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P.O.W.: The Escape

P.O.W.: The Escape

1986, Dir. Gideon Amir

David Carradine, Steve James, Mako

Originally written by Josh Shepherd (Bergerjacques) for the Bad Movie Message Board roundtable, "The Reagan Years." Holla at him at the BMMB.

As an avid reader of movie reviews, and a fan of the soap opera that was Siskel and Ebert, I have tried to approach movies with an informed eye, seeking out the quality big budget feature, the hidden cult gem, the rare outstanding indie, and, of course, a little skin. I like to think that my taste in film is generally impeccable and that peers may regard me a reliable source of information on quality movies. This is a sin of conceit, I know.

On occasion, though, I have walked the plank and allowed my judgement to be swayed by the artwork on the box (those usually featuring surgically-enhanced females in panties so scant one must wonder how the fabric managed not to get sucked up some orifice when they walked.) And I have been burned more often than rewarded. But the rewards, when they come, usually more than justify raking through the slag. But never before have I entered Video Warehouse with the intent of seeking out a bad movie. I must admit, it was fun. Given our encompassing theme, The Reagan Years, I entered the store in a reflective mood. The Reagan Era. My teenage and college years, those Reagan Years. Eight years of a bizarrely intolerant brand of patriotism when we encased our heads in the same rose-tinted plastic wrap as our president and possibly suffered the same mental damage due to a lack of oxygen to our brains. This was the era where we put Libya and Moammer Quadaffi in their place by bombing their ass. Then we invaded our sinister neighbor to the south, Grenada. In the meantime, Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers and said it was a proactive step in union-management relations. This was the decade where Bruce Springsteen would write a song critical of our nation's government and the populace would embrace it as an up with USA anthem. So much for the taste and intelligence of the masses. It is, however, a great song and almost single-handedly rescued popular music from the clutches of Michael Jackson and Boy George.

On a positive note, this was finally the decade where we as a nation apologized for the lousy treatment of our Vietnam veterans in the late 60s. How did we accomplish this task? Well, apparently we practiced mass denial. In our collective mind, we decided we could have kicked every Vietnamese ass but for the involvement of politicians and bureaucrats. To prove this hypothesis, Cannon films and Golan-Globus sent Sylvester Stallone to the Phillipines where he ingested steroids, took on an entire army of slumming asian actors - AND KICKED THEIR ASS! (Oddly, throughout the entire series, I never once saw Rambo eat one thing that would make a billy goat puke, despite a certain, ahm, guarantee about such action from Richard Crenna, you lying bastard.)

This movie set off an entire trend in straight-to-video productions. So when I entered the video store in search of a title appropriate to the Reagan Years, I knew what I wanted. Something about recovering MIA-POWs in Vietnam. Specifically, I wanted Chuck Norris in Missing in Action. That series, I think, encompassed everything "b" about the Reagan Era. At least I hoped it would. Alas, in the action aisle, all three Missing in Action titles were gone. Rented, no doubt by some "Walker, Texas Ranger" fanatic who had not the courtesy to consider that someone may have wanted them for something important.

In defeat, children, there is always an opportunity for a Bob Ross happy little accident. I didn't get Chuck Norris. I got better. Thank you Cannon films. Thank you Golan-Globus, you Michael Bays of the 1980s. At my darkest moment, you delivered unto me a film of such impeccable "b" pedigree that it re-affirmed my belief in a higher deity - and its taste in film. For lo, there upon the next shelf was the hallowed name, DAVID CARRADINE, and a movie called: P.O.W.: The Escape.

Four days before a peace treaty will be signed ending the Vietnam War, the army calls in ace military man, Colonel Jim Cooper (David Carradine), to liberate American prisoners of war from a hell ish Vietnamese prison camp. In a modestly unique twist to the standard Missing in Action story, Cooper must extract these American POWs before the peace treaty is signed. If he fails, these American soldiers will be officially listed MIA and, with a Copperfield-like flourish, "poof" disappear.

This won't happen though, because Cooper's motto is: "Everyone goes home."

POW has all the makings of a quality Rambo rip-off. Not only do we have Carradine, but during the opening credits, we learn that everyone's favorite gravel-voiced Asian is our villain - MAKO!!

Before the action starts, we get early foreshadowing of the use of symbolism in this picture. Now there are four ways in which a movie uses symbolism. They are: Subtle, Profound, Heavy-Handed, and Sledge. With regard to POW, director Gideon Amir apparently bought the deluxe, John Henry model.

In a brief pause in the credits, Colonel Cooper shares a personal moment with Private Teague, whom Cooper has noticed fondling a cross on his chest. It's cool, Cooper says. I pray everyday, too. Just part of being an American. Meanwhile, viewers will note that not only is Teague an unabashed Christian, he's the only African-American in the picture so far. That pretty much cancels his chance of survival after the first action scene.

Five minutes into the assault on the empty prison camp, Cooper realizes that nobody has returned fire and yells "F**k." Apparently, f**k translates to "we're f**ked" because the Americans stop shooting and Vietcong soldiers suddenly bust in for a surprise attack (Clever Vietcong soldiers) and release a hailstorm of gunfire. Oddly, they all must have aimed at Teague because nobody else gets even a scratch scrambling toward the helicopter to get away. Cooper, super-soldier as he is, jogs nonchalantly toward the Chopper, shaking off mortar fire Col. Kilgore style, then notices Teague isn't among the platoon.

