Directed By: Tim Burstall
Starring: John Phillip Law, Mel Gibson, Sam Neill
Tag line: "Mel Gibson blasting his way to hell and back"
Trivia: The script was based on a real-life commando rescue raid, Project Opossum, where a team of commandos rescued the local sultan on the Japanese-held island of Ternate near Borneo
Here’s a movie that played a lot on cable TV in the early ‘80s, but for some reason I never caught up with it then. Directed by Tim Burstall (who also produced a dozen or so ozploitation films, including Stork, Australia After Dark, and High Rolling in a Hot Corvette), Attack Force Z is today more notable for its cast than anything else. A WWII adventure that features Mel Gibson and Sam Neill at the early stages of their careers, Attack Force Z boasts good performances and a couple of solid action scenes, but for the most part is a humdrum affair.
January 10, 1945. A group of commandos, led by Australian Capt. Paul Kelly (Gibson), travel by sub to the coast of China, where they’re to rescue the occupants of a plane that’s recently been shot down. The plane, which crashed on a remote island currently controlled by the Japanese Imperial Army, was carrying an emissary who could end the war, but getting him out won’t be easy. With Dutch Lt. Jan Veitch (John Philip Law) acting as interpreter, Capt. Kelly and his men: Sgt. Danny Costello (Neill), Sub Lt. Ted King (John Waters), and Seaman Sparrer Bird (Chris Haywood), make their way to shore under cover of darkness, hoping to gain the trust of the Chinese villagers, who may prove useful in determining the whereabouts of the downed plane. As luck would have it, they meet Lin Chan-Yang (Koo Chuan Hsuing), the leader of a local resistance who despises the Japanese (they were responsible for the death of his beloved wife). Leaving his younger children in the care of daughter Chien Hua (Sylvia Chang), Lin Chan-Yang agrees to guide Capt. Kelly and the others to the wreckage. Following a skirmish with Japanese forces, Lt. Veitch is separated from the group and makes his way back to Lin’s house, where he strikes up a relationship with Chien Hau. But now that the Japanese know they’re on the island, it may be impossible for the commandos to complete their mission. In fact, there’s a good chance none of them will make it out alive.
A low-budget Aussie flick that borrows a page from such “Men-on-a-Mission” war movies as The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, Attack Force Z benefits from having Gibson, Neill, and Law in the cast (Gibson is especially strong as the inexperienced leader doing everything he can to keep his men focused). As for the action, director Burstall makes the most of his limited resources, staging a handful of well-choreographed battle scenes, the best of which fills the movie’s final act. Not all of the action works; one sequence in particular, when some Japanese soldiers find the commandos in Lin’s house, starts off well enough, with lots of automatic weapons fire, only to end with an unlikely kung-fu showdown between Lin and the Japanese!
Other than that, Attack Force Z is pretty routine stuff (save an effective torture scene, where the Japanese question Chien Hau), and the romance that develops between Lt. Veitch and Chien Hau adds nothing to the story. More “blah” than bad, Attack Force Z does have its merits, but not enough of them to recommend it.