Missing in Action

(1984)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

Missing in Action opens with a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. “I’m still only in Saigon.” Well, Braddock (Chuck Norris) can’t believe he’s still in the U.S. When the U.S. Army declared him missing in action (hence the title) and abandoned their search for him and his men, it took Braddock seven years to get home. Now that he’s there, he’s sickened by the apparent diplomacy between American political and military officials and the propped-up dictator (James Hong) who brokered peace between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Since returning to freedom not long ago, Braddock spends most of his time in hot, filthy transient hotels, reliving the nightmare of his jungle incarceration. The combination of Norris’s brooding intensity and Jay Chattaway’s minimalist, Moog-based score (think Midnight Express, because that’s probably what he was borrowing from) bring startling emotion to an otherwise stereotypical one-man army action hero. Unlike the strikingly similar Rambo: First Blood Part II, Braddock’s single-minded obsession with rescuing his fellow prisoners — long after the government has written them off and ended the “war” — makes sense in light of the pain and rage on display in the film’s first few minutes.

There’s not much to the rest of the film. After initially refusing to take part in a publicity photo-op (masquerading as an investigation of soldiers still MIA) in Saigon, Braddock realizes this is his only opportunity to get anywhere close to Vietnam. If he can get close, he can get to Vietnam and rescue his brothers in arms. Real Philippines locations lend stark, sweaty verisimilitude to a fairly schlocky, simplistic plot. Braddock visits shady bars and sleazy brothels, trying to put together the arsenal he’ll need to bust in and take back his men by force. Aiding him in his quest are Tuck (M. Emmett Walsh), an ex-soldier well-connected in the underground, and Ann (Lenore Kasdorf), the sexy diplomat assigned by the embassy to babysit Braddock. Once they assemble the arsenal, Braddock and Tuck head across the pond to Vietnam. From there — well, let’s just say this film reminded me how viscerally and enthusiastically I respond to the sound of machine-gun fire. I spent far too much of my childhood watching movies like Missing in Action, so there’s an odd comfort in the wanton violence dominating the film’s second half. Your mileage may vary.

Despite the film’s simplicity, I find myself on the cusp of recommending it. It lacks the campy appeal of more mindlessly entertaining Cannon fodder, though it contains the typical displays of raw, testosterone-fueled machismo often mischaracterized as homoeroticism (and with good reason — in particular, Braddock’s attempts to wrench a knife from the hands of a potential assassin could easily be mistaken for a completely different act that would have warranted an X rating). Really, it’s a sterling example of how much goodwill an effective opening can have on a film.

So many movies of this ilk open with a botched mission, forcing a redemptive arc for its central character. Missing in Action does, as well, but it takes the time after the explosions and the narrow escape to establish Braddock’s emotional tumult — his guilt over leaving men behind to save himself, the horror of the memories of his imprisonment, and the mind-numbing tedium of returning to a “normal” life. The film handles this very effectively, and as such generates more than enough goodwill to carry it through to the end of an otherwise mediocre action flick. If not for those scenes, my rating would drop by at least a star. Consider that fair warning: If the opening doesn’t resonate with you, chances are the rest of the film will serve as a frustratingly straightforward example of jingoistic action.

Editor’s Note: You might be wondering why the first film in a trilogy has a “Based on characters created by…” credit. Turns out, Missing in Action and its prequel Missing in Action II: The Beginning were shot back-to-back, with the intention that the “prequel” would be the first movie and Missing in Action its sequel. Golan and Globus determined Missing in Action was the better film of the two and released it first. Hence, the “first” film is based on characters created by the writers of the “prequel.”

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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