Kevin: “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” “The Delta Force.” “Ninja III: The Domination.” “Lifeforce.” “Death Wish 3.” “Over the Top.” None of these 1980s junk cinema masterpieces would exist without Cannon Films, a studio whose output could ironically be best described by the title of Sylvester Stallone’s arm-wrestling opus. If the Cannon logo showed up back in the day, you knew you were likely in store for non-stop sex and violence and a complete disregard for plot or character development, with the names Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, or Michael Dudikoff likely appearing above the title.
It’s for those reasons that many my age still look back on the Cannon era fondly, which is why this Christmas I gifted myself a 10-disc box set of the studio’s films from back in the day. The tenth disc is actually for the documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” a very entertaining look at how Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus left their homeland to conquer Hollywood, good taste and political correctness be damned. While Cannon did occasionally put out quality films like “Runaway Train” and “Barfly,” most of their scripts apparently went into separate piles for the “two Chucks” – Norris and Bronson – whose crowd-pleasing bloodbaths paid the studio’s bills.
To get an idea of the kinds of movies we are talking about, here is the extremely tasteful trailer for Bronson’s “Death Wish II”:
Actual story and plot was so secondary to the Cannon production process that the studio would usually first, for example, make up a poster showing Bronson holding a gun under the title “10 to Midnight,” raise money from foreign buyers based off the poster, and then figure out a story that would work for that title. While this may not be the best recipe for winning Oscars, if Golan-Globus’ goal was to entertain then they wildly succeeded in the eyes of a 10-year-old Kevin. Fast-forward to 2017, I figured I’d see how well these films hold up by reviewing the nine other discs in the box set in order for “The Cannon” series. First on the list: “Missing in Action”
“Missing in Action”
Chuck Norris’ “let’s bring back our boys” action film is largely remembered for both the iconic shot of Norris emerging from the water with the machine gun, and for being the red-headed stepchild to Stallone’s superior POW rescue flick “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” even though Chuck’s version came out first and “Uncommon Valor,” in which Gene Hackman puts together an Expendables-worthy crew including Fred Ward, Patrick Swayze, and Randall “Tex” Cobb to find his own POW son, came out before either of them. No matter where it came on the timeline, “Missing in Action” was a hit for Norris and the fledgling Cannon studio, making $22 million in 1984 and placing above “Rhinestone” and “Oh God! You Devil” at the box office and just below “Sixteen Candles” and “The Flamingo Kid.”
If the studio’s original plan had come to fruition though that probably would not have been the case, as in a precursor to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Missing in Action” and its sequel were shot back-to-back. The idea had been for the first movie to show how Norris’ character Braddock gets captured, tortured, and eventually escapes his Viet Cong captors, while the follow-up would have him return to kick ass and rescue his comrades. But when the original turned out to be a downbeat bummer, the studio decided to switch them up and put the crowd-pleaser out first. (Note: In the documentary they refer to what eventually became “Missing in Action II: The Beginning” as “unreleasable,” yet being Cannon they still released it anyway.)
I’ll have to take their word for it, since even as an old-school action fan I had never seen either film until now, mainly because I have to admit I am one of those people who often enjoy the Chuck Norris Internet memes more than his movies. When it came to the lower-tier (i.e. not Arnold, Sly, or Clint) action stars of the era, I always found Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fights more entertaining, while Steven Seagal made better movies, and his bone-breaking brutality and general … weirdness I guess you could say … were more interesting to me. But I’ll have the chance to re-evaluate that over the course of this series, as Chuck is represented in five of the nine movies in the box set (while Charles Bronson unforgivably has zero films included).
So what did I think after my first viewing of “Missing in Action”? First let me break down the story and highlight a few things that caught my eye. Chuck plays Col. James Braddock, former POW who returns to Vietnam as part of a fact-finding mission led by Senator Maxwell Porter, played by David Tress (who also played Whip Whipperton, the D.A. that Brian Bosworth was supposed to protect and fails spectacularly in “Stone Cold”). Braddock is introduced during a lengthy battle sequence that turns out to be a dream, after which Braddock drinks a beer and watches, for a weirdly long amount of time, a snippet of a Spider-Man cartoon.
