MGM // 1989 // 198 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 7th, 2002
He's fighting for everyone who can't fight back.
There has never been a more polarizing war in the history of America than Vietnam (unless you count the loyalist versus rebel rousing of the Revolutionary War, or the Lincoln/Douglas Debate as deadly interpretive dance called the Civil War, but let's not get picky). For a nation amped on every drug and freedom imaginable, Ho Chi Minh's hoedown was a social segregator. You were either against the war, or wrong, and that's about the level of discourse and tolerance. While the politics and practicality of the entire "police action" are best left argued by men in dark suits with substantial gastric and moral dysfunction, Hollywood took a decidedly hands off approach to the entire jungle spat. But when it finally decided to broach the box office and dramatize the conflict, amazingly enough, the same schism occurred. Films were either intense, critical commentaries on war and remembrance (Platoon, Apocalypse Now) or jingoistic flag waving war mongering (Rambo). Chuck Norris entered the gung-ho shoot 'em up category with his P.O.W. as plot point actioner Missing in Action. As part of their low cost double feature DVD packages, MGM releases the bring 'em back alive sequels/prequels, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning and Braddock: Missing in Action III. And just like so many other divisive aspects to this time in U.S. history, you'll either be a fan, or demand a war crimes tribunal.
Understand that, before these two sequels, or more specifically this prequel and this anti-sequel, or better yet these two attempts at extending the money-making machine of the Norris movie dynasty were made, Chuck made a film called Missing in Action. It told the tale of James Braddock, an ex-P.O.W. who one man armied his way back to Vietnam to retrieve some left behind servicemen imprisoned by those crazy Commie Cong.
Missing in Action 2: The Beginning -- Braddock and his men are headed to Cambodia for some Red Curry Cambogee when their helicopter is shot down. Since they were flying undercover, and without a reservation, they end up in a prisoner of war camp. Fast forward to right before Reagan got full-blown Alzheimer's (but while he was still President) and the gang are still befriending chickens and playing gun games with their captors. Each day is a new adventure in rock moving and personal dysentery. Seems the Commandant is involved in opium smuggling and needs Americans around to remind him of his prime customer demographic. It's up to Braddock to escape, find a way out of this jungle hell, then turn back and rescue his men. And amazingly enough, after a decade of eating bat guano and tree bark, he has the physical stamina to do just that -- with the help of the Commandant's arsenal, that is. Ass kicking ensues.
Braddock: Missing in Action III -- Forget everything you read before about Braddock and P.O.W. camps and years of torture, for you see, this is a PARALLEL universe, like the one Howard the Duck and Pat Robertson live in. In this world, James Braddock is a soldier, married to a Vietnamese woman who works for the US Embassy. During that wacky time known as the fall of Saigon, Braddock gets the mistaken idea that wifey has been flash fried, and so he leaves Vietnam with her banging on the golden gates. Fast-forward a few foreign policies and Braddock learns, from a visiting priest, that Mrs. B is alive and asking when hubby will return from his accidental abandonment. Seems there's years of child support due to the son he didn't even know he had. So he borrows James Bond's other super secret spy boat, and heads back to the rice paddies for a little family crisis intervention. While there, he learns that an evil überlord loves to rage against and ransack the local orphans. So Chucky decides it's America for everyone, and resolves to rescue all the bi-racial bratlings -- with the help of his own personal arsenal, that is. Ass kicking ensues.
Chuck Norris is an interesting entry in the action hero pecking order. He has a John Wayne as wax image component to his screen presence, the kind of inert, frozen magnetism that the Duke traded on for many of his later cinematic enterprises (McQ anyone?). There is no arguing Chuck's martial arts expertise. Previous films, like The Octagon and Good Guys Wear Black capitalized on his kung fu skills, showing that what he lacks in acting, he more than makes up for in physical grace and force. But somewhere along the line, Norris got the idea that he could challenge the higher echelon of box office bouncers. Sure, the Arnolds and the Slys were walking away with multi-million dollar paychecks and starring in stunts on steroids style movies, but at least he wasn't stuck doing the flimsy fisticuff fracases that constitute the Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Fraud catalogs. What he failed to realize is that he was secure in his also-ran runt position. Chuck had the luxury of having vehicles fashioned for his brand of statue-as-stalwart-star appeal. But this was not good enough for the nervous Norris. If other high kicking heroes could reinvent themselves as cops, cons, and Colonels, why not him?
Such are the ways of inflated self-importance and over extended ambitions. Missing in Action, which was conceived, filmed, and arrived in theaters to beat out Rambo: First Blood Part II, gave Chuck the war mongering movie he wanted. It provided an audience hungry for a little Viet Cong retribution a chance to re-write wrongs from twenty years before. In more ways than one, these re-imagined Vietnam vehicles fed off and into each other. People who wanted to see a more muscled mad man re-snatching victory from the jaws of the Paris Peace Accords could view the Italian colossus kill and grunt with big budget impunity. Or if that felt too pumped up, one could visit the rushed into production knockoff that, while low on stunts and fireworks, was first rate in marketing and timing. MIA was such a hit that those parasites of the unoriginal idea, Golan and Globus rushed another movie into production. But once you save all the P.O.W.s (or at least some. Gotta leave a little for Ramboob.) where do you go from there? Well, how about back in time? The prequel, that most deadly of all cinematic showstoppers, able to undermine whole series with a single, stinking flop, was called into service. However, as an attempt to provide some manner of backstory (another hideous cinematic misstep) and motivation to a character and situation that was as dramatically lifeless as boiled lotus root the first time around, Norris' second foray into the jungles of Phnom Penh was equally unappetizing.
