Missing in Action (1984)

Missing in Action should really be classified as a fantasy movie. Its central conceit is so unbelievable that even by the relatively lax standards of he-man action films, you can’t but help to wonder if star Chuck Norris will also be raiding the POW camp on a flying carpet while fighting a cyclops.

No, I’m not talking about how unrealistic it is that one man could take on an entire country’s military and successfully rescue his captured brothers-in-arms. I’ve seen enough action movies to not only know that it is not only entirely possible, but not even that uncommon.

And I don’t mean how silly and pointless it would be for a country to continue to keep POWs in secret prison camps even though the war is over. Yes, normally this would be a public relations nightmare just waiting to happen, but Vietnam is a Communist country. This means they are evil and what is absurd to awesome countries like the United States makes total sense to a country like Vietnam. Because they are Communist and EVIL.

The dopiest aspect of one of our greatest post-Vietnam War feel good flicks where we get a little vengeance for losing by blowing up huts at Filipino shooting locations is that some politician thought it would be a great idea to take Colonel James Braddock back to Vietnam for a diplomatic mission to work with the Vietnamese government on the POW issue. (We have to assume that having Braddock sneak into a Vietnamese general’s house while he was sleeping and extracting intel on where the POW camp was before killing him was not part of the State Department’s plan.)

Missing in Action 1

Braddock is a recently escaped POW himself who has publicly stated that Vietnam is still holding Americans. He is also a guy who has flashbacks while watching Spider-Man cartoons. (It’s a little disconcerting that Spidey likely takes on the role of the evil camp director in Braddock’s mind when Spidey destroys the Shocker’s getaway helicopter.)

Though a senator also on the trip is a douche, he’s right to question why Braddock is going. I mean, while everyone is dressed in suits, Braddock is rocking his denim shirt and his ball smashing tight blue jeans. I thought he might be trying to earn a few extra dollars in Saigon’s red light district with those Wranglers!

Even worse, he refuses to shake the hand of the villainous general when the delegation arrives at the airport, going the extra mile by tricking the general into thinking he might shake his hand when he actually was just going to adjust his gargantuan sunglasses! USA 1, Commies 0!

Missing in Action 2

But General Trau didn’t get to be a sneering cartoonish bad guy by letting American heroes run roughshod over him in his own country. At the press conference between the Vietnamese and Americans, he trots out villagers who supposedly witnessed Braddock’s war crimes, the idea being that Braddock was never a POW but merely a common criminal. We all know they’re being forced to lie because they can’t even look Braddock in the eye when he stares them down.

But Trau tries to gild the lily a little too much as all arrogant Commies do when he asks Braddock if it was true that during the war he had a price on his head for $5000 because of his war crimes. Braddock, using his special ops training sees the opening and attacks, coolly responding that it was actually $20,000 and it was for “killing assholes like you.” Damn, why did General Trau even get out of bed that morning?

Following Trau’s “mysterious” death that night, Braddock is kicked out of Vietnam. Next stop: Thailand and character actor M. Emmet Walsh as Braddock’s old army buddy Tuck, an ex-pat who spends his days whoring and getting beat up by pimps. He’s got the fastest boat in Southeast Asia and once some handy dandy weapons dealers are located, an assault raft and guns are secured for Braddock’s mission back into Vietnam to rescue the POWs. (Added bonus: Braddock battles the sadistic camp director Vinh who followed him to Bangkok and stabs him with his own knife, muttering “fortunes of war” after Vinh had dismissed the casualties he caused by attacking Braddock in Bangkok with the same phrase.)

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Braddock’s assault on the camp goes like you would expect with lots of stuff exploding before he discovers the POWs have been moved. Then his assault on the convoy moving the POWs goes like you would expect with lots of stuff exploding.

Coming in the middle of the big three POW rescue movie of the mid 1980s (preceded by Gene Hackman’s Uncommon Valor and followed by Rambo: First Blood Part II), it may not have the respectability, budget or cast of the other two, but director Joseph Zito has crafted an grimly entertaining action flick, that smartly showcases Norris in a variety of set pieces, from the cat burglar like invasion of General Trau’s house, to the big city brawling in Bangkok to the expected jungle assault in the film’s final act. And though Norris is our most soft spoken action star and has all the screen presence of a department store mannequin on downers, there is a quiet earnestness about him that’s not unappealing and he is quite credible in handling himself in all the action scenes.

Zito, who made relatively few, but some great exploitation movies like The Prowler and Invasion USA (and a clunker – Delta Force One: The Lost Patrol), gives the film some nice exploitation flourishes like when Norris rises out of the water in slow motion like some unkillable movie monster (perhaps not too surprising since Zito also directed Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) to shoot a bunch of cackling enemy soldiers after they blow up his boat and when he concludes the film by having Norris improbably land the chopper literally at the bad guy’s front door so the world can see they were lying about having POWs. (Exploitation bonus points for ending the movie abruptly during this scene with a freeze frame of Norris and a rescued POW arm in arm.)

© 2015 MonsterHunter

2 thoughts on “Missing in Action (1984)

  1. I always wondered if Rambo II was a ripoff of MIA, or both were just ripping off Uncommon Valor. Considering that the original screenplay for Rambo II was written by James Cameron, and how much that guy loves taking credit for other people’s ideas (La Jetee and Terminator, My name is Joe and Avatar, etc.), as well as Sly himself, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. What do you think?

    1. The Rambo II script was apparently written in 1983 and Uncommon Valor didn’t come out until the end of 1983 while Missing in Action was released the next year. In this case, it appears to be another instance of several similar projects just happening to made around the same time. Interesting footnote is that Uncommon Valor director Ted Kotcheff was also the director of First Blood.

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