I don’t remember this one, but it was in a book about action movies I’m reading (Action Speaks Louder by Erich Lichtenfeld) and sounded pretty good. It’s one of those “Vietnam vets go back to rescue POWs” movies, but according to the book it’s the first one. And the weirdest part is that it’s from Ted Kotcheff, director of FIRST BLOOD, and made two years before George P. Cosmatos’s RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. Maybe that’s why Kotcheff didn’t come back for part 2, he’d already done that movie.
Of course, the feel is pretty different from RAMBO. And there are three major differences in the type of story we’re dealing with here. Number one, it’s a team movie, it’s not focused on one dude. Number two, these are normal vets who have gone back to civilian life, they are not maniacs who have gone on a rampage and must get a pardon to go on the mission due to their skills with explosive tipped arrows. Number three, they are privately funded, they are not working for the government. In fact, the government is trying to stop them from doing it (you know how those fuckin bureaucrats are, with their red tape and what not. It makes you so mad BRING OUR BOYS HOME! etc.)
Not surprisingly, the movie is produced by John Milius (although if he worked on the script he was not credited). You probaly know who Milius is but if not here is a brief primer. He worked on an early unused script of DIRTY HARRY and later on MAGNUM FORCE. He wrote the famous USS Indianapolis speech in JAWS. He wrote APOCALYPSE NOW. He wrote and directed CONAN THE BARBARIAN. And RED DAWN. And John Goodman’s character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI is based on him. Except unlike that character he was not in Vietnam. He was never in the military, he’s just obsessed with it anyway. I wonder if he has flashbacks?
I’m pretty sure our politics are as opposite as oil and water, but I love the guy. He’s a great writer and there’s not alot of people who can write that macho. So his name was part of what got me to watch this movie.
And then there’s the cast. Gene Hackman plays Colonel Rhodes, a Korean War vet whose son was left behind in Vietnam. He spends years trying to get something done, meeting with politicians, hooking up with questionable people who sell him fake photos purporting to prove the location of POW camps or that his son is alive. Finally he gets this aerial photo that convinces him it’s where his son ended up. So he goes around and recruits the surviving members of his son’s platoon to go on a rescue mission funded by Robert Unsolved Mysteries Stack, the rich father of one of the MIAs.
On the team you got Fred Ward (MIAMI fuckin BLUES), Tim Thomerson (NEAR DARK and, uh… alot of crap, but he’s cool anyway), Randall “Tex” Cobb (the biker from RAISING ARIZONA, also villain in BLIND FURY), Reb Brown (muscle guy from various b-movies, played Captain America in TV movie), Harold Sylvester (sorry, I don’t know who he is but he was in a TV movie about firefighters which was also called UNCOMMON VALOR) and finally there’s pre-RED DAWN Patrick Swayze as a younger guy Rhodes brings in to help with the training.
Of course it’s just like an OCEAN’S 11 or any other type of recruiting-a-team movie, you see him meeting with the different guys in different situations. Reb Brown is the demolitions expert “Blaster,” but unfortunately he does not have a dwarf boss named “Master.” (He does have an assistant played by Michael Dudikoff, according to the credits, but I couldn’t figure out where he was in the movie.) We meet Blaster at a BMX track, wearing pants with his nickname running down the legs, telling war stories to little kids. Fred Ward is more troubled by the past and channels his trauma into weird metal sculptures. The mom from Malcolm in the Middle is his wife who yells at Rhodes for bringing up ‘Nam again. The best introduction is Thomerson, whose wife says he hasn’t taken his sunglasses off for six years, but as soon as Rhodes starts talking to him he takes them off. Finally somebody he can relate to.
The training takes up a good chunk of the movie. Robert Stack has even built them an exact replica of the POW camp to practice in, a luxury Rambo didn’t get with his taxpayer money. The way they show the team’s improvement is pretty ridiculous. Early on, Rhodes sneaks into their barracks and fires a machine gun, saying “You’re all dead.” But Fred Ward sneaks up behind him with a knife to show that at least he would’ve survived. At the end of the training section of the movie Rhodes comes into the barracks again but this time the entire platoon, fully suited, appears behind him smiling. So either these guys are ninjas or they have a Star Trek transporter deal under their beds.
