'The Unit' Catches Fire

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When you say "David Mamet," you might think Broadway, Pulitzer Prizes, eloquent profanity (long before "Deadwood") and such celebrated works as "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross."

You might not think of torching a Mercedes at an abandoned ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif.

But there's Mamet, wearing a knit cap, scarf and boots, directing the last episode of season one of his first creation, "The Unit," which airs Tuesdays on CBS, right after another military drama, "NCIS."

The ranch is standing in for beautiful downtown Bosnia, where Sgt. Maj. Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert) and his Delta Force team (Scott Foley, Michael Irby, Damora Barnes) are preparing to stop an armored Mercedes full of bad guys.

As simulated by the magic of special effects, the method for doing this was invented by technical adviser Eric L. Haney, a co-writer on the episode with Mamet's sister Lynn, when he was a command sergeant major in Delta Force. The goal is to stop a car in the "kill zone" by blowing off its front wheels with buried charges.

According to Haney, previous methods included hitting the vehicle with a cement truck or shooting it with a rocket -- which tended to cause too much collateral damage.

After a safety meeting, everybody puts on ear protection, and the stunt goes off with a large bang and a satisfying thunk as the car drops onto its front bumper.

"Everything in the military," Haney says, "when you use explosives, you put the P factor in, which is P for 'plenty,' so you know it'll work."

Haney is also probably the reason that Haysbert's Blane is a sergeant major.

"Anytime in films," Haney says, "it's, 'He was a colonel in the Special Forces.' Right. It meant he had a green pin and thinks he maybe heard some soldiers firing once."

Of course, once you've stopped an armored car, how do you convince the people to get out?

"The answer is," Mamet says, over tiny cups of spiced Turkish coffee at lunch, "you take balloons of gasoline, throw them over the windshield, pull out an automobile flare, put it on. Don't miss that."

You shouldn't miss it either, as it produced a truly -- to use a favorite Mamet word -- "spectacular" ball of fire.

Mamet met "Unit" co-executive producer Shawn Ryan when he directed an episode of Ryan's "The Shield." The two wanted to work together, so Mamet then brought in Haney, with whom he'd done a movie called "Spartan," to explore his fascination with the military life.

"I've never been in the military myself," Mamet says, "but I have great respect for them."

After several seasons as President David Palmer on "24," Haysbert was itching to get into the field.

"Dennis got a gun ... ," he says happily. "I'm a pretty good shot."

"I'll tell you something," Mamet says, "anyone who's ever carried a gun is happy to have a gun."

But "The Unit" is not all guns; sometimes it's negotiation and using your wits. Sometimes it's drama on the home front.

"It's a kinder, gentler army, right?" Mamet says. "Killing people with kindness ... and C-4."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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