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Missing In Action

Missing In Action



1984, Dir. Joseph Zito

Starring:
Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh

Originally written by Mega Lemur for the Bad Movie Message Board roundtable, "The Reagan Years." Holla at him at the BMMB.

The 1980s saw the start of a decade largely devoid of active combat for the United States, and as such, it was a time to reflect on the wars of previous years. Especially prominent in this regard was the Vietnam War, an incident still fresh in the minds of many Americans, and one rapidly brought to mind by talk of U.S. peacekeeping forces being sent to Asia and Central America under the Reagan administration. Never ones to miss out on an opportunity, Hollywood produced several 'Nam-themed films during this time, sometimes with excellent results (e.g. Full Metal Jacket, Platoon.) However, such "remembering the war" films were not the only ones to use Vietnam as a backdrop. By this time, the U.S.S.R. itself had already been done to death as an exotic locale of overhanging doom. With various areas of Southeast Asia still under the control of communists and warlords, localities such as Vietnam were ripe for onscreen intrigue and adventure--with the opportunity to show a lot of skin in the tropical climate to boot. While some of the movies filmed under this premise tried to bring in entirely new situations to the familiar locales, quite a few of them sought to bridge the gap between the goings-on in the Vietnam War and the present day. Thus, instead of merely "remembering the war", these movies can best be classed under the title "the war continues." A common theme in these movies is the return to SE Asia for personal vengeance--doubtless an outlet for the fantasies of many disillusioned by government failure to tie up perceived loose ends in Vietnam. The Rambo movies fit this category well, but perhaps the epitome of the genre is Chuck Norris' Missing in Action. (Indeed, in general plot, the later (1985) Rambo: First Blood II might even be called a Missing in Action ripoff if the two hadn't been produced synchronously.)

As the movie begins, we are greeted to the sight of a lush tropical paradise, much like one would see somewhere in South Florida or Southern California. However, the arrival of a team of U.S. soldiers clues us in to the fact that this is supposed to be Vietnam. Well, at least they found some bamboo to add a bit of realism. The soldiers seem to be doing well, when something horrible occurs. The credits roll "The Cannon Group, Inc. Presents Chuck Norris in a Golan-Globus Production" (Golan-Globus--that's Hebrew for "Quality!" ) Seriously though, the soldiers, led by Norris as Colonel James Braddock, are attacked by the Vietcong amidst heavy shelling. Chuck does his darnedest to blow away anything that so much as breathes in his direction, but before long, all of his fellow troopers have been killed, leaving him to waste wave after wave of enemy soldiers before his eventual capture. I'll say it now, Norris is a man of few words, but when he wants to get a point across, he can emote with merely an "Argh." Cut to the present day (1984), when a boozy Chuck is lying on his bed watching a news program mentioning American MIAs in Vietnam. Before long, flashbacks have been triggered, and we watch as Chuck is led on a forced march, chained to the ground, and slashed viciously by the bearded, sadistic leader of a POW camp. Cut back to the present, where Chuck is now watching an episode of the cartoon Spider-Man. Yeah, you read that right, as in "does whatever a spider can." I'd argue that this is a poignant image that far more eloquently jars the viewer with the contrast between the horrific and the mundane than the closing "Mickey Mouse Club" scene in Full Metal Jacket, but then I'd just be making up some crazy crap. It's still an important scene, though. Of course, as we all know, Chuck Norrises by nature do not watch cartoons, rather, they beat stuff up. To facilitate this end, the movie starts swinging in some semblance of a storyline, that very simply put, results in Braddock being sent back to Vietnam with a Senator in tow to stand trial for war crimes against Vietnamese citizens. Now, you're probably asking why, given his past experience with the Vietnamese legal system and the fact that he knows he's innocent, would he consent to this obvious travesty of a sham of a scapegoatery, but then you're forgetting that Chuck Norris always has something up his sleeve. And more often than not, that something is capable of firing a series of projectiles at high speed through the hearts of any nearby Commies.

