Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cannon Files/New on Blu-ray: MISSING IN ACTION (1984); MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING (1985); THE DELTA FORCE (1986)

This week, Fox/MGM released three Chuck Norris/Cannon classics on Blu-ray, presumably to take advantage of his co-starring role in the upcoming THE EXPENDABLES 2, which will be the action star's first widely-released theatrical film since 1995's TOP DOG.  The Blu-ray editions of MISSING IN ACTION (1984), MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING (1985), and THE DELTA FORCE (1986), with new artwork draping Chuck in the American flag, are exclusively available at Wal-Mart for now, but will be available through other retailers at some point in the next several months.  Fox/MGM are also releasing a pair of other non-Cannon Norris films on Blu-ray on July 17 (not retailer exclusives):  LONE WOLF MCQUADE (1983) and what many consider his best film, CODE OF SILENCE (1985).

(US, 1984)

The Vietnam War was still a raw, open wound for America in the 1980s, and before Oliver Stone's PLATOON (1986) paved the way for serious examination and reflection, there was a brief explosion of action-oriented "the war's not over till the last man comes home!" films, or for lack of a better term, "Namsploitation." After several years of films depicting Vietnam vets as madmen, psychos, and killers (TAXI DRIVER, THE EXTERMINATOR, and even FIRST BLOOD to some extent), Namsploitation films were, in essense, a chance for misunderstood, outcast American heroes to go back to 'Nam, kick ass, free the remaining POWs that many believed were still being held captive, and add another chapter to the story:  one where America wins. 1985's RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (in which Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo morphs from withdrawn, shell-shocked loner to Commie-killing cartoon) is probably the most famous example, though 1983's UNCOMMON VALOR really got the ball rolling.  Cannon had MISSING IN ACTION in theaters several months before RAMBO, and it was a surprise hit for the studio and for star Chuck Norris, until then generally known as a martial arts star, though he'd been attempting to move out of that genre for a couple of years.  Here, Norris is Col. James Braddock, a pissed-off vet forced into a diplomatic mission to present-day Vietnam.  He's there to prove MIA American soldiers are still being held captive, and neither spineless, useless American Sen. Porter (David Tress) nor the Vietnamese government, represented by Gen. Trau (James Hong!) will listen to him (Trau accuses of Braddock of war crimes against the Vietnamese people).  When Trau's right-hand man Vinh (Ernie Ortega), who held Braddock captive during the war, has him kicked out of the county, Braddock makes his way to Bangkok, meets up with wily old Army buddy Tuck (M. Emmet Walsh), who's still living it up in the city's red light district, and cajoles him into helping him sneak back into Vietnam by boat. 

MISSING IN ACTION ended up being one of Cannon's most successful films, and is arguably the point where American moviegoers finally recognized Norris as a legitimate action star and stopped boxing him in as "just" a martial arts guy.  The whole one-man-wrecking-crew motif is inherently absurd, but for the most part, MISSING IN ACTION is played totally straight, unlike many of the increasingly ridiculous films of the subgenre that came down the pike later (like many of the Italian ones, particularly 1987's STRIKE COMMANDO).  The stoical Norris is a tough, mean bastard throughout, and for a Cannon genre outing, it gets better direction that you'd expect from Joseph Zito (who had FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER in theaters the same year).  Zito often relies on long takes with fluid camera movements (watch the opening sequence) that do an effective job of making the action immediate and real.  Watching it again after all these years, I was surprised to see that MISSING IN ACTION is not the non-stop shoot 'em up that you'd think it is.  Rather, it plays more like a suspense thriller with periodic bursts of action.  It's a revisionist fantasy (complete with the iconic shot of Norris rising from the water, gun blazing, blowing away some cackling VC, plus a great crowd-pleasing final shot), but it's surprisingly grim, respectful of its subject (Norris had a younger brother who was killed in Vietnam), and non-exploitative, which is more than you can say for a lot of the films that followed in its and RAMBO's wake.  MGM's Blu-ray is framed at 1.85 and while not demo quality, is a definite upgrade from previous DVD editions, with a nice level of grain, texture, and detail throughout.  Also with Roger Corman vet Lenore Kasdorf (FLY ME) as a State Dept. representative, a terrible Bangkok karaoke version of Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," and, credited among the stuntmen, one "J. Claude Van Damme."  (R, 102 mins)

(US, 1985)

