Kevin: Heaven just got a little more foul-mouthed since the passing of America’s favorite abusive drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey, from complications from pneumonia yesterday at the age of 74. Disproving the axiom that there are no second acts in life, Ermey was medically discharged from the Marines in 1972, and while his subsequent stint as the owner of a Philippine brothel would be enough for most of us to retire on, Ermey soon set his sights on Hollywood, parlaying his military experience into small parts in Vietnam War dramas like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Boys in Company C.”
But while originally only hired as a technical adviser on “Full Metal Jacket,” Ermey famously wowed director Stanley Kubrick with a profane and extended audition tape, which led to him being cast in his most iconic role as the hardass drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant “Gunny” Hartman, who did something we’ve all wanted to do by punching Matthew Modine in the gut and wiping that smirk off his face:
Even though Ermey exits “Full Metal Jacket” at the halfway point he still completely dominates the film, and he contributed probably more hilariously profane one-liners per amount of screen time in Hollywood history (one of my favorites is still “If God wanted you up there, I’m sure he would have miracled your ass up there by now Private Pyle”). However, while it is slightly less well-regarded than Kubrick’s masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned Steven Seagal’s eco-thriller “On Deadly Ground” contains some of the finest “Ermey-isms” ever committed to celluloid, in this case when detailing why Seagal’s character Forrest Taft is someone who should not be fucked with.
Now the “here’s how awesome the hero is” speech was a staple of action films back in the day, from “Rambo: First Blood Part II” to “Lethal Weapon,” and usually came in one of two forms: 1) Some pencil-neck bureaucrat would slam a file down and say something like “Hey apparently this John Hardjustice fellow isn’t just a small-town sheriff like we thought, according to his file he was ex-Navy Seal AND ex-Green Beret, he has multiple medals for bravery and valor – including some whose existence is classified – and he was an All-Conference punt returner for Delaware State.” Or 2) A friend/mentor of the hero tries to convince the bad guys that John Hardjustice is the real deal and will not stop until his wife/daughter/third cousin etc. is safe.
Seagal was especially fond of this trope, as whether he was playing a cop or cook, his characters almost always turned out to have some sort of ex-military background, as well as the kind of skills the government needs when an operation can’t fail (which makes me wonder what are the operations the government would be fine with failing, and what loser gets those?). Either way, by 1994 you would think there was no way to make this kind of speech seem fresh, but not when you got R. Lee Ermey giving the following ode to the superhuman awesomeness of Forrest Taft:
The fact that a lot of what he says doesn’t make much sense does not detract from its power. For instance, why would he drink a gallon of gasoline to piss in your campfire? Is he doing that to be a dick, or is he trying to help keep the fire going? And if it’s the latter then why doesn’t he just pour the gas on directly? And if you are dropping him off at the Arctic Circle in bikini underwear, why does it matter whether he has his toothbrush or not? And why did I have to picture Steven Seagal in bikini underwear?!
Who cares, a great “Ermey-ism” doesn’t have to make sense, and oftentimes it’s better that they don’t. As we noted in our appreciation of Billy Bob Thornton’s tiny role as a conflicted mercenary in “On Deadly Ground,” it’s almost certain that Ermey improvised his epic soliloquy, and kudos to director Seagal for letting him off the leash. Considering that Ermey was one of the few actors that Kubrick would let write his own dialogue, we can say that their recognition of R. Lee Ermey’s awesomeness is probably the only thing that Stanley Kurbick and Steven Seagal share as directors.
Semper fi staff sergeant, whenever we hear a bell ring, hopefully that’s you in Heaven telling an angel “You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!”