Drowning In Stereotypes -- `Navy Seals' Is Strictly By-The-Numbers Fare

X 1/2 ``Navy SEALs,'' with Charlie Sheen, Michael Biehn, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Rick Rossovich, Bill Paxton. Directed by Lewis Teague, from a script by Chuck Pfaffer and Gary Goldman. Alderwood, Crossroads, Factoria, Gateway, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Varsity. ``R'' - Restricted, due to language, violence.

At the movies, this summer has turned into open season on minorities. Andrew Dice Clay's ``Adventures of Ford Fairlane'' may lead the pack, but he's not the only offender.

Just a couple of months ago, a black bus driver's terminal disease was treated as a slapstick joke in ``Short Time.'' Mel Gibson's black friend gratuitously bought the farm in the opening reel of ``Bird on a Wire,'' a movie that has also drawn protests for its stereotyping of gay hairdressers. ``Robocop 2'' relentlessly ridicules a bozo black mayor who comes shockingly close to Stepin Fetchit stereotypes.

But perhaps the most irritating of this group is ``Navy SEALs,'' a new Rambo-style thriller in which Charlie Sheen plays a member of a Navy commando unit assigned to the Middle East (SEALs are top-secret, specially trained Navy men who perform on sea, air or land - frogmen in an earlier military incarnation). Sheen's daredevil, trigger-happy tactics are ultimately validated, and his unambiguously racist references to ``Japs'' and ``Ragheads'' are treated as cute affectations.

It's no surprise when the most expendable of the script's central characters turn out to be black or female or members of other minorities. An ace reporter of Lebanese descent, played by Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, is important to the plot only as long as the Navy men can't land her in the sack or use her as a spy.

Orion Pictures, which produced this by-the-numbers potboiler, was initially refused cooperation by the Navy because Sheen's character is so irresponsible that he would have been court-martialed in real life (a spokesman for the Navy Office of Information called him ``belligerent and unprofessional''). When the script was toned down, the Navy changed its tune, at least to the extent of allowing three days of shooting at a Virginia naval base.

But if Sheen's character is less objectionable in this version, how much worse could he have been in the original? To its credit, the movie does play around with the notion that Sheen may be immature and unreliable, while the leader of the SEALs is a careful, seasoned, humanistic sort who thinks before he acts.

But this character, played by Michael Biehn, doesn't live up to Sheen's - or the movie's - standards of manhood. Despite his considerable experience in the Middle East, he's treated as something of a failure for his caution. In the end, the script implies, it's better to shoot first and ask questions later.

``Navy SEALs'' was directed by Lewis Teague, an old pro with action films (``Jewel of the Nile,'' ``Cujo'') who generates some tension in the big set pieces, particularly a gut-busting finale set in Beirut. He also allows Whalley-Kilmer enough room to give the ultimately expendable reporter a measure of intelligence and dignity, and he gets solid work out of Biehn and Sheen.

Unfortunately, he's working from a cliche-choked, insensitive script, written by Gary Goldman (``Big Trouble in Little China'') and Chuck Pfaffer (``Dark Man''), that makes a point of stirring up old prejudices.