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Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris) spent seven years in a North Vietnamese POW camp before managing to escape. Knowing of the horrors that such a camp is, he joins a government investigation in Ho Chi Minh where reports of more prisoners have officials concerned. A general named Trau is the enemy leader holding supposed captives and Braddock heads first to Thailand to recruit an old army buddy named Tuck (M. Emmet Walsh) to help him get upriver.
A critically ravaged film, nonetheless, this Joseph Zito directed film hit at the right time and audiences filled theaters. The ludicrous Rambo-style slaughter of Asians was par the course for the 80s action genre and while Norris was already a well-known actor, this movie and its sequel propelled him into a household name. Watching it now, it has some cheesy ‘did they really make movies like that?’ charm, and there’s no denying the lure of Norris’ speak little and stare a lot technique. And that beard. Oh, that beard. While political correctness and common sense are wholly abandoned, Missing in Action is a poor man’s Rambo and makes no qualms about it.
Deciding the team needs to be small to raise less suspicion, Braddock and Tuck first need to secure passage north. Tuck is now a black market kingpin and with his connections, gets a meeting with a dealer who claims to have the perfect boat for the journey. It’s actually an inflatable pontoon boat and at first, the boys are skeptical as it would sink with one shot, though they are given a surprise when they learn, via machine gun demonstration, that the skin is made of Kevlar and therefore, bulletproof. It would take a rocket launcher to slow it down, says the dealer. After some negotiations involving the mounted turret aimed squarely at the dealer’s head gets the price reduced, Braddock and Tuck head up the river and to their target.
A bit later, they track an army truck convoy moving the prisoners on a jungle road along the river. Jackpot. They swoop in as the trucks try to pass across the water on a shallow embankment, Tuck on the motor and Braddock on the turret. A hail of gunfire sends enemy fodder flailing about with carnage as the rescuers swing by for another pass. They make quick work of the trucks and men until, just as we were told, one soldier aims a rocket launcher and nails the boat with one shot, sending Braddock and Tuck tumbling into the water. The men in the truck cheer as it seems the raiders have been defeated, but lo, in slow motion, rising out of the gray river like a Kraken, Braddock emerges with turret in hand and one-by-one takes out the remaining bad guys. Done and done.
Sylvester Stallone somehow seems iconic firing a massive machine gun in his brawny arms, but Norris does it well, too, especially while rising out of the water, even if it is an obvious rip-off. The importance of Braddock rising out of the water is much more significant than the amazing visual effect, which is done sublimely well, in deep slow-motion with Braddock centered and staring directly at the camera. We never see a distance shot of him firing at the men, only him up close and a then a cut to the soldiers falling under the spray of bullets. His rise is metaphorical, his embattled boat representing the state of the American position and outcome of the conflict. The soldiers laugh and snidely celebrate in their apparent victory, only to be wildly surprised and caught off guard when Braddock resurfaces. The 80s were all about ‘winning’ the Vietnam War in movies (with a few more grounded films exposing a darker side), reigniting national pride and even repainting perspectives in a different light. There were no shortage of these action titles with big unstoppable heroes taking up the fight. Norris and the rise from the water is a perfectly captured snapshot of this mentality, ignoring the reality of the devastating war. The cartoonish buffoonery of Missing in Action, and its simple approach to a highly relevant issue at the time was seen as offensive and wasteful by critics, but theater-goers made it a hit, welcoming another hero with an easy solution to a troubling problem.
Arthur Silver (characters), Larry Levinson (characters)
Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, David Tress