Friday, December 15, 2017

Retro Review: PLATOON LEADER (1988)

(US - 1988)

Directed by Aaron Norris. Written by Rick Marx, Andrew Deutsch, David Walker and Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers). Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Robert F. Lyons, Rick Fitts, Michael DeLorenzo, Jesse Dabson, William Smith, Brian Libby, Tony Pierce, Michael Rider, Daniel Demorest, Al Karaki, Evan J. Klisser, Dean Ferrandini. (R, 96 mins)

A gritty Namsploitation outing from the beginning of the waning days of Cannon, PLATOON LEADER is still big on explosions and firefights but surprisingly light on the flag-waving jingoism so common in the Reagan era with Sylvester Stallone's Rambo and Chuck Norris' Braddock. Based on the 1985 memoir of Lt. James McDonough, PLATOON LEADER--originally titled NAM until Cannon went back to the book's title to take advantage of the success of Oliver Stone's PLATOON--gave Cannon's AMERICAN NINJA star Michael Dudikoff his biggest opportunity to act and build a three-dimensional character. Dudikoff is Lt. Jeff Knight, a book-smart West Point grad sent to Vietnam with an assignment to run the 103rd Airborne--aka "The Herd"--a platoon of battle-hardened, seen-it-all troops tasked with guarding a village from attack by the VC. Knight is inexperienced in battle, talks down to the guys, and commits one mistake after another, quickly earning the derision and scorn of his far more experienced charges. He's severely injured by an exploding landmine and shipped off to recover. It's assumed he'll never be back, but once he's well, he requests to be assigned to the same post, this time learning the error of his ways and becoming a genuine leader, unafraid to get down in it and do the grunt work and earn the respect of his men as they protect the village from invasion by VC forces.

It's a formulaic story that gets a big boost from some solid action sequences and a believable performance by Dudikoff. The film takes a big risk in making Knight kind of a prick in the early going, but Dudikoff wisely doesn't oversell it. Dudikoff always had an engaging presence in his action movies without ever being a particularly gifted thespian, but he steps up his game in the presence of veteran character actor Robert F. Lyons as the cynical Sgt. McNamara, his second in command and the diplomatic peacemaker, keeping the soldiers in line and getting it through to Knight that he needs to quit being such a dick. Usually cast as cops or lawyers in a long career on the big and small screens, Lyons rarely got a chance to shine, but he's very good here, giving a lot more to a low-budget action movie than most jobbing journeyman actors would. And speaking of journeyman actors, PLATOON LEADER gets a little added gravitas from gravelly-voiced B-movie legend and '70s biker movie fixture William Smith, on hand for a few scenes as Knight's commanding officer back at the base.

Shot in South Africa, PLATOON LEADER was a Cannon production farmed out to legendary producer Harry Alan Towers, who also co-wrote the script under his usual pen name "Peter Welbeck." Best known for his many collaborations with Jess Franco in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Towers was one of the movie industry's all-time great exploitation hucksters. In the late '80s, he was producing a ton of films in South Africa, including several for Cannon and Menahem Golan's post-Cannon outfit 21st Century, at a time when apartheid was still a thing and working there was a dubious career choice. Despite the terrible optics, working actors went where the work was, and Tower$ always had a way of getting known names attached to his projects. Accordingly, many established but past-their-prime actors who weren't fielding offers from Hollywood studios opted to take the paycheck and headed to South Africa for Towers, including Oliver Reed (DRAGONARD), Ernest Borgnine (SKELETON COAST), Jack Palance (GOR), Donald Pleasence (TEN LITTLE INDIANS), Herbert Lom (RIVER OF DEATH), Brenda Vaccaro (THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH), and Robert Vaughn (BURIED ALIVE), among others.

In what was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood at the time, Golan and Cannon partner Yoram Globus also had a production facility in Johannesburg that they repeatedly denied existed, and with a bad taste in his mouth after shooting AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, PLATOON LEADER, and RIVER OF DEATH in quick succession in South Africa, Dudikoff decided he would no longer work there. As a result, he sat out AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT and would only return for AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION when Cannon agreed to move the production to Lesotho, a sovereign nation inside South Africa. Easily the best film directed by Aaron Norris (BRADDOCK: MISSING IN ACTION III) and the only one that didn't star his big brother Chuck, PLATOON LEADER is an unusual entry in the Cannon Namsploitation canon, lacking the "America! Fuck yeah!" fist-pumping of MISSING IN ACTION and P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE--the latter ending with star David Carradine literally draped in the American flag--and the blunt, right-wing polemicism of THE HANOI HILTON. Call it Cannon's version of THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA.

A still from the NAM press materials before
the title was changed to PLATOON LEADER.

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