War Movie Mondays: ‘Missing in Action’

This week’s pick is the 1984 release of director Joseph Zito’s Missing in Action which was the first installment of the franchise. Chuck Norris stars for the first time as Col. James Braddock, who years earlier escaped a POW camp in Vietnam and returns with an American delegation to find out whether or not Americans are still being held prisoner.

The film also stars M. Emmet Walsh (Jack “Tuck” Tucker), David Tress (Senator Porter), Lenore Kasdorf (Ann), James “Lopan” Hong as (General Trau), and in one of his earliest roles before he became an international star, Jean- Claude Van Damme simply as “The car driver”.

Being labled strickly as B-movie entertainment, the film was considered by many critics and fans of the first Rambo film as a rip-off. Both Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were intrigued by a screenplay which was floating around Hollywood at the time by an up and coming writer/director named James Cameron, who had graduated from the Roger Corman school of movie making, and had made a name for himself with a small successful Science Fiction film called The Terminator that very same year.

Cameron’s screenplay was for the sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II which told of a similar story about a Vietnam vet who was commissioned to go into Vietnam and see whether MIAs were still being held there after so many years. Golan, Globus and Zito were “inspired” by Cameron’s script and decided to begin production months ahead of George P. Cosmatos’s First Blood Part II.

The film opens in the jungles of Vietnam where Braddock leads a retreating force who are being decimated by Vietcong forces. Helicopters land in waves to get the men and wounded out of harm’s way. Braddock is bringing up the rear when two of his men are brutally gunned down and are bayoneted by a Vietcong soldier. Braddock pulls the pins out of two grenades and leaps to his death while screaming macho like to safe the two GIs from such a painful death. Braddock awakens in a cheap apartment where it was all just a dream.

He then looks out the window to a city landscape which dissolves into the Vietnamese countryside once again. Braddock and a column of Americans are being escorted through a rice patty to the prison camp where he was held for ten years. A fire fight ensues where Vietnamese and American prisoners are killed by American troops positioned in the tree line with mortars and heavy machine guns. A sadistic Vietnamese officer executes one prisoner for the death of one of his men. Braddock picks up the dead American and proceeds towards their prison destination.

Braddock turns on the TV to a news report about the possibility of nearly 2200 Americans still being held in Vietnam. The reporter says that Braddock was the only one to successfully escape Vietnam, yet has declined any interviews or in the aiding of government fact finding missions to resolve the issue. Braddock relents, and offers to go with an American delegation to Ho Chi Minh City to confront his former captors.

When Braddock and the delegation which is comprised of Sen. Porter (Tress) and his assistant Ann (Kasdorf) arrive in Vietnam, they are met by Gen. Trau at the airport who extends his hand to Braddock who coldly holds a stare in contempt. At a press hearing, the Vietnamese categorically deny that any Americans are being held against their will in the People’s Republic of Vietnam. After some colorful metaphors are exchanged between Braddock and the Vietnamese, Braddock is not at all convinced and under the cover of night, and with the help of the Senator’s lovely assistant who has quickly fallen for the war hero, naturally, he plans to interrogate Gen. Trau in his own bed. The Gen. who has a knife at his throat by Braddock confesses that Americans are still being held in a small prison camp in the Mekong Delta to the south. Braddock then quickly leaves Vietnam once he establishes an alibi by claiming he was with Ann when Trau was killed, for Thailand where he enlists the help of an old Army buddy Jack Tucker (Walsh) now a black market profiteer who helps Braddock unleash an arsenal of weapons to free the MIAs.

The film opened to miserable reviews as just another product of 1980s post Vietnam repression. Many critics said that the film was just another “Rambo clone”, and that Norris was impersonating a bad Sylvester Stallone. Despite these horrible reviews, the film made a considerable amount at the box office and the prequel was filmed at the same time. It has also gained a huge cult following over the years with late night Cable TV, and home video sales.

My favorite part of the film has to do with the penetration into Vietnam with the help of Tucker’s rickety old junk boat. When Braddock discovers his old pal in a Thai whore house while being beaten up by a thug, the two argue about price while Tucker is being thrown around the joint before Braddock decides to intervene on his buddy’s behalf. The two eventually settle on $1000, yet Tuck constantly argues with Braddock saying that he’s not leaving the fast attack raft to go ashore under any circumstances. Braddock is all to eager to state that Tuck owes him more than once for saving his life during the war. Walsh is a veteran character actor and is the only redeeming comic relief in the film. I believe he was still cashing in on his fame, and the check for his role as the police Captain in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).

Missing in Action is a guilty pleasure movie which is brutal, tasteless, and pretty unredeeming at times. Critic Jeremy Beday was quoted as saying the film was a “crass, dopey, Rambo-esque film that ultimately fails to connect with anything interesting in the realm of fact or fiction” and that its “chop-socky, shoot-em-up, explosion-a-minute action quickly wears thin.” I’ve always said “what do you expect when you sit down to a Golan Globus movie? Oscar potential?”

Missing in Action is available on DVD through MGM/UA and can be rented via Netflix.

%d bloggers like this: