For Freedom, For America, For DTV Movies: The U.S. Seals Trilogy

With the help of a collection of creatives, Dave looks back at Nu Image’s tent-pole military hardware trifecta.

“Military hardware movies were so popular back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, with the biggest markets being Japan and Germany,” reflects DTV screenwriter par excellence Steve Latshaw. “Most of these films were budgeted at $1.3million, and, with that in mind, an HBO premiere alone would pull the majority of that back. Add the aforementioned countries into the mix, who’d both be in four hundred grand each, then companies like Royal Oaks, Cinetel and Nu Image would be well into profit – and quickly!”

Within this mode, the prolific Andrew Stevens was hot out of the traps with Crash Dive (1996), which he produced and directed for his own company, Royal Oaks. Ever-enterprising, Stevens followed this Michael Dudikoff-led submarine spectacular by producing more underwater adventure romps, among them: the Gary Busey-starring Steel Sharks (1997), the Fred Olen Ray-directed Rapid Assault (1997), and Strategic Command (1997) with a returning Michael Dudikoff. CineTel lagged behind a little, firing up their debut movie missile in the form of John Terlesky and Jim Wynorski’s The Pandora Project (1998), before Wynorski delivered them his impeccable troop-based twosome of Stealth Fighter (1999) and Militia (2000) solo. 

Nu Image, on the other hand, saw opportunity in a franchise. And with former Cannon regular Sam Firstenberg at the helm, they aimed the first Operation Delta Force (1997) at the lucrative target of HBO and hit the bullseye. Premiering in late ’97, Operation Delta Force spawned four sequels in five years, and, for Nu Image boss Avi Lerner and his associates, Trevor Short, Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, and brother Danny, this SEAL-based programmer was the ideal aperitif for another series that’s quite possibly the pinnacle of the entire military hardware epoch:

The U.S. SEALS Trilogy. 

“We prepped for two weeks, shot for two months, and all in all it did rather well!”

A vast understatement from Jim Fitzpatrick, who took the lead role in the first U.S. SEALS (1999).

Fitzpatrick plays Mike Bradley: the tanned and toned leader of an elite band of Navy SEALs who, in the wake of his wife’s assassination, agrees to One Last Mission™ in order to take down the nefarious terrorist Cane Whitlock (J. Kenneth Campbell). 

“I think the film has taken roughly $45 million, which for a $1.5 million budget is remarkable. But then writer-producer Danny Lerner and director Yossi Wein are awesome guys. They always asked me my opinion since I was the lead actor, and they were truly concerned with my creative input.” 

Alas, they’re also dearly departed. Having gone on to be a major Hollywood player, the Israeli-born Danny Lerner sadly died of cancer aged 63 in 2015, while Polish native Yossi Wein predeceased him by just over a month. Fitzpatrick remembers them both fondly:

We ate lunches together and hung out almost every night. They were just so good-hearted and hard-working. We had many late-night conversations about life and the industry. Two good ol’ boys!”

For Wein, U.S. Seals was the busiest time of his career. The film came slap-bang between him directing the second and fifth chapters of the Operation Delta Force series. In the same period he also shot Shark Attack 2 (2000) for David Worth, while twelve months later he was working second unit on Sheldon Lettich’s Van Damme slammer The Order (2001). Unfairly shrugged off as a journeyman/ jack of all trades due to his willingness to move up and down the behind-the-scenes pecking order (his resume reads from cinematographer to director, with third camera assistant and additional unit jobs peppered in between), Wein was nevertheless a prolific technician more than capable of delivering fine cinematic imagery. And by all accounts, he was a nice guy too: 

“Yossi was so laid back and lovely,” recalls US Seals cast member James Hicks. “Although he did say that he’d never worked with a more harmonious and ego-free cast!”

Indeed, the ensemble plays a huge part in Wein’s movie. Far from a generic collection of beige interchangeables, Bradley’s quintet of troops have character, charisma and closeness – and Hicks was there to witness it from day one. 

