“On the day America remembers its dead, a special salute today for the war dead in Vietnam. An American serviceman who died there took his place today in a place of honor, The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier. Almost 10 years after the last American left Saigon, the men who fought in Vietnam got their parade. Muffled drums and dirges. A coffin and a flag wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain. Families of the men still missing in Vietnam waited for the coffin and remembered. They wonder if their sons are still alive and why the world sits back and allows the Vietnamese government to flagrantly violate the Geneva Convention. Rumors of physical and mental torture have made the wait more agonizing.”
If the story sounds somewhat familiar, there are two reasons for that. The first Missing In Action film was released in 1984, so you’ve had about 40 years of imitations and knock-offs along the way. The other is that the film shares more than a little history with the Sylvester Stallone film Rambo: First Blood Part II. When Sly was shopping around his original ideas, Cannon Film Group was one of the places that listened to the pitch. So it’s not a complete coincidence that the films went into production at the same time, with Missing In Action beating the Stallone vehicle to the box office by a few months. Both films did well, and they started a genre of war films that involved rescuing Americans still missing in Vietnam. It was in the early 1990’s that the plight of missing servicemen in Vietnam was brought to the public’s attention. Ronald Reagan gave it a bigger voice than had been given earlier, and he made it a point to address the issue. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Hollywood was on it as fast as they were. The franchise would become one of Chuck Norris’s more iconic franchises, and the rest is, shall we say, history. Now Kino Studio Classics have brought the original three films together in a much deserved Blu-ray collection.
Missing In Action (1984)
“James Thomas Braddock. 38 years old. Colonel in the Army Special Forces, retired. Prisoner of war for eight months, missing in action for seven years, escaping last year, and you are now in Saigon at the request of the President to see if there are any more Braddocks in Vietnam.”
The first film puts you directly into a firefight in Vietnam. The scene is about 10 minutes long with no real dialog going on. There’s a lot of shooting and a lot of dying. Suddenly we’re in a small room where Colonel James Braddock (Norris) is waking from the nightmare we just witnessed. These flashbacks include snippets of the cruel treatment he endured as a POW during the war. Now he has a chance to face his demons again. He’s been asked by the United States government to join a diplomatic mission to Vietnam 10 years after the end of the war. He joins Senator Maxwell Porter (Tress) and his legislative assistant Ann Fitzgerald (Kasdorf) to explore the possibility that Americans are still being held prisoner a decade after the war ended.
There he confronts General Tran, played by the incredible James Hong. Braddock isn’t very diplomatic, and the two spar over their versions of the war. Braddock is being accused of war crimes complete with peasant witnesses who are forced to say they saw him commit war atrocities. After Braddock takes an unsanctioned look around, he discovers a camp that was rumored to exist. The trip gets him kicked out of Vietnam, but he only goes as far as Thailand, where he meets up with old friend Jack Tucker, played by M. Emmet Walsh, who provides him with his smuggling operations boat and a Teflon-shielded raft as well as a backup helicopter and pilot. He’s going to need it all when he goes after the prisoners with General Tran and his men on his trail. The object is to get the prisoners out and to Saigon where he’ll show them to the delegation that is denying their existence. There’s going to be a ton of fighting along the way. Of that you can be sure.
This was a special project for Chuck Norris, who lost a brother to Vietnam. He wanted to do a film like this to honor his brother. He was also quite prominent in the movement to hold Vietnam accountable for their retention of American combatants long after the war. Of course, this wasn’t really the first film in the franchise. Both Missing In Action and Missing In Action II: The Beginning were shot together even though they used different directors. Joseph Zito shot this film, while Lance Hool shot what was intended to be the first film. That’s why the credits on this movie give you a “based on characters created by” mention. When both films were finished, the studio and Norris thought this movie was the better finished product, and they decided to release them in reverse, making the second film actually a prequel. Now that you can view the films together, I think you’ll agree they were right, and this was the superior film.
While Chuck Norris is the obvious draw here, you really can’t say too much about James Hong. He has had a brilliant career over 50 years. He’s been in some of the most iconic classics spanning those years. A very incomplete list includes the likes of: Chinatown, The Art Of War, The Golden Child, Blade Runner, and the comedy Airplane. He’s been in almost every television show imaginable over those decades from The Rockford Files to All In The Family and from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Days Of Our Lives. He’s always working, and I’m amazed at how many times he’s shown up somewhere. One of the best actors you may never really know. He’s great here, and one of the reasons he’s so good is because he provides Chuck Norris with the best of the three bad guys in this film series. The chemistry is remarkable. Add to that chemistry M. Emmet Walsh, who is criminally underused in this film.
Missing In Action II: The Beginning (1985)
“We write no last chapters. We close no books. We put away no final memories. An end in America’s involvement in Vietnam cannot come before we have achieved the fullest possible accounting of those missing in action” – Ronald Reagan
It’s several years after the war, and Colonel James Braddock (Norris) is still in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam with a group of soldiers he had rescued from an ambush. Their chopper went down, and here they still are. The camp is run by Colonel Yin, played by Soon-Tek-Oh. He has taken it personally that Braddock has refused to sign a confession to America’s war crimes in his country. He has promised to release all of them if only Braddock would do that one small thing. Yin has endangered an operation he’s running out of the camp that he uses to move weapons and explosives in the black market. He has been warned that he should just kill the soldiers and be done with them, but Yin sees this as a power of wills. If Yin had spent any time watching American films or television, he’d know that he was in a test of wills with not Braddock, but Chuck Norris, and there’s no way to win that war … or is there?
The treatment is torture. We’re also given a glimpse of what happens to anyone who tries to make a run for it. But there is one thing that might break the stubborn American. When one of the prisoners needs medical attention or he will die, Braddock finally caves to help his brother in arms. Of course, Yin has no intention of living up to his part of the deal, and things go badly from there. Did I mention the camp is being used to store smuggled guns and explosives? You don’t have to be a MacGyver to figure out how to use those things to your advantage.
You guessed it. Braddock comes up with a plan that involves putting that storehouse to good use.
The rest of the film follows the Norris and franchise model. There’s a lot of scenes of Norris popping up from water, behind trees or a hole in the ground with an assault rifle in his hands to take out some bad guys. But that’s exactly what the audiences came for, and they got plenty of what they expected. So will you. Biden once said that no good can come from a man brandishing an assault rifle. Maybe Kino needs to send him this collection of films, because Norris uses an assault rifle like a surgeon uses a scalpel. He takes out the cancer and saves the patient.
Chuck Norris fans will appreciate the climax of this film. While we all love the explosive fun and games, this one comes down to a martial arts fight between Braddock and Yin. It’s what Norris would become most famous for over the next four decades. Norris doesn’t need a gun to take care of business, and this ending delivers what is lacking in the other two films. Just Chuck and the bad guy.
It’s true that the first film is better, and I get why this one was placed second, but it really flows as a better piece to watch them in the original intended order. This film also sports a pretty solid supporting cast. Soon-Tek-Oh is another actor with so many credits to his name. Like James Hong, he’s about as hard-working an actor as you’ll find, with more than a few classic or iconic films and television shows under his black belt. You’ll find him in a ton of television guest spots on shows like Charlie’s Angels, Hill Street Blues, Hawaii-Five O, Stargate SG-1 and The A-Team, but he’s best known for several episodes of M*A*S*H.
Steven Williams is another outstanding actor here. He plays the traitor Captain Nestor, who trades an easy life for cooperation with Yin. Norris gets to do a little fighting with Williams. He’s still working hard, most recently a recurring part on Yellowstone with Kevin Costner. He was Captain Fuller on 21 Jump Street, the iconic Mr. X on The X-Files, and Rufus Turner on Supernatural. He left quite a mark in those recurring roles, and a lot of it started right here. He’s gone on to a few other great films like The Blues Brothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday, and re-teamed with Norris on a Walker television movie.
Braddock: Missing In Action III (1988)
“I don’t step on toes, Little John. I step on necks.”
By 1988 Chuck Norris had established his action star credentials about as much as we know him still today. He was pretty eager to tell another story in this franchise, but there was a ton of turmoil. The Cannon Group was having money issues, and so the budget kept going down as the film was being made. Joseph Zito stepped away when he and Norris had some serious disagreements about the film. So Norris brought in his brother Aaron, who would make this the first of many of his brother’s films he would go on to direct. Once the film was finished, there was no marketing money, so the film didn’t get the opportunity to really score at the box office, which led to a lawsuit by Norris over contractual obligations but there just weren’t the resources, and Norris dropped the fight.
The biggest trouble with the film is the script. It was written by Chuck Norris and James Bruner, with tweaks by brother Aaron. I’m not sure what they were thinking or if Chuck Norris just forgot about the first two films. You almost have to look at this one as if it’s a reboot of some kind, because it ignores any continuity with the first two films.
We find Braddock (Norris) helping with the evacuation after the fall of Saigon. He’s married to a Vietnamese woman, Lin (Kim), and he doesn’t even know yet he has a daughter. They get caught up in the mania of the day and don’t make the evacuation choppers. Meanwhile Braddock is taken to their home, which has been burned. He sees what he believes is the charred body of his wife. Flash forward 10 years.
Braddock is approached in a bar by a Reverend Polanski (Efroni). He claims to be working at an orphanage in Vietnam for Amerasian children. He claims also that Braddock’s wife is still alive. At first Braddock just thinks the reverend is crazy until the CIA pull him in and warn him to stay away from Vietnam. Now he believes the story and heads first to Bangkok to meet up with old friend who supplies him to go get his wife. Of course, the reverend was followed to America, and now the Vietnamese know Braddock is coming and set a trap for him at his wife’s hovel. Enter General Quoc (Aleong). He’s this film’s big bad, and he’s finally captured the elusive Braddock. Cue the torture and the exciting escape.
The film is another collection of firefights as Quoc tries to stop Braddock from making the border and, of course, the necessary showdown at the border bridge.
The film is a letdown and totally ignores the franchise universe. How can Braddock be at the fall of Saigon when he was in Lin’s prisoner camp for years after the war ended? There’s no attempt to tie the film into the big story, and it left fans flat and was pretty much the end of the franchise.
These films really set the Chuck Norris model in stone. We would see it so many times over the next 40 years that Norris would do most of his acting through action. Look, no one is going to mistake Chuck Norris for a Shakespearean master. His dialog delivery always looks like he’s reading it. But he can act with his body. Norris knows how to strike a pose, and those poses are littered all throughout this franchise. The films look quite good, and there are historian commentaries on each film. An interview with one of the writers is the only other extra. It was a lot of fun to run these films together and in the correct order. Now it’s time for you to go get your own copy. No need to thank me. “That’s why I’m here.”