Missing in Action 2: The Beginning tries to provide some of the same thrills and goals as the first installment of this soon to be tactical trilogy. Basically an escape movie, we find Chuck and his band of brothers corralled in a weird Vietnamese P.O.W. camp run by the most laid back commandant since Colonel Klink. And at least that Nazi ninny minced exceptionally well. For a prison breakout film to work successfully, it must have one of (or hopefully all) three things. First, there must be characters we know and care about. Second, there should be an evil presence whose actions and existence demands retribution and retaliation. Lastly, there needs to be an elaborate, step-by-step set of plans and preparations for a getaway. Unfortunately, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning has none of these. Norris and his fellow actors are provided with no characterization whatsoever, unless you count poultry bonding and rat sucking multi-faceted personalities. They are simply human forms to be moved around the screen and the plot. Not that there are any intricate arrangements made to leave this Mei Lai Club Med. Basically, Norris and his group run away every once and a while, and if they are caught, they spend some time hung up in a tree while stock Asian actors dry-click guns at their head. Someone obviously watched Chris Walken and Robert De Niro do a little Russian roundelay in The Deer Hunter. Here, they just forgot to bring the ammo.
But nothing is as limp is the villain, the cruel camp cramp played by subtle, intelligent Korean actor Soon-Tek Ho. He offers absolutely no menace and even less logical reasons for his overriding desire to keep Americans imprisoned some ten years (time is never made clear in these films) after the end of aggression between the enemies. Sure, there are hints. Maybe it has something to do with the opium smuggling he is involved in. There could be real, legitimate governmental reasons. Soon-Tek could have several hexagonal screws loose. But nothing is ever clear cut. And Ho is too calm an actor. Even in his scenes of unbridled delight at the torment of others, he's like Hannibal Lecter eating a nurse's tongue. His cinematic pulse never rises above 85. Perhaps he is attempting a kind of yin-yang version of Zen and the Art of Concentration Camp Command. But this means you never really care if Chuck kicks his bonsai or not. You wouldn't mind it if he did, but you could live a long a prosperous life of individual freedom and happiness without it. With no impressive pyrotechnics, weak action and fight sequences and underdeveloped plot everything, Missing In Action 2: The Beginning violates all three of the mandates set forth about flight films. Besides, this was a prequel. Norris has to break out. Otherwise, how will you justify the other film?
Well, challenge Chuck on that, since he was willing to sabotage the entire saga for the third and final film in this flimsy cannon canon. Braddock: Missing in Action III exists in an alternative reality where Jim boy was indeed a P.O.W., but he was only imprisoned for a couple of fortnights. And his capture did not involve torture. They just teased him a little. He now works in Saigon and is married to a Vietnamese embassy worker (even though he was married in the other films...and the enemy used that fact against him...and...oh well.). Things happen, time passes (there is no indication if he goes on the after war P.O.W. pickup patrol of Missing in Action or if he just hangs out in strip clubs) and before you know it, he's heading back to 'Nam to rescue people. You'd figure he'd have it down to a science by now, and you'd be right. Norris is a more powerful and potent force in this film than in any of the other Action films. Unlike 2, where he appears to be winging it a lot of the time, every step along the war path is planned out and prepared for in advance with several alternative strategies. Also, the family connection of the storyline finally provides Braddock with enough of a motivation to turn him from a wooden weapon into a steely man of compelling personal impetus.
Now, add a truly demented villain, massive child abuse and endangerment, and enough wonderful explosions of the T.N.T. and personal body part variety to make Billy Sol Hurok and Big Jim McBob wet their overalls, and you've got an entertaining little action movie. The immense level of unbridled audience manipulation the film uses also makes Braddock much more of an amusing guilty pleasure. You will find yourself unwillingly wrapped up in the plot, caring for who lives and who dies, cheering for the good guys and hissing the bad guys. And you may even find yourself moved to a damp tear duct or two. Granted, this is a film that pulls at your heart and head strings so hard and so often you may feel violated, but when dealing with a series that until now has been as paltry as a rice paddy, the personal exploitation is excusable since it's so gosh darn enjoyable. And the filmmakers just keep layering it on. Instead of one orphan in trouble, why not fifty? Instead of child torment, why not throw in some sexual assault for good measure? And who needs one obstacle or threat to overcome when several dozen would work so much better. Braddock: Missing in Action III is a better film than the lame prequel. Its outcome is unclear (the film has already indicated it will kill anyone to makes its point), and all the surrounding emotional and narrative considerations will force you into compassion, whether or not you would have wanted to in the beginning.
