Home Video Hovel- Missing in Action 2, by David Wester
As the title indicates, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning is a prequel to the Chuck Norris vehicle, Missing in Action, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess I’m entirely unfamiliar with the first film save for glancing at its cover in the video stores of my youth. I never felt as if this got in my way of evaluating Missing in Action 2, which is, as far as I can tell, self-contained enough to be appreciated (or not) on its own. It is also, at its best, unremarkable, a passable genre programmer with TV production values and unmemorable action scenes. What is fascinating, though, is its place in the post-Vietnam pop culture landscape, a representative piece of the culture’s attempt to come to terms with this divisive war.
Looked at alongside the first two Rambo films and other popular films of the era (including, I suspect, Star Wars), one can view Missing in Action 2 as part of a larger effort to re-contextualize the Vietnam War. All of these films, essentially, put the American soldiers in situations where they are the woefully mismatched underdog against a technologically superior foe. In response to this asymmetry, the beleaguered soldiers fight back with similar guerrilla tactics as those practiced by the North Vietnamese–setting booby traps, retreating into the hostile landscape, and fighting the enemy from a hidden location. For those of us who studied the Revolutionary War in American History class, this style of fighting has a distinct ring of familiarity. It’s a central part of the American story—we’re told as children that we won our independence in large part by relying on these very tactics. There’s a certain propagandistic beauty to the way Missing in Action, First Blood, and others of their ilk restructure America’s first great military loss to emphasize the parts of the tale that reflect its first great victory.
What’s more, the soldiers are more patriotic than the United States government itself. In Missing in Action 2, the film centers on the plight of a group of American soldiers led by Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris) in a Vietnamese POW camp. The evil leader of the camp wants Braddock to sign a confession, promising comfort and freedom if he will only admit to being a war criminal. The ever-loyal soldier refuses to sign, not to maintain his innocence, but because he doesn’t want to betray his country. Despite the fact that the country in question has, it would seem, forgotten about him and is doing nothing to secure his release, he remains unshakingly loyal. In retaliation, the prison commander tortures Braddock’s men, staging mock executions, forcing them to fight one another, and so on. This unwillingness to question the guilt or innocence of his country is, to the film’s thinking, what makes him a hero.
Sort-of. Missing in Action 2 is full of the kind confusing notions of integrity or valor one finds in a lot of action films. Braddock’s zen-like passivity under duress is lauded, and the film contrasts him with another, more emotional soldier who confesses that he just can’t be as brave as Braddock in the face of these tortures. Thus, Braddock’s willingness to silently take the abuse is set up as the truly macho position, tightly controlled, unemotional, and, of course, not scared. For a while it seems that Norris will turn into a pseudo-Christ figure, enduring punishment without fighting back. But, eventually, his, and thereby the film’s, masculine pride starts to kick in. Enough is enough, right? Once Braddock starts fighting back, the film switches its notion of heroism. Now, it’s time to revel in the unexpressed, repressed rage, a hyper-emotional state (still not scared, though). Another interesting inconsistency–we’re told that a lot of prisoners have died as a result of Braddock’s refusal to sign the confession. He shrugs this off as a natural consequence of his super patriotism. Once one of his buddies is in a very real jam, though, his stoicism weakens and his actions compromise the previously overpraised integrity. This is, of course, understandable, but no one in the film even raises an eyebrow over his change of heart.
So, then, what we have here is the Braddock character representing America from a “love it or leave it” mindset. The movie never even ponders the possibility that anything he does can be less than heroic. If he’s letting people die because he refuses to sign the confession, it’s heroic patriotism. If he’s signing the very same confession to save someone’s life, it’s heroic esprit de corps. What’s more, the film surrounds the character with others whose weaknesses reveal his ultimate superiority (or, if you will, exceptionalism). The best part of the movie involves an American who’s collaborating with the evil leader in order to receive beneficial treatment. This character, at least, provides a slight shade of gray to the simplistic good/evil conflict at the heart of the movie, but his understandable acquiescence and negotiation with the horrors he’s facing are never presented as anything but the actions of a selfish, weak traitor.
But, as interesting as all this is, aside from the historical curio aspect, there is no earthly way to recommend Missing in Action 2: The Beginning. Everything here is as unnuanced as its subtextual political views. As you might expect, the acting ranges from severe overacting to severe underacting with nothing in between. The movie looks and sounds cheap—the cinematography does nothing to distinguish the same-looking faux-Vietnam exteriors and Brian May’s score is tinny and poorly recorded, reaching for bombast with an insufficient ensemble. The action scenes are few and far between, and they never reach the manic heights of blood-soaked rage one wants from movies like this. Instead of a thrilling feature film about vengeful POWs taking back their dignity, it more closely resembles a very special episode of The A-Team.
This Blu-Ray is a bare-bones affair. It presents the movie with passable audio/visual quality and the original trailer. The same package will no doubt turn up on some 50-movies-on-one-disc Mega-Blu-Ray in the bargain bins of the future.