Seeing as he is basically being sold out by his government to further diplomatic ties with still-hostile Vietnam, Braddock is understandably cold to Senator Porter (David Tress) on the plane trip over. Things don't get much better when the duo is greeted upon landing by General Trau (James Hong!). During an initial show of pleasantries, Braddock refuses to shake Trau's hand and walks away without a word, prompting Porter to remark, "You're an embarrassment, Braddock!" Ever-ready with the wry reply, the Chuckster lets loose with, "Isn't that why I'm here, Senator?" Score one for the C-man! Furthermore, although this is what the diplomats believe, Braddock is not there to because he is an embarrassment (if only I could say the same of Sidekicks...), but rather, because he has a full sheet of names to take and butts to kick. Speaking of which, who should he find as part of the General's entourage but the evil POW camp head who mutilated him back in the war! I never picked up this character's name, so he will be referred to as Beardman from here on in, in reference to his most distinguishing feature. With folks like these as prosecution, judge, and jury, it looks increasingly unlikely that Braddock will get a fair trial. Sure enough, Trau's evidence for the "war crimes" amounts to a group of peasants "testifying" that their families were killed by a blood-lusting Braddock, clearly under "pressure" from the Vietnamese government. Heck, one old farmer even apologizes to Braddock as he gets up before the court. Even outside of the courtroom the game is rigged against Braddock--he's practically become a prisoner in the embassy, and in saccharine attempts at casual conversation, Trau asks him such happy queries as: "Is it true you let 10 of your men die in prison because you refused to admit to war crimes?" Sheesh! Considering that this is the early 80s, this seems like a pretty strong indictment of the more softcore attempts to resolve rising international tensions. Reparatory peacenik diplomacy has failed! It's time for some massive military buildup, and who better to do so than "Army of One" Chuck Norris?

Did I mention there's a love interest, too? I can't recall exactly what her position was (senatorial aide, perhaps), but her name was Ann (Lenore Kasdorf). She's a classic prim-and-misled-by-the-establishment type that you would normally expect to fall for Chuck's off-beat, own-boss take on life and cut loose to his world of down-to-earth Americana. Well, she probably would have if she didn't disappear a 1/3 of the way through the movie. It's quite odd. I mean, she's an unnecessary character who really contributes nothing major to the plot, but to introduce her only to forget about her--it just seems off-kilter. Before her disappearance she does manage to help Braddock out at the embassy, creating a diversion that allows him to crawl off the balcony and along the embassy walls. See, I told you the Spider-Man scene was important! It was certainly elaborate foreshadowing of this scene, and may have even been some manner of inspiration and/or training program for Chuck's nigh-webslinging antics. Did somebody order a wall-crawler? This escape would have been a great idea, except for one fact: Braddock is dressed entirely in black. Normally, what with this being a covert night mission, black would be a color of choice. However, when you are crawling along the sides of a bleached-white embassy surrounded by guards and searchlights, this is not quite so wise. This is nothing a few beatings can't cure, though, and before long Braddock has snuck into General Trau's bedroom. Now Braddock's reason for coming to Vietnam has become clear: he's going to find a secret POW camp and free the soldiers listed as "Missing In Action" (hence the title). Braddock gets Trau to tell him some information about the camp's whereabouts using the old knife-to-the-adam's-apple technique, but things go sour, Trau pulls a gun, and ends up with Braddock's knife flying into his chest. (Jeez, what's the deal with James Hong characters and death by throwing knife?) One might think that a murdered general would give cause for alarm, but thanks to Braddock's "kill or knock senseless all who cross you" policy, he is far away by the time Beardman and his goons find the General's corpse. From then on in, it's nothing but a path of beat downs and plentifully-opened cans of whoopbottom as assorted guards and policemen try unsuccessfully to capture Braddock. Not that it's all that difficult to find him, mind you. In fact, there's one scene where he's climbing across a street holding on to an electric cable, and when he gets to the other side he cuts it, causing a shower of sparks as the wire falls down to the street. Even so, the guards pay no attention to this, seemingly taking effort to avoid seeing Braddock up amongst the buildings. All throughout the "guards chasing" scenes, Beardman himself is searching the embassy, and he's got some wicked theme music to back him up. It's a funky synthesizer groove that sounds like it's straight out of Lode Runner, and he's the crazed monk out to tear some intestines.

