Chuck Norris was quite the action star in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. We're not talking classic, big budget action flicks, just hard-edged, action-packed B-movies that fans and audiences usually ate up. Are they good? For the most part, not particularly, but Chuck Norris is so cool!!! Here's one of his best, an audience favorite and near cult classic (because it's really dumb), 1984's Missing in Action.
Having spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, Lt. Colonel James Braddock (Norris) still struggles with the traumatic experience. He escaped 10 years ago, but the experience still lingers with him, especially because he believes that even long after the war, Braddock believes there are still many more missing in action American soldiers. The only problem is, he can't convince anyone of his belief. Braddock is finally able to get back into Vietnam, convincing a government investigation team to look out for evidence of other M.I.A. American soldiers. The team is met with a stone wall of doubt and questioning, frustrating Braddock even further. The former Colonel takes things into his own hands, planning an excursion deep into Vietnam where he's found the location of a hidden camp for POWs. Can he somehow pull it off, rescuing the prisoners who have long since been abandoned?
If that plot description sounds familiar, it should. In 1983, a story treatment from director James Cameron made its way around Hollywood and was eventually turned into Rambo: First Blood Part II. The studio that made 'Action,' Cannon Group, claimed to be "inspired" by the treatment and made its own rescuing POW movie. It was actually two movies, this one and a prequel, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, that were made back-to-back and raced into theaters before Rambo's bloody return in 1985. So is it familiar? Yes, it should be. More than that, there's a whole sub-genre about rescue efforts of Americans in Vietnam, including this one, Rambo, and the first and best of the bunch, 1983's Uncommon Valor. The Vietnam War was unlike any other war America had fought in, and numbers differ about how many soldiers were missing in action or their bodies were never recovered.
It's a natural jumping off point for a story/script, right? Operations and missions into Vietnam to rescue Americans, how can you lose? Uncommon Valor is an action-packed, men on a mission movie with a solid cast. Rambo is mindlessly stupid, Sylvester Stallone a ridiculous one-man killing machine. And then there's this movie. Yeahhhhhhhhhh, I thought Rambo was pretty bad until I saw this movie. The script is the biggest culprit. We get countless scenes of Braddock staring into the distant with a blank stare on his face. We get more scenes of him walking around Vietnam and Thailand. There is no real tension at any point in the story that basically drifts along from dull action scene to dull action scene through the first hour plus. It's very basic. Americans = angelically good. Vietnamese = Satanically evil in sinister ways. All of them. They're all bad. It's so simplistic in its execution that it ceases to be a good bad movie, one you can sit back and revel in. It becomes just bad.
Surely Chuck Norris himself can be a saving grace, can't it? Yeah, that's what I was counting on, but that never comes around. As an action star, Norris is quite capable. He handles much of his own stunts, including one impressive stunt late as he hangs from a ladder on a hovering helicopter, and all his hand-to-hand combat scenes are pretty decent. Maybe it's the character, maybe it's the script, but the character just isn't very interesting. Braddock's tortured past is shown and mentioned, but I never actually felt too interested in him. M. Emmet Walsh gets to ham it up as Tuck, Braddock's old friend who owes him one and uses his boat as a way to get back into Vietnam. David Tress is the U.S. Senator at the head of the investigating team with Lenore Kasdorf as Ann, the Senator's assistant who helps Braddock and gets nude too! The horrific Vietnamese villains are James Hong as General Trau with Ernie Ortega as Vinh, the sadistic prison guard who is now a government official apparently.
So if Chuck Norris can't save the movie, surely the action can, right? Right?!? Once again, it comes up short. 'Action' basically rewrites Action Movie Cliches 101. Braddock can hit anything and everything he aims at. He can be running, walking, crouching, falling, and he's going to drill that bad guy dead center. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese troops -- supposedly trained at some point in firearms -- can't hit one freaking guy! Not once, not even a scratch! The action scenes aren't actually that bad, providing a minor positive in an otherwise pretty lousy story, but the cliches get to be a little much. Even the best scene, Braddock and Tuck on a motorized raft gunboat attacking a Vietnamese column on shore, is undone by the appearance of a Vietnamese patrol boat/gunboat. Oh, and a helicopter! Braddock arranged days before for it to show up at the exact second it's needed! Tuck's assistant guns away at the boat (seemingly not hitting it at all), and then Tuck takes over. There are scenes of seven, eight seconds of these guys blasting away, unedited, just firing. It's riveting to watch, as riveting as it was to write.
Here's a good example. If this scene puts a smile on your face, check the movie out and start drinking (heavily). If it doesn't, this ain't for you. Thinking they've killed Braddock -- silly Vietnamese -- three soldiers stand and show off their most ridiculous, over the top evil laughter, celebrating killing the indestructible American. In slow motion (of course), Braddock pops up out of the water and shoots them to pieces. I thought this movie would have a put of that guilty pleasure charm, a really bad movie that embraces the badness. Mostly, it takes itself too seriously and is one big dull final product.
Missing in Action (1984): */****