Review: Missing in Action

Chuck Norris stars as Col. James Braddock a former POW during the Vietnam War, who eventually managed to escape though the war has never really left him, if you know what I mean. He’s still troubled, and when asked to take part in a congressional committee investigation as to whether POWs are still being held in Vietnam, he’s somewhat reluctant. Eventually he does agree, but when left incensed by a dog-and-pony show broadcast on TV he causes a big public stink that doesn’t earn him much love from slimy Vietnamese General Tran (James Hong). General Tran is clearly attempting to paint Braddock and America overall as war criminals and has pretty much coerced people into becoming ‘witnesses’ to Gen. Braddock’s ‘war crimes’. So what’s a pissed off, mentally scarred former POW and all-round American bad arse to do? Why sneak out of the hotel at night, threaten General Tran at knifepoint to confess as to the whereabouts of the remaining POWs and mount a rescue plan. Lenore Kasdorf plays a representative of the State Department who vanishes in the second half, M. Emmet Walsh plays Braddock’s sleazy old war buddy who supplies arms and a boat to him for his mission, and Ernie Ortega is Gen. Tran’s henchman Vinh.

A good Chuck Norris vehicle still tends to be a near-miss as a film overall, mostly because Chuck Norris is the leading man and he’s absolutely terrible. Always. He’s an incredibly unpersuasive actor. This 1984 war-actioner from Cannon Films is definitely one of his best, even if it’s left up to veterans James Hong and M. Emmet Walsh to hold up the acting end of things. Directed by Joseph Zito (“Friday the 13th Part 4: The One That Doesn’t Suck”, and another not-bad slasher “The Prowler”), it’s not bad so far as these things go, and probably better than any of the sequels to “First Blood”, its closest approximation in subject matter. Years before Stallone tried it, Chuck Norris basically attempts to belatedly win the Vietnam War for ‘ol Uncle Sam, and while “Uncommon Valour” probably did it better, this one’s pretty decent, undemanding action stuff of the rah-rah Reagan-era sort. Just bear in mind that even so far as these things go, it’s also incredibly over-the-top and silly. I don’t necessarily consider that a flaw, as it at least keeps you awake.

The campy as hell but fun score by Jay Chattaway (“Silver Bullet”, “The Ambulance”) gets us off to a good start, in fact it’s the best score of Chattaway’s that I’ve heard to date. Yeah, OK that’s not much of a statement given his awful scores for lesser Cannon fodder (yep) like “Invasion USA” and “Red Scorpion”, but it’s true nonetheless. Also scoring well early on is the durable James Hong as a Vietnamese General whose jib Chuck Norris’ Col. Braddock does not like the cut of at all. It’s far from Hong’s best role or film, but he’s the kind of dependable character actor you need when your leading man is a hairy hunk of uncharismatic redwood. He’s an incredibly underrated actor and slimy as hell. It’s just a shame that he leaves the film about half-way through. Meanwhile, cheeseball right-wing nonsense or not, the plot is amusing and that’s enough to keep me watching. Speaking of amusing, check out that hilariously awful Thai female singer doing a lousy cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do ‘Ya Think I’m Sexy’ at the worst Bangkok titty bar you’ve ever seen (I haven’t seen any, I promise!).

I had massive issues with that other Zito/Cannon/Norris collaboration the moronic and putrid flag-waving “Invasion USA”, but in this instance director Zito (generally a better horror director than action director) has made an exciting, well-shot and pretty amusing film. There’s some particularly nice usage of shadow and low-level lighting at times by cinematographer Joao Fernandes (who shot “Invasion USA” in almost total darkness it seemed). I just wish Norris bothered to learn how to act even a little. Instead here he walks through the entire film with one facial expression. It’s somewhere in between bored, mildly pissed off, and what in the wrestling world is often referred to as ‘getting my shit in’. He’s lazy. Norris may be dead weight in the acting department but he’s reliable in action mode. For this one he does a lot of climbing in particular, especially in the first 30 minutes or so. There’s something of a matter-of-fact efficiency to his character in action that isn’t unappealing.

I probably wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend even Chuck Norris’ best films, but indeed this one is among that crowd alongside “The Delta Force”, “Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection”, “Lone Wolf McQuade”, “The Octagon”, and “Code of Silence”. It’s not bad, even if Norris himself is terrible, with M. Emmet Walsh in particular looking like he’s having a whale of a time. It’s not bad at all, just cheap and cheesy.

Scripted by James Bruner (“Invasion USA”, “The Delta Force”) from a story by John Crowther (Bronson’s “The Evil That Men Do”) and Lance Hool (“Steel Dawn”), it was actually filmed after “Missing in Action II: The Beginning” (directed by Hool), but as it was deemed the better film (and it is), it ended up being released first and the subsequent film regarded as a ‘prequel’.

Rating: C+


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