Following his cross-town escapades, Braddock leaps up into Ann's room, and being an action hero and everything, proceeds to rip off his shirt and get busy. Hey, it worked in Clue, right? It seems that Beardman isn't a complete idiot, because when he finally busts into Ann's room, he is able to utter a "I suppose he's been with you all night...how convenient..." laced with sarcasm. Now here's the funny thing: following this little "incident", Braddock manages to leave country and head to Bangkok. You'd think that with a General murdered and the key suspect already indicted for atrocities of war, the evil, corrupt government depicted in this movie would be able to at least hold on to Braddock for a few days. But no, and Braddock makes for Thailand to look up "an old friend." And what a magical place he finds, too, reminiscent of younger, more innocent times in Bangkok, when you could find shoeless children breakdancing between the red light district and the topless club district. The locals are less than helpful in his search for "Army buddy" Jack Tucker (M. Emmett Walsh), but a little well-placed green starts getting him places. And of course, where money fails Norrisfists[TM] succeed. (As one seedy barkeep found out, hold out on me once, shame on you. Hold out on me thrice, and it's time to die.) It turns out that Tucker has been frequenting a charming little maison by the name of Mrs. Pearl's Whorehouse, and so Braddock dives in to the dank underbelly of Thai urbia (more so.) Actually, the 'house in question is quite snazzy, with guys falling off of balconies and a young Tia Carrere singing "If You Think I'm Sexy" backed up by an accordion (okay, so maybe it wasn't Tia Carrere.) At any rate, Braddock hooks up with Jack Tucker, or "Tuck", as he's affectionately known, and the two begin to set the wheels of a great plan in motion. Central to this plan is Tuck's boat, the Southern Belle, which despite its rough exterior assuredly contains "Detroit diesel turbocharge." Then, it's off to gather supplies: assault rifles, C4, grenades--you know, the Norris essential collection. Lest 45 minutes of "shopping sequences" sound out of place, you can be sure that every five minutes or so an assassin tries to do Braddock in, and usually ends up either crumpled in a closet somewhere or in the center of an explosion. Oh, and there are a heckuva lot of defenestrations. Also, even the straight-up "buying goods" scenes are action-packed, especially the one in which Braddock and Tuck have to buy a raft (an underwhelming appellation for the neat-looking pontoon craft they end up purchasing). First, to prove that the raft will not be "put out of commission by a single bullet", the arms dealer has his goon open fire on it. When was the last time they did that in the hardware department at Home Depot? Second, when the times comes to haggle over the price, Braddock does so by climbing up on the raft to inspect the deck-mounted rifle, only to assemble, load, and point the weapon at the arms dealer. Now that's my kind of haggling!

Following a few more assassination attempts, Braddock and Tuck escape upriver in the Southern Belle. Little do they known that Beardman is in hot pursuit, and furthermore, that "This has become a private matter." Actually, the whole Beardman thing is a little anticlimactic. He sneaks onto the boat at night, has a gun, and is set up perfectly to shoot Braddock. Stupidly, he puts the gun away and opts for an axe, which of course misses Braddock by a mile and ends up being forced back towards himself, resulting in an inglorious demise. Why did he put the gun away? Did he think that the axe would make it look more like an accident (?!?), or had he just become addicted to slicing up Chuck Norris after all these years? Anyway, with Beardman disposed of, Braddock is free to go on the main mission to the POW camp. Once again, it's a whole lot of beatin', but somewhat understated given the covert nature of his entry into the camp. Of course, once the C4 goes up, things get to where they were always meant to be: commando-attired Chuck shootin' the heck out of everything and everyone in sight. The movie pretty much just coasts from this point on; there are minor problems (MIAs relocated, have to attack a different camp, have to destroy Vietnamese military, etc.), but for the most part it just rolls fist-forward to the end, where the MIAs are freed, official talks are disproven, and corrupt governments receive their comeuppance.