"I'm going back," he says.


"Because no one gets left behind!" That, you see, is Cooper's motto.

In a moment of inspired editing, Carradine manages to evade hundreds of Vietcong soldiers (as well as thousands of bullets), locates Teague, and is packing him through the jungle taking out an average of two VC with each bullet he fires. Its only when Teague dies and Cooper rolls him for the gold cross that he's captured and taken to the real hellish VC prison camp run by everyone MAKO!!

B-movie fans may also applaud the appearance of Steve James as the African-American soldier meant to offset the fact Golan-Globus killed off the first African-American actor within fifteen minutes of his appearance. I don't think I'm acting the spoiler role to tell you that, besides Carradine, James is only other soldier absolutely guaranteed to walk through this war without a scratch.

I went through the first fifteen minutes of movie in detail because, as we discover, the liberation of the POW camp plot is all just prologue. This is the real story: Evil Vietnamese officer Mako fears getting stuck in Vietnam after the peace treaty is signed. He's got stolen gold and family in Miami to support. All he has to do is get Carradine across the Vietcong border as his prisoner, then alternately surrender to Carradine and be taken into American territory where, presumably, he will be shipped to Miami to live among the rich and famous. Apparently that's what the US does with all its prisoners of war. Manuel Noriega, for example. Confused yet? Just wait.

Carradine refuses to go along with Mako's scheme unless the rest of the POWs are taken along. "Everybody goes free." That's his motto. Someone is going to have teach Cooper consistency.

The POWs, meanwhile, are a pretty faceless lot. The key characters are James and the guy with mixed up values, Sparks. He's the guy who only cares about himself. Just so you don't get the idea a screenwriter had anything to do with this script, the minute you're introduced to Sparks, someone says the line, "Watch out for Sparks. He'd sell his own grandmother/buddy/family/dog to save his own hide." Oh yeah, Sparks is a villain, too. But he's a redeemable villain.

The first meeting between Cooper and the POWs naturally result in Sparks picking a fight. Carradine does the slow motion Shao-Lin thing on Sparks and says (Twice!), "I'm getting too old for this s**t." Having thus won the respect of the other soldiers, because nothing commands respect like a good beating, Cooper continues to negotiate with Mako. Finally, after Mako kills a handful of American soldiers in cold-blood as a demonstration of his power, he declares Cooper the winner. "All right. You win. They all go."

Twice during this movie, the writers had an opportunity to turn the whole genre on its ear by having Americans and Vietnamese forge an uneasy alliance against both armies to escape. You could see the script edging toward that angle, only to have the moment ruined by Americans killing Asians with bloody abandon. One wonders why they have such hostility toward one another. In nearly every instance of conflict, I came to one of two conclusions: either the Vietcong have the worst aim of any standing army in the world or they have a peculiar obsession with shoulders and legs. Mako shoots point blank at Sparks in one scene and misses completely, lending credence to the notion that the best way to avoid being shot by Vietnamese is to stand directly in their aim. The entire mid-section of the picture involves Mako and Sparks playing keep away with the gold while Cooper leads his band of soldiers toward freedom. Several times, as Cooper watched soldiers in his command die, (one death was an apparent rip off of a scene from Deliverance, if you can believe it), he decides to leave them behind. So much for his darn mottos.

One interesting tidbit of learning we get. Jimi Hendrix was a veteran. According to Carradine, he served with the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles. Hooyah!

Oh yes, at this point, a new storyline begins. Discovering some fellow soldiers on their way toward freedom, Cooper learns that an army platoon is pinned down by the Vietcong army and will likely be killed or taken prisoner. Except now they won't be, because, dammit, "No one gets left behind because everyone is free and gets to go home." Now THAT'S a motto!! In the next action sequence, soldiers are crawling back to bunkers nursing shoulder and leg wounds. They're pinned down and hundreds of Vietcong are advancing. Until suddenly, Cooper personally flanks the entire Vietnamese regiment and shoots all of them. I mean, all of them.

Then, assisting his fellow soldiers on board a truck to escape, he makes sure to grab the tattered US flag and - remember, this is a Reagan Era flick - drapes himself in it while still shooting Vietnamese corpses. Flames of destruction climb high in the daylight, Carradine stands in his Stars and Stripes toga and the entire group of liberated American soldiers "spontaneously" sings Proud Mary.

You might think this was the end. But we still have the unresolved story between Mako and self-centered Sparks.

In a Hanoi brothel, Sparks sees himself in the mirror as a Vietnamese hooker waits for him to undress. This is the obligatory naked breast scene. It is also the scene where Sparks gets ashamed of himself and begins his process of redemption. He takes the only piece of gold he has left, the cross Teague was wearing at the beginning of the picture, and clasps it around his neck, making him the movie's Christ figure. Yeesh. Gives me the willies just writing it.

The born again Sparks barely makes it five minutes before obligated to sacrifice himself for the rest of the platoon by diving, with arms outstretched no less, on a grenade. He does, however, get himself draped with the American flag just before the credits roll. (Incidentally, Mako dies by being impaled in the side with a spear like object. I almost thought he was the Christ figure.) Everybody say, poor Mako.

So what's the moral of this movie: You want to live through a war, better keep your religious beliefs to yourself.