Missing in Action 2: The Beginning

(1985)

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.

As previously mentioned, the first two Missing in Action movies were shot back-to-back, with the intention that this film would be the first part. However, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus determined they had a better film in its “sequel,” so they released that first and called this one its prequel. The best thing I can say about Missing in Action 2: The Beginning is that Golan and Globus got it right: The “first” film, while nothing spectacular, is vastly superior.

In its opening sequence, an Army helicopter accidentally drops one of Colonel Braddock’s (Chuck Norris) men into a lake. At the risk of ending up “missing in action,” Braddock and his men dive in after their fallen brother. As they do, the frame freezes like the end of a CHiPs episode so an incredibly cheesy stamp effect can mark them each as MISSING IN ACTION. Finally, they’ve explained the title!

The film then cuts to the early ’80s, with video footage of Ronald Reagan griping about all the Vietnam soldiers who remain missing in action. Braddock and his men are among them, forced into some sort of labor camp/torture den (it’s unclear which) by the sadistic Colonel Yin (Soon-Teck Oh), who vows to keep them prisoner until Braddock admits publicly (and on video) that he is a coward who lost the war. Braddock’s continued refusal doesn’t bother any of the other prisoners, who know Yin’s bluffing and will kill them if Braddock ever agrees to the false confession. Even the fact that Nester (Steven Williams) confessed and has now become a trusted, well-fed member of Yin’s inner circle doesn’t change their minds.

Yin soon gets tired of waiting, so he starts torturing and killing the other prisoners, thinking Braddock won’t let his own pride get others killed. He doesn’t know Braddock well, though. Their deaths merely fuel Braddock’s rage and obsession with escape. When he finally does, Nester warns Yin that he’s not gone — he’ll stay out of sight until he can get revenge on Yin. The remainder of the film chronicles Braddock’s efforts to kill every single one of Yin’s men before leading the few remaining prisoners out of the camp (in a scene that’s comically dissimilar to the escape that opens the “first” Missing in Action).

I came close to recommending the previous film because of its surprising emotional resonance. This film lacks that. It’s a dispiriting paean to sadism and torture, like an artless, feature-length expansion of the Vietnam section of The Deer Hunter. The film never gets into the logistics of how Yin’s operation works or the emotionality of why he’s so obsessed with keeping these prisoners around. At the risk of sounding nerdier than usual, his devotion to torturing them for his own amusement reminded me of the giant, sentient computer in Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” In that story, the computer gains self-awareness and decides to destroy all of humanity (it is, after all, the computer that controls the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons), but it keeps a handful of people around, tormenting them for what’s hinted to be much longer than a natural human life span — he keeps them around as his own playthings, and it’s finally revealed that he’s keeping them alive and torturing them so he remembers why he needed to destroy humanity in the first place. An explanation like that for Yin’s behavior would have gone a long way toward making him seem both more villainous and — well, maybe not more reasonable in his behavior, but at least he’d have some sense of purpose. Getting Braddock to sign an absurd, meaningless confession is a laughable explanation for keeping him and his fellow soldiers alive for so long after the war has ended. I kept waiting for him to reveal the confession as a hollow charade that justifies his real purpose for keeping them, but such revelations never come.

But this film’s problems run deeper than a lack of strong characters. Plenty of action movies — especially those made by the Cannon Group — work with stereotypes more than actual characters, and they can still be fun and entertaining. Like the wave of torture porn currently infesting multiplexes, the film lingers on tawdry shock moments (up to and including a slow-motion closeup of a character getting shot in the head) that don’t add up to anything more meaningful. The film tries to use these moments to show Yin as a vile monster and illustrate the risk involved in Braddock escaping, but there are simply too many of them and they’re all too grim and exploitative to have any real artistic merit.

It’s a real shame, too, because Cannon legend has it that Norris wanted to do these films to pay homage to his brother, Wieland, who was reported missing in action and eventually killed during his tour in Vietnam. This film lacks any sense of a personal touch, of sensitivity to what happened to imprisoned soldiers, or of any thematic ideals loftier than “Chuck Norris kicks ass.” Maybe Norris felt some catharsis in kicking Charlie’s ass on behalf of his late brother, but I sure didn’t feel that while watching this film.

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

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