Before Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone did it, while it was still a bit of a taboo subject for American society, Gene Hackman, to the strains of a James Horner score gathered to him Robert Stack, Patrick Swayze, Harold Sylvester, Fred Ward, Tim Thomerson, Randall Cobb, Reb Brown and Kwan Hi Lim to his side, and headed to Vietnam (Hawaii) to rescue MIAs and POWs.
On its surface, the film plays like a solidly put together action flick. Underneath it, in some of the dialogue, some of the moments, and character beats you can sense a frustration, an anger, about the way those who served treated, for their service, for their actions, and for their return home, as well as those who didn’t and never could.
Gene Hackman plays Colonel Rhodes, who, since 1973, has been trying to get someone, anyone to help him get POWs out of Vietnam, including his son Frank. It costs him his career, his connections, and in the end, he does the only thing left – he does it himself.
The Korean vet reaches out to Vietnam vets, some who served in the same unit, chopper pilots, and he throws the team together, training them, getting them back into fighting shape with the help of a rookie, Scott (Swayze) who’s never seen combat.
Everything seems to be against them, including, on occasion, each other, but they work, train, and prepare for the mission of their lives – to bring back those that were left behind, and forgotten by their country.
Hackman brings a gravitas to the subject matter, one that it deserves as he plans and executes one last mission, laying lives on the line. Kotcheff keeps the story moving along, injecting a sense of humour where needed, while still reminding us of what exactly these men are doing.
Like a lot of the stuff I’m watching right now, I hadn’t seen this one in years, in fact I may not have seen it since the 80s – at which point I was just a tween/teen digging an action movie. Watching it now is a different experience, and man, as far as I’m concerned – good flick, and one that started an action subgenre.
I mean, putting Hackman in the lead of what looks like a basic action film, he adds layers to it. There is a depth in his performance which one can easily gloss over, but if you watch him in the little moments, there’s some power there. And the other actors take their cue from that as well. Some of it is broad, but there are other moments that show how the war, and their return to America scarred their characters, and how their country didn’t know what to do with them.