It’s probably no coincidence that the teenage webslinger makes an appearance here, as amazingly Cannon at the time actually owned the rights to Spider-Man – which it purchased for $250,000 – and was prepping a live-action version to be directed by “Missing in Action” helmer Joseph Zito. Let me repeat: The studio behind “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood” and the director of “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” were once in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Anyway, after a day of pointless meetings, Braddock chats up the Senator’s aide at a party, and almost immediately she invites him back to her hotel room. Now while Chuck was always good with his fists he never had much sexual chemistry with his female co-stars, to the point where it took him getting engaged to the lady D.A. on like season 12 of “Walker, Texas Ranger” before I even realized they had been dating. But it looks like he’s ready to get it on, bringing up some champagne and glasses to her room and giving the guards keeping tabs on them a sly wink:
And she’s ready to go too, opening the door in a tasteful yet sensual nightgown:
Now for an actor not know for his raw sexuality, Chuck briefly (no pun intended as we’re about to see) looks like he’s about to bust out a new wild side, as this is what he does next:
Holy shit, he’s going after it! This is certainly not the Chuck Norris we are used to. Unfortunately it turns out that once again Chuck is more interested in the non-sexual type of action, as he immediately puts on a black outfit to sneak out of the hotel and find the real answers about the missing POWs. What follows are lengthy sequences of Chuck scaling buildings and swinging on ropes, almost as if he was auditioning for the role of a certain superhero his director was planning to tackle next:
After getting his answers and killing an evil general, Braddock escapes back to the hotel, where the Senator’s aide has taken note of his preference for black and changed into a more appropriate nightie:
While he is trying to sneak back in undetected, we also get a weird bit of translation in the subtitles:
What’s with the quotation marks around “Hero”? I didn’t notice the guy using the universal quote-marks sign with his fingers? Nor did I detect the kind of passive aggressive sarcasm in his voice that seems to be indicated in the text. But if it wasn’t meant sarcastically, why not just call him “the American” rather than “the American Hero”?
I could unpack this conundrum for hours, but either way, Braddock gets back to the room with his lady-in-waiting just before the guards are about to storm in. Now you know how in a lot of these movies the man and woman will pretend to be making out, knowing that the pursuing bad guys will leave them alone and keep going? (Why a bunch of murderers suddenly become shy about disturbing a couple in love is another matter.) Well Braddock has no interest in that kind of sissy move, as he takes off his shirt and rips the woman’s top off before throwing her into bed and making it appear to the guards they have been going at it all night. Somehow Braddock’s attention to realism doesn’t extend though to taking off his pants.
Despite everything he’s put her through, the next morning the woman gives Braddock a kiss and asks when she’ll see him again. Apparently Chuck was the original creator of “The Game” way before Mystery the Pick-Up Artist ever hit the scene. If she’s hot for Braddock now, wait ‘til he “ghosts” her for six months.
First though Chuck has to go to Thailand to find an old war buddy, and after asking just one person finds out he’s staying at the nearest whorehouse, which probably should have been obvious considering it’s Thailand and he’s an old war buddy played by M. Emmet Walsh. Before they can set out on their rescue mission though Chuck has to dodge several assassination attempts. Now another movie would have the hero sense danger coming and strike first, but not “Missing in Action.” The bad guys constantly get the drop on Braddock and only fail because they are spectacularly inept. For instance:
- A cab driver picks Braddock up and has a gun hidden next to him. Rather than wait until he is out of the car and walking away from him to shoot, he pulls out the gun while he is driving and tries to shoot while Braddock is sitting behind him, making it extremely easy for Braddock to take him out.
- Another assassin hides in a closet with a knife rather than a gun, and waits until Braddock has opened the door to attack. After he is thrown out a window, more bad guys across the street fire a missile which destroys the room while Braddock escapes in the nick of time. Why was this not Plan A?
- Braddock’s main nemesis tracks him down on a boat, and even though he has a gun he puts it in his pants and picks up a nearby axe, then waits for Braddock to see him before swinging. Lyndon Johnson could only wish the real Viet Cong were this easy to defeat.
What follows are the standard “set up explosives/rescue prisoners/mow down bad guys” sequences that are well-done for the budget, but which mainly make you want to watch “First Blood Part II” right afterward. The climax would have probably had a greater impact if we had seen more flashbacks to get a sense of what Braddock and his fellow prisoners went through at the camp, which is why one “Missing in Action” combining the footage from the sequel could have been far superior. Hey, how about all you nerds editing the “Star Wars” prequels into one movie get going on that?
Overall though, while he’s not the most dynamic performer, Chuck is still a steady and intimidating presence, and the film as a whole is solid. Apart from a few goofy moments and some obvious budget limitations, it’s well-made and more serious and less jingoistic than I expected. I’m sure that sense of seriousness and grounded realism will carry through to Chuck’s next movie in this collection: “Invasion USA”
Check back soon to find out.