Directed By: Joseph Zito
Starring: Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, David Tress
Tag line: "The war's not over until the last man comes home"
Trivia: William Sanderson was offered the role of Tuck but turned it down
Starring ‘80s action icon Chuck Norris and directed by Joseph Zito (who helmed two of that era’s better slasher films: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and The Prowler), Missing in Action is a superficial, yet mostly entertaining shoot-‘em-up.
The war between the United States and Vietnam may have ended years earlier, but tensions between the two countries continue to mount over the issue of American POWs, who many believe are still being held in camps all across Southeast Asia. In an effort to learn the truth, a U.S. envoy travels to Vietnam accompanied by Col. James Braddock (Norris), who was himself a prisoner of war for seven years and only recently escaped. Once there, a still-bitter Braddock breaks away from the envoy and, with the help of his old friend Jack ‘Tuck’ Turner (M. Emmet Walsh), begins to search for more American POWs. Heavily armed and prepared to die, Braddock finds what he’s looking for, but can one man take on an entire army… and win?
At times a thrilling motion picture, Missing in Action does falter on a few occasions, usually when it’s trying to be more than a mindless action film. The early scenes, where Braddock returns to Vietnam as a special guest of U.S. Sen Porter (David Tress) and continually snubs the host, Vietnamese Gen. Trau (James Hong), have no dramatic weight (probably because Norris looks more bored than angry in these sequences). In addition, Braddock’s romantic tryst with Sen. Porter’s aide, Ann Fitzgerald (Lenore Kasdorf), is laughable in that there isn’t the slightest bit of chemistry between the two (in one particularly uncomfortable scene, Braddock tries to hide the fact that he'd briefly snuck out of the hotel by tearing Anne’s top off and throwing her onto the bed, hoping to fool the guards into thinking they’d been making love the entire evening). Once the action shifts to the jungle, the movie finally springs to life, with Norris kicking ass in almost every scene. Sure, it’s ridiculous at times (the enemy troops that Braddock faces off against are horrible shots; literally thousands of rounds are fired at our hero, none of which come close to hitting the mark), but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief (who am I kidding? You practically have to abandon it), Missing in Action can be a lot of fun.
The Vietnam experience was a hot topic in the latter part of the ‘80s, explored in motion pictures (Platoon, Bruce Willis’ In Country) and on television (China Beach and Tour of Duty were two popular series that centered on the war). In 1983, there was even a movie that featured a storyline similar to the one in Missing in Action: Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Uncommon Valor starred Gene Hackman as a father who leads a team of former soldiers back to Vietnam, all in an attempt to find his son, who’s still a prisoner of war. The continual stream of serious-minded works dealing with both the war and its effect on the men and women who fought it made films like Missing in Action and Stallone’s Rambo series seem silly by comparison (though, to be fair, First Blood handled the persecuted-returning-vet angle very well). Abandoning drama for straight-up thrills, Rambo and Missing in Action were designed purely to entertain, and on that level, they definitely delivered.