“I was originally up for the lead bad guy, but they thought I’d fit better in the SEAL team, even though it meant them rewriting a Latino character to fit my pale peroxide blonde self into the part of Conrad. Once we arrived in Bulgaria everyone hit it off immediately, including native actors like Velizar Binev, who was a real joy despite his somewhat scary appearance! We did work hard, but most evenings we’d find the time to eat and drink together, and there was a lot of horseplay too.”

“The shoot moved along at pace, which occasionally meant we let a few things slide. For example, on the first day of filming, Justin Williams and I are in the train yard. Our characters have just dived through the window of a moving train (real glass I might add – hard ass Bulgarian stuntmen), and we’re being pursued by a small army. In my hand I proudly clutch a huge, sleek, silver handgun. We move into the train shed, and I go to blast a couple of hapless bad dudes. Click! Click! The gun jams. Second take. Click! Click! The gun jams again. “Get James another gun!” shouts Yossi. To my disappointment, the huge silver beast is replaced with a small black Glock. I mention to Yossi about continuity, but he comes back with “Oh, no one will notice!” And sure enough, the miraculous gun transformation has never been spotted!”

Wayward props aside, U.S. Seals must be lauded for its sheer efficiency. Granted, when any motion picture teeters on the brink of (stifles yawn) ‘cult status’, it’s hardly an adjective that gets bums on seats, but for a conveyor belt studio like Nu Image, it’s undoubtedly the height of success. Nary a word is wasted in David Sparling’s lean script, and Wein detonates and extravasates a lavish array of machinery and weapons while maintaining firm control of the action. 

The finest moment is saved for the last reel, as Campbell’s snarling performance as uber-villain Whitlock reaches its crescendo, delivering a monologue worthy of a David Mamet movie, surrounded by a rusting, steel-clad industrial landscape that hopefully earned the location scout a multi-picture deal. 

“It was a hoot working with Nu Image,” remembers Hicks. “The film – well, it is what it is, but it was one of their most lucrative successes, and the camaraderie was second to none. I was offered the sequel, which meant I would have stayed and started shooting almost immediately in the snowy mountains, but I had a young son back in England and felt he needed his Dad with him.”

Shot predominantly in Sofia, with a little second unit work in San Francisco, U.S. Seals hit the home entertainment shelves of America on June 27th, 2000 and lit up the rental charts with gusto. Less than a year later it would have U.S. SEALS 2 (2001) alongside it for company – and while both share thematic, economic, and the odd personnel connection (like Burnell Tucker as Admiral Travis), this follow-on would take the Nu Image template and drag it through the shredder. 

James Hicks, Greg Collins, Ty Miller and Justin Williams in U.S. Seals

“Well, I did see the first movie,” ponders U.S. Seals 2’s screenwriter, Michael Weiss. “But much of the specific story direction came from Boaz Davidson in terms of the hero and the mission. He was quite content about the lack of connection to the first movie, providing that it still incorporated the SEAL team on an operation. In terms of the hand-to-hand combat, well that was a mix of Boaz and Danny. Oh, and Isaac of course. Definitely Isaac!”

The Isaac in question is, of course, none other than high-kicking, wall-slamming, bone-crunching genre icon Isaac Florentine. Born in Israel and seduced by the cinema of Sergio Leone and Bruce Lee throughout his adolescence, he was five films deep into a career that would go on to spawn the lip-smacking Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006) and Ninja (2009) when U.S. Seals 2 came calling.

“Dave, it was done twenty-one years ago!” exclaimed Florentine when I contacted him to contribute to this round-up. “I’m not sure I have that much to tell!” 

Thankfully, Florentine picked a lead actor in the form of Michael Worth who was equipped with a photographic memory of everything that went down in Eastern Europe.

“I only wanted to do the film because of Isaac,” asserts Worth, a Philadelphia born performer whose first lead role came in Final Impact (1992) for Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi. “I had seen a couple of Isaac’s films, and I was impressed with his energetic style. I read the script, thought it was crazy, and became intrigued as to how he might do it. I had one meeting with him in Santa Monica where I read some lines, threw some kicks for the camera, and that was it. As I left he told me to re-watch Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), which I was very familiar with as I was a big Leone fan. Initially he had wanted me to do Charles Bronson in Leone’s film, but I was able to tweak that a little through production, as I felt it didn’t match the character I was playing all that well.”

