Thursday, 15 September 2011

Missing in Action (1984)

Country: USA

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


  1. Good review! Definitely agree with you. This has a couple of fun moments, but it was a little slow. The sequels were better.

  2. Shaun,

    Great review. Always impressed with the amount of thoughtful incite you pack into these suckers. Yeah, and I agree about this one, it's always fallen flat with me, though, the sequels bleed in my memory. I do know there is a very tense moment in the third film BRADDOCK, where Norris is being tortured in the most terrible way: the damn V.C. (though this one takes place in current day, so in the late 80's there probably were no more Vietcong) tie a rope around Braddock's neck, just taut enough to keep him on his tows, only if he loses his strength, and drops down on the balls of his feet, the rope will pull the trigger of shotgun trained at his Vietnamese son's head! Anyway, I guess you gotta see it, though, this one is not much better than the original.

    Interesting that this one predates FIRST BLOOD II. I have no objective opinion about that film, because I loved it so much when I was eight. Though, I am a fan on UNCOMMON VALOR (a great title, by the way); Tex Cobb is great in this one, as is the rest of the kooky cast; a very strange one, in my opinion. I think Hackman is what makes it.

    Another Hackman film worth reviewing is PRIME CUT with Lee Marvin. I also like NO WAY OUT, if you haven't seen it. A very good movie, I think.

    I'd also say that Zito's INVASION U.S.A. is a very, very "good time," is not a great film. If you want an anti-communist bent, go no further than here, because it's so anti-red, it'll fill you with murderous fervor! Even a Brit like you'll wanna pick up an M16 and waste a few Russian immigrants!

    MISSING IN ACTION, it sure as hell ain't LONE WOLF MCQUADE, or THE DELTA FORCE, but what are you going to do?

    Oh, and M.Emmit Walsh is great here! I love him in this film, and every film. He's so seedy and nasty in STRAIGHT TIME, it's unforgettable. The role he played in that film inspired his part in BLOOD SIMPLE, or so I hear. I love him in everything... not unlike Warren Oats, who isn't in any of these films.

  3. I read that they filmed this film and it's sequel back to back, and that they were actually thinking of releasing the sequel before this one. Also, that the screenplay is a rip off of James Cameron's script for Rambo II which was making the rounds in hollywood. Cannon films filmed these films in a rush so they could release them before Rambo II, this is the reason why both films are so similar.

    Hey, Im going to be posting a review for Invasion USA later today as part of my "Action/Revenge Month", Norris kicks ass on that one!

  4. @ Ty - Thanks for the comment mate. I haven't seen any of the sequels, and to be honest, I think I'm unlikely to explore the story of Colonel James Braddock any further.

    @ Greg - Thanks for the kind words. I think UNCOMMON VALOR is the intelligent flipside of the 'rescue mission' revisionist Vietnam war flicks that came out in the 1980's. It takes its time to build up character (well Hackman's at least) and it has a sense of humanity which is lacking in other examples. It also manages to avoid the obvious racism of other examples. I've seen both PRIME CUT and NO WAY OUT. Both very enjoyable films, especially PRIME CUT. That is a peculiar little movie. Unfortunately I don't have a copy of it, I saw it on a late night television screening a couple of years back. NO WAY OUT had a few pleasant twists and turns. I watched INVASION USA the other night, I may give it a review. But I have found I enjoy watching Norris films a lot more than actually writing about them. Once you have reviewed one, you have arguably reviewed them all. Thanks as ever for your input buddy.

    @ Franco - Hello there good sir! They did indeed shoot the two films back to back, and Cannon felt MISSING IN ACTION was far superior so released it first. I haven't seen the sequel so I can't comment on it. Despite Cannon poaching the idea, they got their film out first. So kudos to them. Plus they also produced a film that works as well as RAMBO II (I personally prefer MISSING IN ACTION) FOR $41,000,000 less. I look forward to your review of INVASION USA mate.

  5. Great review, Shaun. I haven't seen the first MIA in a long time, but I do prefer the sequel. It's the more straight ahead action film and part 3 isn't so bad, either. I have some affection for DELTA FORCE as well, but that films sequel leaves a lot to be desired. The ending was a hoot, though!

  6. Thank you kind sir, yes I enjoyed DELTA FORCE, with one or two notable exceptions I always enjoy Lee Marvin performances. If I get an opportunity to check out the MIA sequels I will, but I think I'm all done with Mr. Norris for the moment.

  7. Gotta say, I really love THE DELTA FORCE, but I guess that is clear to all by now. I think I just love anything with the late, great Lee Marvin. In my opinion, the coolest man to ever make a living as an artist and actor. He supposedly was very giving too as a performer. Supposedly, he was very influential to Jeff Bridges in THE ICEMAN COMETH (sadly, I haven't seen this, yet, so I'll make no claims), as his method gelled with the young Dude.

    Anyway, I agree with you about PRIME CUT, a strange little flick indeed. Another one with Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, is HELL IN THE PACIFIC. I am a Boorman fan, and this film stands out as one of the better films about the universal nature of racism that I've ever seen. Not to belabor it, but it's an important film. The only two actors in it are superb! That's all I got and more than I thought I'd give, which is always the case once I start writing. Excuse me, Dear Sir, but the Sand Man (not the Iceman), beckons...

  8. There are one or two Marvin performances that make me shudder - most notably PAINT YOUR WAGON and CAT BALLOU...favourite Marvin films of mine are THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE KILLERS, POINT BLANK, and THE BIG RED ONE. I haven't seen either HELL IN THE PACIFIC or THE ICEMAN COMETH...I'm now off to see if they are available to rent at my online rental place.

  9. Pleased to report, both those films are now on my rental list, and I look forward to their arrival.

  10. Oh yeah, I hear PAINT YOUR WAGON was a disaster for all involved, including Paramount. As always you impress, the shear volume of your cinematic intake is staggering, and I'm someone who has seen a lot of films -- or at least, I fancy that I have. Haven't seen CAT BALLOU, but LIBERTY VALANCE is a classic that I need to see again. THE KILLERS is one I also need to see. POINT BLANK, however, is a favorite of mine. I actually live just down the road from The Huntley Hotel, the high-rise where Walker sneaks into in order to confront Reese. The dream like quality of that one is unforgettable. One scene I particularly like, is where Walker knocks all his wife's perfumes and beautifying oils in the tub, where we're rewarded with close-up of her symbolic essence slowing draining away.

    I also love the shot of Walker CLIP-CLOPPING up that long underground hallway at LAX. His footfalls there are like a metronome from hell!

  11. A note Shaun, there is a director's ending on the copy that I saw of HELL IN THE PACIFIC that I think is supposed to be the real ending of the film. Not that you should be overly concerned about this while you're watching the primary cut, more just so you're aware that it's a tag on in the special feature section; it may be even more overt than that, as it's not a very complicated menu if I recall. Just didn't want you to miss it. Cheers, mate.

  12. I think when assessing the career of John Boorman it isn't too difficult to conclude which are his most accomplished films. I think his career can be reduced to two key films; POINT BLANK and DELIVERANCE. Then just bubbling under you get the cult curiosity of EXCALIBUR, ZARDOZ, and THE EMERALD FOREST. I'd take POINT BLANK with me to my desert island if I had to choose just one Boorman film. The combination of Walker's ringing footsteps and his grim countenance is an unforgettable image. I think Boorman must be one of the few British directors of the 60's and 70's who hadn't made a great/important film in his native country before being tempted to Hollywood.

    I'll keep an eye out for the alternate ending of HELL IN THE PACIFIC...thanks for the heads up on that.


Related Posts with Thumbnails