For his first outing of a five film contract with 80’s b-movie specialists Cannon Films (that paid him a million dollar salary per movie), former martial arts champion Chuck Norris refined the image most of us associate with him as a gun-touting, one man army bad-ass who can not only shoot you but also kick the living hell out of you. It’s the same characteristics he’d bring to later efforts like The Delta Force. Shot back-to-back with its sequel, Missing in Action was actually intended to be released AFTER part two but, upon looking at the entertainment value of two, the producers decided they needed to kick things off with the more exciting of them – and that’s something this one has is spades with Chuck showing off his skills with a machine gun, his feet, some ninja stealthiness, and the first appearance of that sweet, sweet beard.
A real benefit here is having Joseph Zito to direct. This is the guy who made one of my favourite Friday the 13th sequels with The Final Chapter, delivered a gory slasher called The Prowler, reteamed with Norris for the ultimate 80’s “communist scare” actioner Invasion U.S.A., and helmed the Dolph Lundgren starring Red Scorpion. He knows how to make entertaining flicks and stage over-the-top action sequences – he delivers that here even giving us the memorable moment where Chuck is blasting baddies in slow-motion while standing waist deep in a river.
Norris plays Colonel James Braddock who, in the opening moments, is trying to escape the deadly jungles of Vietnam with his platoon in what I consider to be one of the best action scenes in Cannon’s catalogue sporting multiple explosions, endless machine gun fire, and Braddock getting a thumbs up after shooting an enemy soldier. It ends with him boarding a chopper before we fast forward to years later and our hero is still tortured by the event as proven by multiple shots of Braddock looking all introspective and drinking beer in a dingy hotel room.
However, it seems Braddock’s work isn’t done as he first calls a Vietnamese General (played by the legendary James Hong) an asshole at a war crimes inquiry before being tasked by the American government to return to action when they suspect there are still soldiers being held captive in P.O.W. camps. Along for the ride is Ann (Lenore Kasdorf) as his female handler/sidekick/love interest and together they go to Saigon where Braddock sneaks around to uncover the location of the prisoners before they head to a totally sleazy looking, neon soaked Bangkok and a whorehouse where some girls are doing a lo-fi cover of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” in order to meet up with Army pal Tucker (M. Emmet Walsh) and prepare to storm into the camp to rescue his fellow ‘mericans.
Yes, Missing in Action is completely and utterly silly. There’s lots of misguided anti-Vietnamese sentiment only the 80’s could deliver. Norris is given barely any dialogue but looks good in fatigues and has no problems bedding his female co-star or rolling into the enemy camp in an assault raft with mounted machine guns. People die... a lot. I found myself grinning ear-to-ear more than I should probably admit.
As 80’s action stars go, it doesn’t get much better than Chuck Norris. Forget about that fact his acting was mostly wooden or that he’d become an internet punch line in the future, when I was a kid I wanted to be him. As Braddock he’s your typical stoic hero, be it a little more serious than his past roles, and would return to play him in two other sequels making it his most well-known character. Of course, he doesn’t do much different here than he has in the past apart from relying more on guns than his feet. What’s most surprising, though, is the inclusion of Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China) and Walsh (Critters, also Blade Runner). They’re two great character actors who run circles around the rest of the cast in their limited screen time. Kasdorf, best known for the soap “Santa Barbara”, is given the thankless task of being the only real female cast member and has to endure Norris tossing her around. It’s also worth noting that future action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is credited as a stuntman.
Missing in Action is a prime example of what Cannon was throwing down through most of the 80’s. Under Zito’s direction it’s a fully loaded and rapidly moving romp that piles on the action, some mild political intrigue, and a whole lot of ridiculousness. The last twenty minutes alone where Braddock sails into the jungle to assault the camp would make Rambo (the film it most rips-off) proud and makes this worthwhile for connoisseurs of the decade’s over-the-top action flicks. The finale feels pretty rushed but that’s a minor quibble in what’s a pretty entertaining start to a continuity challenged franchise. (Chris Hartley, 6/7/16)
Directed By: Joseph Zito.
Written By: James Bruner.
Starring: Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, Lenore Kasdorf, James Hong.