There’s a good reason for Florentine summoning the spirit of the Spaghetti Western, and that’s because U.S. Seals 2 fits his bizarre fusion of East meets West, albeit with a European stopover. Worth is Lt. Casey Sheppard: a SEAL who’s faced with a former colleague (in the form of Damien Chapa’s Frank Ratliff) who goes rogue, heads to the island of Okinawa, kidnaps a scientist, and prepares a nuclear strike against his homeland. Alas, for Sheppard, hopping back on board the SEAL wagon isn’t that simple. Florentine advances the story three years from its mission-heavy intro, and we discover Sheppard is a mere civilian with a penchant for welding in dungarees and a sweat-stained vest. The uniform is too hard to resist, though, and with the help of a hand-picked team of crack commandos, Sheppard soon heads out East to tackle his nemesis. 

For Worth, the whole process of shooting in Bulgaria was a blast, and like Jim Fitzpatrick and James Hicks before him, the rapport with his colleagues was a delight: 

“We all locked in right away and became friends, although the rehearsal time helped with that as we were able to have just over a week prior to shooting to practice a few sequences. Damien was funny, because we all gave him a hard time for being the Under Siege (1992) and Blood In, Blood Out (1993) guy. Like, he was a big movie star – he wasn’t much of a fighter, but at least he did his best to keep up! Karen Kim, God rest her soul, she really stole everyone’s heart during this movie. And there was Marshall Teague too, but we were already friends having done Richard Munchkin’s Fists of Iron (1995) together a few years prior. Bulgaria was great as well. It’s this interesting place where you have this clear-cut sense of sense of both the modern and ancient world all in one city. And it was hot.”

“Very hot!” Florentine interjects. “We did shoot it in the summer, though. In fact, I think my most vivid memory is when the second assistant director [Vania Bajdarova] fainted from the heat and hadn’t been drinking enough water! Other than that, it was a really pleasant experience.”

Hatching a plan for the island to have been struck by a natural gas leak, so rendering hand-to-hand combat as the only safe means of skirmish, is a perfect (if fanciful) means to utilise all of Florentine’s best attributes. U.S. Seals 2 is a bruisingly brutal ninety minutes with some mesmeric action set pieces, and some fine stunt play (mostly orchestrated by Andy Cheng) – all of which enables the director to ladle on some Hong Kong-style combat alongside the ‘Oorah’-shouting masculinity. 

Does U.S. Seals 2 fit into the franchise? Yes, if a little crudely. It’s like the matinee idol middle son in a family of Peter Lorres. But such a concern is irrelevant anyway, as the opportunity to have Florentine’s fingerprints on what could have been a humdrum sequel is enough reason to laud this bombastic anomaly. It’s a thought which is echoed by the participants: 

“He’s a true martial arts master” remarks Weiss. “I’m sure the concept of the gas leak was solely to allow him to work as much martial arts as possible into the film. He brings an authenticity to the action that was just so cool to be part of.”

“Isaac was very intense, too,” adds Worth. “But at the same time he was so considerate and aware. If he sneezes, he apologises to the whole room. He was a total character and his style of directing was very energetic, whereby he’d act out everything regarding how he’d want you to move. There were very specific physical aspects to the sequences. We were just so endeared by him as he was so easy to work for. The last time I saw him was at the premiere. It was held at The Harmony Gold Theater in Los Angeles. Everyone was there! It was a really packed house, and I even remember seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme in the audience too. I remember all the ‘woosh’ sound effects during the fight sequences drawing cheers from everyone watching it, and later Isaac came up to me (as I had always given him a hard time about that) and he said “See Michael, they loved those effects”. How can you deny him, right?”