Because Swayze is not a vet there’s some tension. The team, especially Tex, wants to fuckin kill him. He’s a little presumptuous to the point that Rhodes has to tell him not to talk to the soldiers the way he does, but he’s not really an asshole, and he’s dead set on being on this mission. I really like the scene where Tex and Swayze have finally had enough of each other and they’re gonna fight. You assume because he’s so big Tex will clobber him, but Swayze starts doing his ROADHOUSE kickboxing and knocks Tex over. But then there is another twist when Tex gets up and starts doing some of his own moves, re-turning the tables. He just beats the hell out of Swayze until Rhodes appears and tells them all the reason Swayze wants to be on the mission: his dad is an MIA. Without saying a word, Tex and the others carefully help him up and they all walk away, as if this has resolved everything.
I love it because in a normal story you would say wait a minute, why the hell didn’t he just say that in the first place to avoid all this trouble? But with these type of Milius characters it makes perfect sense. He wants to prove himself, he doesn’t want to have to say that his dad is an MIA. These guys are stubborn.
These are thin action movie character types, but they’re good ones. Tex is especially memorable as the big unruly soldier turned biker so crazy he wears a grenade on a necklace in case he ever needs to blow himself up. I will not say whether or not that ever comes up later. By the time they go on the mission you really like these guys, as broad as they are, and root for them to save the POWs. Hackman of course is especially good, which is important because he’s not just a soldier, he’s a dad looking for his son.
The actual battle is not as good as the action in FIRST BLOOD. It’s very ’80s, lots of explosions going off, which in one case does count as character development because Blaster is trying to make a new record for a string of detonations. But it could be more involving. They fly around on helicopters spraying everything with machine guns and alot of times you don’t see somebody get hit, you just notice them dead later. I think the main problem is the music by James Horner. The music should be intense and suspenseful, instead it’s trying to sound all triumphant and heroic, it completely takes the tension out of the situation. And he did the same shit 20 years later in John Woo’s god awful WINDTALKERS. Horner did a great job on ALIENS but believe me, if you’re doing a war movie talk to somebody else. This is not your guy.
The ending is bittersweet. I love the final freeze frame on Hackman, even though I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be as awkward as it is. His wife kisses him and I think this is to show there is some closure, he finally knows the fate of his son and he can move on with his life and their relationship will be better because he won’t be sneaking into other countries to meet with spies and arms dealers or going over the plans for a place to practice commando raids. She probaly figures since he won’t have to do that shit anymore maybe he’ll have time to cuddle and go for walks. That may be the idea but I also get the impression that he doesn’t even know how to kiss her anymore. It looks real uncomfortable like that scene where the lady hugs Robocop, or the one where Vin Diesel kisses a girl in XxX. So maybe he’s too far gone to be that normal husband she wants. Or maybe he’ll get his bearings back. It’s hard to tell.
A couple weird little things I noticed in the movie. First of all, there’s this scene about seven, seven and a half minutes in where Rhodes is meeting with some kind of senator or something, and the senator is walking with a guy who is a dead ringer for John Bolton, walrus mustache and everything. I thought maybe Bolton was a huge RED DAWN fan so Milius gave him a cameo, but then I realized RED DAWN was made later. So it must just be a popular look for those type of guys.
The other thing I noticed that is equally trivial but kind of weird is that in at least one of the training scenes every one of the soldiers is wearing Adidas. Don’t worry, they all have different styles, it’s not like a Heaven’s Gate cult type of thing. They have fatigues and everything but they’re not wearing boots. I didn’t know if that was product placement or if it meant Robert Stack was funding this mission with Adidas money.
Anyway, this is a pretty good movie and interesting historically to the evolution of the ’80s action genre. I give it three out of three Adidas stripes.