MISSING IN ACTION was released in November 1984 and became a sleeper hit, and it was followed less then four months later by the prequel MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING.  Critics remarked that it was a cheap, quickly-shot cash-in of a follow-up, but in fact, both films were shot back-to-back and it was shot before MISSING IN ACTION and was intended to be released first.  What became MISSING IN ACTION was supposed to be a sequel.  Cannon honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus liked Joseph Zito's MISSING IN ACTION more and decided to release it first.  When it proved popular with audiences, this film was sold as a prequel.  This explains at least one oddity about MISSING IN ACTION: why there's a "Based on Characters Created by" credit when it's ostensibly the first of two films. You wouldn't know they were shot back-to-back without being told: Norris is the only actor in both films, which have different directors (Lance Hool helms MIA 2) and different shooting locations (MIA was shot in the Philippines, MIA 2 in Mexico and on St. Kitts).  Where MISSING IN ACTION was handled relatively seriously, MISSING IN ACTION 2 (co-written by then-19-year-old millionaire investor/philanthropist and future tabloid fixture Steve "father of Elizabeth Hurley's kid" Bing), focusing on Braddock's time in a POW camp under the merciless rule of cardboard villain Col. Yin (Soon-Teck Oh), looks cheaper and feels more in line with the Namsploitation ripoffs that would come from the Philippines and Italy a year or so down the road.  There's much more of an emphasis on violence and gore, including the infamous "rat hood" scene, and Braddock and Yin have a totally out-of-place climactic karate battle. Taken for what it is, MISSING IN ACTION 2 is very entertaining, but it's interesting to see how two films intended to go together, and shot and released in such close proximity to one another, could be so vastly different in tone, style, and technique.  Zito has always been an underrated genre director (his FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER is easily the best of the sequels) who should've gone on to bigger things.  Lance Hool, while competent, doesn't have the same directorial flair.  It's easy to see why Golan & Globus, always out to make a quick buck but also craving respectability, opted to position the Zito film first, even though there's clearly more action in Hool's film. 

Chuck Norris 1, Huge Rat 0
Oddly, MGM's Blu-ray transfer (again framed at 1.85:1) actually looks and sounds better than MISSING IN ACTION.  Norris returned in 1988's forgettable BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III, and in the meantime, Golan & Globus returned to the Namsploitation genre with 1986's P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE (with David Carradine) and 1988's PLATOON LEADER (with Michael Dudikoff) in addition to the serious, post-PLATOON parade with Lionel Chetwynd's 1987 right-wing, Jane Fonda-bashing THE HANOI HILTON.  (R, 95 mins)

(US, 1986)

Drawing heavily from the harrowing summer 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, THE DELTA FORCE is one of Cannon and Chuck Norris' most ambitious action films.  Directed by the big guy himself, Menahem Golan, the film pairs Norris with the legendary Lee Marvin (in his last film) as the leaders of the elite Delta Force, called to duty when an Athens-to-Rome-to-NYC flight is hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini-supporting Lebanese terrorists led by Abdul Rifi (Robert Forster).  The hijacking takes up the first half of the film, and the rest deals with the Delta Force's attempted rescue of the American hostages who were removed from the plane during a stop in Beirut.  To his credit, Golan does a great job of keeping the film on track and not succumbing to camp and overacting, a miraculous feat given the Golan-Globus-by-way-of-Irwin Allen supporting cast (the poster art even uses the Allen-pioneered classic '70s "faces in boxes" design for all-star disaster movies!):  Bo Svenson as the pilot, Robert Vaughn as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fassbinder ingenue Hanna Schygulla as the German flight attendant/Uli Derickson stand-in, Kim Delaney as a nun, Steve James as one of the Delta Force, and, straight from a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, there's Martin Balsam, Shelley Winters, George Kennedy, Susan Strasberg, Joey Bishop, and Lainie Kazan as hostages.  They aren't asked to do much after the initial hijacking, but Kennedy, Bishop, and Balsam (as a Holocaust survivor) all get poignant moments in the spotlight, and even Winters keeps the shrieking to a minimum.  Forster is quite good as the fanatical terrorist, taking what could've easily been a politically incorrect caricature and turning it into something plausible and not embarrassing. 

Lee Marvin (1924-1987)
The film does get increasingly silly as it goes on, when Golan shifts the focus to nonstop explosions, stunts, guys engulfed in flames, and endless Norris fetishizing, which reaches its apex during a "How 1986 is this?" shot of Chuck on a motorcycle, silhouetted against the sky, his mullet blowing in the breeze, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's rousing, synth-and-drum-machine-propelled score.  And it's nice to see Marvin going out with one last solid tough guy role.  He was already having health problems at this point and looks much older than 62, but in no way lacking in energy or screen presence.  It's certainly a product of its time, but it holds up as an essential 1980s action flick.  Norris returned in 1990's DELTA FORCE 2, and his son Mike Norris starred (along with other less famous relatives of bigger names like Nick Cassavetes, Eric Douglas, and Matthew Penn) in 1991's DELTA FORCE 3.  Several years later, Cannon cover band NuImage released a series of five (!) similar OPERATION DELTA FORCE films. The Blu-ray offers a solid HD presentation, framed at 1.78:1, cropped slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1.  There were apparently some subtitling issues in a previous DVD edition, but that seems to have been corrected here.  (R, 129 mins)


  1. Thanks for another good read. Is there any Norris worth seeing after THE DELTA FORCE? I recall a pretty steep decline...

  2. Thanks, Bob.

    HERO AND THE TERROR is alright, and I guess FIREWALKER is passable. I don't really like DELTA FORCE 2, but a certain John Charles is a huge fan of it. I never saw THE HITMAN or FOREST WARRIOR, and never bothered with SIDEKICKS or TOP DOG. HELLBOUND is wretched.

    I'll definitely pick up the Blu-rays of LONE WOLF MCQUADE and CODE OF SILENCE. CODE, in particular, is a terrific cop thriller. Probably my pick for Norris' best film.