The mindless Chuck Norris action flick Missing in Action slots seamlessly into a strain of cinema in 1980’s America that sought to revise attitudes to the Vietnam War. The screenplay by James Bruner is typically jingoistic with an anti-communist backbone that would have done President Reagan proud. The question of illegally held American soldiers in Vietnam, and the ensuing minefield of diplomatic red tape, had been explored to some effect in Uncommon Valor (1983). But where Uncommon Valor sought to develop character, motivation, and emotional pathos, only concluding with a protracted action sequence, the Norris vehicle naturally opts for all out action from the get go. The embittered odyssey of Norris’ Colonel James Braddock did at least hit cinemas before the hulking idiocy of Stallone’s copycat Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and though I could gladly live without both films, if I was pressed I would much rather take Missing in Action to my desert island.
With a modest budget of just $2,500,000 (by contrast First Blood Part II had a budget of $44,000,000) director Joseph Zito works minor miracles. He was undoubtedly hamstrung by the thrifty economic strategies of the production company Canon Films. But Zito was extremely proficient working with low budgets. His previous two films The Prowler (1981) and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) were efficient, if unimaginative horror pictures. Missing in Action marked his entry into the overflowing testosterone and rampant machismo of the 80’s action movie. By and large Zito makes the shift into new generic terrain with confidence, but it must be noted he is unable to bring any moments of filmmaking inspiration to the table. This is a workmanlike effort, and as is always the case in a film of this nature, it falls to the lead actor to provide the required stimulation. Unfortunately Norris was never the most charismatic of screen presences, but he isn’t helped by the fact that his talents largely go unrecognised in this film. This is a film of gunfire and explosions, and his background in the martial arts is barely in evidence.
However the faceless mono-syllabic approach of Norris is strangely in keeping with a man who has endured years of torture as a prisoner of war. His dreams are tormented with visions of the past, and he spends his civilian life raging in non-descript hotel rooms. By accident or design Norris successfully conveys the pain and dislocation of a man unable to leave the war behind him. Adding to Braddock’s frustrations is a North Vietnamese government that totally denies that the country is withholding American soldiers. However the fraught political backdrop does enable him to return to the locus of his nightmares and begin an illegal investigation of his own. Unfortunately the film is unable to avoid absurd coincidences such as Braddock’s chief torturer now holding a position of prominence in the government. This is a plot detail entirely designed to give Norris a recurring foe and a subsequent showdown. Fortunately the film steps up a gear when the action shifts to the sultry sleazy of Bangkok.
Braddock’s brief odyssey through the bars and brothels is a highlight and culminates with him meeting and old buddy who owes him a favour. The inclusion of Jack Tucker played by M. Emmet Walsh brings a levity to the proceedings that is most welcome. There is only so much one can take of Norris’ stony expressionless face. Tucker is a black marketer who assists Braddock in obtaining the necessary weaponry and equipment to mount his assault on the base holding the imprisoned soldiers. With his loud shirts and exuberance Tucker is perfectly at home in the clammy sleaze of Bangkok. But his position alongside Braddock in the waterways and jungles of Vietnam is incongruous to say the least. One of the major indications of the low budget is the swiftness of Braddock’s assault and the fact that his efforts only succeed in liberating three soldiers. With Braddock performing the role of a one man army pretty soon enjoyment turns to incredulity, and with a series of action sequences strangely lacking in power, incredulity soon turns to tedium.
Missing in Action is a remarkably passionless film, which is somewhat surprising considering its obvious political agenda. Along with several other films from this period it seeks to redefine the conflict in Vietnam within the terms of a rescue mission. A natural by-product of this cavalier attitude to recent history is an obvious racism. It is with relish that the filmmakers paint the ruling generals of Vietnam in slimy and sadistic hues. Braddock’s opposition are pure evil, but the most repugnant moment in the film is the absurd (an unintentionally hilarious) freeze frame final shot of Braddock’s triumphant delivery of the imprisoned soldiers. In odious ventures such as this the action and stunts provide much needed distraction, but Missing in Action is a lethargic and sluggish exercise in pointless propaganda.
© Shaun Anderson 2011