Cannontober #2: Missing in Action
Welcome to the second entry in Cannontober, my not at all self-indulgent ten-part exploration of the films of legendary schlockmeisters Cannon. In the first entry, I chronicled Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley’s wildly entertaining documentary about the rise and fall of Cannon. As one of the most “important” films of one of Cannon’s testosterone-heavy “Two Chucks” (Charles Bronson was the other), Missing in Action figures prominently in Electric Boogaloo, and as is often the case with Cannon, the story behind the film is as entertaining, crazy and preposterous as the film itself, if not more so.
It started off with Cannon getting its grubby, opportunistic hands all over James Cameron’s treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and/or the full-on script. Cannon thought to itself, “Wow, this looks like it’ll make a lot of money.” So it did what it generally did in those instances. It figured that it would also make a lot of money by creating a knock-off that was cheaper and worse and filmed much more quickly.
Cannon managed to film its Rambo knockoff so quickly that not only was it able to film cheapo imitators back-to-back, but it shot them so quickly that it was able to actually beat its inspiration to the theaters. Missing in Action and Missing in Action 2: the Beginning were filmed back-to-back but when Cannon screened the movies, they discovered that the movie they had intended to kick off the series, which would eventually be released as Missing in Action 2: the Beginning, was so bad, even by Cannon and Chuck Norris standards, that if it were released first it would bomb so hard that there would be no market for a sequel.
So Cannon decided to release the intended sequel first. Missing in Action 2 became Missing in Action and Missing in Action became Missing in Action 2: The Beginning. The sequel was released before the prequel, which helps explain why Missing in Action’s opening feels like the muddled third act of a fourth sequel.
The movie opens with a ten minute segment in Southeast Asia that is eventually revealed to be a flashback/nightmare of our hero Braddock, who a North Vietnamese bad guy informs us is such a bearded badass, such a hirsute hero, such a denim-clad dynamo that after he escaped from a P.O.W camp and was running amok in Southeast Asia there was no less than a five thousand dollar bounty on his head.
“Try twenty-thousand dollars” Braddock snaps proudly, as if that also weren’t a shockingly small bounty for a dude who, over the course of the Missing in Action trilogy murders about forty percent of Vietnam with a machine. I just wish they’d run with this weird quirk and sold the movie as Braddock—The Five to Twenty Thousand Dollar Man!
After this interminable fight sequence we travel to modern-day Vietnam, where Norris’ revenge-minded veteran Braddock is part of an American diplomatic trip to Vietnam, apparently because what delicate international political situation wouldn’t benefit from the presence of a jeans-clad, dead-eyed veteran clearly more interested in killing people than seeking some manner of diplomatic resolution to the P.O.W issue?
At a function where Vietnamese war criminals and glowering Americans with murderous grudges against Vietnamese war criminals meet and mingle over cocktails and appetizers, a Vietnamese bad guy asks our hero what I think is a very impolite question: “Is it true that you let ten of your men die in prison, all because you alone refused to admit your war crimes?”
Forget politics and religion: asking someone if they let their comrades die unspeakable deaths due to pride is the ultimate cocktail party faux pas. No wonder Braddock doesn’t answer his question, but later threatens to murder him with a knife if he doesn’t reveal where the American P.O.Ws are held.
Sure enough, Braddock uses the diplomatic mission as cover to ditch his American compatriots and embark on a mission of vengeance to bring home our boys and finally “win” in some weird symbolic, poignantly juvenile sense, the only war the United States had ever lost until that point.
About halfway through the film Braddock recruits a street-smart hustler played by M. Emmet Walsh to be his sidekick, compatriot and drive a bullet-proof assault raft into enemy territory on a mission to bring our boys back alive. M. Emmet Walsh, who seems like he was born a sweaty, degenerate 57 year old man, seems perpetually on the verge of a heart attack under the best of circumstances. I’m not sure even an unusually scrappy M. Emmet Walsh would be of much use on a dangerous military retrieval mission, but M. Emmet Walsh in a movie is always a good thing, even if it doesn’t make sense. Heck, especially if it doesn’t make sense.
Walsh’s reluctant hero receives an introduction worthy of the legendary character actor playing him: he’s angrily hurled off the second story of a whorehouse and dumped onto its ground floor, where he reconnects with his old chum Braddock. As an actor, Chuck Norris is very good at fighting but is devoid of what is known as “personality.” Walsh thankfully has enough personality to go around, even if, in some ways, he’s impressive from a physical perspective than Norris.
Norris stares heroically while the evil Vietnamese bad guys, who are of course devoid of anything resembling humanity or moral ambiguity, glare sinisterly at Braddock in return. Norris delivers his terse lines in a bored monotone. He’s a one-note performer who never deviates from stoic, manly determination, even in the weird fake-out scene where he appears to be stripping down to hop into bed with a sexy diplomatic colleague when in fact he’s only undressing so that he can change into all-black clothing to assist him in a stealth night mission.
Braddock is not a very pleasant human being. A hustler offers to sell Braddock a bullet-proof assault raft for what appears to be the very reasonable price of twenty thousand dollars but Braddock is such a cheapskate that he points a machine gun at the seller until he lowers the price to ten thousand dollars.
At the risk of nit-picking Missing in Action, I feel like pointing a machine gun at some one with the very clear implication that you might murder them with it if they displease you gives you an unfair advantage. But Braddock doesn’t seem to care. No, all he’s concerned with is killing Asians, saving Americans and getting good deals on already improbably cheap weapons.
Braddock also negotiates for a helicopter for his mission early on so that when one shows up deep into the climax we don’t all collectively roll our eyes and jeer, “A chopper? Seriously? A whole fucking helicopter for this one dude? Isn’t that more appropriate for, I dunno, a whole fucking army?” because we’ve already had that reaction to the introduction of the helicopter and the bullet-proof assault raft with the suspiciously low price.
Missing in Action closes with some sequences that would have rocked my nine-year-old self’s world, had I somehow managed to see Missing in Action upon its theatrical release. In one standout set-piece, a trio of sneering bad guys are laughing derisively at Braddock, who they think has cast off his mortal coil and entered a watery grave alongside his beloved assault raft.
Then Braddock bursts out of the water in slow-motion to repay these villain’s sneering laughter with some good old fashioned machine gun fire as he murders the holy living fuck out of them with one of his enormous, magical guns. And I can’t help but admire the audacity and shamelessness of having the movie end with the evil Vietnamese military brass finishing a press conference about how there is not a single, solitary, lonely American P.O.W left in Vietnam just as Braddock choppers in with a whole bunch of P.O.Ws to prove them wrong and America right.
USA! USA! USA!
We end on a freeze frame of Braddock with one of his fallen brothers in what I can only describe as a very satisfying end to an enjoyably terrible B-movie, one made with both the requisite vulgar Cannon panache but also Cannon's trademark disregard for quality, taste and originality.
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