Karen Kim and Michael Worth in U.S. Seals 2

Although the first and second entry in the series could be connected by a character like Admiral Travis, that same similarity was not so apparent for U.S. SEALS: DEAD OR ALIVE (2002)aka ‘Frogmen: Operation Stormbringer’. The eagle-eyed among you, however, will spy a link behind the scenes, with the first sequel’s first assistant director graduating to the top spot for the threequel – Franklin A. Vallette. 

“Do you know Franklin’s grandfather was Franklin Adreon?” asks Dead or Alive scripter Steve Latshaw. “He worked for Republic Pictures in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and directed the last six Republic serials. After we wrapped I bought him a copy of Republic Pictures: The Studio, a big coffee table book by Jack Mathis about the history of the place. I wanted to say thanks for the gig, and how nice it was writing for a larger budget and longer schedule than I was used to with Andrew Stevens at Franchise/Phoenician or Paul Hertzberg at Cinetel.”

Vallette was a well-established pro in the world of movies on a shoestring budget. He began his career as a PA on Cobra (1986) before moving onto being a second assistant director on David DeCoteau’s Beach Babes from Beyond (1993), first ADing on Roger Corman’s In the Heat of Passion II: Unfaithful (1994), and then chalking up some megaphone-holding experience directing Pleasurecraft (1999) – a boobtastic quickie for Charlie Band’s sexy Full Moon offshoot, Surrender Cinema. Nevertheless, Vallette pulled a wise move by selecting action dab-hand Latshaw as his wingman: 

“I had known Franklin from a number of Fred Olen Ray movies I’d written that he’d worked on, so he asked me to write the film because he liked my work. As it happens, he later told me that he’d mistakenly thought I’d written Fred’s western, The Shooter (1997). Admittedly, I’d been on set a few days because my son Ryan was an actor in it, but I didn’t write it. I wish I did, mind – The Shooter was an excellent script!”

“Anyway, as soon as I was on-board, I had a few short and sweet meetings with Danny Lerner, which mostly pertained to how I should shape the script for production in Romania, what hardware we’d have access to, and what level of production value and action we could afford. I was a veteran of these kind of films by that point, and I knew I had to write for the budget. However, Nu Image really opened my eyes to how much further the dollar could be stretched. In 2000, $1.3 million would buy you fourteen days in Los Angeles, but in Romania it got you at least thirty-two days! We were allowed all the military equipment we could use, and they’d even let us blow it up.”

Latshaw’s script is clever, as the latest collection of SEALs, led by good-looking superior Captain Rick Jeffries (Tyler Christopher), are off to hunt down the world’s most feared terrorist (Bentley Mitchum) before his ruse to purchase an old Cold War weapon of mass destruction from the Albanians pays off. However, unbeknown to the troops, this harbinger of carnage (named Casper – the friendly terrorist perhaps?) has already infiltrated their unit, and he’ll stop at nothing to ensure that his scheme won’t be interrupted. 

“I think it was Danny who came up with the idea of the team going after a difficult-to-find international terrorist, while I came up with the concept of him being one of ours. I had to include a submarine for landing the team and extraction, but the rest of it was pretty much left to me. Well, except for a rather insistent note from Danny that stated ‘No bullshit Hollywood heroics!’ He’d served in the Israeli military, and he wanted these characters to be treated like real soldiers and real people. He didn’t want Sgt. Fury-style stereotypes.”

And for the most part, Mr. Lerner got what he wanted. Dead or Alive is a subdued affair, especially in terms of bombast and explosivity, but cinematographer Don E. FauntLeRoy paints the film with a grittier palette compared to the glossy gung-ho anarchy of the previous two SEAL chapters. 

Indeed, in terms of tone, structure and narrative, Latshaw’s biggest challenge was dealing with what came before. After all, how could he and Vallette top the balls-out, wall-to-wall mania of its predecessor? Well, the answer was to not even try. And in playing safe and cosying up snugly to a well-worn game-plan, they crafted the ideal antidote to Florentine’s hedonistic all-nighter, with a tentative and slightly delicate morning after flick that assuredly reverted the franchise back to ground zero.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s