Platoon Leader (1988)

Platoon Leader PosterYou might not expect that a Michael Dudikoff movie about him in charge of some grunts in Vietnam would be very realistic. It would be easy to believe that the Dude would at some point don his American Ninja gear and start kickfighting up the Ho Chi Minh trail all the way to North Vietnam until he kicked ol’ Ho Chi himself right in the nads!

But this isn’t really a Michael Dudikoff movie that happens to take place in Vietnam so much as a Vietnam movie that happens to have the Dude in the lead role. Gaudy ninja costumes are traded in for sweaty, dirty fatigues and evil overlords with armies of well trained martial artist henchmen are replaced by the faceless enemy who seems to pour out of the jungle without notice and without mercy. The Dude himself is no infallible superman here. He even gets his ass blown up twice!

This is the way it really happened over there when we were in the Nam. Digging out mines, avoiding tripwires, shooting Charlie down out of the trees, calling for a medic when our radio guy catches hell right in the guts and legs, and hoping that we can make it to the LZ with our wounded before the VC starts shelling us again. And even though I couldn’t tell the difference between Vietnam and Venezuela on a map, I’ve watched a bunch of movies about guys named Rambo and Braddock, so I know what I’m talking about.

The Dude plays a fresh-faced pud straight out of West Point who arrives in the Nam ready to turn things around at his besieged command. The troops are a cynical, crabby lot and they get no support from the higher ups, but the Dude is all about sending out patrols anyway.

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It isn’t really until after getting himself blown up the first time though that the Dude begins to earn the men’s respect. Like when he gets all over Private Bacera for smoking weed and Private Bacera responds by “accidentally” discharging his weapon in the Dude’s direction. This forced the Dude to give Bacera a refresher course in gun safety by shoving own his gun in Bacera’s face and advising him that next time he better shoot the Dude square in the back or the Dude will splatter his brains all over the camp! Bacera obviously got the message because he later turned up in the jungle overdosed!

Though every great Nam movie needs a fragging scene, it’s just the side dish for the meat and potatoes of battling Charlie. And Charlie is way out of control in Platoon Leader. Though one of our boys owns up to shooting off a villager’s arm, he is clearly anguished by it. Charlie on the other hand just ups and shoots her and leaves a note on her body that she was executed for collaborating with the enemy. Even more heinous, as one of the soldiers points out with disgust, it was just a form letter!

But Charlie isn’t just about filing impersonal paperwork on corpses. There’s also the matter of the only village in the region not under their control! A village that sits just down the hill from the Dude’s outpost! A village that is a PR nightmare for Charlie and a village that the Dude must defend at all cost!

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And so a plan is hatched with the Dude’s platoon and a few other platoons to fight the surging VC forces and stop them from taking over the village. And the plan goes horribly wrong. Huts are burned, everything in sight explodes, guys are shot, the Dude gets his eye blown up, and the village is destroyed.

Platoon Leader comments, perhaps inadvertently, on the futility of everything we just witnessed when during a hospital scene at the end of the film the Dude and his wounded buddy discuss what happened. The Dude realizes that Charlie decided to stop fighting them and to just destroy the village. His wounded friend says they’ll have to just rebuild the village and the Dude says that they already did! Chuckles ensue.

Much like the war it seeks to dramatize, there is also a futility to Platoon Leader itself. While the “protect the village” angle is what passes for a plot, the viewer has to care about the characters because who gives a crap if a bunch of straw huts catch fire?

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The characters though are reduced to visual characteristics and nothing else: haunted black guy, druggie Hispanic, radio guy with glasses, two grizzled guys with mustaches, and the Dude. Every five or ten minutes this collection of casting call descriptions go out into the jungle and shoot stuff. And that’s pretty much the movie. There is an effort to show how the Nam changes the Dude, but it’s almost entirely handled during the last scene when he’s commiserating in the hospital with his buddy and the Dude just looks silly with gauze covering half his face.

Completely routine, with a dearth of depth, an overdose of explosions, the Dude providing his usual inoffensive presence and no over-the-top heroics that might have at least made Platoon Leader laughably memorable in the way another Cannon-distributed Vietnam movie of the era, P.O.W. the Escape, was.

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