Odd then that MGM would choose to release these movies in such a strange, unsettling package. They damage the cinematic qualities these films even tried to convey by releasing them in non-cinephile friendly full screen versions. While there seems to be minimal use of the notorious in-frame panning and grain-producing image scanning, it still deadens the scope of the action, weakens the impact of the effects, and turns the jungle locations positively claustrophobic. With the action is mostly in long shot, crucial information is occasionally cropped out due to the studio's self-imposed composition close ups. When a ball of flame fills the screen, it's impressive. But it would also be nice to see just "what" was blowing up, not just the explosion itself. The confusion that results is unfortunate, but it's still not as bad as some of the major, big budget Hollywood workouts whose DVD release axes the widescreen image. Here we don't have a frame filled with all manner of action and eye sweetener, just to watch an imaginary lens sweep the screen to register it all for the consumer. A memo to MGM: if you are selling these films as minor versions of Rambo's major league testosterone workouts, emasculating their presentation does nothing to forward this concept.
And the double feature packaging of this DVD presents its own, divisive issues. True, these films are tied by their star, their name, and their themes. But if Braddock can throw away previous cinematic efforts to reformulate a more successful edition of the franchise, why release any of them in combination? While Missing #1 is available separately, Braddock is the real stand-alone title here, a film that creates its own, separate reality from the other installments and as a film, works unashamedly well. The one combo that makes sense is matching #1 with #2, since Beginning needs the first film to justify its existence (or is that the other way around?), and the storylines seem somewhat interlocked. Or just combine all three and make a specially priced box set of the movies. As it stands, this flip disc presentation (as part of MGM's semi-successful, retail friendly double feature series) is a tenuous ten-dollar trade off. You get nothing but full screen films and trailers. Image wise, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning is sharp and defect free. Braddock: Missing in Action III, however, is a depressing compressed problem, with soft night scenes and image overall. Sound wise, only Braddock is in Surround (which could explain the transfer issues) but limited to stereo only, so unless characters or vehicles moving from left to right fills your immersion cup, there is nothing sonically special (Beginning is in mono).
So you are stuck with a true purchase quandary. Do you buy the disc for Braddock, which is the better movie but the worse transfer, or do you opt for Beginning's flawless image but weak as pre-packaged green tea story? Or do you simply skip both, thinking that your time and money would be better spent on some single season set of MacGyver or Girls Gone Wild: Bulgaria Edition? It truly is a mixed bag. Together, the movies make a mediocre offering, with limited entertainment and presentation value. But separately, each film would have its audience and its champions, so it seems silly to release them in a double disc, especially since MGM offers no digital remastering, aural tricks, or additional DVD extras. They have done this to other titles with divergent audiences (Deranged backed with Motel Hell, Great Escape coupled with Run Silent, Run Deep), so they apparently believe that the cheap price tag will overcome any title taint anxiety. While the Missing in Action triumvirate is substandard independent, made-for-cable style cinema, there are some guilty pleasures to be had on this disc. Unfortunately, a sawbuck may be too much for the ambiguous transfer issues and haphazard joys of Missing in Action 2: The Beginning and Braddock: Missing in Action III.
Mixing mindless action and violence with a struggling social commentary is always a coarse amalgamation. Missing in Action 2: The Beginning would have you believe that under its simplistic plot structure and flaccid fight scenes, it champions the cause of those still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Braddock: Missing in Action III takes it one step further, looking to accent the plight of the other poor, innocent victims of the conflict, the Amer-Asian children (the result of some G.I., R-and-R seed spreading) left to cultural and governmental persecution. But neither cop is a fair one. Both of these movies are as activist in their content as star Chuck Norris is De Niro in his acting. Still, these are generic, good-natured fun, and fans of Chuck, or the genre, will find some items of bliss, mortifying as they may seem sometimes, in this DVD package. Like the peacenik and warmonger who marched during the late '60s and early '70s, there will be divergent, mixed reactions to this presentation. While MGM can be commended for offering back catalog titles for a dirt-cheap price, the transfer and supplement contribution undermine their retail goodwill. And while the image of the Vietnam vet as an Agent Oranged, post traumatic stress filled, child killing pawn of a crocked governmental policy has long since been rehabilitated back to its state of brave, loyal defender for a nation, it may be a while before the movie-buying public forgives Leo the Lion for some of its double feature flubs.
While the Court feels incredibly ashamed of the fact, Braddock: Missing in Action III is acquitted of all charges. As to this count, MGM is sentenced to 10 years in compression prison for the lousy image and transfer it gives this movie. As for Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, the Court finds it guilty of being tedious and predictable and sentences it to five years in "The Hole." As to this count, MGM is acquitted on all transfer charges, but sentenced to two years probation for being fixated with both full frame presentation and flip disc DVD presentation.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English, Missing In Action III only)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, Missing In Action 2 only)
Running Time: 198 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: Missing In Action 2: The Beginning
* IMDb: Braddock: Missing In Action III