I liked this movie, if only as a good example of what an action movie is all about. Sure, there were problems. The plot was little more than a series of excuses to get Chuck Norris to shoot/punch/and/or/blow stuff up, but at least there was a plot, and some semblance of a followable storyline (which is more than I can say for some other Chuck Norris movies and, ahem, sequels.) As I mentioned earlier, the dialogue was, er, "spare" and mostly superceded by explosions and one-liners, but that's to be expected in this sort of film. Some people have complained that this movie would be offensive to Asians, but I don't think this statement is justified. Certainly, the communist Vietnamese leaders are depicted as pure and unadulterated evil, but hey--they're supposed to be the bad guys, and this is the "better dead than red" 1980s. Bangkok is depicted as being akin to a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, but from what I understand, this isn't all that far from the truth. Furthermore, the general citizenry of Ho Chi Minh City (including the falsely testifying peasants) and the native prisoners Braddock releases during his first attack are portrayed as being quite noble and ready to cast off the foul tentacles of their communist overlords to pave the way for democracy (not that I'm saying this movie is jingoistic or anything...heh heh). What really made this movie were some of the things that you wouldn't expect, at least in this sort of film. For one, the attention to detail in planning the mission. A good chunk of screen time is devoted to Braddock planning, gathering supplies for, and making contacts for the assault on the camp. Many a lesser action movie just would have just shown Braddock busting into the camp, pre-equipped with all manner of weapons of destruction and relying on chance to escape. Remember the old Mission: Impossibles, where almost as much airtime was devoted to figuring out how to undertake the mission as actually doing it? It's sort of the same here, which is nice. It's made clear that Braddock has been planning this attack for some time now, and has been able to think it out. The one aspect not satisfactorily treated, how Tuck just hopped right on board the whole rescue mission when he first saw Braddock, can thus be explained by having been arranged ahead of time. Also, this movie actually managed to defy some of my expectations, a rare occurrence indeed in the action genre. For example, there's one scene on the river in which Tuck has reluctantly agreed to pilot Braddock upstream, but vehemently stresses the fact that he isn't going to get off the raft. I could have sworn the movie would faithfully follow Agarn's Rule, but it did not, and Tuck stayed on the raft. (*-Agarn's Rule, as formulated by noted media scholar Freakazoid!: A rule stating that whenever someone tries to convince a character to do something, and that character then strongly refuses, that character must be doing whatever they didn't want to in the very next scene. For example, if Sgt. O'Rourke is trying to get Corporal Agarn to put on a dress, but Agarn says he will absolutely not put on that dress, a rapid cut to the next scene will reveal Agarn wearing the dress.) Furthermore, the movie had some idea of when a scene had been done to death. By the end of the movie, Braddock has been attacked by what seem like dozens of knife-wielding assailants, and has always had to engage in a protracted test of strength inevitably ending in the assassin's knife being directed back at himself. But, just when you think another one of these scenes is going to pass, things get mixed up a little, albeit in a manner that owes much to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Finally, in addition to some scenes you wouldn't expect, the movie delivers all the requisite scenes that are by law present in every action movie, including the helicopter rescue, the car chase, the rooftop to rooftop leap, the barroom brawl, the cleverly-placed grenade, and of course, the car that crashes into a giant stack of crates and cardboard boxes in an Asian city. Even though they're trite, these scenes are well done within the context of the movie, and some, like Tuck's first entrance (breaking through a balcony and crashing onto a table below) are pretty fun. Because when you boil it all down, if scenes like Chuck Norris rising triumphantly from out of a river, armed to the teeth, to waste a group of maniacally cackling bad guys aren't what action movies are all about, what is?