the movie. Dr. Von Tasset has made some kind of fire bomb from the sub kitchen and sets some stairs ablaze. All the SEALs make that two-finger “look” motion. Billy Warlock seems nervous. Why was he listed third in the credits? He has very little do and is not even the most important SEAL. Is he famous? He was definitely on Baywatch. My mind is wandering again. Did he date Pamela Anderson in real life? Didn’t most of them? I don’t remember. Whenever I think of Baywatch, I think of Hobie Buchanan, David Hasselhoff’s son. That kid had a weird face, but I read this amazing article a long time ago that he (Jeremy Jackson) apparently became obsessed with MySpace, way after he should have. I decide to Google the article. I find it:
“In 2006, Jeremy Jackson — the buff, bronzed former Baywatch child star — couldn’t imagine a world without MySpace. He was a single, underemployed actor in Los Angeles, an exhibitionist in need of an audience, and MySpace filled almost every need. He spent hours every day on the edgy social network, which was known as a pop music hub where artists such as Lily Allen and My Chemical Romance helped launch their careers. Jackson had more than a thousand ‘friends.’ He sold trucker hats and flirted with women. His profile page was decorated with Trojan Magnum XL condoms. He was the poster child for the MySpace lifestyle.
“But things changed.
“‘I tried to cling to MySpace for a long time, hoping that someone there would come up with some idea to keep it alive,” says Jackson, 30. ‘But my assistants and business partners finally beat it into my head that it was a dead horse. It’s done. It’s a joke. If you do stuff on MySpace, you just look sad.'”
You’re right, Jeremy Jackson. You do look sad. This was the intro to an article on BusinessWeek. So chill. I look back at Steel Sharks. Billy Warlock is using his lucky quarter to get out of a tight situation. (It stopped a bullet earlier in the film.) How does he use the quarter? He flips it into the air and a guard looks at it, so he kicks the guard in the balls. Classic. What a lucky quarter. He scrambles to find the quarter, and a team member yells at him, “Forget the quarter. It was never lucky. You did it, not the quarter.” Aw. That’s the redemption I didn’t even realize I was waiting for. Then the team member says, “Now get in my stomach, asshole.” I think he says that? I certainly wasn’t going to rewind and double-check, but that is a weird thing to say. That is some next-level homophobic weirdness, but I approve.
Everybody escapes, and they are all heroes. The film ends with Billy Dee and Gary Busey meeting the SEAL team and Dr. Van Tasset. They take a moment to remember their team leader. “To absent friends.” The movie ends with them saying, “To absent friends,” with their heads bowed. That is very poignant. Pour one out for all our friends who are absent.
When You Should Watch It: When your friends are absent.